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”

05 November, 2014

Pssst! Listen, Do You Want To Know A secret..........

Fifty years ago at about this time of year in 1964 I went with friend in his mini to Liverpool. It was a Sunday as I remember it (we missed going to evening service at church!) and we went on the short trip from Preston to the Liverpool Empire to see the Beatles who were then on top of the world, at the height of their fame. The swinging sixties were just upon us! We counted ourselves hugely lucky to get tickets to see the group in their home town -  understandably they were like gold dust. We had only got them because my dad, who was a lorry driver and often carried loads  to and from Liverpool docks obtained them from a friend of a friend of a friend who worked on the docks. I didn’t ask too many questions – I know they fell off the back of a lorry or to be more precise were got in some kind of devious exchange for something that “fell off the back of dad’s lorry”!
At the Beatles' concert in Preston in 1963 -
together with friends I was there in that mob

I had seen the Beatles live once before, about a year previously when they played at the Preston Public Hall. On both occasions one could hear very little because of the screaming girls in the audience but they were both events I will always remember. They sang all their popular songs and in particular one of my favourites “Listen, do you want to know a secret?”. The song had been top of the hit parade earlier in 1964 when it was sung by Billy J Kramer but it was a Lennon/McCartney song and had first been heard on the early Beatle LP “Please, Please Me” – of which I was a proud owner. I don’t know what I liked about the song – maybe it was one of the few sung by Beatle George Harrison. Harrison was possibly the most accomplished musician in the group but no singer – in fact John Lennon once said they allowed Harrison to sing the song because it only has three notes and Harrison could only sing three notes!
The LP where "Do You want to Know A
Secret" was first heard

I’ve thought about this song, this “blast from the past” in the past couple of days because of what I have been reading and because of my personal life at the moment. Let me explain.

I have recently been reading of the sixteenth century French philosopher and author Michael de Montaigne and the more that I have read the more I have been both intrigued and impressed by him. Montaigne is regarded by many as one the fathers of modern philosophy and  thought. Prior to Montaigne most philosophical thought had been built upon the classical Greek ideas of Aristotle or Socrates. Montaigne’s “philosophy”, filled with anecdotes and observations of what he saw of the behaviour, attitudes and beliefs of men and women brought a new perspective. Briefly, where the classical philosopher saw man as a rational being and one who would (and should) aspire to make decisions on sound rational reasons, always seeking for higher ideals Montaigne saw things differently. For him men and women operated in their own world and made decisions and took action based upon their culture, experiences and personal views which were often at odds with what others believed and thought. It was a much earthier philosophy of life and mankind.

Montaigne came from a wealthy French family and lived in a grand château in the south west of France. As a young man he travelled Europe and his journeys changed his view of the world and of people. What he saw and heard convinced him that people were just like him -  full of hopes fears, prejudices, beliefs based upon their upbringing, influenced by factors outside their control and so on. They were not the rational, sensible people envisaged and idealised by ancient philosophers who always acted in the most objective and best way –no,  they had human desires, human failings, often made bad decisions, they got drunk, broke wind and in many ways were simply one more member of the animal kingdom, no more,  no less. Increasingly he studied and wrote, spending much of his time in a circular library high in one of the Château's towers. On the ceiling beams of his library he wrote various comments such as “When good health and a fine sunny day smile at me I am quite debonair; give me an in-growing toe nail and I am touchy, bad tempered and inapproachable” – acknowledging himself and others as individuals with all our faults, warts and all.
Michel de Montaigne

When he was in his mid twenties he met a young poet of a similar age, Étienne de La Boétie, and they immediately became firm friends. They would spend huge amounts of time together in intellectual discussion. During these discussions Montaigne discussed his innermost thoughts and beliefs and began to formulate his view of the world. Sadly after about four years his friend died. Montaigne was distraught he had lost his soul mate and confidante and in 1571, he retired from public life to his so-called "citadel", the library in the chateau tower. He almost totally isolated himself from every social and family affair. He saw little of his wife and his surviving daughter (he and his wife had six children but only one survived to adulthood) and he began work on his Essais  ("Essays"), first published in 1580. As Montaigne wrote, he almost became himself on the page – he laid bare his innermost thoughts, feelings and beliefs just as he had done with his friend La Boétie. Essais set out Montaigne’s views, many of them formed on his journeying round Europe and in his discussions with his friend on philosophy, mankind, education, psychology and society and his central theme was that man is not rational, people are individuals,  everyone should be valued, there are no set rules that govern our behaviour or what it should be. Most of Montaigne’s views were ahead of their time and although they might look dated today in fact they are virtually all things that we now take for granted.
Montaigne's Library Tower

But there is more and it here that I come to the point of this blog. Montaigne realised that as he wrote his book he was no longer expressing his deepest secrets, thoughts, hopes, fears and beliefs in private to a trusted friend but to the whole world, people he didn’t know and could not trust – if they cared to read his book.  ”Listen” his book is saying,” do you want to know a secret?......I’ll tell you all mine”!  Montaigne was very aware of this paradox. He wrote, “......many things I would not tell any individual man I tell to the public and for knowledge of my most secret thoughts I refer my most loyal friends to a bookseller’s stall”  . Modern philosopher Alain De Botton ruefully comments on Montaigne’s paradox by saying:  “......we should be grateful for the paradox. Booksellers are the most valuable destination for the lonely, given the numbers of books that are written because authors couldn’t find anyone to talk to”.

And as I read all this I was struck to consider how much more true Montaigne’s comment and paradox is today. When he set his innermost thoughts down on paper, telling people he did not know and would never meet things that in other circumstances he would perhaps not even tell his wife he was still only writing for a very limited audience – few people were literate in those days and few could afford to buy books so his innermost thoughts maybe didn’t initially travel very far. But today is so different. Social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, blogs like this one, an international media where people like me write to the editor and have our letters and thoughts  published, e-mails that can be sent to huge numbers of people at the press of a button all combine to ensure that our every action, thought and deed is instantly available to millions across the world. Of course the vast majority of comment on social media sites is in the realms of the banal or the simple reporting of a particular incident in a person’s life but put all these incidents together or when a person like me in a blog begins to express our feelings on a subject (say about a particular piece of government policy) then we are to a greater or lesser degree exposing our inner self for the world to examine us. And it doesn’t end there – increasingly people use social media and the media in general to clearly set out their views or innermost thoughts. We regularly see celebrities announcing on sites like Facebook or Twitter that they are separating from their husband or wife, we read of people “coming out” – telling of their previously closely guarded sexual orientation and just this morning I read the awful story of the young man who killed his teacher at school in Leeds. At the trial where the young man was yesterday found guilty it was recorded that he sent a Facebook message on Christmas Day to say he was going to kill the teacher. The genie, as they say, is very much out of the bottle – we live in a society were Montaigne’s paradox has indeed come true.

Anyone who has read my blogs before will undoubtedly have formed some mental picture of me. I frequently write of my political, social, personal and educational beliefs for anyone who has the staying power to  read my ramblings but in the spirit of Montaigne and perhaps in recognition of that much loved Beatles’ song and a night at the Liverpool Empire exactly half a century ago I feel that it is right to go a stage further by saying:

Do you want to know a secret
Do you promise not to tell,
Let me whisper in your ear

My slipped disc as revealed by an MRI scan.The offending
 disc is about four from the bottom and you can see it bulging out
like a black cherry and pressing on the spinal nerves
In my recent blogs I have referred on a few occasions to my “bad back” – a complaint that has dogged me throughout the summer. It has slowly improved but I still have to be very careful and know that it can “go again” at the least hasty movement. Well, after almost four months I have an MRI scan to show that my bad back is in fact a slipped disc. In a sense when the consultant confirmed this and showed me my scan to prove it I was delighted – the weeks of pain and lack of improvement had slowly wormed into my mind that the problem might be more serious and insidious. This is  classic case of Montaigne being proved right – all the logic, all the advice, my own research, my past problems with a bad back over many years told me that it was simply just a bad back – a twisted muscle, a slipped disc or whatever. But we are human and as Montaigne suggested logic often goes out of the window; we are not the rational beings envisaged by Aristotle , Plato and Socrates. So, throughout the summer as I got no better, I had convinced myself that my end was nigh, that some dreadful fate awaited me and that arrangements had to be made for my early demise.

In saying this is a fairly light hearted way I am not minimising it – I was, to be truthful, becoming a very dispirited, low and indeed frightened man. Increasingly easily upset and irritable I felt unable to shake these worrying thoughts from my mind. And although the news that the consultant gave me was indeed good news – my situation will hopefully slowly improve (indeed at the moment my back is much better), an occasional pain killer will suffice to help matters, walking, swimming will also help – and, if all else fails, then the consultant will, in the last resort, operate to rectify the problem, I am still not out of the woods mentally or emotionally. In short I am suffering a nasty bout of depression/anxiety. Just as with Montaigne with his  in-growing toe nail I am not a happy chappie!

For most of my life – even from teenage years (or maybe even before) I have been an anxious person – worrying about the smallest thing. Situations that others seem to take for granted and are just part of the pattern of everyday life I can get stressed about. I am, and always have been, a pessimist, always fearing the worst. In some respects this has been a strength, I spent my working life being diligent in the extreme to ensure that I did a “good job” – and was frequently applauded for it. As a teacher I would be in school very early in the morning to ensure that all was ready, no stone had been left unturned; my professional planning and administration was immaculate, my reports always thorough and appreciated. On many occasions I was told that I was “the most organised person” people knew. But I did all this simply because it was my way of coping – I had to be on top of things, in control, not found wanting, I was afraid for it to be otherwise. I would often look at colleagues and see how they could, on the surface at least, be much more laid back about things – and I wished I could be the same.
Very true, I think

And the same thing is very much part of my personal life – if Pat goes to the doctor’s for a minor ailment I am anxious till she returns and assures me that there is nothing seriously wrong; if our son or daughter rings up and says one of the grandchildren is unwell or has had a problem at school or is being a bit naughty at home I dwell on it and worry that some catastrophe will befall us all. All totally nutty and inappropriate but that is me. I am a compulsive “checker” of things: making trebly sure that the front door is locked if we go out, checking my blogs several times for spelling mistakes (and they still slip through!), checking the oil in the car regularly and so the list goes on. I need to be on top of things and I need to know that I have eliminated any potential problems before they happen. Each night I sit with my diary and make a list of the things that I have to do in both the short and longer term; if Pat mentions something that needs doing – a bit of gardening, a shelf putting up, the vegetables peeling then I have to do it immediately.  As I said above in many ways this can be a strength but it is also a weakness – and debilitating. And when a bad back comes along I find it difficult to cope with because no matter how much I try I cannot make it better by my own diligence – I am not in control and so slowly but surely dark thoughts enter my head and a form of depression sets in. Which is where I am at this moment in time.

Could have been written for me!
Hopefully, my back is slowly on the mend – and even if it isn’t I now know that it is not a thing to overly worry about – but the whole episode has dragged me low. The fears of the past few months have reduced me to a low state where I become upset at the least thing, feel constantly nauseous, and jump at the least loud noise or interruption. I have become much more of a recluse and simply want to be “secure”. Usually my condition improves during the day – and by evening I can be rather brighter – especially if I have had a shower and can look forward to a nice, secure and quiet night in. But by early morning (I always wake very early, and often don’t sleep after a about 3 a.m. – it has always been thus, when I was working I would lie in bed and plan the day!) I am awake and experiencing what I can only describe as an adrenalin rush, palpitations and feeling increasingly anxious, distressed, tearful, nauseous and my head and body feeling as if they are going to explode. Throughout the day I can become upset at the least thing - an article in the newspaper, a programme on TV; I know that I personalise everything, relating it back to my own situation. I look into the future and see fear - for the well being of my family and myself and all too often I look back to the past, relive the same stories again and again of how I used to hold a class of children in school in the palm of my hand, lead an assembly or hymn practice in front of 300 children, paint and decorate the house at the drop of  a hat, service the car,  play football with my son or drive a 300 mile round trip most Saturdays to visit my ageing father - and so it goes on.  And I weep for what now seems gone and or frightening and seemingly impossible for me. I often cling to Pat in sheer fear and panic. As I sit here writing this (it is about 11.30 in the morning) I feel a tightness in the top of the chest and throat and a feeling of sickness. I feel as if I am shaking inside and am unable to look to the future with anything approaching enthusiasm or brightness. Yesterday I forced myself to visit the local supermarket to help Pat with the weekly shop. The supermarket was quiet, there were no problems but I walked around clinging to the trolley for dear life, my heart pounding, sweat pouring from me so anxious had I become. Occasionally Pat would disappear up an aisle to get some item and I would stand there in a blind panic fearing for myself, casting my eyes around searching for her return to keep me safe.  Everything seems threatening and full of fear. We have good friends coming for lunch tomorrow – I am dreading it. Every little job – things that only a few weeks ago I would have considered normal, everyday things – filling the dishwasher, putting the rubbish bins out, going for a little walk around our local country park -  seem threatening mountains to climb. This term I joined a couple of U3A groups (philosophy & poetry) in the hope that not only would I enjoy and learn something but they would also help me to overcome my anxieties by mixing with people and getting out a little. The groups were good, the people lovely but in the end I found it all too threatening. That, for me, is one of the worst aspects of depression and anxiety that one feels increasingly cut off from "normal" people and ordinary life - alone with one's worries, sadnesses and anxieties.

 I have been here before – the last time when I was struggling with my heart failure - but since then have managed to keep it in check and control it. If one suffers from depression or anxiety then although pills might help and certainly my experience is that counselling or therapy support can be hugely helpful  you are never really free of it. It is always lurking in the background waiting to leap out on you when you least expect it or when life becomes just that little, bit more stressful , as mine did when my disc slipped in my back. And this is the frustrating and indeed depressing thing about it – you cannot control it and it affects you long after the thing that originally caused it in the first place has disappeared. My back is on the mend and is certainly manageable – but the effect of the episode on my mental state are still there and I suspect will remain so for some time. In short, I am told, my nerves have been shredded.

So, there you have me! Like Montaigne I have told the world my secret, I have in Lennon and McCartney’s words “....whispered in your ear” . Anyone, be they stranger or friend, can read this blog and access my private problems, my innermost thoughts, my secrets. In this age of “transparency” I understand that is the name of the game so I have put in print things for the whole world to read what I might not actually be confident enough to tell a good neighbour, a friend, an acquaintance or work colleague. It is indeed a paradox. Is it useful? Well for me this exercise has, I think, been just a little bit cathartic although I have no illusions that it will make any immediate difference to my state of mind.  I think that I am in for the long haul on this one. But maybe out there is someone else who also suffers the sorts of things that I describe and if they read this blog it might just give them a bit of solace to know that they are not alone. When I had this situation before about five years ago one of the most helpful things was the therapist – a person who has since become a good friend as well and professional help – telling me that his couch was filled each week with people telling him similar stories to mine. I was not alone, nor was I completely nutty – just a bit depressed and that was a great help to me.

And one final thought – not about depression or anxiety or secrets – but following something I mentioned earlier in the blog. I commented that our UK papers are full of the details from the trial of the young man who murdered his teacher in Leeds. In Facebook messages last Christmas, he talked of “brutally killing Maguire” (the teacher) and spending the rest of his life in jail so he would not have to worry about life or money. On the day that he did it he showed other school friends the two knives he had brought to school for the purpose. In other words, he told other people, friends and via a social networking site any strangers that cared to read his postings his innermost thoughts, the things that were of most importance and significance to him..............and no-one took it seriously. It was just one more bit of  "stuff" on social media instantly read and soon forgotten.  Now that really is a paradox, to be given someone’s prized innermost thoughts and not to meaningfully respond in any way. In my view, it is too, a worrying reflection upon young people and the cultures and virtual worlds that they seem to inhabit where innermost secrets and profound information can be ignored or not recognised as important. Maybe if someone reading Facebook had taken note of the killer’s innermost thoughts as set out in his Christmas Day post then a murder might not have been committed and a number of lives not ruined.  It is for me a reminder of the manner in which the trivialising of life and values can occur in the age of the virtual world and social networking where nothing is considered in any depth, all is transient and disappears at the press of the delete button. Montaigne would indeed have been perplexed by that, I think.

Pssst!- listen, do you want to know a secret!