Friday, November 28, 2014


Well over half a century ago I used to enjoy playing all the sports I could get my hands on and it was always a toss-up between football and cricket as to which one I enjoyed the most.  In those days, the dividing line between the end of the cricket season and the start of football was very clear - I would have my last cricket game one Saturday and start the football season the next.

But in either sport I was - how shall I say? - undistinguished but in those days each game seemed, by and large, to be played in a kind of unspoken Corinthian spirit, where offence was rarely given or taken.   And the memories of those rare occasions when I was guilty of sporting offence still trouble me to this day.  And one incident in particular still refuses to go away.

Thanks to various transfer windows, the football teams I played for were reasonable enough and I spent the last few years of my dwindling `career` playing for the formidable Maidstone Dolphins in Division 3B (really Division 7) of the Maidstone and District Unsponsored Saturday League.  One Saturday afternoon on the unhallowed turf of Mangravet Recreation Ground we played a team one of whose players had only one arm.  

As a box-to-box midfield dynamo with a good engine and an eye for a pass, I came up against this player and in a brief fit of competitiveness I accidentally knocked him off the ball and he fell to the ground.  The referee blew for a foul - the first and only time I can recall having committed such an offence - and I immediately apologised not only to my opponent but also to the referee.  I genuinely felt awful about it and the incident affected me for the rest of the game.   It`s not the sort of thing you forget and here I am over 50 years later going on about it.

God only knows how Sean Abbott must feel.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


So, the BBC`s contenders for Sports Personality of the Year have been announced.  No real surprises there with Lewis Hamilton already quoted at 1-4 as the bookies` favourite and other arguably more worthy contenders trailing in his wake.  I`ve no quarrel with the other nominations which seem to represent most sports - (with the notable exceptions of Rugby and Cycling, which we are pretty good at) - and they include a boxer, swimmer, gymnast, golfer, very worthy Paralympians, a lady who does dressage with her horse and another who went downhill very fast on a tea tray.

Now I realise that there are millions of people in thrall with the world of Formula One racing and I also know it`s a world of `to each his own.`   But I have long wondered why motor racing qualifies as a `sport,` when the whole business is an environmentally hostile, deafeningly noisy, boring spectacle run by an organisation of dubious presence, whose champion is decided as much by technical and mechanical competence than by whoever happens to be sitting in the cockpit.

And motor racing has produced Lewis Hamilton. Now some months ago, there was a bit of controversy when Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg accused then Saints player, Adam Lallana, of `being very different now you`ve played for England.`  The accusation may have been flippant and raised some eyebrows but it may have contained an element of truth. It certainly seems to be the case with Hamilton who seems to have morphed into a kind of dream-world of his own following his cockpit sitting exploits.   He seems somehow `unworldly,` in a bubble of his own, not really one of us any more, not quite right. 

Now someone with a real personality is Jo Pavey who, at nearly 43 years of age, won the European 10,000 metres gold medal in Zurich, making her the oldest ever female European champion.  All this after having won the bronze medal in the 5,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games just ten days earlier.   A mother of two, eight months after giving birth to her second child she won the British 10,000m title.  She is one of those almost unsung champions, shunning the spotlight, reserved, modest, engagingly charming with no pretences and certainly no twin diamond ear studs. 


She won`t win the BBC Sports Personality, of course - that wouldn`t be quite right in a world that values brash excess over quiet achievement.

Friday, November 21, 2014


Well, I`ve finished wading my way through Richard Vinen`s 600-page account of National Service.  It`s a serious, entertaining and thought-provoking account of a time which was unique in the social and military history of this country.  It was the first and only time when over two million men born between 1928 and August,1939 (I was born in July 1939) were conscripted to serve during peacetime.   Well, I use the word peacetime advisedly as, during the period, there were serious conflicts in Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and the fiasco of Suez, in each of which national servicemen served, died or were wounded and should perhaps be remembered more than they are.  

Now the contribution of national servicemen to these episodes is acknowledged at some length and rightly so, for the whole raison d`etre of conscription was not to turn the youth of the day into men but rather to ensure that the armed forces had enough manpower to cope not only with conflicts such as those I have mentioned but also the burgeoning threat from the Soviet Union.

Vinen`s book is full of detail about the background, the process and the ending of national service and draws upon a large collection of documents, records and interviews, all of which add to the authenticity of his study.   But it is a study not only of conscription but also of Britain during those times and he concludes that that time is now almost unrecognisable from the perspective of now.   The book is littered with references to all kinds of divisions that existed during the national service years - public school, grammar school;  officer class, non-commissioned officers, `other ranks;` divisions within the army itself - Guards, Cavalry, infantry regiments, Pioneer Corps; between regular soldiers and national service conscripts - but the most telling influence in those times was the preponderance and application of `class` itself.  (I wonder if it has changed all that much.)

Most of Vinen`s `personal` sources are from commissioned national service officers and there is perhaps not enough effort devoted to exploring what national service really meant to the `ordinary` conscript,  plucked from his own domestic environment and pitchforked into a quite alien world where, if he was to survive at all, he had quickly to adopt qualities such as self-reliance, a healthy cynicism and an acceptance of his situation whilst counting the days until his own form of normality could be resumed.

I`ve said before that, for me, the experiences I had left me with mixed feelings;  I would rather not have been called up and yet, having been, I learnt things about life and about myself that I suspect have proved useful, not least the comradeship I discovered from being `all in this together.`  And yes, my cynicism remains untouched, for how else could it be, having proved so hopeless at shooting that my rifle range score was laughably inept so I was posted to a cavalry regiment that had tanks with massive guns;  and when I was demobbed I found myself posted to a reserve regiment that went by the name of Sharpshooters.   Which, of course, aptly demonstrates the eternal contradiction in terms that is military intelligence.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Some months ago now, Prime Minister Dave Cameron said that he expected the long awaited report of the Chilcot Inquiry to be published "before the end of the year." That was in May and now there are only four weeks left of the Parliamentary Year, so the prospect of Cameron`s expectation being fulfilled looks decidedly unlikely.

I think it was in July that letters were sent to the main participants in the Inquiry setting out detailed conclusions and, by law, anyone who faces criticism in a public inquiry must be warned as such and given the opportunity to challenge any negative findings.   Our old friend, Tony Blair, is possibly among those to whom such letters are believed to have been sent.

All of this process leads to yet more delay in the report`s publication and, as well as Parliamentary time running out, some members of the Houses of Parliament are now seriously suggesting that it would not be right for the report to be published before next May`s General Election.  Words like felony and compounded spring to mind.

It`s reported that a spokesman for the Chilcot Inquiry has declined to comment on the current state of affairs;  a spokesman for Tony Blair`s Office has gone on record as saying, "No comment;"  and Jack Straw, another thought to have received a letter from the Inquiry, could not be reached for comment.

It all comes as nothing of a surprise and seems as though too many people have nothing to say about this festering sore, which will only heal once the report is finally published, although I`m beginning to doubt whether that will be in my lifetime.  

Monday, November 17, 2014


God knows I`m the last one to comment on religion, but a couple of things caught my eye this weekend.   The first is that at last it seems the Church of England is going to allow women to become Bishops.  Now I have absolutely no idea why they have not been `allowed` before now but I suspect there might be some deep philosophical reason based on some arcane biblical text...or it might just be because they are just women.  Either way it`s all a bit daft and so for serial doubters like me it`s an encouraging sign that at last the church seem to be dragging themselves into the 21st century.   Good for them.

The other thing that puzzled me was the report that the BBC is revamping its long running programme, "Songs of Praise," which has been televised from churches across the land for decades.  It will drop its traditional format of an Anglican service recorded in a cathedral or parish church and instead will feature a range of churches, locations, congregations and choirs.  The BBC`s head of religion and ethics, Aaquil Ahmed, said, "A different form of Christianity" had emerged in the UK.  Quite so.

Maybe the change of format for this much loved programme should not come as a surprise but what does is the discovery that the BBC`s head of religion is, in fact, a Muslim.  Now it seems Mr. Ahmed has been in post for some time and I have no doubt that he`s a decent man, kind to animals and old people and I mean no disrespect to him personally, but you have to wonder why someone who is not of the faith of the established church in this country is in this job.

On the other hand, like so many other things, it`s all very BBC, of course, so nothing should come as a surprise.  Thank God I don`t pay the compulsory licence fee any more.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Well, it`s Saturday and in football terms all there seems little to look forward to with England playing Slovenia in a Euro Qualifier.  The England captain, Wayne Rooney, complete with stitched on and dyed hair and mumbling his inspirational team talk in his indecipherable Merseyside drawl, makes for a dispiriting figure.   No game for the Saints, who have no less than 17 of their players away on international duty, although to be fair there will be considerable interest in chez Snopper in the exploits of Bristol City, for whom our street`s local hero Scott Wagstaff is rumoured to be starting against Swindon in a top of the table clash at the Wiltshire club`s County Ground - provided the team coach can negotiate the town`s magic roundabout.   

It`s not been a good week for football, especially the nonsense surrounding FIFA`s hilarious attempts to convince the world that their own internal `investigations` have revealed that everything to do with the World Cup bids by Russia and Qatar was fine and dandy, whereas England are heading for the naughty step.   The Chairman of the English Football Association, Greg Dyke, was right in calling FIFA a joke.   And a sick one at that.

And it all makes me wonder whether England should say `enough is enough` and withdraw its membership of that discredited outfit.   Yes I know the implications of such a decision would be `far reaching` and the consequences might well be `damaging` to the game in this country.   But it might be an opportunity to get back to basics, to see football once more for what it is - a game to be played, watched and enjoyed, not a vehicle for corrupt chancers to strip the game of any last vestige of honesty and integrity.

In a way FIFA almost mirrors the European Union.  It`s self-serving, seriously inefficient, immune to significant change and oblivious to the expectations of those who it is supposed to represent.   It`s time to say goodbye to both organisations and if parting is such sweet sorrow then I`m sure we will get over it, do our own thing and know that any `difficulties` that may spring from those decisions will at least be our difficulties which we will undoubtedly be capable of dealing with.  Let`s give it a go.  After all it can`t be any worse than having to put up with the shambles that these two outfits have become.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I see today that MPs are calling for the days on which General Elections are held to be made public holidays so as to increase the number of people who turn up at polling stations.  The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said the move could help `restore greater esteem and excitement to the electoral process.`  The Committee is also calling for automatic registration and trials of voting via the internet, `with a view to voters having the choice of voting online at the 2020 General Election.`

Now it`s true, of course, that turnouts ate elections are pretty abysmal, ranging from around 10% for daft elections like those for Police and Crime Commissioners to still only 65% at the last General Election, so maybe something should be done to avoid the situation whereby that 65% meant that 16 million eligible voters failed to cast their ballot last time around.

But I wonder about the beezer wheeze of turning election days into public holidays. General Elections are normally held in May, just as the Spring sunshine, the lighter evenings and the longer days suggest that, rather than use the day to take part in the bureaucratic Victoriana of visiting polling stations, at least 16 million potential voters are more likely to head for the beach.

Now I have a feeling that the answer lies in the antipodes, where Oscar Hammerstein`s assertion that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you`ll be taught, could have its best example.   The right to vote is a freedom fiercely sought by people the world over, but Australians don`t have a choice.  Registering to vote and going to the polls are legal duties in Australia for citizens aged 18 and over and failing to do so can potentially result in a day in court and a fine.

But it seems to have public support and it seems to work - compared with the UK`s 65% voting at the last General Election, no less than 94% of Australian voters cast their votes in the country`s last Federal Election.   There is an ongoing debate in Australia about its voting system but Dr. Peter Chen, who teaches politics and Sydney University, confirms that there is no sign of any serious measures to end compulsory voting.

"Most Australians are quite comfortable with the electoral process," he says, "and would be quite suspicious of efforts to change it.  We trust the electoral system more than we trust our politicians."   Seems to me that, rather than introducing gimmickry such as public holidays, we should instead learn from our friends Down Under.