Saturday, April 28, 2007

I know of two Fawleys. The first lies high on the downland of the Berkshire/Oxfordshire border country. This Fawley was the setting for Marygreen in Thomas Hardy`s novel, `Jude the Obscure` and afficionados will recall that Jude`s full name was, in fact, Jude Fawley. From the high ground, Jude looked out northward and could see the dreaming spires of Oxford in the distance....and vowed that he would be there himself one day.
When my youngest son was studying for his A-levels, he and I made a pilgrimage to Fawley, so that he could identify the place with the novel and perhaps gain more insight into Hardy`s work. The tranquility of the place left a lasting impression on us.
But there is another Fawley. This one is 100 miles or so to the south, nestling on the western shore of Southampton Water. The picture above shows Fawley`s 12th century church.....but the top photo shows Britain`s largest oil refinery, which these days dominates the village and the area around it - they make for a startling comparison between the very ancient and the very modern.
The old village of this second Fawley is steeped in history, again both ancient and modern, with All Saints Church built on church land mentioned in documents dating from AD971 and, in more modern times, Fawley being the home for some years for the Tristan da Cunha Islanders after they were evacuated from their island when the volcano erupted. But it is the refinery which has dominated Fawley for all the years I can remember. It wasn`t always this big, of course. There had been a small refinery here - operated by the Anglo-Gulf and West Indies Petroleum Company - since just after the first World War and it wasn`t until just after the second that the expansion really took off.
During the latter stages of the second World War, my mother and I lived with my aunt and uncle in a house in Blackfield - a couple of miles from Fawley - my father being incarcerated in Stalag V111B at the time. And so in 1944, when it was time for me to start school, I began my academic career at Fawley Primary School. Now, for some time before starting my school life, I had been repeatedly told that I would be going on a certain day. Came the day, off I went, quite convinced that that was the one and only day that I would have to go. Such a shock next morning to be sent again.
I have a cousin who lives in Fawley still - she has spent most of her life there. Last night, having read my blog, she complained that Fawley had not been mentioned. Well, it has now and I regret not doing so before, since there is so much of interest and history attached to that small village and its very large neighbour with its constant refinement, a hundred miles or so from the obscurity of Hardy`s Marygreen Fawley.

Friday, April 27, 2007

(From Our Sports Correspondent)

Despite Snopper`s encouraging return to the fairways a couple of weeks ago, reports of his latest sortie have just reached us and it seems that not only the standard of his golf but also his on-course etiquette took a dramatic downturn in front of a packed gallery of three people at the Poult Wood Golf Complex earlier this week.
A front nine of 58 followed by a more creditable 45 on the return leg saw a total of 103 - but taking his generous, self-calculated handicap of 28 into account, Snopper could still claim a round of 75 - a mere 8 over par for the 18-hole course. His strategy for `value-for-money` golf by hitting the ball as many times as possible is still paying dividends and it is with some reluctance that he will seek to reduce his score in the months to come (he only plays during nice, warm weather, of course.)
His round was sprinkled with three 9s and an 8 but also saw no less than five pars - he has clearly been working on maintaining the inconsistency which is so vital to his game.
The main talking point occurred on the 12th green, however, where Snopper - always the perfect gentleman - held the flagstick in the hole whilst his partner putted out. The putt was holed and off they went to the 13th tee only for Snopper to be seen still holding the flagstick - to the bafflement of the puzzled onlookers.
"These things happen," said Snopper, "and when you`re a highly-tuned athlete focussing on the task in hand, it`s easy to perform seemingly unconnected tasks. But I held up my hand at the end of the day, drew a line in the sand and moved on."
Such professionalism.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I hesitate to add to the legion of tributes being paid to the sudden and tragic death of Alan Ball. But maybe it will be fitting for an ordinary, average football fan to enter a brief but sincere note of real regret at Alan`s passing.

As a Southampton supporter, of course, I recall Alan playing for us back in the `80s and he had a spell as manager, which proved to be just as telling. It`s no exaggeration to suggest that his `handling` of Matthew Le Tissier, which saw Tiss being given the freedom to play as he wished whilst the rest of the team were instructed to win the ball, give it to Tiss and leave the rest to him, was a huge contribution to the club`s fortunes in that era.

I well recall the day England won the World Cup in 1966 with Alan playing a pivotal role in that success - he was, in truth, the acceptable face of Nobby Styles, with his non-stop running, energy and tireless determination.

But Alan`s unique place in the fortunes of south coast football is assured - player for Saints, manager too...but also manager of our arch-rivals and near-neighbours Portsmouth. Now, a certain Harry Redknapp has also managed both clubs, but he will not be remembered by Saints fans with the same affection that we have for Bally - a genuine, honest, caring football man.

Alan had more than his share of tragedy, losing his wife to cancer three years ago and his daughter suffering from the same problem, although happily now recovered. Alan did not deserve to leave us at such an early age - just 61 - and so, whilst I mourn his passing and thank him for the pleasure he brought, this event has reminded me once again that fame and fortune are no guarantors of a long and happy life and that sometimes life just ain`t fair.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Leeds United Football Club; once a power in the land - just six years ago, they reached the semi-final of the Champions League. Now they are plying their trade in the relegation zone of the Coca-Cola Championship - the second tier of English football.
They`re a strange club - their history contains the occasional flash of achievement - six years ago being the last, but back in the dark ages they were the undisputed champions of the English game. Even then, though, their reputation tended to be marred by their arrogance and their aggression - not just on the field of play but also behind the scenes in the boardroom and particularly with their managers. They have `something of the night` about them. Indeed, their managerial appointments have been the source of much discontent for their own fans as well as the wider football `family` - Don Revie, Howard Wilkinson, George Graham, David O`Leary, Terry Venables reads more like a charge sheet. And now...step forward Dennis Wise. This renowned scuffler got the job at Leeds a few months ago, having mercifully failed to secure the manager`s post at Southampton following a three game `caretaker` stint, best remembered for the sharpness of his suit than the sharpness of his tactical acumen.
Yesterday, Leeds came to St. Mary`s needing to get a result to drag them out of the threat of relegation, whereas Southampton needed a result to keep their play-off hopes alive following recent setbacks at Birmingham and at home to Sunderland.
Now, they do say that a football team is a reflection of their manager`s character and so it proved to be the case yesterday. The Leeds line-up seemed to consist of players capable only of spoiling for a fight - what they lacked in skill, they made up for in aggression - so it was no surprise when one of their flock was sent-off for a mindless assault on Saints` midfielder Jhon Viafara. Further skirmishes could well have resulted in two more dismissals but the referee seemed content to brandish yellow cards instead of red ones.
In the end, Southampton won 1-0 with a late goal from Bradley Wright-Phillips, so Leeds` threat of relegation is now a distinct possibility. There are legions within the football world who wish it to come to pass.
A plus point for Leeds may be the passion and loyalty to the club shown by their own suppoprters - whoever the manager may happen to be (and it seems they have as little regard for Dennis the Menace as they had for his predecessors.) They came in their droves yesterday - their full allocation of 3,500 being taken up to swell the crowd to just over 29,000. However, the afternoon was spoiled at the end of the game when it seems the Leeds fans showed their frustration by throwing plastic bottles, pies and other assorted missiles at the nearby Saints fans, who promptly threw them back again. Thanks to efficient stewarding and a considerable police presence, the incident seemed to be contained, but it was clear that the neanderthal behaviour of their fans mirror that of the Leeds players, their manager and the club`s pugilistic tendancies . Dennis must be proud of them.
Should the relegation trap-door open for Leeds to fall through, then it could hardly happen to more deserving candidates. I will merely spare a thought for the good folk of Yeovil, Cheltenham and the other provincial towns up and down the land whose teams grace the third tier of English football and who may have the pleasure of their company next season.
STOP PRESS : As a result of today`s fixtures, Leeds have indeed been relegated to the third level, having been held to a 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich. Few tears will be shed outside of Leeds.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Yesterday, in a rare fit of indolence, I watched Prime Minister`s Questions live and direct from the mother of Parliaments.
Things started off in sombre mood, as Tony Blair read out the distressingly long list of our servicemen and women lost in the cauldrons of Iraq and Afghanistan since the last sitting of Parliament before the Easter break. A quite proper and dignified remembrance, echoed by the other party leaders.
From then on, however, things went rapidly downhill. A series of questions were either not answered or were evaded and, whenever a critical issue raised, it seemed always to be someone else`s fault.
But the real criticism I have is the seemingly endless barracking, hooting and shouting heaped upon particular MPs as they tried to ask what seemed to be quite reasonable questions. Now, I have absolutely no political allegiences at all; as far as I`m concerned, MPs are - with the odd exception - overpaid, self-serving chancers, who inspire little confidence and almost total distrust.
But I did feel for Norman Baker who was on the receiving end of the most shrill of verbal onslaughts....and for Simon Hughes, who was not only also shouted down but also told by the Speaker that his question had gone on for too long. Reminded me of Clive Thomas refereeing that World Cup match years ago, when he awarded a corner (to Brazil, I think) but blew the final whistle just before the ball nestled in the back of the net. Political football is clearly alive and well and living in the Westminster village.
The more PMQs went on, the more the process descended into farce until, in the end, the notion of parliamentary democracy became something of a parody of itself. But perhaps the most depressing aspect was that, by the end of Prime Minister`s Questions , those opening respectful, sombre acknowledgements to our fallen heroes and heroines had been completely forgotten in the clamour of party political rant and counter-rant.
The admirable principle of `representation of the people` seems to have become a contradiction in terms, when played out by the self-serving, the self-righteous and the self-indulgent.
You may take it that I was underwhelmed.....and that I promise not to slip into indolence any more at 12.00noon on a Wednesday.

Monday, April 16, 2007

(From Our Health Correspondent)
In a stunning revelation to rival that about the split between William and Kate (and doubtless carrying as much relevance to the man on the Clapham omnibus) we learn that Snopper is to undergo a routine eye examination this afternoon.
Sources reveal that last June, Snopper received a letter from his personal optician asking him to attend for an eye test. However, the pressures on his time have meant that it is only now that he has managed to find time in a crowded diary to fulfill the appointment.
On the occasion of his last test, he was surprised but delighted to discover that his eyesight had actually improved since the previous test some three years before.
Snopper is hoping that this upward trend continues so that he can carry on enjoying his all too infrequent encounters with his optician, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nicole Kidman. The photo you are seeing (top right) was taken whilst the optician was studying Snopper`s last test results, clearly impressed by his physical, emotional, intellectual and mental health. Rumours that she was tempted to give up opticianing, seduce Snopper, contact Max Clifford and sell her story to The Sun are hotly denied, but this afternoon`s encounter could rekindle speculation all over again.
It is doubtful that further information will be forthcoming as an injunction preventing reporting of the test results is widely anticipated.

Friday, April 13, 2007

(A Tale for Friday the 13th?)
As a boy, growing up in Smallville and at a time before television, I used to listen to the radio and scan newspapers for news of my boyhood heroes - Dick Barton:Special Agent, Stanley Matthews, Charlie Wayman....and Harold Gimblett. It`s depressing that people have to ask who on earth was Harold Gimblett. Whilst it does him little justice to paraphrase it, his story goes like this....
Born in October, 1914 in the secluded village of Bicknoller, deep in the Quantock Hills of West Somerset, Harold had a natural eye and a raw talent. After starring in local village cricket - and after much persuasion - he went to the headquarters of Somerset County Cricket Club at Taunton for a fortnight`s trial in May, 1935. It was with mixed feelings that he took the news that he had been rejected, but on his last afternoon there, he was asked to make up the numbers for the county side in their match against Essex at Frome which was due to start the following morning.
Come the morning, Harold missed his alarm call and hence missed the early morning bus to Bridgwater but he managed to hitch a lift on a lorry and arrived at Frome after Somerset had started their innings (thankfully, they were not fielding or Harold`s career might well have ended before it began.)
Wickets tumbled and Somerset were in some trouble - 110 for six - when Harold went to the crease batting at number 8 for his first ever innings for the county. He proceeded to score 123 in 79 minutes of controlled, aggressive hitting - and went on to win the Lawrence Trophy for the fastest century scored that season. By any standards, an astonishing story and it was just the start of a career that to the present day has produced more runs than anyone else in the history of Somerset - including greats such as Ian Botham and Sir Vivian Richards - over 23,000 runs at an average of 36.
The following season, Harold was opening the batting for England at Lord`s, but he only played in three tests either side of the war, partly due to the war itself but also to his style of play being `not quite the thing.` Then there was an inbuilt reluctance on his part to stray too far beyond the comforting boundaries of county cricket (he was prone to contracting timely `injuries` when selected for his country.) This was a telltale sign of the fragile nature of his temperament and despite his expressive batting, he suffered from spells of deep depression such that in May at the start of the 1954 season, his nerves finally gave way and, after two low scores against Yorkshire, he walked away, never to return.
Like so many professional cricketers, Harold found that life had little to offer once his playing days were over and in March, 1978, tired of fighting his demons, Harold took his own life in the mobile home at Verwood in Dorset where he and his wife, Rita, had settled.
There was rightly a memorial service for Harold at St. James Church, Taunton, on 27 May 1978. The churchyard almost backs on to the boundary of the Taunton cricket ground where Harold, the young farmer`s boy, had all those years before demonstrated his gift for landing sixes among the tombstones. Whilst the memorial service was in progress, a match was being played on the county ground, from which many of the congregation had just come. As they paid their heartfelt respects to their departed hero, they could hear the ripples of applause for Viv Richards` boundaries, between the verses of the hymns.
Another of Somerset and England`s batting heroes, Marcus Trescothick, has been going through a difficult time, culminating in him twice walking away from recent overseas tours. It was with great joy that I read reports of his comeback last weekend, when playing in a pre-season friendly game against Devon, he smashed 276 carefree runs in an innings containing 19 sixes, such is his own monumental power and talent, recalling that of Harold Gimblett at his very best. Doubtless, some of Trescothick`s blows landed in the outfield of St. James Church. If so, they were in very good company.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

C`EST LA VIE......
This ramble might have been called `What a Way to Spend Easter Monday` or even `Show me a Good Loser and I`ll Show you a Loser,` but in the end I decided to shrug my shoulders and put yesterday down as yet another cliche in the life of a Saints FC fan.
I made the long journey to Southampton to watch my `heroes` take on Sunderland in a game vital to each side; a win for Saints would see them go fifth in the table and cement their play-off aspirations, whereas a win for Sunderland would catapault them up to top spot. The journey was remarkably traffic-free, thanks perhaps to the bizarre kick-off time of 5.15pm, as the game was shown live on tv. If my journey home was a bit late, spare a thought for the Sunderland fans heading home to the north-east after a 600-mile round trip; God knows what time they got home.
However, they will be pleased with the result - a narrow 2-1 win which saw them come from behind after Saints had taken the lead from Polish striker Marek Saganowski, who has now netted nine times in nine matches. Two wonder strikes from Sunderland, however, sealed their victory in the dying minutes and left Saints fans reflecting on what might have been.
But if you give opponents time and space to get shots on target, then you`re going to get punished and Saints defenders will be disappointed that they didn`t close down quickly enough in the final third. Having gone ahead, Saints manager, George Burley, may have shown a little tactical naivite in not closing out the game by bringing Andrew Surman on to shore up the left side of midfield in place of the fading Djamel Belmadi.
Sometimes, though, you just have to hold your hands up and give credit where it`s due, so well done, Sunderland; as for Saints, we have to put this disappointment behind us, draw a line in the sand and move on to Birmingham next Saturday, when a win may against struggling Blues may hopefully reignite our play-off aspirations
At the end of the day though, that`s football and there`s still everything to play for.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Last night, I watched the last few holes in the US Masters Golf thingy from Augusta.
It was a bit like finding out who had won one of those seemingly endless snooker tournaments by just watching the last few minutes, thus obviating the need to sit through the preceeding days of unremitting tedium.
Anyway, back to Augusta. Everything was just so perfect - the azaleas, the fairways and greens, the water features, the impeccable manners of the players and spectators (there is a rule at Augusta which prohibits spectators from running anywhere - what happens if there`s a fire, I wonder?) - and the golf was, of course, of the highest standard. Then there`s the Butler Cabin and the green jackets and all the rest of the pretention that surrounds this event as America tries to invent tradition for itself whilst serving only to achieve ridicule.
The players themselves have their `day at the office`.....for that`s what it has become for many of them; just a job. OK, a job with fame and fortune attached, but still a job. I wonder if any of them really enjoy the game for the sport that it really is and, to that extent, they have my sympathy.
For some years before they retired, my parents kept a quiet country village pub, where the pace of business life suited their circumstances. The pub had a bar billiards table - the idea of the game apparently being to score as many points as possible without knocking down little wooden obstructions on the table within the 20 minutes time allowed. Now, given the pace of life in that pub, my father was able to spend hours and hours practicing bar billiards and he became very good at it.
Each time I visited, I was invited to have a game with him. Each time he started the game he would spend the entire 20 minutes on the table racking up enormous scores, leaving me to stand holding my redundant cue, never able to make a contribution. I really didn`t mind - it was just a game; but it made me realise that if you become too good at it, then it ceases to be a game and becomes a metronomic exercise.
And so mediocrity has been a hallmark of my sporting life ever since. I played for pretty bad football teams, I even captained an average village cricket team (which says much for the standard of the rest of the players); my golf struggles to achieve a score of less than three figures.....but I have enjoyed every minute of it and never once felt that it was a day at the office. Quite the contrary, for sport should be an escape rather than an obligation. It was once said that sport is the last refuge for those who find it impossible to idle. I suggest it`s really the place where mediocrity should be encouraged. I should know - after all, I`ve never been near a bar billiard table since.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Well, maybe not literally, but most definitely spiritually.
If, like me, you are `of a certain age,` then you will enjoy and identify with Bernie Taupin`s `Sketches of a Childhood,` as described in his book, `A Cradle of Haloes.`
You don`t need me to remind you that Taupin is the guy who writes the words for Elton John; and you may assume from that, that he hails from an urban, perhaps mildly sophisticated and worldly upbringing. Not so. Picture instead the huge, flat landscape of Lincolnshire - all fens, farms, vast skies, countless villages, small, intimate market towns - and in this expansive county, a few miles north of Lincoln, Taupin spent his childhood.
The village of Owmby-by-Spital lies among the endless farmland just a couple of miles from the twin hamlets of Newton-by-Toft and Toft-next-Newton (I kid you not - it`s that sort of place.) But the purpose of this ramble is not to dwell so much on the geography but more on the `environment` in which young Taupin did his growing up. It was of the time and of the place, I suppose, when life may have been more simple, less cluttered, less complicated, where everyone knew each other, where the boundaries of life - both geographically and personally - were defined and unstrayed. A close family, good friends, encounters and experiments with what life had to offer; expeditions to the local market town (Market Rasen) where experiences were broadened.
But it was all done in a controlled way - a bit like being on the end of a rope when, all the time the boundaries were adhered to, the rope stayed slack; but an overstep from permissiveness felt the rope tighten....and another lesson learnt.
I identify with all of that - I too had a close, loving family and the privilege of being brought up in a close-knit community and a learning environment with their clearly defined boundaries. It was good to have good mates and we used to meet up in the village centre and pass the time without threatening anyone or being threatened by anything other than our consciences.
Unlike Taupin, however, I did not possess his talent or his desire to become in any way `cosmopolitan,` - "When will I be famous?" was not on my songsheet - and I`m afraid that ambition has been a quality which I have singularly lacked.
I do wonder how often, as he relaxes in his Californian mansion while the royalties keep rolling in, Taupin`s mind returns to the place and time of his youth and those friends and hamlets in the brown dirt landscape which he called home for so long. I think mine would.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

I have delayed posting any comment about Southampton FC`s exploits last Saturday afternoon, as I wasn`t at all sure that I was awake or dreaming. So I decided to leave it for 72 hours to find out.
Turns out it was real after all - for the first time in their 133 years history as a professional football club, Saints went away from home and recorded a 6-0 victory over a team above them in the league - this time it was in-form Wolverhampton Wanderers. Now, scoring six goals away from home is a rare thing for Saints - last time was in 1977, I think, when it was achieved twice in the same season - away to Carlisle and, ironically enough, away to Wolves again.
Last Saturday afternoon, we had a family lunch, as my youngest son and two grandsons were visiting from their home in Germany and my eldest son (who was celebrating his 44th birthday) our daughter-in-law and two teenage grandaughters also visited to make it a family get-together. (The only one missing was middle son, who was `on tour` in Europe somewhere - more on that story later.)
All of which meant that I was unable to follow the fortunes of the Saints as closely as I would normally. However, a brief lull in family proceedings did make it possible for me to log on at about 5.00pm to find out the result, fully expecting Saints to have suffered a severe stuffing, especially as they were without no less than eight first-team `regulars.` When I saw the scoreline of 0-6, I seriously thought there had been a cruel typing error, but no - reports from other media confirmed it as being so, at which point I entered the twilight world between fantasy and reality from which I have only now emerged.
For the record, three of Saints goals were scored by Polish striker Marek Saganowski (pictured), with other goals coming from Leon Best, Andrew Surman and a tap-in own goal by Wolves `defender` Gary Breen. I once saw Breen playing for Maidstone United in the Jade Goody-sponsored Inadequate League, so his dismal defending really wasn`t too much of a surprise.
So, the events of last Saturday have confirmed yet again that there is a God - even one above and beyond Matthew Le Tissier - and Saints now march on to Luton Town this weekend, followed by a home fixture against high-flying Sunderland on Easter Monday (kick-off 5.15pm before a world-wide TV audience.) I will be there, of course, wondering only why Easter Monday has to fall on the same day as such an important fixture. (Sorry, God.)

From Our Sports Correspondent
After a 10-months absence from the fairways of the world, Snopper made a long-awaited reappearance at a nearby golf course a week or so ago. Details have only recently emerged, but it seems Snopper was pleasantly surprised at the return of his powers by returning a card (just) in double figures!! Shrugging aside the restrictions imposed by anno domini and avoirdupois, he managed to complete the 18 holes at the picturesque Poult Wood Golf Complex, despite a complete absence of birdies or even pars, the onset of the occasional hail storm and the obvious distractions caused by his playing partner (pictured.)
But it`s his attitude to golfing failure that has endeared Snopper to his playing partner and his other friend. Now, normally, to go round bogeying each and every hole would be seen by some as a good time to quit, but not Snopper, who is made of sterner stuff and is possessed of a philosophical bent (sic.)
When he took up the game some years ago, it struck him then as being a tad expensive - clubs, shoes, appropriate `attire,` lessons, green fees, vast quantities of balls, to name just part of the initial outlay. So it seemed sensible that, having spent so much in starting out, he should try and hit the ball as many times as he could - value for money golf, he called it. And how successful it has turned out to be.
The other strand of Snopper`s philosophy is that, however hard you try, however much you improve and work at your game, there is always someone better; and this argument continues until you are Tiger Woods. As Snopper is not and is never likely to be Mr. Woods, he is able to shrug his shoulders and trudge on to the next tee confident in the knowledge that yet another bogey awaits him in the far distance.