27 April, 2014

Plumbing the footballing depths

The hypocrisy, sham and perverse values of modern sport in general and football in particular rolls on and plumbs new graceless and tasteless depths. Much of the sporting and indeed the national news of late has been concerned with the sacking, after only a few months, of David Moyes as manager of  Manchester United. So much has been written on this matter that little new can be said. But, since everyone else has aired their  views and for what it is worth I’ll put in my two pennyworth!
The reflective, thoughtful and full of integrity David Moyes
- but these qualities were not much in demand at Old Trafford

Firstly, Moyes had a very different style than his predecessor Alex Ferguson. There seems general agreement that Moyes was a reflective man, full of integrity and industry – but simply not up to the great task of managing a club like United. My own take is that he was probably always onto a loser. Following, as he did, a personality like Ferguson who totally dominated the club and his players – by a combination of sheer force of personality and simple brutal thuggishness – it would probably have been a surprise if anyone had succeeded. I have absolutely no doubt that whoever takes over from Moyes will have a much easier ride, simply because they are not following a dominating thug like Ferguson as Moyes had to do.  I am reminded of my time in school. Whenever I went to take a class for a morning or afternoon if the class teacher was absent, on a course or taking some non-contact time it was remarkable the difference between classes. Those classes that were taught by a strong, dominating and confrontational teacher were always more difficult to handle than the ones taught each day by a more gentle soul, who allowed discussion and promoted personal respect. The only way to keep order in the class of the loud aggressive teacher was to be even more loud and aggressive than him or her – it was the only thing that the children knew. But keeping order in the class of the mild, professional teacher was a relatively easy step because respect and quiet mutual understanding where what they, the children, were used to – it was inherent in the class ethos and expectation.  Quiet, industrious, thoughtful teachers beget quiet, thoughtful and industrious classes whereas loud, belligerent, dominating personalities produce classes with the same characteristics. In short children respond to what they are used to. Manchester United is no different – the children (i.e. the highly paid stars) at Manchester United clearly could not respond to Moyes’ more intelligent, professional  and ultimately more acceptable manner – they needed to be dominated by a confrontational leader - it was all they had known.  Aggression breeds aggression. Given time, I am absolutely convinced that Moyes would have slowly but surely turned around the mindset of the United dressing room to reflect his own positive and thoughtful values. Sadly the unforgiving Premiership monster which demands quick results and instant financial gratification doesn't deal in time or doing the right thing - aggression and belligerence cut the corners and give instant success and graceless gratification. But, I wonder, at what price for the long term good of the sport?
Now that's more like it - we want a foul mouthed thug
as the leader of Manchester United - it's all the
players understand

A second point might be that many pundits have argued that the highly paid stars of United would not, could not respect Moyes because he had not won the trophies that Ferguson had. In other words he was simply not good enough and didn’t command their “professional respect”. We were further told that these highly paid “professionals” need to be constantly motivated. Indeed one pundit commented “How do you make a professional footballer who is a  millionaire and earns much more than you sweat?” Mmmmmmm – I might respond that an intrinsic part of being a professional is that you make yourself sweat – you do not (or should not) need external motivation to give of your best ! Indeed, I wonder in what sense they considered themselves professional? Yes, they are “professional” in the very narrow sense that they are paid, as opposed to being simply amateurs and playing for the love of the game, but “professional” also implies far more than payment. Maybe Moyes was expecting them to be “professional” – when clearly they were not – and consistently not giving of their best. In other words the thuggish domination of Ferguson was not there to drive them – so they sank back into the couldn’t care less mode. In fact, exactly like some of the classes of 11 year olds I have taught on a wet Wednesday afternoon when their dominating teacher is off on a course and they are being taught by someone else with different values – they cannot be bothered to raise themselves unless the teacher is even more threatening and belligerent than their usual teacher.
Yep - I've seen teachers like this cartoon of Alex Ferguson - and it
is very difficult to teach the class in their absence- unless, that is,
you are even more aggressive to impress and dominate them. The United
dressing room is clearly the same as David Moyes found out to his cost

No, I believe that for someone to be considered professional there is an extra dimension – which clearly does not apply to Manchester United footballers (or indeed to any other  modern soccer stars). I believe that anyone setting themselves out to be a “professional” is potentially subject to codes of conduct enshrining some ethical and/or moral obligations and that serve, perhaps, some important aspect of personal/public interest  and the general good. If my plumber describes himself as “professional” then I assume that he not only has the skills to do the job and that I will pay him for his labours but because he is a “professional”  he will have the highest standards, give me the correct advice and ensure that I pay a fair price for this advice and his labours. When I sit on the bus I expect the “professional” driver to not only drive the bus but drive it safely so that I arrive at my destination not only on time but also safely and in good order – that, it seems to me, is the  nature of a professional approach. It is even more true with my doctor or my child’s teacher or my lawyer – I expect my child’s teacher to act in the best way possible at all times in order that my child makes good progress and is at all times safe and well cared for. I do not expect the teacher’s standards to fall simply because a new head teacher arrives with whom he or she disagrees. Similarly, I do not expect, as I lie in the operating theatre, the surgeon’s knife hovering over me to hear the surgeon say “Oh, I’m cheesed off today, that new administrator in charge of the hospital is totally useless, I really can’t be bothered about this operation – a couple of quick cuts will do it”  No, because I expect him to be professional I also expect him or her to rise above these minor anxieties or moans and still produce the very best whatever the problems. And finally, I do not expect my lawyer to tell me, as he prepares my defence for the trial, that it’s his wedding anniversary and he has promised to take his wife out to lunch so he will only make a quick plea on my behalf when we enter the courtroom.  No, I expect and rely upon him to do the very best on my behalf whatever his problems, concerns or personal plans. That is the nature of a true professional – but not, it seems, at Old Trafford, amongst the highly paid but not very professional millionaire stars. In their world, despite their huge salaries and despite the loyalty paid to them by millions of fans across the world, they only give of their best when it suits them – and David Moyes did not suit them. The problem at Manchester United (and, I suspect, at other clubs) seems to me to be not the talents, expertise and experience of David Moyes as the new (and now ex) manager but the lack of any real professionalism on the part of its overpaid and underachieving players. 
Well, we look like professionals - but we're only
keeping up appearances. In real life we only do
what we feel like doing not what our professionalism

Of course, Manchester United  stars are not alone in this. We are regularly reminded that the nation’s bankers will only give of their best if rewarded with huge bonuses in addition to their already eye watering salaries. If, as we have heard this week, Barclays and RBS do not pay the huge bonuses to their bankers then these people will, we are threatened resign and go off to work elsewhere. I assume that most of these people will have qualifications that say they are members of some professional body but I’m afraid that it seems to me if they only give of their best when rewarded there seems to be a bit of a problem with their understanding and interpretation of professionalism.

But back to football. After the Manchester United dust slowly settled I read last night of a small but saddening event at the top reaches of the “professional game” – I use the term “professional” loosely. As I reflected upon it I rapidly came to the conclusion that it says so much about the people involved at the top (and, sadly, further down) of the modern game.
Caught on camera - the graceless and tasteless
Jose Mourinho pokes the unsuspecting Tito Vilanova
in the eye

Yesterday the great Spanish club Barcelona sadly announced the death of their former manager Tito Vilanova. Vilanova, a quiet, studious man succeeded Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and won the Spanish league title in his only season in full charge. He died on Friday after a long battle with throat cancer. He was only 45. He had battled a recurring tumour after first becoming ill in November 2011, while assistant to Guardiola. He took a leave of absence after undergoing surgery. The soft-spoken Vilanova returned and took over from Guardiola the next season and led Barcelona to the Spanish league title with a record-equalling 100 points. He had a second tumour removed in December 2012 and travelled to New York several times during the season to receive further treatment before returning to the sidelines. In April 2013 Vilanova said he felt fine and "had never thought about quitting". He finished the season before suddenly being forced to resign following a relapse in July. As an assistant, Vilanova quietly helped Guardiola propel Barcelona into their most successful period and transform the team  into one of the world's best ever. Barcelona won 14 of a possible 19 major trophies from 2008-12 under Guardiola before adding the league title with Vilanova in 2013. As Guardiola's assistant, Vilanova provided the tactical know-how that helped build one of the best teams in the history of the sport, winning two Champions League titles in their impressive haul. The Barcelona stars were universal in their praise of the man: Sergio Busquets described him as "so calm"; Andrés Iniesta said he is "like a book, he teaches you so much"; and Carles Puyol described him as "wonderful -discreet and hard-working". A long way this from the loud mouthed and aggressive Ferguson – maybe had David Moyes gone to Barcelona rather than United he would have made  a huge success following Vilanova or Guardiola! As I found over the years in the classroom continuity of success is much easier when you don’t have to become a bigger monster than their regular teacher to aggressively drive the children! In short, Vilanova was the quiet unsung man, the brains, the planner, the teacher behind and underpinning the feted star Pep Guardiola – if ever a real life story reflects the words of the pop  song “Wind beneath my wings” it is that of Vilanova and Guardiola. How sad that when Guardiola left Barcelona for pastures new and Vilanova’s chance came to be the star that the  whole thing was snatched away from him so cruelly and so soon after taking the reins.
I'm the special one - everybody knows me. I'm Mr Big -
I'm very good at belittling people - and I certainly don't
do respect, charity or dignity. 

But amongst the sadness there is another tale – which the sports writers soon dug out following the news of Vilanova’s death. It was the same story that came straight into my mind when I learned of his passing.

In the 2010 Spanish Super Cup won by Barcelona, Real Madrid's then coach (and now manager at Chelsea), José Mourinho, towards the end of the game between these two great clubs, crept up behind Vilanova and attacked the Barcelona assistant manager and poked him in the eye. If that is not bad enough at the end of the game Mourinho was asked about what he had done to Tito Vilanova. "Pito Vilanova?" he asked. "As for Pito Vilanova, or whatever his name is, I don't know what he is called, I have got nothing to say." By changing the first letter, Mourinho had turned Tito into Pito, Spanish slang for penis. He was clearly  trying to belittle the Barcelona assistant. Asked again about the incident, he replied, rather like Peter denying knowing Jesus, "Pito Vilanova?  Tito  Vilanova, yes, I don't know who this person is."
Tito Vilanova  (left) with his mentor Pep Guardiola - gracious,
quiet, unassuming and studious both of them
- but especially Vilanova.  All that Ferguson and Mourinho are not.

What a truly awful individual Mourinho is. He is, like Alex Ferguson, loud unpleasant, full of his own importance (he calls himself as “the special one” ). In fact, they are both all that Tito Vilanova was not. On hearing of Vilanova’s death Mourinho issued a statement full of sham, hand wringing hypocrisy “Tito Vilanova’s passing is a sad day for football, for Barcelona and most importantly for his family and friends”.  I wonder if he suspected or even cared as he crept up behind Vilanova and gouged the man’s eye in 2010 that in a couple of years or so Vilanova would be very seriously ill and later dead? But hey, this is sport and football where, as we have seen at Old Trafford in recent days, thoughtful action, honest and responsible professionalism and an awareness of the real strengths and value of people is an unknown and uncared for commodity. Modern sport and football in particular it seems have absolutely no place for the sort of qualities ascribed to Moyes and Vilanova -  reflective, full of integrity  industrious, calm,  like a book, he teaches you so much, discreet, hard-working, soft-spoken quiet and studious. Mourinho’s callous actions in 2010 and Ferguson’s loud mouthed and thuggish aggression over many years are increasingly the watch word and what followers of football mindlessly aspire to and praise. Ferguson’s continual  ranting at match officials and opposition  and his “hair dryer treatment” of his own players; Mourinho’s mad ramblings and outrageous comments and actions give these individuals credibility  in the overhyped and bizarre world of Premiership football. They know that whatever their behaviour all will be gobbled up by an unthinking and uncaring fan base and any extremes forgiven and forgotten as today’s  headline news becomes tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. But as the legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi famously said: “You show me a man who belittles another and I will show you a man who is not a leader. You show me one who is not charitable, who has no respect for the dignity of another, is not loyal, and I will show you a man who is not a leader.”  In Lombardi’s world Moyes and Vilanova were leaders who had their chance snatched away from them by the cruelties of football life and death. David Moyes, who, it is often said, is  a good man has been a victim of the football monster – but hopefully he will rise again. Tito Vilanova is gone forever but perhaps his best memorial will be that in him Barcelona and the rest of the footballing world saw something better – that truly great teams and players exuding true professionalism  can be created without aggression and belligerence, without loud mouthed boasting or unpleasant innuendo so typical of Ferguson and Mourinho.

14 April, 2014

Misreading the Signals - or Life in a Parallel Universe

Carry On films made us laugh - but even in the 1950s we
knew they were made up.  Now we know it actually happens
at our expense in Parliament 
The press in the UK has been filled in recent days with yet more political scandal. Maria Miller, the Conservative MP who was the Minister for Culture (can there be a vacuous title or job description?) at last resigned after several weeks of being under the scrutiny of the media for alleged cheating on her expenses. The Prime Minister accepted her resignation – having supported her throughout – and hoped that she would soon return to government. Well, that’s all right then. Move on. And at the end of this week the  homosexual Conservative MP and ex-Deputy Speaker of Parliament Nigel Evans won his legal battle against charges of rape and sexual assault and the wheels are already in motion for him to return to front line politics. In addition there have been other scandals – Lord Rennard, the Liberal peer is still fighting a battle against his expulsion from the Liberal party following accusations of his sexual misconduct towards women; David Laws left government after cheating on his expenses but is now back in the fold and I read this morning that the Liberal MP Sir Cyril Smith, who died in 2010 is in the press again because of more “discovered” evidence of his abuse of children.

Whatever the rightness, wrongness, legal niceties or justice of each of these cases, Westminster comes out of it very badly. It bears all the hall marks of a badly made "Carry On" film from the 1950s - laughable were it not real and deadly serious. Over the weekend the Guardian one of the world’s great bulwarks and protectors of Parliament and democracy - described Westminster as a dysfunctional institution and it ran a headline entitled“Welcome to Westminster where lecherous shysters get pissed at our expense.” Hardly a vote of confidence upon those who rule us and upon those we are supposed to respect and look up to. The Guardian was  not unique in its criticism – every paper, whatever its political affiliation, was equally scathing. In a TV (Channel 4) investigation into  sexual conduct in parliament a third of those involved in the survey  had personally experienced sexual harassment, and a further 21% had witnessed others being harassed or had been the confidant of someone who had been a victim. The survey also suggested that “young men were more likely to be sexually harassed than women”.   Needless to say, no one felt able to speak on the record for fear of harming their career prospects.

Don't I look the epitome of good breeding and honesty -
if only you poor fools knew!
It would seem that the mother of parliaments is actually not a very nice place and the people who work there even less desirable. Given this back drop it is unsurprising that politicians and government are held in such low esteem by the general public.

Earlier this week when Maria Miller eventually gave up ministerial office (until she is reappointed!) the retired Speaker of the Commons Betty Boothroyd, a lady steeped in the tradition of Parliament said that Mrs Miller should resign “It is a matter of honour” said Ms Boothroyd. Sadly, I do not think that “honour” is a concept much understood in modern Britain and certainly not in Parliament. Indeed, this was reinforced when Nigel Evans was acquitted of the charges of rape and sexual assault. Clearly the relieved Mr Evans was understandably pleased – and in legal terms it may well have been the right decision - whatever my views.  But on the acquittal he said that  he was "deeply ashamed and embarrassed by his arrest". He was not, it seems  deeply ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that evidence had shown that he indecently assaulted two young men  when he approached them in public places while drunk and put his hand down their trousers – one in a Soho bar and the other at a hotel during the 2003 Tory party conference. He was not humbled by being called a “drunken letch in a bar”. He was not ashamed that a number of people had described him as a “high functioning alcoholic”  or that Conservative party officials had on several occasions had to warn him about his behaviour – all to no avail. No, none of these. He was ashamed at his arrest – in other words being caught with his proverbial trousers down. He had broken the 11th commandment “Thou shall not be caught!” And already he is requesting the state to pay his legal costs for the court proceedings! Do people have no shame? Betty Boothroyd’s plea for honourable actions and behaviour from MPs is likely to fall on deaf ears in 21st century Westminster.
"Ah, now I'm Nigel Evans (on the left) -  I'm one of the
shakers and movers at Westminster. This is my idea of
good taste, professionalism and the persona I would like to
project to those who elected me and who trust my judgement.
Clearly when it comes to the right judgement on matters
affecting you and your family, or on national security or any other
great matter of state I'm your man"

Clearly Westminster is not a pleasant place. Only a few months ago the Labour MP Eric Joyce was expelled for alcohol fuelled assault in the Commons bar – behaviour which he had had  been guilty of on more than one previous occasion. And this was sadly confirmed by the former shadow Home Secretary David Davis  when talking about the Nigel Evans allegations. Davis  amazingly announced that  he didn’t consider Evans’ behaviour criminal. - "It’s the sort of thing that happens in every bar. No big deal.’’ Now, I don’t know which bars Mr Davis and Mr Evans frequent but I’m not too aware of hands being put down trousers in the bars that I frequent. Nigel Evans, in his evidence, suggested that it was all a misunderstanding – he “misread the signals” from the victims of his attentions, and the jury accepted this excuse. However, in half a century of visiting pubs and bars, I can honestly say I have never once seen anyone put their hands down the trousers of another drinker or to have been so drunk that they could be described as a “high functioning alcoholic”  or a “drunken letch”. Obviously I don’t go into the right bars – but I have been in enough of them, including some pretty rough places, over the years to know that had Mr Evans “misread the signals” and put his hand down the trousers of a fellow drinker, then he would have soon had the “signals” very clearly spelled out to him – probably with a glass in his face or at least a fist which would soon have made everything abundantly clear to him, despite his drunken state. 

And this is the problem – clearly the culture at Westminster and amongst politicians and the places that they frequent is in a different universe. At the trial of Evans, Westminster was described as  drink-fuelled and promiscuous”  where “a small group of Tory MPs  make unwanted  sexual advances on young male parliamentary staff”, A parliamentary worker  described  how a group of mainly Tory MPs would regularly go drinking with staff in the building - which could lead to compromising situations. "There would be quite senior MPs very drunk - flirting with us and sometimes more.....No one batted an eyelid”. Mr Evans had a reputation for being a “bit touchy-feely”.  It was further suggested that “If [Mr Evans] had worked for a private company somebody would have taken him aside to say, ‘Look mate sort out your drinking’. If it was a really nice private company they might have paid for him to go into treatment,”. I might add that in many other walks of life, and for the majority who are not employed in these wonderful "nice" companies the reality would be  instant dismissal.  As a teacher I would have expected to have been dismissed for far less dubious actions than those faced by Nigel Evans.  And throughout it all Nigel Evans simply clung to the view that it was all a big mistake. When asked if he had put his hands down the trousers of a young man he could not give a categorical “No” – simply that he had “no recollection”. Presumably because he was too drunk at the time. And against this back ground the politicians have closed ranks – defending their "culture".
We can boldly go to any universe and defeat
any alien monster.........but please don't send us
to Planet Westminster

Westminster is a parallel universe that even those intrepid space travellers Captain Kirk and Mr Spock on the Starship Enterprise would have difficulty fathoming. This was made absolutely clear towards the end of this week when the Conservative party, anticipating a dip in their fortunes following all these revelations published a new voluntary code of conduct to all its MPs telling them not to "bully, abuse or harass" their employees. “Staff are entitled to work”, the Code tells us, "in an environment free from unwelcome behaviour and inappropriate language". In future staff will “be free from any form of discrimination, victimisation, harassment or bullying. And MPs were expected to “interact with their employees in a fair, reasonable and consistent manner; ensure their employees act in accordance with the spirit and ethos of this policy in their dealings with House staff; lead by example to encourage and foster an atmosphere of respect and tolerance; not use their position to bully, abuse or harass employees or assume a threatening or intimidating style or discriminate against them”.

Mmmm! Sounds good to me! But I ask myself why is it only voluntary? Presumably Mr Evans and the those identified in the Channel 4 survey as having being guilty of  sexual harassment can simply say, “Sorry I don’t want to sign up to this – it’ll spoil my fun”  And, I ask myself, why, in the seat of government of one of the greatest, most advanced nations on the planet, a nation that is looked up to (or was) for its parliamentary democracy, its traditions and its values the Conservative Party feel that they have to spell it out in big easy to read letters to their members something that every other employer and employee in the workplace knows. And, I would add, something that I guess to most people in the 21st century is a given – that  you don’t discriminate, you don’t harass or bully your employees or those who you are responsible for, you don’t allow unwelcome behaviour or inappropriate language. If you do then you know you will be sacked, or brought to judgement or maybe even find yourself in court. Surely, Mr Evans putting his hand down the trousers of a young man in the Parliamentary bar fails on every count – but hey, this is the parallel universe of Westminster, where honour is dead and where, as the Guardian noted  "lecherous shysters get pissed at our expense”.

I would suggest that Mr Evans comes and touts for business and “misreads the signals” in one or two of the Miners’ Welfare and Working Men’s Clubs that I have sipped my pint of beer in over the years.  After he had been transferred to the local A&E department he could reflect, as he sobered up and nursed his reconfigured face, that his  universe is not the universe of the ordinary man.  And maybe that, is why politicians and Westminster are held in such low esteem. It is the same with Maria Miller – she had cheated on her expenses to the tune of about £90,000 pounds – originally the enquiry into her cheating recommended that she repaid about £45,000 but MPs thought that a bit stiff so they said “Repay just £5000 and we’ll forget about it”. (I suspect that a lot of MPs were thinking, as Maria Miller squirmed in the face of the media assault on her actions, “There  but for the grace of God go I” ). She showed no contrition simply a sense of entitlement and victimisation – and even now still seems confused that she is being damned. To the man in the Miners’ Welfare or the Working Man’s Club – and indeed in the Poppy and Pint Pub in well off suburban West Bridgford here in Nottingham where I enjoyed my drink on Friday evening £40,000 is a huge amount of money. It's the sort of amount that many people will never ever see despite working hard all their lives – but in Westminster it is an entitlement, merely an amount to be "fiddled" to boost the salary.

As I said at the top of this blog, whatever the rightness, wrongness, the legal niceties or justice of each of these cases, Westminster comes out of it very badly. In the final analysis  in a democracy we elect MPs for two reasons – to represent our views and to use those views combined with their own expertise and  sound, serious and mature judgement to make decisions on our behalf. It seems increasingly that the Westminster Village is increasingly out of touch with the life and times of much of the electorate so it must find it very difficult to represent their views.  But, more importantly, there is clearly a problem with the ability of MPs to make sound and mature judgements. Mr Evans has been acquitted, Mrs Miller has reluctantly left office (but with a promise of a speedy return from the Prime Minister  when things have blown over) but the culture of Parliament has been laid bare and the judgement – both personal and professional – of those who represent us found to be seriously wanting. And, one last thought, if when Mr Evans or Mrs Miller put themselves forward as possible MPs they had respectively put into their election campaign literature the statement“.......oh, and in addition to all my other many qualities I can also promise you that if elected I will regularly get drunk, behave in inappropriate ways, harass young employees, cheat on my expenses........”  then I wonder how many of us electors would have had second thoughts before putting our cross at the side of their names.  If I applied for a job and on my CV wrote that my personal qualities included getting dunk in public on a regular basis, being touchy feely with other staff, cheating on my expenses and in my dealings with the tax man or use inappropriate language then I could not reasonably expect my application to be taken seriously. But Westminster, it seems, is different.
It all reminds me of the joke that has circulated for several years now – and as with all good jokes its humour is based in the fact that we know it is based in truth:

One day an old age pensioner  went to a barber for a haircut. After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, ‘It’s community help week this week Sir, where we shopkeepers help valued members of the community. Your hair cut is free'  The pensioner was pleased and left the shop. When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a 'thank you' note and a basket of vegetables from the old man’s allotment waiting for him at his door.

Later, a policeman comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replied ‘It’s community help week this week where shopkeepers help valued members of the community. Your hair cut is free.'   The cop was happy and left the shop. The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a 'thank you' card and note explaining that the policeman would call round when he was off duty and check out the barber’s security on windows and doors and the burglar alarms.

Next day  a fireman comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replied ‘It’s community help week this week  where shopkeepers help valued members of the community.Your hair cut is free.'   The fireman was delighted and left the shop. The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a 'thank you' card and note explaining that the fireman would call round later and check out the barber’s fire alarms and electrical wiring so the business was safe from fire.

Then an MP came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied  It’s community help week this week  where shopkeepers help valued members of the community.Your hair cut is free.'  The MP was very happy and left the shop. The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there was a line of  MPs stretching from the barbers shop door and all the way down the street and round the corner – all waiting for their free haircut.

And that illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of our country and the politicians who run it. And it is why politics and politicians  are increasingly despised – and that is very, very bad for democracy.

06 April, 2014

"It looks just like the Arboretum"

Earlier this week the local Nottingham Police and  Crime Commissioner and ex-MP Paddy Tipping was speaking of the problems in the translation service available to both the local and national legal systems. Whatever the points he was making  Mr Tipping clearly felt there was a problem and told reporters  "I think you need to tell it how it is and this is, let me say it on camera, a crap scheme. It needs to be taken away, torn up and started again."  Now, Mr Tipping may well have a point to criticise the service – I’m pretty sure that like many of our services – both public and private – the translation service leaves much to be desired. But his phrase “.....you need to tell it how it is.....”  and subsequent his use of an increasingly commonly used, but non-the less potentially offensive, word is in modern Britain increasingly the norm.

“You need to tell it how it is” – well, maybe! Clearly there are situations when absolute, no nonsense clarity about a situation is totally appropriate and exactly correct, but I might argue, there are probably equally as many occasions when a little consideration might be in order and when the choosing of one’s words are critical. If I go to the doctor and the results of tests he has done suggest that I have a terminal illness it might be quite correct that he “tells me how it is”  but I’m pretty sure that if and when this event occurs I would like him to consider his words carefully before uttering them. And I might add that a good doctor would, I believe, try to choose the right words for a particular patient. Some might be able to take it on the chin “Oh, the tests show that it’s terminal – you’ve got 2 months at the most...any questions?”  whilst others might want something a bit more oblique and gentle, where they can arrive at that conclusion through sympathetic thought and discussion.

I’m also concerned about Mr Tipping’s claim at another level. My experience is that when people use this phrase (and they more often than not accompany it by an aggressive or abusive word or words) their “telling it as it is” is more often than not a selective and simplistic view rather than a balanced argument which recognises all the factors. Clearly in Mr Tipping’s case – he may well have a point that the legal translation service needs improvement, but he fails to take into account some of the many problems and issues involved that have got us to this stage – to him it is just “crap”. In writing this I think of the thousands of parents I have spoken to when working in school – at parents’ evenings and the like. I might “tell it how it is” and say “Johnny is lazy and could work a great deal harder”  or “Mary is useless at spelling”  These may both be absolutely correct and “telling it as it is”. But experience tells me that in doing this I leave myself wide open to two things – an aggressive response back which equally tells me "how it is”.  From Johnny’s parents there might be the quite legitimate argument “Well, you're paid to make him work - so make him” and Mary’s mother might quite rightly "tell me how it is" by saying “But it is your  job to make Mary good at spelling –  you are supposed to be a teacher”.

Telling it as it is”, is a double edged sword!

And finally, that word “crap” – it has like so many words that were previously thought unseemly become part of the mainstream. It might be acceptable in the pub or in certain company  but I’m not too sure it is appropriate as part of what should be a meaningful discussion or commentary upon an important issue – and, I believe, certainly inappropriate for a man in Mr Tipping’s position. It legitimises the use of potentially unacceptable language. If it is alright for Paddy Tipping as the local Police and Crime Commissioner then why not for the pupil in his confrontation with the teacher, or the witness as he stands before the judge or the child as he speaks to his parent? Or, does being a senior person - the Crime Commissioner, Headteacher, Editor, Managing Director, MP or Prime Minister et al - give some kind of right, legitimacy and prerogative to use boorish, thuggish, foul and abusive language? I think not.

As I read Tipping’s outburst I reflected upon how many times I had said to young children over my years in school to think before they spoke. “Sticks and stones might break my bones but words will never hurt me”  is manifestly untrue – words do hurt and need to be chosen carefully. Once a word is spoken it cannot be unspoken – it has already done its damage. I often reflect – and increasingly so as I get older, that writing something down rather than speaking it has many implications but might often be a better option. Yes, when you write something down it is there for everyone to see, you cannot claim to have been misunderstood. But at the same time I usually find that this also makes one think a little before writing it down. In the heat of a discussion I might say something I regret, but I can always deny I said it or try to explain it more fully when taken to task. If I write it down then I am committed – it is in black and white – that is why legal documents and contracts  are written down and we sign them as a true record of our feelings and understandings at that point in  time. The result is, or should be, that we think very carefully before committing ourselves to paper – or indeed, in the case of Mr Tipping before sounding off on TV or in print.

In thinking this, however, I am reminded that in this age of 24 hour news, tweeting, facebook, text messages – and, yes, blogging – things have become much more difficult. In days past when one had to think before putting pen to paper it was a long and inevitably thoughtful process – it encouraged due consideration about what was being written. A wrong word or a spelling error might mean the whole thing has to be laboriously re-written - one had to think before writing!  Today this is not so – with computers and mobile phones it is so much more instant. Words can be whizzed off with a minimum of effort, spell checkers correct what you write and with one press of a button the message has gone and is immediately out of your control. Where previously that letter you wrote may have sat on the side for a few hours before  you posted it  - and in that time you had the opportunity to reflect upon what you had written - today your words are gone in an instant and you cannot take back what you have said. And in this modern world, it is very easy to come out with a quick one liner to express your feelings and later live to regret what you have said. All too often the media and social networking sites are based upon the quick comment, the sound bite, the “telling it as it is”. With something like twitter you have to squeeze what you want to say into 140 characters – not a lot of space there for nuance, explanation or qualification. If you doubt the veracity of these points visit the "posts" on any of the major newspapers and read the comments posted there - blunt, frequently abusive, little or no context, qualification or explanation and little thought as to the feelings of other readers or contributors - all "telling it how it is". In addition, the frequent lack of proper punctuation in e-mails and text messages and the like and the use of “text speak” guarantees that what emerges at the end is potentially misleading, easily misunderstood and presents a very hard edge. In short, you have to cut things down to the bare minimum -”tell it as it is”  and    just maybe that is a small part of the explanation of things like cyber bullying. What is said over the internet and in text messages is potentially harmful and brutal in its brevity and pointedness – sometimes unintentional, but always with the capacity to be  hurtful for there is no opportunity (or maybe even desire) to go into detail, present a balanced argument or write with any sort of empathy and engagement with the reader. It is communication at the lowest level.

I would add one final point. I long since came to the conclusion that those who use the phrase “tell it as it is”, and thus try to justify their actions, must be treated with care. They rarely tell it as it is – instead they tell their version of how it is; they are nearly always potential bullies; they hate other people telling them “how it is”; and finally, their tongues or their texting finger usually work rather faster than their brain cells. Had they thought first then they might well have said something else.

In writing all this I am reminded of two things from my past. Of all the assembly stories that I told over more than  thirty years of leading a school assembly each day one stands head and shoulders above the rest in that it always elicited a response and further discussion – especially from the older children. It is from the Arabian Nights but occurs in many other forms of Islamic culture and literature. It seriously questions this notion of “telling it as it is”. It is a story of tact and graciousness and seeing the bigger picture and in the loud crass world of Paddy Tipping it is something that serves as useful reminder to the strident voices of the societies in which we live.

The tale tells of a tribe of poor wandering desert people who are thirsty – the water holes and oases have dried out. Despite travelling many hundreds of miles water cannot be found. The chief of the tribe instructs several of the young men to go out on their horses and camels to seek water on behalf of the tribe. One of these men travels for several days – without success and at last, exhausted, he takes rest at night in a cave. It is dark and he falls fast asleep. When he awakes at dawn, the cave still gloomy and dark he realises that his hand is wet – it is lying in water. He quickly scoops some of the water into his hand and greedily drinks. Refreshed, he fills his various water bottles up, lets his horse drink and hurriedly sets off back to his tribe.

As he gallops across the desert he comes upon the king – the mighty, feared, great and wise Caliph Harun al-Rashid - out hunting with his courtiers. The Caliph commands him to approach  and asks where he is going in such a great hurry. The terrified man gasps out his story and tells the Caliph he has found the most wonderfully refreshing water, the water of paradise, the sweetest, most wonderful drink imaginable and that he is hurrying back to his people with the news so that they too might drink the "water of paradise"“Would your majesty like to drink some?”  he asks. To the horror of the courtiers the Caliph smiles and readily agrees and takes the man’s grubby water bottle to his lips. The water is foul smelling and brackish – scooped up from the earth of the cave. The Caliph drinks, and then bows and smiles kindly “You have indeed found the water of paradise, my friend” he says “it is the most wonderful taste I have ever tasted. Thank you for sharing it with me, your King. I am honoured indeed.” The Caliph then takes out of his saddle bag a pouch filled with a thousand gold dinars and passes it to the man. “Take this”, he says “and return to your people. Use the money to build a well near where you have found the water of paradise and your tribe and their children and their grandchildren must then guard the water for all eternity so that  this wonderful water is always there for weary travellers and for yourselves – and, when I wish to drink of it again, I will come to you”. The man is overcome. He falls to the ground and worships the Caliph and promises he will do as instructed. The money is such a vast amount that it will indeed keep his tribe in food and water for years to come. He climbs back on his horse, bows again to the Caliph and disappears into the desert. And, the story tells, his family and their descendants are still, today, guarding the cave and that “water of paradise” is always available for weary and thirsty travellers.

The great and wise Harun-al-Rashid
When he had gone the Caliph’s courtiers gathered around and expressed their horror – how could he drink such foul water? Why did he not take the man back to Baghdad where the man could have seen the clean cool drinking water of the great city with its crystal clear fountains and the mighty waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates? Why did he not simply tell the man the truth (Tell it how it is!) and send him packing? The Caliph listened and then quietly said “But, he thought he was bringing me the water of heaven. He gave to me the most precious thing that he possessed – the water that will keep him and his family alive. Who am I, a mere King, to tell him otherwise. It would have been disrespectful to a good man. If I had taken him to Baghdad he would have been made to look foolish and his gift of water small. He would have been shamed at giving his King so worthless a gift. His was a noble act. He  shared his greatest  possession with me -  if I, too, wish to be as  noble as he then I must treat him with the nobility that his kindness demands.”

Clearly the Caliph had a different take from Paddy Tipping on “telling it as it is”.

And the other thing from my past – a little nearer to home. For many years, until he died, I used to do the garden and keep the hedges tidy for an old man who lived down the road from me. Frank Wilson was one of the world’s nice guys – a true gentleman in every respect. He had an ailing wife and, sadly, his only son was mentally handicapped and in a home. Although Frank had had a very successful working life I’m quite sure his home circumstances could have been more joyful. He never, however, complained. For much of his life he increasingly suffered from increasingly painful and debilitating arthritis and for the last 20 years or so was confined to a wheelchair, hunched up and often unable to even open his hands. When his wife died he was dependent for many years upon carers who came each day to get him dressed, bath him and put him to bed and so on. Even the simplest jobs such as holding a knife and fork were painful for Frank – but he always had a smile and never, ever, complained. On a sunny day he would often sit at the end of his garden path and talk to anyone who walked past his gate – and there was nothing he liked better than the odd risqué joke – especially if he thought he could get away with telling it to one of the many ladies (including my wife) who would pop in and ask if he needed any shopping. Pat would often come back chuckling saying “Have you heard the latest one from Frank?”. In his latter years, each morning when I got up I would stand in my bathroom and look out of the toilet window – from there I could see into Frank’s kitchen and know that he was up.  If the blind was still drawn then I knew there was a problem – he was ill or the carer was late and the poor guy was “trapped” in bed, unable to move. But most mornings Frank was up and as I peered out of the window he would wave and I knew that all was well.

Each Sunday morning I would go around to Frank’s with my lawn mower  and other bits and pieces and keep his garden in some kind of order. I am not a gardener – I have little interest in it and know nothing of plants but will mow the grass and keep things tidy. Before becoming incapacitated Frank had been a keen gardener – his roses, his hedges and lawn the envy of all who lived on the road. Each Sunday as I pushed the mower up and down his back lawn or hacked at some wayward part of the hedge he would sit in his kitchen and watch me – smiling and waving if I looked his way. Occasionally he would ask me to prune a particular bush or shrub. If the weather was pleasant he would emerge in his wheel chair and sit at the edge of the lawn chatting each time I passed with the mower and all the time I suspected that he was thinking how sad he was to see his beautiful garden reduced to my hacking and unskilled labour. Where once there was a lawn like a bowling green now it was covered on moss and chopped at rather than lovingly cared for. It must have been so disappointing for him – but, even though I say it myself, it was at least tidy and not unpleasant – as long as you didn’t look with an expert’s eye or too closely!
Nottingham Arboretum

I did Frank’s garden for many years – until he passed away. He often wanted to pay me for doing it but I didn’t do it for payment - I got my reward in another way, and much more important. As I came to the end of the task and began putting the tools away (by this time it would be about 11.30 a.m.) Frank would wave through the window and point to a sherry bottle sitting on his kitchen working surface. I would smile and wave back. By the time I returned, sweaty and grubby, to his kitchen there would be, standing on the working surface, two glasses of sherry which we would enjoy as we put the world to right – talked about the latest football score, moaned about the government, talked about the week’s events or Frank told one of his risqué jokes. We would talk for about half an hour and then I would gather up my belongings to leave – I knew that my Sunday lunch would be on its way and that Frank’s carer would soon be bringing him his Sunday dinner. His plate was already warming on the oven and his specially designed knife and fork ready and waiting. And then came my reward. Each and every week – without fail – as I said good bye, Frank would look out into his garden and say “That’s a grand job, Tony – it looks just like the Arboretum”. The Arboretum is a park in the middle of Nottingham - beautifully laid out, a place of shady walks, bandstands, fountains, manicured lawns and immaculate flower beds where once Victorian ladies and gentlemen wondered and dallied and is still today a very pleasant place to pass a summer afternoon. Of course Frank’s garden didn’t look like the Arboretum and we knew it didn’t – I knew and he knew. I had just hacked at his garden – it was far removed from the beauties of that lovely parkland and I’m sure that deep down he thought, nostalgically, to when it did look like the Arboretum when he tended it as a younger man. But boy – did it make me feel good. It was better than any payment and made me want to come back next week.

No, Frank didn’t tell it as it was, although I’m sure he must have often thought it. I suppose the lovely Mr Tipping and many others today would have told me “how it was”..........   that my efforts were just unskilled hacking and that it was (to use Mr Tipping’s sort of language) “crap gardening”. And, I know they would be right – but that doesn’t seem to be the point. I suppose that Frank knew what the Caliph knew – that  “if I, too, wish to be noble then I must treat him with the nobility that his kindness demands.”  And in doing so Frank made me feel a million dollars each week and, much as I hated gardening, more than willing to return week after week for more of the same.