All Messed Up

ALL eyes on Brexit.

What an absolute shocking mess.

Yes, the nation spoke, if you’re a Brexiteer. But, to be fair, quite a few people didn’t know what they were voting for. There’s been electoral fraud and the idea of sending money destined for Europe to the NHS instead turned out to be a big fat lie.

To be fair, Europe, sometimes quite rightly, has always been the whipping boy for the UK. The portrayal of the Common Market, European Economic Community and now, simply, the European Union, from our politicians and mainstream media has always been as if Napoleon, the Kaiser and Adolf Hitler were still waging war on us.

We didn’t want to join. Then, when we did, they didn’t let us. Then when they let us, the Tories took us in and Labour was skeptical. Then Labour wanted to renegotiate our entrance conditions.

Nevermind that many of the ills ascribed to Brussels were rather the fault of that small patch of London – Westminster.

Nevermind that the British government and establishment was to blame for many of the reasons why just over half those who voted Leave wanted out of Europe.

And it’s a wonderful sleight of hand that ignores many of the real problems on British streets. Blame Europe. Blame Brexit. Blame everyone and everything else you can, but ignore the pressing issues for most communities in Britain.

Problems that the money men, greed, capitalism, austerity and a disconnected British Parliament have caused or allowed.

Drugs.

Crime.

Anti-social behaviour.

Poor education.

Poor opportunities.

Families struggling to get by.

The poor getting poorer.

Jobs gone to China or Eastern Europe.

The taxpayers, fooled by privatisation, forking out more to boost the coffers of the money men who continue to make fortunes out of it.

In my lifetime – half a century – we’ve seen schools become prisons, fenced off, grim-looking establishments for the most part now.

Chemists around the country also have steel fences, barbed wire.

We have security guards in GP surgeries.

Our entries, alleys, ten foots, call them what you like, are often gated.

Shops are shuttered with strong metal, with many employing bollards against the threat of ram-raiding.

The money lost by shops to theft grows annually.

Police detection figures are dropping.

Neighbours don’t know neighbours.

Ambulance staff and NHS workers are assaulted in record number.

Fire crews also come under attack.

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves.

Wages, in real terms, have dropped.

House prices and rents have soared.

Utility bills, supposed to be cheaper in the age of privatisation, have rocketed.

Transport costs, public or otherwise, have jumped higher than an Olympic pole vaulter.

People wait weeks for a GP appointment.

There aren’t enough beds in hospitals.

The NHS is chronically underfunded, understaffed and patients are waiting longer for operations.

People who have saved all their lives are losing everything when they go into care homes.

There aren’t enough care home places.

Manners are in short supply.

People seem to feel able to vent their anger more freely, putting their own ‘rights’ higher than that of society as a whole, with the establishment meekly approving.

What a country for our children. Where did it all go wrong? Not the European Union. And based on everything the UK government has done since that traumatic vote, Brexit won’t solve a single issue.

It will make things worse, when the grants the EU provides to poor areas of Britain disappear. Grants that Westminster is unlikely to replace with money we are supposed to save from our withdrawal from the European bloc.

Because if this government, whatever its political leanings, was serious about Britain, it would have been tackling the grassroots issues affecting communities decades ago.

Life is getting worse.

You can blame it on Brexit.

You can blame it on no-Brexit.

You can blame it on the boogie.

But the real problems are being ignored.

 

 

 

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No Rest (For The Wicked)

COVENTRY return to action in the Greene King IPA Championship today after a lengthy festive lay-off.

It was a game we, as a family, hoped to make, but circumstances dictate otherwise.

I hope there is a good crowd at the Butts Park Arena to welcome Doncaster Knights back there after several recent cup clashes between the two teams.

My heart will be there.

The long break in game time reminded me of my own days in studded boots. When I first started playing, as a schoolboy, we were naturally fit, free of the worries of constant TV, internet and addictive gaming apps and machines.

I played out in the back entry with friends from my part of Coundon. I went over ‘the fields’ to play football on grass. Back in the 1970s, before the efforts to turn Coundon Wedge into a more natural setting, there was a single goalpost on the little field off Dovecote Close. The pitch was bounded by Three Spires School and the Sherbourne, and we younger lads were despatched to either when the ball went out of play.

Then there was always the back garden; pristine lawn between the canes helping runner beans reach for the sky, the beds of carrots and potatoes.

Thinking back, pristine isn’t the word after I was let loose, despite the best efforts of my grandfather.

That back lawn was my Wembley, Twickenham and Lords – in 1981 it became Headingley for a while. And for this Cov kid, it was Coundon Road and Highfield Road.

So, I guess, we kids growing up in the 1970s were naturally fitter than the children of today. We didn’t have so much processed food to eat, either. Our diets have to have been healthier back then. Unless you were a dog. I haven’t seen any white dog poo in decades.

But in the school rugby team and the first adult rugby team I played for, warming up was a simple matter of going out and having a bit of a jog and a few stretches. The pack might practice a lineout or two and the kickers in the team put boot to ball a few times.

That was it. Then, nearer kick-off, after the boot inspection, you’d get in a rough circle in the dressing room, grabbing the guys at your sides in as close as possible, run on the spot with knees as high as possible and count as loudly as you could in unison. I think it was supposed to channel the aggression or switch everybody onto the coming game.

As I got better known, I was excused these duties. I was quiet, busy imagining the first tackle, the first contact, the catch, the run, the pass, the kick.

Not that I’d get it right first time.

I remember one game a few years later. I’d been out on a drunken Burns’ Night dinner, lost my contact lenses and taken to the field half blind. Playing at full back I made a hash of getting to the first kick my way, accidentally caught it and set off on a run. I wanted to pass to the flying winger calling desperately for the ball on my right, but when I looked, I couldn’t see him.

The praise I got for that dummy was fulsome.

Also for the kick to safety from within my 22. The ball went out in the opposition 22. Everyone was so happy, blissfully ignorant that I’d totally misjudged it and had hoped to find touch somewhere a little out of our own 22.

As I moved up a level or two, I found the idea of a warm up was more bothersome. We were expected to go out ahead of kick-off, and run around. Lots. Practice moves in the backs at full pace, stretch properly, and do all manner of dynamics activities.

The first time I did this, coming off a hard cricket season for an opening bowler, I felt myself cramping up in the calves.

And that used to be a regular problem in the first few games of a season. As an opening bowler, my calves would get a battering, slamming down into the bowling crease dozens of times a week. No matter how much pre-season training I’d do down the rugby club, I was never fully prepared.

Generally, I’d cramp up about 60 minutes into the first game, 70 into the second and just about manage to survive the third. After that, I’d be able to play two games back to back, if called on. Or Sunday League football, which I did on occasion when teams needed a Norman Hunter-style defender. No skill or guile with a round ball, these feet of mine. Although I’m sure there would be plenty to argue the same with oval ball.

My last season of rugby at a decent level saw the warm ups last forever. It was as if all the hours of training I’d squeeze into a week were just for surviving the warm up. Playing 10, it seemed like I never had a chance to rest during the game. Why the scrum half always had to look for me, I’ll never understand. There were others he could have passed to, surely?

That team wanted an attacking game. I’d been a fly-half in the Rob Andrew mould. Get the ball, kick for territory, get a pat on the backside from the pack and occasionally offer the speed merchants outside me a few scraps to keep them interested.

Walking Football has proved a great success in recent years. I preferred walking rugby.

To be honest, I had a bit of pace about me and was very quick over the first 10 or so yards. Enough to find a gap for others to exploit. I’d probably have beaten Usain Bolt over the first 10 yards and then lost to my 93-year-old grandmother, even with her broken hip, over the next 90.

And I’d probably used up all my energy and pace, just in the warm up.

So, I’ll be thinking of the players today. And how different the game has become. How fitter and stronger they are, even compared to the Coventry teams of old. But I wonder if they still get into that rough oval, run hard on the spot counting to 10?

 

 

 

 

Tears Of A Clown

IT’S the phone calls that get you. Always the phone calls.

The specialist cancer nurse who calls your wife but doesn’t want to talk on the mobile to discuss the results of tests. The call that sets a host of worries off.

The ringing heralding the news the woman that reared you has two more years at best. Likely less. Cancer again,

The call from a best friend who is struggling to come to terms with the Big C.

Everything comes in threes…

Invisible tears shed.

Brave face on, brave voice on.

After a couple of years filled with the worst evils, of betrayal, lies and sheer hate, my wife and I had so many hopes for 2018.

And yet, I’m expecting more phone calls. My grandmother in an end of life care home. She called yesterday to say she’d had a fall and had broken her pelvis. Talking about the pain and the fact that she’s so frail there’s nothing anyone can do.

The question, the hope in it, that the pelvis will heal quickly and the pain will go away.

I have to confess, I lied. A white lie. Inexcusable in my world, but meant with the best intentions.

To offer that bit of solace in a dark world.

It’s what keeps us going. The hope that, somehow, things are going to get better.

My wife and I hoped that 2018 would be a good year for us, after an awful previous 12 months.

Now, here we are, putting our faith, blindly, in 2019. Maybe I’ll be able to get back to writing more, to painting, to fitness. The simple stuff I missed out on for a big chunk of last year.

Maybe it would be better if I didn”t, except for the pleasure I derive from it.

But that would be ignoring the simple everyday stuff that I should be grateful for. And there’s plenty.

I’m blessed.

I’m not the one alone in a care home, struggling with the pain of immobility and the knowledge I’ll never go home.

I’m not the one going under the knife today like my friend. A conversation over the phone this weekend that he just wants to wake up to see his wife and son again.

More invisible tears. Hopes aplenty.

My wife’s on the mend, been given the all clear, but still has to undergo a procedure later this month, the first of a number of checks to ensure she’s back to full health.

So much to be glad for.

I just don’t think I’ll be answering any phone calls anytime soon.

 

 

Blue In Green

MY GRANDFATHER somehow helped Bedworth United to their first win of the season yesterday.

Or rather his memory. I’m sure of it.

Because, going through my boxes of stuff as part of another clear up and clear out, I found this picture of my grandfather and his teammates during a golden era for the Greenbacks. Two hours later the modern equivalents had chalked up a much needed victory.

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I don’t know much about the photograph, but it records a decent haul of silverware for a season. My grandfather, front row, third from right, had been discarded by Coventry City along with several of his teammates in green.

I don’t know what all the trophies are, or the reasons for the black armbands.

Having returned to Highfield Road after a spell with Millwall, my grandfather’s leg was broken in a crunching tackle. He was ferried home, taken upstairs to the bedroom by the ambulance men, who told him they’d be back to collect him on the Monday morning. Never mind the bones sticking out.

Professional football was a different beast back in 1947.

But Bedworth proved a good fit for him. And he for Bedworth.

At his funeral, Bedworth United were gracious enough to send representatives. Norman Smith, they said, still held the goal-scoring record. Fifty in a season. That may have been surpassed in the nine years since his death, but it had held more than half a century.

And he always talked fondly of his days at Bed’uff. He kept several friendships, notably with Norman Greenaway, who had emigrated to Australia, and took pride in the junior club.

So perhaps it was serendipity that Bedworth United put one goal past St Neots Town yesterday just after I rediscovered the photograph.

I know he will have approved. He was small, nimble and not in the mould of striker that Coventry City wanted back then. Clarrie Bourton and George Lowrie were the favoured spearheads of the Coventry attack, limiting his appearances in a first team shirt.

While he captained Birmingham County FA in a junior international against Scotland, a showcase for the stars of the future, war intervened. He played for Millwall, Nuneaton Town and Rugby Town, as well as the Bantams, Bedworth was where he enjoyed the greatest success.

It was gratifying for us as a family that Bedworth United remembered his contribution back in the post-war years, but the romantic in me reckons he’ll have smiled for the win yesterday.

And me for his contribution in it.

 

 

 

Head Games

WHEN I was about five, my grandfather made a mistake and handed me a festive sherry rather than cherry pop.

Growing up in a teetotal house – bar the odd sherry and advocaat snowball at Christmas – the incident shocked the ranks of family who descended on our Coventry home. Apparently I was like a clockwork toy gone wrong.

I was plied with alcohol on one other occasion as a youngster. This came after I was playing school rugby for Blue Coat. One of our players had been tackled, I ran in to ‘help’, not that I’m sure I knew what helping was back in those days, and met a boot to the head. I know it was a boot because I had the stud marks on my face for a few days.

I know I was concussed. Back in the early 1980s, you carried on. Camped on the opposition line the ball was passed to me – another rarity in those days for a schoolboy winger – and all I could do was catch it and fall over. Try awarded.

After the game, the sports master was concerned enough to call home, worried I might not make it back on the two buses from school to doorstep. My grandfather duly arrived in Mini Clubman estate and on my return, my grandmother ladled rum and brandy down my throat to revive me.

And then I was sent to bed to rest.

Concussion protocols, eh?

So to World Rugby’s current attempts to deal with the concussion problem, which I think are admirable but totally flawed.

Getting tougher on head contact and high tackles will be endorsed, I think, by anyone who has ever played the game. Especially those of us of a certain age who were taught that a man can’t run without legs and to tackle low.

I was lucky enough to get back to Butts Park Arena before Christmas to watch Coventry Rugby in action against Doncaster Knights. I enjoy watching Coventry, but also the chance to discuss the finer – and coarser – aspects of the game with like-minded fans. That’s something you don’t get watching rugby on Sky Sports or BT Sport.

Nick Meredith, camera to hand, is always to be seen prowling the touchline, and, when not trying to concentrate on the action, happy to chat rugby. I enjoy our chats, however brief.

At half-time we discussed the merits of Sir and his assistants on the day. Phil Nilsen, the combative Coventry hooker, had been yellow carded for a high tackle that seemed anything but, in my opinion.

I asked Nick whether this was down to the new rules or not. He assured me it was not. Just a refereeing decision.

I’m sure refereeing a game of rugby is far harder than it might look to the average fan, but I’m concerned refs are ignoring too many infringements, like cricket umpires at Test level no longer looking for bowlers over-stepping the crease.

Hardly a game goes by without players in front of the kicker, for example. Including my beloved Cov. And the offside rule at the breakdown or set-piece has become a mockery. Who can blame sides for blatantly ignoring the laws when the referees are not enforcing them?

The big issue for me is not the ref’s handling of high tackles in the bid to thwart concussion injuries, but the inevitability that heads will get knocked at the ruck.

Nick has been kind enough to allow me to use a photograph or two of his to illustrate my concerns.

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Photo: Nick Meredith

Here’s Coventry’s George Oram, wearing five, in a textbook example of positional ruck defending against Nottingham. Low down, good low centre of balance to make it very difficult for opposition players to knock him down. But look where his head is.

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Photo: Nick Meredith

And here’s Scott Tolmie, with Oram gone to ground and scrum half Tom Kessell getting ready to feed his forwards against Yorkshire Carnegie. Again, a textbook example from Tolmie, but his head is the first thing that will get hit in a counter ruck.

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Photo: Nick Meredith

Like this. George Oram clashes heads with the Carnegie Number Eight as the ruck forms with Coventry’s Ben Adams tackled.

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Photo: Nick Meredith

Or this. Coventry’s Alex Woolford, in the red scrum cap, goes scavenging at the tackle. He’s positioned perfectly, as was the Carnegie prop, but head impacts are unavoidable.

And the speed of these impacts is on the rise, as it becomes more difficult to clear out at the ruck. If being tackled in rugby is likened to being in a car crash, what about a heavy, muscled, fit and strong bloke running headlong at you? Or woman. Or schoolkid.

The way the laws surrounding the ruck have changed has brought this added danger. When I was playing in the 1990s and 2000s, when a ruck formed, you just piled in, forward and back together, secured the ball and got up again. It was a different type of contact, bodies against bodies. And if the ball wasn’t secured, the attacking side often got the benefit of the doubt.

Head injuries happened, but rugby is a contact sport. And I wouldn’t advocate the approach taken by some who have argued that boxing be banned, or heading in football outlawed. My grandfather played for Coventry City before and after World War Two. He died from Alzheimers’ and there is evidence that heading a football, particularly in those days of hard leather, pronounced stitching and the ball getting heavier as it soaked up water and wet mud, has a negative impact on the brain and Alzheimers’ in particular.

I’m a sportsman, a sport lover. I agree with the high tackle laws, but there shouldn’t be a need for them in the rugby I grew up watching and playing. Mistakes happen, but tackles should be low. As should body positions at the ruck.

I suspect there will be more examples of concussion from rucks than tackles this season.

If the powers that be are serious about head injuries and concussion, then maybe this needs addressing.

 

 

 

Family Tree

ACCORDING to Western family values, Christmas is a time for family.

For me, too.

Or rather, in a way.

Because my family is small. And largely dying off.

My grandmother is 93 and in an end of life care home. My son is spending Christmas with his mum, my stepson with his dad.

Christmas Day 2018 will be me, my beautiful wife and our amazing 20 month old daughter.

And ghosts of Christmases past.

Not that I’m Scrooge, but I’ve finally tracked down Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise To Candleford trilogy.

For Candleford, read Fringford, the village where my great-great-great grandfather was born, lived and died. An agricultural labourer, Richard Harris. was married at Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, one of the first links with the city of my birth.

But he lived and breathed the air of ‘Candleford’ and the novels, an early Christmas present to myself from the second hand book shop in Truro’s Pydar Arcade, is a chance to know something of his life.

The mysteries of my family. Before the dark family secret. The affair between servant and lord. The illegitimate son, to an aristocracy that died out because of a lack of male heirs.

But the world of Richard Harris comes before the help of modern day ancestry websites, or of fulsome information in parish records or newspapers. On his marriage certificate, he and his bride sign with a X. He was a poor, illiterate farm worker from Oxfordshire. She, a poor, illiterate servant on another farm in neighbouring Warwickshire.

I know they had children. I know the names, but one disappears from history books. So does, Richard. Sometime in his 40s, he vanishes from public record. The census records his wife as a widow. I’ve found nothing in parish registers, nothing on the graves of his Candleford. A sure sign of a pauper’s funeral and a death no-one cared much about.

I’ve already read a few pages and Lark Rise has already whetted my appetite. We’ve had a description of the hamlet in the opening chapter, Poor People’s Houses, although Thompson insists we must not think of her Candleford as a slum in the countryside.

Christmas Day will be spent with my daughter, whose life belongs in the future. And my family, from 150 years ago.

Ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

 

 

Exit Stage Left

I’VE ENJOYED a Twitter debate with a man I admire enormously.

He is very pro-Brexit. Me, not so much.

I’ve written before that I understand some of the reasons people voted Leave. But I also believe people were asked to vote on something they didn’t understand, a bit like the old game show Take Your Pick.

Although, the late Jim Bowen’s words on Bullseye seem more apt. Look what you could have won.

If the government had come up with a real plan from the get-go and offered voters a real choice, then I’d have no problems with Brexit. It could have offered a return to British manufacturing, rather than reliance on Europe, for example.

But David Cameron, architect of the Brexit mess, quit after the vote didn’t go his way. Despite the fact he said he wouldn’t.

Nigel Farage, the rabble-rouser with questionable links to big business and foreign governments, also quit, despite Brexit being his one success in politics.

Boris Johnson, for many the face of Brexit, briefly threw in his hat for the leadership of the Tory Party but then withdrew.

If Brexit was going to be so good for Britain, I’d have thought this unholy trinity would have been clambering over each other in excitement of the prize.

Instead, enter Theresa May, whose own stated preference was to remain. With all the poise and moves of Gru, from the Despicable Me franchise, she’s proved of little integrity since taking the keys to Number 10.

Key reports – that show how badly Britain will be outside the European Union – have been held back.

Key votes in Parliament have been rejected and postponed.

Key negotiations with Europe have failed to deliver anything talked about in the run up to the referendum.

The Vote Leave campaign was found to have broken Electoral Law. The Conservative Party broke spending limits at the last general election.

Theresa May decides that the #MeToo movement has had its day and has no moral problems in reintroducing two suspended MPs back into the Tory Party, as long as they voted for her. That one has been accused of rape and the other sending inappropriate sex text messages seems to mean nothing to those that want to Make Britain Great Again.

Does anybody wonder why I might not be backing this bunch to do me any favours?

And I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s head honcho, is the man to get us out of a crisis. In a world of Parliamentary bullies, he’s too nice and principled.

While I agree with some, not all of those principles, he’s going to be sadly out of his depth in the wider world of politics, too in touch with the common man than the high-fliers, the liars and the cheats.

How sad to say a man of integrity, whether you agree with his views or not, is unlikely to be a suitable prime minister for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

How sad to know that government has put 3,500 troops at the ready for when it all goes pear-shaped. As an ex-soldier I’ve seen the damage the government has done in cutback after cutback to the armed forces and the British defence industry.

How sad to know that the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, responsible for national emergencies, will run round the clock from February and that volunteers are being sought from other civil service departments.

Doesn’t sound that Brexit is the end of the rainbow for the country, does it?

The big issue for me is the complete lack of transparency involved in this government’s handling of the mess. MPs are being briefed to get snippets of supposed good news out to their constituents. Because if it doesn’t come true or materialise, they can retreat behind the old barrier of ‘that’s what I was told’, ‘that was the answer I was given’ or ‘that was the intention’.

Yet, Ministers continually refuse to give an honest answer to an honest question. Because they know their futures depend on not being caught out.

Will immigration – the crux of the EU debate for many, it seems – drop after Brexit? Yes, we’re told as the government wafts potential legislation that has got business leaders gasping with horror.

I’m sure immigration is a problem in many ways. But make no mistake, these are not people coming in and ‘taking our jobs’, because they’re often doing the jobs British citizens don’t want to. Just ask the farmers.

Say anything bad about an ‘immigrant’, racism not withstanding, and I’ll find a Brit that you can level the same claims against.

Likewise, blaming Brussels for everything the British government has got wrong is a good sleight of hand by those at the top and their friends in the media.

I used to count myself as a patriot, a nationalist proud of Britain. But I’m a million worlds away from the new breed of nationalists, who chant racist slogans, issue threats and act like thugs.

Being British was so much better in the past.

What chance my country now, saying goodbye to its biggest trade partner? At the mercies of the big boys, like Trump’s America?

My friend gives me figures that show we import far more than we export in our relationship with Europe. That’s because we need those goods. Like we needed goods from elsewhere when we went to war in 1914, products that meant we could survive the conflict rather than being starved out.

The same goes for the Second World War. Britain is not self-sufficient and never has been. Otherwise we wouldn’t have leaned so heavily on empire.

But we’re unlikely to get as good as deal, at the same price and same quality when we exit Europe.

Lies, damn lies and statistics. Use them how you want. See them how you want.

I fear with our country’s fate as good as sealed, there will be many sad at government’s handling of Brexit.

Even down here in Cornwall, which voted to leave, people I talk to wish they’d ticked the other box. They feel duped and hopeless once the riches poured into the county from Brussels dry up. It’s already one of the poorest areas of the country, largely forgotten by Westminster.

No-one expects that to change now. Not with the way we’ve all been let down since that historic vote.