In Aachen — Confronting an Enigma.

26 Apr

Winston Churchill famously described Russia as “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Since the early dawnings of my lifelong interest in history, I have been fascinated and bugged by another enigma. It took the shape of a mysterious, mythical figure from the Middle Ages — Charlemagne. I first encountered him in a book of famous people in history which I must have got as a Christmas or birthday present when I was still at primary school. Alongside Hannibal, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, Boadicea, Julius Caesar and the rest was this mysterious foreign emperor from the so-called “Dark Ages”. From the brief description in the book I couldn’t work out whether he was French, German, Roman or something else. Where was he from? What did he do? Why was he so revered over many centuries? My fascination remained dormant for many decades, until at last, in this, my 70th year, I finally visited Aachen in west Germany, the town that this enigmatic Emperor had made into his capital. It’s not the most obvious German town to visit on holiday — it’s not nationally important and not particularly beautiful. Unfortunately many of its older buildings were blasted to smithereens by the Allies in the Second World War. It is not even the biggest place in North Rhine-Westphalia, the region of Germany it sits in, for Cologne, a very large city, lies just an hour’s journey to the east. So what attracted me to Aachen?  Well, it was that irresistable combination of history and mystery. Charlamagne’s capital was at Aachen. Finally I would have a stab at unravelling the enigma of that mythical ruler. Luckily I had a friend who was happy to share in the investigation.

Well, Charlemagne is everywhere in 21st century Aachen. I’m surprised that he didn’t meet us off the train and shake our hands! He was in the foyer of our hotel, an avuncular figure welcoming us with his long, curly beard and flowing medieval robes, not forgetting the ancient, octagonal crown on his head. He looks a bit like Father Christmas. Of course it was just a statue, but it was one that was repeated constantly as we wondered through this small city. He guards shops and cafes. He appears in ginger-bread form in bakeries.  I heard a rumour that there are chocolate replicas of him in the confectioners. In the market square there is an impressive statue of Charlemagne sporting a renaissance- era suit of armour and holding an orb and sceptre. His image sits above the main entrance to the City Hall ( Rathaus) alongside that of Christ and the Pope who crowned him Emperor, so he is in exalted company. Aachen’s main museum is called Centre Charlemagne and the Tourist Office’s Heritage walk  is called — yes, you’ve guessed it — the Charlemagne Trail. We even saw his statue in the window display of a shoe shop!

So who was Charlemagne? He was the King of the Franks in the late 8th and early 9th centuries AD. The Franks were a Germanic tribe who took over the lands we now know as Germany, France and the Benelux countries. They once formed most of the Western Roman Empire. The Franks were one of the main “barbarian” tribes who swept in from the east to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Roman legionaries.  Charlemagne inherited the Frankish throne in 768 AD from his father, along with his brother, and when his sibling died a few years later, he ended up as sole ruler. Charlemagne is his French name. The English refer to him as Charles the Great and the Germans call him Karl der Grosse. These multiple names show what an important, international figure he became. Like many of the famous people in my little history book, Charlemagne made his name as a great war leader. For 26 years or more he ruled, not from a throne, but from the saddle. He was disciplined, determined and relentless. Through no less than 54 military campaigns he accumulated a vast Empire. It was know as the Carolingian Empire. It covered what we now know as France, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the far north of Spain and much of northern Italy. It was the greatest Empire Europe had seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, over 300 years before. There was not going to be another European empire like it until Napolean Bonaparte came to power in the early 19th century.

But Charlemagne didn’t merely conquer land, he forced all the people in these territories to give up their pagan gods and convert to Christianiaty.  This is why the Pope in Rome liked him so much. He may have been a devout Christian but that does not mean that he paid much attention to the teachings of Jesus.  For example, he fought many bloody battles against the Saxons, a Germanic tribe of pagan worshippers. After defeating them at Verden in 782 AD, he ordered 4500 Saxons to be massacred! He eventually forced the Saxons to become Christians by declaring that anyone who refused to be baptised or follow Christian ways would be put to death! As with so many of these so called “great” figures of history, the accolade was awarded for the “end” result not the “means” by which it was achieved. Yes, Charlemagne created a great Christian Empire, uniting much of western Europe under his control, but one can also say that he was a ruthless murderer and ego-maniac. So how did he end up becoming an Emperor instead of a mere king and why was such a violent, bloodthirsty man feted by the head of the Christian Church? As is often the case, power and wealth won out against peace and love. Charlemagne used his military might to rescue Pope Leo III from a rebellion in Italy. Leo thanked him by crowning him  “Charles Augustus, Emperor of the Romans”  in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica, on Christmas Day, 800 AD. This I believe, was the beginning of the “cult ” of Charlemagne. Not only was he a very powerful,  early medieval ruler but he was now being hailed as the natural successor to the  great Roman Emperors of the past. His achievements were being ranked alongside all the glories of the ancient Roman Empire. He was in effect, the first Holy Roman Emperor, a prestigious title for the honorary ruler of the numerous states of what we now call Germany. Subsequently 30 German kings or Holy Roman Emperors were crowned in Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen.

It has to be said though that Charlemagne’s glittering reputation rests on a lot more than his soldiering exploits and vast conquests. Ambassadors, scholars, legal experts, scribes and artists were encouraged to come to Aachen, his capital. Culture flourished under his rule such that this period has been dubbed the ” Caroligian Renaissance.” The arts and intellectual pursuits were encouraged. Roman and Ancient Greek knowledge was preserved and advanced. Significant detailed attention was applied to laws and precedents, so that a uniform legal system was established across much of Europe. This had not been seen since the days of the actual Roman Empire. Charlemagne introduced administrative reforms and standardised weights, measures and custom duties throughout his territories. All this created stability and encouraged commerce , which led to prosperity for many. So after all that slaughter, the peoples of western Europe eventually reaped the considerable benefits of Charlemagne’s enlightened rule. He encouraged eminent scholars to attend his court in Aachen and he established a library of Christian and classical works. He held a General Assembly  there every year. So although he was a dictator, Charlemagne did make some small steps towards democracy by consulting representatives of the people he ruled. His mission was to unite all Germanic peoples into one kingdom. So one could confidently claim that he was the founder of modern Germany. His Empire also laid the foundation for modern France as well. In recognition of this, his statue stands right outside the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Charlemagne was the source of inspiration for such leaders as Napoleon and Adolf Hitler who also had visions of ruling a united  Europe . In fact Emperor Charlemagne is referred to by some as the “Father of Europe.” Not surprisingly his achievements are heralded today by the European Union, an ambitious modern project to unite much of Europe in peaceful trade and co-existance. Not surprisingly, the 2 major players in the E.U. are France and Germany which were the 2 main parts of the Caroligian Empire all those centuries ago. It seems that throughout European history, everyone, good or bad has tried to get a piece of Charlemagne , to legitimise their own rule and to bask in his immense reflected glory. Charlemagne was not merely a king and emperor from the distant past. He is now a cult, a legend and a myth. He is a symbol of civilisation and European unity.  He is an icon of the Catholic church. However so many people have tried to hitch a ride on his coat-tails, distorting the truth to suit their own agendas, that it is now very difficult to untangle fact from fiction. To quote Winston again, you could say he is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Big C is also a massive tourist attraction of course even though he died and his great empire disintegrated more than a thousand years ago. Afterall, this was why my friend and I were visiting Aachen and not some more obviously picturesque location. Despite a great fire in the 17th century and 74 consecutive nights of British and American bombing in 1944, the crowning glory of Aachen remains Charlemagne’s magnificent cathedral, the Dom. After an orientation stroll and our first sampling of Aachen’s excellent coffee and irresistable cakes, we inevitably ended up at the entrance to the Dom. It’s not everyday that one can stand in front of a building that was established at the start of the 9th century. In Britain that would be the Anglo-Saxon era and few buildings have survived from that time. Charlemagne’s Palace-Chapel was completed in 800 AD. It is an unusual octogan shape, not the cross-shape we are used to seeing in cathedrals. The ancient, octagonal chapel is topped by a cupola. To our surprise, it is free to go in. 1 euro is requested to take photographs but there were no offertory boxes and no one seemed interested in collecting any money. A few laid- back security guards kept a casual eye on things. As we wondered in, our jaws dropped. This was one of the most extraordinary buildings we had been in. Sorry to be so corny!

The first things that hit you are the rich, dazzling mosaics. They adorn a sixteen sided arcaded walkway that surrounds the central octogan. Separating this walkway from the central worship area are a series of Arabic style archways in alternate dark and light blocks of stone. The whole area is adorned in shining marble. The original impact of the spectacular mosaics is only slightly reduced when you find out they were done as recently as the late 19th century and early 20th century in neo-Byzantine style. Inside the octogan, one’s view is drawn inexorably upwards. It is a spectacular 3 storey space. Above is a 2 tiered gallery with 8 arcades of classical columns originally brought from Ravenna and/or Rome in Italy. Some of these ancient columns were hacked off and carted to Paris by French revolutionary troops when they took possession of Aachen in the Napoleonic wars. Not all of them have been subsequently returned so some of the ones seen today are replicas. Up above in the cupola is an enormous fresco ( or mosaic) representing heaven. The original mosaics were cracked and badly damaged by the installation of a colossal  12th century brass chandalier hanging from a powerful iron chain donated by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He too wanted to verify his rule and gain prestige by connecting himself with Charlemagne. The great chandalier hovers dramatically above the worship area. It is so huge that it had to have been constructed inside the Dom. It is a place to sit down in silence and simply be awed. All around us tourist cameras were clicking away as if there was no tomorrow, but although we had taken some pictures ourselves, it seemed to be a time to sit in quiet contemplation.

Subsequent kings and emperors added their chapels , artefacts and expensive adornments. There is a gold-plated altar and a jewel encrusted pulpit. The most wonderful addition in my opinion, is a 14th century Gothic chapel based on the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. It has huge, spectacular, glowing, stained glass windows. The original medieval windows were blown out  by the wartime Allied bombs but excellent replicas were quickly made and installed between 1949 and 51. From this magical chapel comes Aachen’s French name :Aix- la- Chapelle. The wondrous chapel was built in 1355 to help accomodate the tens of thousands pilgrims who were flocking to Aachen. They were coming to see Charlemagne’s gilded shrine, finished in 1215 . By then many regarded him as a saint although he has never officially recognised by the Catholic Church. The pilgrims also came to view 4 important Christian relics which had been brought to Aachen and kept in the golden Shrine of Mary, also in the chapel. They are: the apparel of the Virgin Mary, the swaddling clothes and loincloth of the baby Jesus, and the decapitation cloth of John the Baptist. These are put on view every 7 years, and if you want to go and join the pilgrim throngs, the next viewing is in June 2021. It seems strange to me that objects like this still have such a powerful hold over  religious people today. Fancy coming all that way to see an ancient nappy and a bloody rag? Surely such blind faith and deep superstition belong back in the middle ages before the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century? But who am I to argue with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims?

Charlemagne originally wanted to transform Aachen into a new Rome. It had previously been a Roman town but on the northern edge of their Empire. The Romans were attracted there by a series of hot springs which they tamed and turned into a luxurious bath complex. They did the same in Bath, England. The word “Aachen” simply means “water.” There is still a thermal spa complex in Aachen but we didn’t go in because it looked expensive, and anyway, we had forgotten out trunks.

It was an interesting and very enjoyable holiday. Aachen lies on the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, so it a great place for trips on the excellent rail network. We went to Cologne in Germany and Maastricht in the Netherlands as well as passing the Belgium cities of Brussels and Liege on our rail journey from England using the Eurostar. It was a great trip around a fascinating part of the European Union, the organisation that the United Kingdom has now voted to leave. Obviously the “leave” voters in the UK are that rare breed — people who don’t know or don’t care about Emperor/Saint Charlemagne’s legacy. Many others through the centuries have been desperate to be part of it such that he has reached mythical, superstar status. For me, I am really pleased that I have at last  visited Aachen/Aix-La-Chapelle to unwrap the enigma and understand a bit more of my continent’s rich history and culture. Never again will I say “Who’s Charlemagne?” He meant many things to many people. Like Heinekin, he reached the parts that other emperors couldn’t reach!





Another Crazy Away Day.

5 Apr

It was another crazy idea. I planned to travel by notoriously unreliable public transport on a 250 mile round trip to watch a low-quality, non-League football match. Against all common sense, I wanted to support my home- town team of Chesterfield FC, even though they had sunk to the 5th tier of English football and even though I had not seen them win or even score a goal all season. In fact it seemed as if they reserved their worst performances for when I went to see them! Maybe they sensed my presence and would then crumble under the extra pressure of my expectation. My friend, V, a fellow “Spireite” supporter, had threatened to take out an injunction to prevent me from attending matches, as it definitely seemed that I was the team’s bad luck charm. However, in theory, I am not superstitious and so decided to go again anyway. The team’s results had improved under a new manager, so surely, they wouldn’t lose and fail to score yet again? It was to be a day of crazy ups and downs. All real football fans are masochists and this was to be a typical masochistic day out.

I live near Teesside on the North Yorkshire coast, so even a Chesterfield home fixture is a time consuming away- day for me. I like the relaxation and adventure of train travel rather than the boredom of motorway driving. However, the relaxation only materialises if the journey goes to schedule, with no late trains and/or missed connections. A lovely day of reading my book and looking at the scenary, can easily turn into a nightmare of uncertainty and stress. Unfortunately, this was to be partly one of those days, but it did have a couple of wonderful surprises as well.

The alarm clock rudely awoke me at 7am and by just gone 8am my wife was dropping me off at Saltburn rail station, a couple of miles down the road. Even though in early March, the worst of the winter was supposed to be behind us, I stepped out of the car into freezing temperatures and driving sleet. The station looked ominously deserted as I approached it. Was I the only passenger daft enough to venture out at this time on a cold weekend morning? I looked at the departures screen and then I understood the reason for the lack of fellow passengers — the 8.17am train had been cancelled due to engine failure. The next train was not due for a whole hour. I would miss all my connections and maybe even miss the match! What to do? I hastened up to the nearby bus stop in the forlorn hope that there would be a bus to transport me to Middlesbrough, the town where the cancelled train would have taken me. By a stroke of sheer luck ( not that I’m superstitious!) there was a bus in ten minutes. Miraculously it appeared out of the sleet on time, and I boarded it along with 3 or 4 other shivering passengers. It was a tedious journey, diverting through housing estates and ploughing through ominously large lakes of standing water left by recent heavy rain. It seemed that we were finally nearing Middlesbough when yet another detour took us to a desolate bus depot on the edge of the town. Our bus had developed a mechanical fault so we all had to troop off and board another vehicle! You couldn’t make it up! Another 5 to 10 minutes wasted.

By the time we got to Middlesbrough bus station, I had already missed my connection for Darlington, the next stop on my “exciting” journey to the north midlands. I ran in the rain through the town centre to the train station but I already knew I wasn’t going to catch a train. The connection I had missed was a dreaded bus-replacement service. There were weekend engineering works on the line. I had to stand and shiver for 25 minutes in a windy subway until my bus finally came. I had missed the previous bus by 5 minutes. More time lost! When the coach finally rolled up it was comfortable and warm but we set off over 5 minutes late because an African lady turned up and wasn’t sure which bus she had to catch. The driver and an inspector had great trouble in understanding her accent so took an inordinately long time to advise her to get on.

I hate bus replacement services! They never go their destinations by the most direct route because they are constantly detouring to visit the next rail station. We ground through housing estates and past retail parks, constantly stopping at traffic lights and getting stuck in traffic jams caused by temporary road works. It was tedious! We visited 5 intermediate stations with no one getting off and only one person getting on. We all sat there, anxiously looking at our watches because we knew we were almost certainly going to miss our mainline connections at Darlington. I missed mine of course. I finally got to Darlington station a full 2 hours after setting off from Saltburn. The journey usually takes about 55 minutes.

I trudged disconsolately into the station, resigned to being held up for at least another hour. However, to my amazement, on the far platform, I saw a train in the red and grey livery of the Cross Country rail company. All those trains stop at or near to Chesterfield on their journey south. I broke into a 69 year old’s version of a sprint. As I neared the platform I heard the guard’s whistle blow. Was I going to miss it by a matter of seconds? I went into overdrive and hurled myself towards the nearest door. Luckily the guard spotted me and waved me on. Another big stroke of luck was that this train had old-fashioned manual doors. If it had had the automatic, electric doors of more modern trains, they would have been closed 30 seconds before departure. I made it on to the train with 10 seconds to spare! I slumped exhausted but elated into a seat. Not only was the train nearly empty but it was also stopping at Chesterfield! I didn’t even have to change at Sheffield as I would have done on the service I had missed. My luck had suddenly changed and I was now almost back on schedule despite all the mishaps on the way to Darlington.

It was a lovely, quiet, smooth journey. I read my book and admired some of the countryside outside the window as the wet weather had now cleared. The only disappointment was that there was no refreshment trolley service because of staff shortages. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that announcement. However, I got a thrill at York when I saw the famous locomotive “The Flying Scotsman”, in full steam just outside the National Railway Museum. Being the son of a British Rail engine driver and an avid train spotter in my youth, I still feel a genuine quiver of excitement run up my spine when I spot a steam locomotive. The day was at last looking up!

We slid quietly into Chesterfield only about 25 minutes behind my original schedule. It was now that I got the most incredible and fantastic surprise of the whole day. The station platform seemed to be unusually crowded with men of a certain age. Most of them had cameras and some had even erected tripods. What on earth was happening? Surely Chesterfield was not going to be blessed with a Royal visit? Thankfully the answer to that question was “no”. The truth was actually much more exciting. On a little used side platform of Chesterfield station stood a magnificent steam locomotive  — huge, red, with a gleaming name plate and striking smoke deflectors (or shields.) It was at the head of a steam enthusiasts’ special and was about to depart. As it slowly started to ease forward I heard that familier ( and thrilling) “chuff, chuff” sound as it momentarily disappeared into  spectacular, swirling clouds of  smoke and steam. To me it looked like the famous LMS express locomotive The “Royal Scot” which I had only seen once. However when I enquired of a fellow “anorak” poised behind his tripod, I found it was the ” Duchess of Sutherland”, number 6233, a very rare and special locomotive from the 1930s that I had never seen before. It was a “Coronation” class of locomotive built at the time of the crownings of Kings Edward VIII and George VI in 1936. It used to pull the London Euston to Glasgow expresses on the West Coast mainline. It was the LMS’s answer to the East Coast’s famous A4 Gresley Pacifics, the Mallard et al. I had seen a “Coronation” locomotive at the National Railway Museum, but had never, ever seen one in steam and in action before. For an ageing trainspotter like myself it was a thrilling and unique moment. Little did I know when I was waiting for my bus in the early morning sleet that I was actually heading for this wonderful moment. If I had gone on my scheduled train or if I had been a few seconds later at Darlington, I would have missed seeing this altogether. Suddenly, despite my athiestic tendencies, I said to myself: “There is a God afterall!” I quickly put my smartphone into camera mode and rattled off 4 shots of “Duchess of Sutherland” as “she” chugged majestically past me.  Now I had something to prove that this incredible surprise was not really just a dream. ( and something to bore my friends with.)

Still stunned, I marched up into the town of my birth, heading towards the striking sight of Chesterfield’s wierd but wonderful crooked spire. Although I grew up with it, this strange church spire still has the capacity to surprise me. As I got close up to it, the 13th century spire reared up in front of me, twisting like a giant corkscrew towards the sky. Apparently, the spire twisted as a result of being built with unseasoned timbers which subsequently warped over time. Local legend has it that the spire of St Mary’s will straighten on the day a virgin goes in to get married! Remedial work had to be carried out 20 to 30 years ago as the spire was in danger of collapsing. The work kept its crooked or twisted shape, thus preserving one of Chesterfield’s main claims to fame. It wouldn’t be the same if it was boring and straight like every other church spire in the country.  Imagine visiting Pisa and finding the famous tower wasn’t leaning anymore. It’s their unusual imperfections that make Pisa’s Leaning Tower and Chesterfield’s Crooked Spire so memorable and special.

I now settled comfortably into my usual Chesterfield away day routine. I had a lovely lunch at the Stephenson’s Coffee and Tea Rooms where I am greeted like an old friend — the strange, grey -haired man who travels from the north east to the north midlands to see a lower league football match. Who are they playing today? Do you think they’ll win? I’ve been going there for several years now. The Coffee and Tea rooms are named after George Stephenson, the “Father of the Railways”, who spent his later years in the town. There is a statue of him outside Chesterfield’s rail station. He is shown holding a model of his first successful locomotive: Locomotion No 1. Next I have a wander through the town centre, a familier mish-mash of old and new. A highlight is the sloping, cobbled market place, the largest open- air market in England. Overlooked by a grand, clock-towered Victorian market hall and bordered by some of the town’s oldest buildings, it gives more than a hint of a Flemish, medieval market square.  Grabbing a sandwich to eat on my return journey I now walked out to the football stadium about 2 miles out of the centre. The modern Proact stadium is built on the site of an old glass works where my dad used to work before he joined the railways. The walk out there is along a dreary, noisy main road but I do it anyway to get some exercise and fresh air ( apart from the traffic fumes.)

At the ground I sought out my cousin and his friend for a chat. They drive up from Malvern, south of Birmingham, to see the match. I also caught up with the Methodist Minister of my parent’s chapel as he has a season ticket and keeps me up to date with football as well as chapel news. I then took my seat in the east stand and the match began. We were playing Eastleigh, a team I had had never heard of before Chesterfield dropped down into the obscure depths of non-league football. Apparently they are based in the Southampton area. They were doing very well and were a lot higher than Chesterfield who, despite an improvement, were still dangerously hovering just above the relegation zone. Would my luck change? Would I at last see a Chesterfield goal? Was there a God afterall?

Well reader — we scored after 20 minutes! A huge roar erupted around me as we all leapt to our feet and punched the air. Perfect strangers slapped each other on the back and shared exclamations of delight. I was thrilled. My duck had at at last been broken! I had seen a man in a blue shirt put the ball into the net. All the trials and tribulations of the journey were suddenly worth it. Chesterfield scored again early in the second half. Surely I was now going to witness a victory? It would be a truly memorable day! But it wasn’t to be. Our defence collapsed and we conceded three. The last goal, in the 84th minute was like a sickening punch in the stomach. It had been another emotional roller coaster of a match. Even though we eventually lost ( again!), I had experienced adrenaline rushes and warm camaraderie with perfect strangers. That would never have happened if I had stayed at home to read my paper or watch the telly. It’s what live sport is all about!

And so came the return journey — the walk back into town, a smooth train journey back to Darlington. However, problems with the line around Northallerton meant we got in late. Once again. I missed my rail replacement bus service to Middlesbrough. A group of us hung around in the evening cold, starved of any information about the next bus. People in high-vis yellow jackets gave us conflicting information. After 20 minutes or so, a coach came in and after an inexplicable wait of 15 minutes , the driver finally let us get on. The trouble is, as soon as we all got on, the driver got off! He was going for his statutory rest break. It was now 8.30pm and the coach wasn’t due out until 9.09pm. One of my fellow passengers got angry and became embroiled in an argument with one of the female yellow jackets. She was given chapter and verse about the rules governing rest breaks, something the yellow jacket was an expert on because she used to run a haulage company. That seemed to miss the point that there should have been more buses and more drivers so that the poor, suffering passengers didn’t have to wait up to an hour before they could continue their journeys!

I was fed up and worried. All my previous elation at seeing the steam locomotives and seeing my team score 2 goals had now evaporated. If I waited on the bus for the next 40 minutes, it would then take about 50 minutes to grind its way to Middlesbrough, by which time it would be 10pm. Would there then be a train to finally get me back to Saltburn? I didn’t know. I was now tired as well as cold and fed up, so had a sudden rush of blood to the head. I got off the bus, visited a cash point on the station concourse then blew 30 quid on a taxi to Middlesbrough. It was an expensive, reckless act I know. Sometimes time and comfort are more important than money. I then picked up a bus within 10 minutes and was walking into the house about the same time as the bus replacement service would have been arriving at Middlesbough.

It was a day of exhilerating ups and dispiriting downs. My wife thought I was mad. You probably think I was mad. But I’m glad I did it. It was a big adventure — another crazy away day! Thanks for reading this.

A Wander round Wakefield.

23 Mar

Once it was a mere field owned by an Anglo-Saxon called Waca. Waca’s field has long since disappeared beneath concrete, stone and bricks. It is now the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield. Correction — Wakefield is officially a city and has a Cathedral to prove it. But it doesn’t feel like a city. It is only the size of a large town. My friend, Ian, and I like to wander round old towns.  It’s one of our post-retirement hobbies. Towns are more manageable than cities but usually have more to offer than a small village. They are the perfect size for a day trip.

Up to this week, Wakefield, was just a place I glanced at from a train window, as we briefly stopped at Westgate station. A cluster of towers, cupolas and spires caught the eye as the town spread up a low hill. But then, when the train moved away, they quickly slipped out of  sight and out of mind. I had actually been there a couple of times in the 1960’s. I had acquired my dad’s Lambretta ( I was desperately trying to be a mod) and the Leeds conurbation was a comfortable 50 mile run from my home town. With a friend on the pillion we went out searching for adventure, and somehow we ended up in Wakefield. ( I don’t know how.) In fact we had a puncture there and a kindly garage mechanic helped us mend it. It was in the new 60s market hall of Wakefield that we discovered our version of paradise. It was a stall selling old juke-box singles. Everything we had heard on Pick of the Pops was there at a very cheap price. We were like little kids let loose in a sweet shop!  We would then chug back down the A61 to Chesterfield with huge grins on our faces, happy to be laden down with hits by  The Beatles, Stones,  Kinks et al. After that though, Wakefield disappeared from my radar until my recent visit.

Ian and I travelled on the struggling train system from the north-east of England to West Yorkshire. In this way, we made the journey part of the “adventure.” This time Ian had a train cancellation at Chester-le- Street to delay him so by the time I met him at Leeds we had already missed our connection and only caught the next service by the skin of our teeth. I have lost count of how many times I have had to run for trains at Leeds, across the busy connecting bridge, fighting through the crowds and running down  seemingly endless sets of stairs, seeing my train waiting to depart. It happened on my way home as well. But thankfully we made it on to the LNER London train — first stop Wakefield Westgate, 9 miles to the south east of Leeds. It was time to relax and look forward to the day. Once again the familier towers and spires slid into view, but this time I was going to afford them more than a passing glance.

As I looked at the cluster of buildings spreading out from the station, I thought of all the people to whom this is home and all the full, eventful lives that have been lived there over the centuries. If a town (or city) could talk wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what it had to say? One of my favourite singers-songwriters, Mary Chapin Carpenter, had exactly that train of thought. One of her songs is titled: ” I am a Town.” An ordinary American town by the side of the highway, introduces itself. ” I’m a blur from the driver’s window”, “I am a church beside the highway, where the ditches never drain”, “I’m the language of the natives, I’m a cadence and a drawl”. It’s such an evocative song.  A humble, ordinary town trying to catch the attention of the travellers passing through. This idea has caught my imagination and came back into my mind as we wondered up to Wakefield’s centre. What would the bricks and stones tell us if they could speak?

Yes, an ordinary town ( or city) it was. We wanted to catch a slice of everyday life rather than visit a list of starry “sights”. As we followed city centre signs we were struck at how quiet Wakefield was. It was almost eerie. Then we realised that it had 2 major malls — The Ridings and Trinity Walk — and so presumed that many of the shoppers were there. Such malls are very convenient and provide shelter in the winter, but, at the same time, they suck the life out of the surrounding streets. We didn’t go in as most shopping malls are roughly the same, irrespective of the place and we were seeking buildings that were more characteristic of the area. Thus we resisted the lure of central heating and canned music and pressed on towards the cathedral. Wakefield’s cathedral is right in the centre of the little city, unlike say Doncaster Minster which has been severed from the town by a busy dual-carraigeway. The Cathedral has the tallest spire in Yorkshire. It is a beautiful building in the Perpendicular style of the early 15th century. The original 11th century Norman church replaced an earlier Anglo-Saxon place of worship. In the 19th century it was re-designed by the famous architect Sir George Gilbert Scott. Extensions were then added in the 20th century to honour two of Wakefield’s most famous bishops — William Walshaw How and Eric Treacy. The cathedral is a very beautiful and impressive space. When we entered an organ was thundering out but when the music finished, a serene peace descended. We saw a lovely modern altar, pulpit and font but there were still medieval remnants such as the strange , carved mythical beasts in the choir stalls. There is an abundance of attractive stained glass windows from late Victorian times.

Attached to the cathedral are: a cafe, a shop and the tourist information centre. However, when we arrived asking for street maps, heritage trails and guidebooks, the 2 nice ladies we spoke to didn’t have much to offer and seemed genuinely bemused that tourists had actually decided to visit the tourist office. Obviously, Wakefield does not experience heavy tourist tread. We ended up with a blue-plaque guide-book which turned out to be out of date and which had a very confusing map. Ian and I specialise in going to places that few people want to go to. When I tried to prepare for this trip by consulting the latest Rough Guide to England, Wakefield wasn’t even mentioned! This is despite it having an impressive cathedral and the award winning Hepworth Gallery down by the river. Barbara Hepworth, the famous 20th century sculptress, came from Wakefield.

We left the information centre and retreated to a cafe to make our plans. We couldn’t resist going into “Marmalade on the Square”, such a wonderful name. It was a spotlessly clean cafe with very large, tall windows letting the light stream in. The coffee and cake were excellent too. This cafe and 2 others is in an early 20th century building (1907) formerly known as Central Chambers and before that the “Grand Clothing Hall”, the HQ of the outfitters, John Manners Ltd. It’s an elegant building in light stone with domes , gables and subtle ornementations. It also has smooth, curving corners rather than sharp right angles. It stands on a triangular site between two open spaces — the Bull Ring and Cross Square. It made a lovely photo with the spire of the cathedral in the background.

After our enjoyable repast, we decided to go down to the river area. Wakefield sits on the north bank of the River Wharfe, nestling to the south east of the Pennines. It was once a thriving inland cloth and grain port. As well as the river, various canals linked it up to Britain’s once busy inland waterways system. There were the Aire and Calder, and Calder and Hebble Navigations plus the Barnsley canal going to the south. This transport system was eventually replaced by Turnpike roads. The town stands at an important  junction where the main road from the midlands to the north meets a major road coming from the Pennine Hills to the west. Later, when the railway came in the 1840s, Wakesfield’s Kirkgate station was an important stop on the Leeds to Manchester line. Today, the city has 2 railway stations ( Westgate and Kirkgate) and is situated very close to the M1 motorway, but its river area is now very “quiet”, or rather it would be if it wasn’t adjacent to a bridge carrying a busy 4-lane highway across the Wharf. Down in this area are the well-preserved, 18th century offices of the Aire and Calder Navigation, like a small, classical Greek temple. Also here, south of the river, are the remains of 2 old mills and an 18th century warehouse. They are adjacent to the ultra modern Hepworth Gallery. Inside, it’s display rooms are spacious and flooded with light, but outside it looks like a jumble of sombre grey cubes. We thought it looked more like a prison than an art gallery. Wakefield of course does have a well-known prison but we didn’t include it on our itinerary.

When we got down there, the river was in full spate. After a recent period of stormy weather, the Wharfe had been turned into a raging torrent. A barge had been wrenched from its moorings and had become jammed between the fast flowing water and one of the arches of the road bridge. I hope nobody was on it at the time! Our destination was an ancient 14th century bridge which lay beyond the busy road bridge. At the end of it is a very rare 13th century Chantry Chapel.  The Chantry Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, is one of only four surviving bridge chapels in the country. It sounds exciting doesn’t it? Well, to tell you the truth it was a bit of an anti-climax. First of all we had great trouble getting across to it because of the incredibly busy 4 lane main road that lay inbetween. There didn’t seem to be much thought for pedestrians and the nearest lights appeared to be at least a quarter of a mile away. We eventually plucked up courage and dodged across when the main stream of vehicles was temporarily held back by lights. I imagined  them all impatiently revving up as if at the start of a Grand Prix. The medieval bridge beyond was deserted — no visitors except us, despite it being trumpeted as one of Wakefield’s most famous sights on its website. The medieval chapel at the far end of it looked sad and forlorn. It’s windows were screened by anti-vandal wire mesh and its roof was protected by lines of anti-pigeon spikes. To my disppointment, I found out that only its base was original 13th century. Much of the upper part had had to be rebuilt in 1847-48, and even some of the Victorian replacement was restored in 1939 because the architect had chosen a stone that quickly weathered and deteriorated. The chapel is still a grade 1 listed building however. It is occasionally used for special functions but mostly it is neglected and ignored. Chantry Chapels were paid for by wealthy people so that others could pray for their souls as they passed through Purgatory. I doubt that even if prayers were still being said at this one, they would be heard above the constant din of the traffic on the next door bridge. Ian and I thought it was very sad. We also abandoned a plan to stroll along a riverside path because it was muddy and strewn with litter. It was disappointing.

We returned to the city centre alongside the busy road. It wasn’t eerily quiet here! This area was scruffier and had down- at- heel little shops and businesses. We noticed a couple of East European food shops featuring Polish, Czech and Slovakian produce. We didn’t notice an Asian presence though, unlike in nearby Dewsbury which we visited last year. However, I am aware that an impressive mosque was constructed there in 1995, although we didn’t spot it because it is a bit outside the centre. Thankfully we soon regained the cathedral area and walked away from the torrent of traffic. Up one side of the cathedral is an attractive , pedestrianised area. It has avenues of trees, raised beds of plants, art deco globes acting as street lamps and attractively patterned block paving beneath our feet.  On our left was a line of 1930s large stores but only a rather diminished Marks and Spencers seemed to have survived the arrival of the malls and internet shopping. From old photos from the 60s it seems that this was one of the major shopping streets in Wakefield. I looked at scenes which showed it busy and bustling with shoppers and traffic. Earlier photos showed that trams used to trundle up and down the main streets of the city. Now this area, although pleasant, is fairly quiet. Much of the retail activity is now being done elsewhere. Wakefield is not alone in experiencing this fate of course. The centre is struggling to maintain its relevance.

Ian and I started our blue plaque exploration. It was quite interesting but a bit confusing as new plaques had been added since the guide was printed. Basically, we ignored the non-descript and badly deteriorated 60s and 70s buildings and sought the stone Victorian edifices of the city’s 19th century heyday. They are mostly clustered on Wood Street and Westgate. These were largely impressive and in good condition. A couple were hidden behind scaffolding  and sheets screening the restorers busy at work. There must still be a lot of work for stone masons in the town (city). On Wood Street we were impressed by The Mechanics Institute, the Town Hall and at the very top: County Hall. The Mechanics Institute, paid for by public subscription, included an assembly room, a library and a news-room. This reflected the rise in literacy levels once compulsary schooling was introduced in the second half of the 19th century. The Institute is  graced with Georgian style windows and a line of 6 classical- style Ionic capitals. It is still a venue for large functions. Next to it is the impressively large Town Hall with a striking clock tower ( no pun intended) which has become another major feature of the Wakefield skyline. Finally, at the top of the hill is County Hall, built in dramatic Gothic style in 1898. It has towers, pillars, gargoyles, stone reliefs , pediments and big windows on all sides. It is a very large, impressive structure. At the top is a graceful cupola which makes its own distinctive contribution to the skyline. OK, it’s not exactly Rome, but this ensemble of Victorian public buildings made for an attractive and impressive sight. In the middle of them was another building hidden away behind restorers screens. When that is finished, Wood Street will be a memorable sight for lovers of Victorian architecture.

Inside County Hall , which is the administrative HQ for West Yorkshire ( formerly the West Riding), it was even more impressive. One might call it Wakefield’s hidden gem. It looked more like a beautifully decorated Gothic church, with multiple Norman style arches, large windows, a grand sweeping, snaking staircase, lovely Delft- style tile-work, delicate wrought iron banisters, mosaics and very unusual, colourful murals. One depicted a Viking longboat for reasons I never found out. I would like to return and have a proper guided tour sometime, on an heritage open day. As it is, the kind lady on reception just let us have a quick peek at the vestibule and the staircase. We thanked her and remarked that it must be very nice to work in such a sumptuous environment. She agreed she was lucky, but then complained that it was too cold in winter and too hot in summer! Some people are never satisfied!

Westgate also has impressive Victorian buildings. Primarily there is the Theatre Royal and Opera House designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1894. It replaced an earlier theatre at that site. In the 20th century it served as a cinema and then a bingo hall but then returned to its original function as a theatre in the 1980s. It is a Grade 2 listed building. Opposite it is the equally impressive Unity Hall which was formerly the Victorian Co-operative building of Wakefield. It has now been restored and is used for events, weddings and conferences. It’s good that it has been given new life but sad to see that even the venerable Coop has become a victim of modern shopping habits. Unity Hall, like the theatre is made from red brick decorated with stone patterns and pictoral reliefs. It has large, curving, church like windows. Another striking street in Wakefield centre is Cheapside which features old, early 19th century wool-staplers homes and warehouses. Today they are mostly occupied by soliciters’ offices but the top floor hoists for the wool sacks can still be seen.

I’m sure that in just a few hours we didn’t see everything that Wakefield has to offer. We didn’t go into the museum for example and somehow missed the Gissing centre, the former home of the famous Victorian novelist George Gissing. We didn’t venture into the Hepworth Gallery either because of the usual time constraints. We had to make time for a late lunch at Cafe Lounge 46 back near the cathedral. It is a pleasant eating place with good food and friendly service. I don’t know where the idea that all Yorkshire people are dour and brusque came from. Everyone we met was perfectly charming. Ian marked the service in Cafe Lounge 46 as 12 out of 10. I think it was because the waitress kept calling him “my love.”

Finally it was back to the train station for another thrilling chain reaction of delays, missed connections and, surprise, surprise, sprinting across the bridge and down the stairs at Leeds station. It had been another fascinating town trail revealing the usual mix of delights and disappointments. We missed out the mind- numbing malls ( being men, we are not great shoppers) but acquired some sense of its Victorian hey-day. I imagine that many of its citizens commute into nearby Leeds, but Wakefield, as a small city , still retains its own identity. It seems mostly proud of its past and makes sure it takes good care of its important public buildings.  Wacu’s field may be long gone, but in another sense, it is still going strong.

Why I hate Manchester United.

16 Mar

I like to think I’m a quiet, easy-going, tolerant kind of guy. Most of the people who know me would probably agree. But there is another side to me — my alter-ego you might say. It seethes with hate. Underneath the apparent calm surface lies a boiling volcano that can erupt at any time. The other night I experienced one of these unexpected flare-ups of negative emotion. It partly spoilt my evening but I was helpless to change things — Manchester United had won their Champions’ league last- 16 match with a last minute, controversial penalty! Maybe it’s my imagination, but Manchester United seem to get a lot more than their fare share of dodgy decisions in their favour.

You see, like millions of others, I live in two parallel worlds. They are the real world and the football world. In the former I am usually pleasant, polite and sociable, but in the latter world, I am strapped helplessly to a roller-coaster of  irrational emotions, which are sometimes very difficult to control. These emotions can be both positive and negative. I experience exhilerating highs and dispiriting lows. Ordinary people would not understand. It is an alternative world only truly understood by die-hard football fans. It’s crazy to allow myself to be controlled by such trivial events such as sports contests. My intelligence and rational instincts tell me to rise above it and get things into proper perspective. But in sport, and especially in football, common sense and rationality are often thrown out of the window. Emotion is allowed to overcome reason. It’s a sudden surge of adrenaline, over which one has little control. Later on, once the match is over, things calm down and common sense returns. But those moments when one loses control are intoxicating and addictive.

That all sounds great. Football is an endlessly fascinating and exciting pastime for those who are into it. It provides an intoxicating alternative to our often mundane everyday lives. But, unfortunately, there is a dark side to being a football fan. As well as the positive aspect of supporting certain teams there is the negative side of “hating” certain other teams. We don’t really hate them of course. It’s just part of a childish game. But maybe this irrational hatred taps into deeper, more elemental aspects of human nature, traits that are usually kept buried and hidden from sight. So in some respects, maybe the pseudo loves and hates of football act as important safety valves, enabling fans to experience extreme emotions without them rearing up in and potentially ruining their real lives. One of my own inexplicable football “hates” is anything to do with Manchester United. I cannot really explain this hatred. I almost think it was born inside me. I am not alone. Manchester United are the most “hated” club in England. However, paradoxically, they are also the best supported club at the same time. It seems they polarise opinion. One either “loves” them or “hates” them. There is no middle ground it seems. The introduction to the Rough Guide to England explains that football ( soccer) is the national sport and involves many passionate rivalries, loves and hatreds. It explains that football fans all hate the team down the road but also  hate Manchester United ( except for United’s fans of course.) Although a joke, I think it’s partly true. That is certainly the case with me. I support Chesterfield FC, the Spireites, who have now sadly dropped out of the football league. I follow the fortunes of Arsenal in the Premier League. But I suffer from a deep loathing of Man Utd. It’s an affliction I have willingly carried through my life. I am 69 now and I should know better! I cannot really explain this despite the title of this piece. However, I will try to, although many of my reasons don’t make sense when looked at in the cold light of day.

First of all, Man Utd is one of the wealthiest and most successful football clubs in the world. I have instinctively been a supporter of the underdog. So naturally, I don’t support United as they are richer than most of the teams they play. They have not had it their own way in recent years however, with the rise of Chelsea, owned by a massively wealthy Russian oligarch, and Manchester City, taken over as a PR project by the Abu Dhabi Royal family, who have unlimited oil wealth. So Man Utd fans have had to get used to being financial underdogs when squaring up to these particular rivals. But usually they play sides that are a lot poorer than them and so have a massive advantage. It seems so unfair to me , even though I know the first rule of life is that it is inherently unfair. I naturally support most sides that play them because it is a David vs Goliath situation. In their post war history Man Utd have had to play second fiddle to Tottenham in the 1960s, Leeds United in the early 70s and Liverpool in the 70s and 80s. Arsenal became big rivals in the 90s and noughties. However for much of that time United have been either at or near the top of the top league and a big explanation for that has to be their wealth. Now that the Premier League is awash with obscene amounts of TV money, the disparity between rich and poor clubs has become ever wider. I now also dislike Chelsea and Man City because their enormous spending power has swept away any idea of fair play in the football world.  They, Man Utd and a few others, remind me that top league football is now a big, capitalistic venture rather than a fair sporting contest. Wealthy clubs poach poorer clubs’ players, coaches and managers.  They are able to build bigger grounds so they earn more from their supporters’ entrance fees. They use their wealth and power to influence the game’s authorities by bending financial fair play rules. The clubs of the Premier League, which replaced the old First Division in around 1990, broke away from the rest of the Football league so they could keep more of the lucrative TV money for themselves. Not surprisingly, Man United was a leading light in this move which has starved many poorer and lower league clubs of much needed cash.

So reason number one for my dislike is Man United’s immense wealth. I also dislike other clubs who have bought success rather than earning it through hard work, skill and patience.

Another reason for my dislike is media bias. This is something that I could well be imagining. After all, I am viewing the situation through a prism of pseudo “hatred”. It’s a bit rich I know, accusing the media of bias when I am biased myself. But this is part of the football soap-opera. Most if not all football fans howl about perceived injustices meeted out to their club while other clubs apparantly receive more favourable treatment. So here is my irrational rant. I think that commentators are supposed to be neutral, dispassionate and objective. But it seems to be that when they are describing a Man Utd match they often look at events from United’s point of view. When a goal is scored by their opponants it is seen as a setback for United . When United score they purr with delight. When Man Utd are only 6th in the top league it is perceived as a crisis and described so in the media. When this happened recently, the manager was duly sacked because United fans expect a constant diet of success. Thus their recent revival has been met with glee in the press with constant articles about how the caretaker manager, Solskjaer, should now be appointed on a permanent basis. Why all this focus on and fuss about one club and their pampered supporters? The other night when United scored their last minute, disputed winner against Paris St Germain, the Sky sports pundits couldn’t wipe the smiles from their faces and one was punching the air in delight. Hardly objective commentary. You might say they were just being patriotic except that there are very few English players in the current United squad and the team is managed by a Norwegian who took over from a Portuguese. The match was just one bunch of highly paid foreign mercenaries against another.( Paris St Germain are awash with money as well.) Would such biased jubilation be displayed if another team had won? Social media such as BBC Sport online, trumpeted United’s “sensational” last minute win with banner head lines. To be so overtly celebrating the victory of a club that has been sated with success over the years seemed to be a bit over-the top. But I would say that wouldn’t I? Some would say it’s jealousy and sour grapes.

I think this media love-in with Manchester United goes right back to 1958 and the tragic Munich air disaster. In the 50s, United had been one of the first British teams to get involved in the fledgeling European Cup. A team of talented youngsters managed by Matt Busby had made it to the semi-final against Red Star Belgrade. They were affectionally known as the “Busby Babes.” They won their match in the then capital of Yugoslavia. On the return flight their plane had to refuel in Munich, Germany. Taking off in very wintry conditions the plane crashed on the runway. The pilot had failed to go through the proper de-icing procedure. 20 of the 44 on board died at the scene and 3 more later died in hospital. Several of the dead were young team members. Tragically, the Busby babes had been decimated. Understandably, there was a great outpouring of public grief back in England. I was only 8 at the time but I remember my whole family being stunned. In the wake of this disaster came a powerful surge of sympathy for the bereaved, the survivors and the club as a whole. I’m sure that’s when Manchester United found a special place in the hearts of many football supporters, across the whole country and the World beyond.

I vividly remember one incident. A popular TV quiz show at the time was “Double Your Money.” Contestants answered increasingly difficult questions and the prize money was doubled for each correct answer. For the final question which was worth a thousand pounds( a lot of money in those days), the contestant had to sit in a small, soundproof box . Bobby Charlton, a teenage survivor of the air crash came on the show — an early example of a “celebrity” getting involved in a TV show to boost its ratings. Charlton got to the last question but expressed extreme nervousness about going into the claustraphobic “box” because of the ordeal he had suffered in the aeroplane. Not surprisingly, there was great sympathy for his plight and he was given special permission to answer the final question without entering the confines of the “box.” I think he got it right! This incident revived the special sympathy and affection that the terrible air-crash had garnered for United. A decade after the crash, in 1968, a new version of the Busby babes, including Charlton, became the first English team to win the European Cup when they beat Benfica 4-1 in the final. This triumph further cemented their place as a “special” team in the hearts of many fans. You could say that they were England’s first “celebrity” club, reaching out to many people way beyond Manchester.

Man Utd’s reputation as the country’s most glamorous club was further enhanced by its attraction of star players such as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best. Best in particular became of of Britain’s first major sports celebrities, his glamorous life-style of “wine, women and song” as well as his brilliant play, attracting constant attention from the media. At one point, Best, with his long shaggy hair, was dubbed “the 5th Beatle.”

Reading all this, you might think that I too would have become a massive Man Utd fan. However, being an awkward, perverse sort of character, my dislike of them grew in inverse proportion to the affection of others. The more popular they became, the more I disliked them. I disliked what I preceived to be their preferential treatment by the media. To me, there always seemed to be a media bias in United’s favour ( there still is in my view.) This offended my sense of fairness. Being an idealist, I believed all clubs should be treated equally. Thus, I naturally gravitated to less glamorous, less wealthy and less successful clubs. Fir instance, as well as supporting my home town, lower-league club, Chesterfield FC, I had a soft spot for little, unfashionable Burnley back in the 1960s. I actually lived inManchester when I was a student and young teacher from 1968 to 72 but chose to watch Manchester City rather than join the chorus of adulation for United down the road. I did go to United’s Old Trafford a few times and marvelled at the skills of Best, Law and Charlton, but I was always supporting the opposition. I remember Best scoring a brilliant solo goal against Sheffield United but didn’t cheer it because I was shouting for “The Blades.”

Those experiences in the 50s and 60s set the pattern for subsequent decades, right up to the present time. Manchester United have continued to be Britain’s most “glamorous” club and the medias “darlings”, even though they spent quite a few years in the football wilderness. They enjoyed sustained success under Alex Ferguson from the 1990s  onwards, and. in my opinion, have bagged much more than their fair share of media attention. They are one of the most popular clubs around the world, probably only second to Real Madrid. People like success, so “fair weather” fans gravitate towards the most successful and richest clubs, to bask in their reflected glory. Supplementing and enhancing their football fame, United also have a prominant role in today’s “celebrity” culture. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest clebrities of all, David Beckham, played for Manchester United.

All this is anathema to me. I hate the vacuousness of the celebrity world and the media circus that follows it. Man Utd is not the only club involved of course, especially now that others have come into the money, but they are still leading players. Celebrity and wealth lead, in my opinion, to arrogance. Alex Ferguson, their most successful manager, personified this arrogance in my view. He talked dismissively of opponants without giving them proper respect. He teased and taunted them unmercifully. I remember Kevin Keegan’s famous on screen meltdown when, as manager of Newcastle United, he had been subjected to months of Ferguson’s barbed comments. Ferguson also allowed his players to aggressively surround referees and linespeople to try to bully them into changing their decisions. Alex Ferguson could be very aggressive himself, having been brought up in Govan, a very tough area of Glasgow. He was famous for his “hairdryer treatment” of his own players, tearing into them and if he wasn’t pleased with their performance. I don’t think he minded humiliating or frightening people with his withering remarks and naked bullying. After a cup defeat by Arsenal, he famously entered the dressing room in a fuming mood and kicked a football boot across the room. It famously hit David beckham in the face. Ferguson could be charming at times, but this intimidating nature would be smouldering, just below the surface. A bigger contrast with Arsenal’s erudite, intellectual, multi-lingual manager, Arsene Wenger. would be hard to imagine. I would find it impossible to support a club with a manager like Ferguson. To many fans, hungry for success at any price, the end justified the means. But I am repelled by such an approach to football management. To me it seemed that Alex Ferguson and Man Utd were a perfect fit.

United’s recent treatment of their post-Ferguson managers has been another source of my disapproval. David Moyes, a decent, earnest, hard-working football man, was sacked in his first season because he did not achieve instant success. Louis Van Gaal, a very experienced and previously successful Dutch manager, was sacked 2 days after United had one the FA Cup under his guidance. What was his crime? — well, his team were not playing the free- flowing, attacking football in the “United way.” Van Gaal’s treatment was particularly shoddy as the whole of the country knew of his demise before he was officially told. Even the “great” Jose Mourinho was given the boot because he was not meeting the insatiable United demand for attractive as well as successful football. Man Utd are far from unique in treating their employees poorly of course. Chelsea have become serial sackers of managers and even Leicester got rid of the sainted Claudio Ranieri just months after their incredible Premier League triumph.

I think certain clubs, including Manchester United, have an inflated sense of entitlement. They think it’s their destiny to be at the top and soon get restless and dissatisfied if a few matches are lost. I think such “fans” would do well to follow a less rich and powerful club for a while, perhaps one that is perennially struggling in the lower leagues and suffering from money shortages. They would then discover what being a true supporter is all about, one who supports his/her club through thick and thin irrespective of its success on the field.

I don’t really “hate” Manchester United of course. It’s all part of the black and white emotions that football fans exhibit in their alternative world. Let’s just say that because of: their wealth, their power, their celebrity status, the media bias towards them, their treatment of some of their personnel, their false sense of entitlement and, in my opinion, their arrogance, I don’t like them very much!


Andalucian Interlude.

20 Feb

I’ve just been on a city break.  I much prefer them to beach breaks or lying by a pool breaks, as readers of my earlier blogs may have gathered. This time I’ve enjoyed a few days in Seville, Spain. It’s the main city of Spain’s most southerly territory: Andalucia, and the fourth largest city in the country. As with most city breaks, Seville served up a rich diet of: culture, history, architecture, religion and art, not to mention food and drink. A city break is a brief change of scene, a stimulating contrast to the norm. Seville and its neighbour, Cordoba, did the trick. It was an enticing taster for  possible longer visits to this exciting part of Europe in the future.

What did I expect to see and experience?  First up is :oranges. The most common response I got when I mentioned Seville to people was “oranges.” Yes, I certainly expected to see orange trees, even in the middle of the city. I wasn’t disappointed. Numerous squares, courtyards and streets were lined with them. Apparently, they were planted by the Arabs when they ruled this part of Spain. Supposedly, local “Sevillanos” love to joke about watching tourists picking oranges from the trees, only to spit out their first mouthfuls in disgust. These oranges are very bitter to taste. A popular legend has it that the cheeky Sevillians sold a boatload of this unpalatable fruit to the British. The trusting British sailors tucked- in, thinking the oranges were sweet. They were disappointed of course, but one unexpectant consequence was that all the seamen suffering from the disease of scurvy were cured. Thus the idea of marmalade was born. For many years huge quantities of Seville’s street oranges were sold to British marmalade factories, although changing tastes  and the effects of traffic pollution on the fruit have led to a drop in demand in recent years.

Reading about all this reminded me of another city break I made to Dundee, in Scotland.  Dundee was for a long time, famous for its jam and marmalade. A local story from the 19th century tells of a Spanish ship with a cargo of Seville oranges that got trapped by storms in the harbour. The perishable cargo was in danger of going rotten, so an enterprising young lad, James Keiller, the son of a grocery store owner, bought the oranges at a bargain price. His mother, using a secret family recipe, then converted them into marmalade and started a profitable industry for the city. A friend of mine has told me another story about Mary Queen of Scots being cured of her “malady” by the orange conconction that now graces our breakfast tables. The true origin of marmalade may be a combination of all these tales. Who knows?

So I saw the orange trees that I had expected. What I didn’t expect however, was that many of them would be surrounded by pretty patterns of ornamental cabbages, cream, pink and purple. I also saw a monumental Gothic cathedral, numerous tapas bars, a large bull ring, buildings with graceful wrought iron balconies and window grilles, lovely little courtyards or patios decorated with attractive tiles, plants and little fountains and some very special Moorish-style buildings from medieval times. Seville has a rich selection of things to see and do.

One big reason why I was attracted to this part of Spain is its close proximity to Africa, and in particular: Morocco. The Moors (Arab muslims from North Africa and the Middle East) had conquered Spain in the middle ages and ruled it for several centuries. They were masters of the Iberian peninsula from the early 8th to the early 13th centuries.  They were relatively tolerant rulers allowing the Christians and the Jews to continue with their own religious practices if they wished to, although non- muslims had to pay higher taxes. Spain, which had previously experienced the sophisticated lifestyle of the Romans, now benefited from many aspects of Arab civilisation. Education, scholarship, philosophy, architecture and craftmanship all flourished under Moorish rule. Today, tourists flock to see the beautiful architecture and exquisite decorative art left behind by the Moors in Andalusian cities such as Granada, Malaga ( yes, it’s more than just an airport), Cordoba and Seville. The Alhambra palace in Granada, which I’ve visited in a previous trip, is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. The Alcazar fortress-palaces of Seville and Malaga also contain striking moorish architecture, tilework, stucco and calligraphy as well as lovely gardens, and, last but not least, the stunning mosque-cathedral in Cordoba, known as the Mesquito, is one of the most extraordinary buildings you are likely to see. In this trip, my wife, Chris, and I visited the sensational Moorish monuments in both Seville and Cordoba which is about an hour up the train line. At times, we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still in Europe and not somewhere across the Straits of Gibralter.

It’s ironic that buildings, art and craftmanship left behind by their former conquerors, now make up some of Spain’s top tourist attractions. Even though the Moors were defeated and expelled from Spain over 800 years ago, their legacy lives on in a powerful way. We were really looking forward to visiting them. But it wasn’t that simple. One problem is that in this age of relatively cheap travel and mass tourism, such beautiful, historical buildings are now frequently overwhelmed by visitors. A friend of mine travelled to Granada from the Costa del Sol especially to visit the Alhambra but could not get in because entrance was by timed ticket only and all the slots had been taken for that day! It was totally booked out. When I went, I only got in because I had paid extra to go on a guided tour. Once a place gets famous, especially if designated as a World Heritage Site, it gets put on the “bucket lists” of tens of thousands of world tourists, from China to the United States and all places inbetween. Chris and I thought Seville might be fairly quiet in early February, so we were shocked to see that there were permanent, long queues for both the Cathedral and the Alcazar. The only way to by-pass the main, slowly shuffling queue was to book on a guided tour or to book ahead on the internet. This we had failed to do for the cathedral, our first port of call, so we queued.

Seville’s is a huge cathedral, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world.  After the reconquest of Spain by the Christians ( the “Reconquista”), finally completed in 1492, the Christian monarchs wanted to make a big statement to show that they were now back in control. So sadly, many mosques were demolished and replaced by churches. Synagogues were also destroyed and the Jews were expelled from the peninsula as well as the Arabs. It was not a great example of Christian tolerance, as Jesus would have preached. It was just the opposite in fact. Intolerance was the order of the day, intolerance that led to the infamous tortures and cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition. This started in the 1480s and as well as being a gift for Monty Python, it brought misery and death to countless people in its mission to purify the Catholic faith by stamping out heresy. In 15th century Spain bigotry and religious intolerance were regarded as pretty “cool” by the Christian majority. As in most countries in most eras, fear , distrust and hatred of the foreigner or the outsider was never far from the surface. This was reflected in Seville by the destruction of the impressive mosque and the building of an enormous Gothic cathedral in its place. But even the triumphant Christians baulked at the idea of knocking down the mosque’s beautiful minaret La Giralda. It was adapted into the cathedral’s bell tower and is now regarded as one of the most important pieces of Islamic architecture on the planet. Built in the late 12th century, it was the prototype for similarly impressive minarets in the Imperial capitals of Rabat and Marrakesh. La Giralda is a top tourist attraction of Seville and dominates the centre of the city, especially at night when it is spectacularly floodlit. You can go up it to see stupendous views over the old city, but we didn’t go because, in our old age, we have become very nervous of heights!

Going back to the cathedral queue, we shuffled patiently forward for about 15 to 20 minutes, surrounded by Americans, French, Germans, fellow Brits and seemingly half of China. Most of them passed the time by playing with their smart-phones. It wasn’t too bad. The weather was about 18 to 20 degrees, cloudy with sunny periods. I shudder to think what the queue experience would be like in the torrid heat of mid summer. Seville is one of the hottest cities in Spain. Once in, we were easily swallowed up by the vast nave, with its enormous wood carved organ, spectacular vaulted ceilings, a string of finely decorated side chapels and several richly decorated altars, including one huge gilded one, carved by a Flemish master in the late 15th century. The building’s sheer size is somewhat overwhelming and we found it difficult to make sense of. I prefer the spiritual atmosphere of a small, simple church.  Commentators have noted, that Seville Cathedral’s sheer mass crudely expresses the Christian message of conquest and domination. As I noted in my facebook photo album , this seems a very far cry from Jesus Christ being born in a humble stable! The huge, magnificent main altar is protected by a fancy, wrought iron grille or latticed screen. It was in shadow and was only illuminated by subtle floodlights every now and then. Signs had warned “no photos” but the endless tide of tourists simply ignored this and the attendants didn’t even try to stop them. As soon as the altar was lit up there was a mini stampede up the steps to photograph it through the gaps in the grille. I’m ashamed to say that I too got momentarily caught up in this madness. I tried to get to the screen to take my photo but was blocked by other tourists who hogged the best spots. One young woman stayed at the top of the steps for an inordinately long time. When I looked over her shoulder to see what she was up to, I found she was scrolling and reading her emails and texts. She wasn’t even looking at the wondrous altar! I only managed to get my precious shot when the light went off!

There were many impressive and interesting things in the Cathedral, but to tell you the truth, it was a relief to get out into the orange- tree shaded exit courtyard. Time for a cup of coffee in a quiet cafe. I must go back to the cathedral however, because I almost forgot to mention the Mausoleum of Christopher Columbus which is situated to one side of the main nave. The famous explorer’s remains are supposed to be in a coffin carried aloft by 4  larger- than- life, symbolic knights, representing the 4 kingdoms of the united Spain — Leon, Castille, Aragon and Navarra. The mausoleum was sculpted in the late 19th century and was originally intended to be located in the Cuban capital of Havana, a Spanish colony ever since Columbus’s discovery of the New World.( although he always thought he had reached India.) However following Spain’s defeat in the Spanish- American War and the loss of Cuba in 1898, the remains ended up in Seville. This seems very strange to me as Columbus actually came from Genoa in Italy, but who am I to argue? The probable explanation is because Seville was the main recipient of the enormous treasures from the New World, later named America. These treasures financed many of Seville’s great buildings and monuments. There is some controversy about whether Columbus’s bones are actually in that Seville coffin. At one stage the bones of his son and also of his grandson were kept in other lead coffins  next to his. This was in Hispaniola, near the site of Columbus’s first landfall. However, during repairs to the cathedral there, the 3 coffins were opened, the bones mixed up and the labels lost! To complicate matters further, the Dominican Republic now claims that it still has the real remains of Columbus and has refused to let scientists do DNA testing. The tests on the bones in Spain proved inconclusive. Whatever the truth, tourists still flock around the Columbus mausoleum in Seville. It was another rugby scrum to get a picture. When the cathedral clock struck the quarter hour, a swarm of tourists would rush towards the coffin-monument. Apparently something special was to happen at that moment, but we never figured out what it was, so I cannot tell you. Life’s too short!

When we went to the Alcazar, we were on an interesting guided tour, so we jumped most of the queue. It is a fortress-palace built on the site of a Roman fort and founded in the 8th century. The various Moor rulers rebuilt or added to it over the centuries. When the Christians reconquered the area the palace was once again remodelled and extended. What can be seen today is a Christian reworking from the mid 14th century, under the orders of King Pedro the Cruel. Some of the architecture is “mudejar”, i.e. – created by Muslim architects working under Christian control.  Fragments of earlier Muslim buildings from Seville, Cordoba and Valencia were incorporated. Today , after passing through the gateway in the Arab-style fortified walls, you enter a big, open courtyard and are faced with 3 palaces. Straight in front is a wonderful muslim palace which is like a mini Alhambra, while to the left and right are more conventional, western style Royal palaces from the 15th and 16th centuries. The latter have royal portraits and renaissance furniture and decorations but it is the more exotic Islamic-style palace that takes up most people’s attention. Gracefully arched windows and doors, beautiful patterned tiles, stylised Arab calligraphy, pools and fountains in inner courtyards, and cool verandahs. Best of are the spectacularly stuccoed ceilings which have to be seen to be believed. It is very like the Alhambra and has the crowds to match.

However despite all these wonders, the most amazing building of our trip was in Cordoba, a fast, smooth train ride away to the north-east. The old town here is full of quiet narrow streets lined with white painted houses. Many have lovely patios with flowers, tiles and a fountain. In summer, some of these streets are festooned with colourful flowers. In the centre of old Cordoba, just north of the river with its old Roman bridge, stands the enormous Mosque-Cathedral known as the Mesquito. We took another guided tour to beat the crowds although it was quieter here than in Seville. The Mesquito consists of a beautiful mosque with multiple rows of double semi-circular arches made from alternating bands of creamy stone and red brick. These arches are mounted on classical pillars salvaged from Ancient Roman and Visigoth temples and churches. The effect is mesmerising. The mihrab, which is the focal point of the mosque is particularly beautiful with exquisite Arab decoration and topped by a lovely Byzantine- style ceiling made by builders imported from Constantinople. What is mind-boggling however is that right in the middle of this huge medieval mosque, the Christians built a large Gothic style Catholic cathedral. They didn’t have the heart to destroy the beautiful mosque but had to show which religion was now back in control. The experience is totally incongruous and disorientating. I think the guide deserves a medal for explaining it all especially as both the mosque and the cathedral were extended several times. In the large shady courtyard are pools, fountains, palm trees and another minaret transformed into a bell tower. It’s certainly one of the most memorable buildings I have visited .

The historical buildings of Seville and Cordoba took up a lot of our time but the highlight of our trip has to be the flamenco show we attended. Dramatic wailing singing, throbbing guitars and strutting, moody dancing punctuated by staccato bursts of blurred footwork like machine gun fire. Then there was the colourful gypsy costumes, the castanets, the rhythmic clapping and finger clicking. The dancers and singers somehow clicked 3 fingers in rapid succession. The dances were full on and uncompromising. At times it was almost like the movement of a matador but without the bull. ( thank goodness.) I know it was a show for tourists like ourselves, but it still made for a thrilling evening.

So we had our Andalucian city break, our short break from the norm. It was a packed few days of sights, sounds and experiences. Obviously it would be too boring to list them all. I haven’t even mentioned : Bizet’s Carmen , sherry or the large array of fans we saw on display. I hope this blog has given you at least a flavour of the trip. Seville and Cordoba — a lot more more than a load of oranges!


Trapped beneath a Toxic Cloud.

25 Jan

In recent months I’ve been playing a new game — it’s a game that is partly amusing, but mostly depressing. I walk into a room during a news or current affairs programme on the radio and count how many seconds it takes to hear the dreaded word: ” Brexit.” My current record is 2 seconds. This morning , on Radio 4’s “Today” programme for instance, I listened for about a minute to an interesting discussion about mesolithic times and archaeology, but before I even got a chance to put the kettle on, the subject switched to the conference of wealthy nations in Davros and the influence that ” Brexit” was having on their economic discussions. The dreaded B word was mentioned 5 times in 30 seconds. This obsession with one subject has been gaining momentum ever since the British public voted by a narrow margin for the UK to leave the European Union in the referendum of June, 2016. The media’s attention on this issue has intensified in recent weeks as the UK nears its exit deadline but with no withdrawel deal being agreed by its parliament. Last month in December, the tedium was temporarily relieved by the C word. What are you doing for Christmas? Have you bought all your Christmas presents yet? How many people are you having round for Christmas dinner, etc. But, no sooner had the decorations been taken down and we had spluttered a few “Happy New Years”, than the subject of the EU and Britain’s exit from it quickly returned to centre stage.

Day after day, week after week, this same subject dominates the agenda, squeezing out almost all others. It has not only largely hi-jacked all TV and radio news programmes, but it has swamped much of social media as well. It is a divisive, controversial and poisonous subject which depresses me greatly. The nation is intractably divided between “Remainers” and “Leavers” and there seems to be precious little middle ground. It’s a bit like living through a civil war, with words being deployed as weapons. A barrage of propaganda is being hurled at the long suffering British public from both opposing camps. I voted “Remain” but I have to be very careful who I admit this to. One of my closest friends, also a “Remainer”, admitted to me that he now keeps his views to himself for fear of attracting abuse. I’m sure many “leavers” feel the same thing as well. The atmosphere in the country at the moment is very tense and unpleasant. Strong views on both sides of the divide can easily spill over into anger and aggression. This blog is not intended to be about the arguments of “leavers” or “remainers”; the subject is far too complex and sensitive for me to wade into. Instead, it is about the consequences of the Leave vote and the subsequent political wrangling, on my life and those around me.

Last week I watched BBC 1’s “Question Time”, the channel’s flagship political discussion programme. All but one question from the audience was about Brexit. Should there be a second referendum? Should the date for the UK’s exit from the EU be put back? What are the different consequences of the vote for the border between Northern Ireland ( part of the UK) and the republic of Ireland ( part of the EU)? Should there be a general Election because Prime Minister May’s negotiated EU Withdrawel plan has been roundly rejected by Parliamant? The discussion was held in front of a very partisan audience in Derby who heckled, booed and cat-called every time they heard something they disagreed with. It seemed to me that opinions had hardened into prejudice. People were there to take part in an aggressive war of words rather than a respectful exchange of views.  It was an uncomfortable watch, seeing what depths the level of political debate has now sunk to. Towards the end of the programme, the chairperson, Fiona Bruce, decided to accept a final question that was not about Brexit. It was about climate change and the contribution that veganism could make towards the lessening of global warming. Even though this is another very serious subject, when it was announced, it was as if the toxic cloud was suddenly lifted. The atmosphere became civilised and respectful. People listened to each other with open minds. There was no heckling. What a difference from all that had gone on before!

In my opinion the Brexit debate seems to have descended into chaos. Politicians and people have been reduced to shouting at each other from entrenched positions. Minds are largely closed, not open. The media is having a field day, getting together politicians of opposite opinions regarding Brexit, and goading them into a nasty, negative fight. It fills the newspaper columns and fills up the airwaves on programmes such as the “World at One” or “Today.” What would the media have done without this gift of a subject to constantly and relentlessly chew over? It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Unfortunately social media, with less controls, has descended to even greater depths of in-fighting. Those of you who know me will already know that I often succumb to the dubious charms of Facebook. I know it’s not “cool” to admit this, but I am an oldie afterall  so don’t worry much about my image. At first it was a great way of keeping in touch with friends, family and aquaintances. Pictures were shared, and greetings exchanged. In other words, for, me, it was a largely positive experience. Since the decision to leave the EU was taken however, Facebook has become much more problematic for me. Visiting it is now akin to walking through a minefield. Say the wrong thing and one could very quickly get into a nasty online spat, with lots of people jumping in for the “fun” of it. One of my genuine friends described this as the “Facebook Ambush Society.” It’s much better, he said, to have a frank exchange of views down at the pub over a few drinks. At the end of the evening, everyone amicably agrees to disagree and goes home feeling reasonably happy and content. On social media however, once you have made your views known and clicked “Send”, you are open to attack from all and sundry for evermore.

So I have become very careful about what I commit to the internet. Many of my Facebook “friends” agree with me and give me positive strokes. However, some don’t share my opinions and here I have to exercise extreme caution. I’m even a bit nervous about writing this blog for fear of a negative comeback from certain readers. Once it’s out there, it’s out of my control. It’s uncomfortable to sit on the fence all of the time however, and a bit cowardly to hide away my views for fear of reprisals. I’ve already admitted that I voted “Remain”. I think the UK should play a full, constructive part in the European project and not isolate itself on its tiny island. I believe we belong in Europe and that the British Empire and Britain’s “so-called’ “Special Relationship” with the USA are things of the past. Unfortunately, it seems that many still hark back to the glory days when Britain was recognised as a ” Great Power.” I get lots of Facebook posts about how Britain saved Europe from the tyranny of Hitler and how Europe should be so grateful as to give us a good deal when we leave the Union. I find these simplistic notions irritating and uncomfortable to read. It seems that many people are still living in the past and, to make matters worse, are looking at that past through rose-coloured glasses. Britain didn’t win the Seconf World War alone. Europe was largely liberated by American and Soviet troops, not to mention many from the Commonweath. As a former History teacher, such gross simplifications and distortions of the “facts” cause me intense irritation. But then I remind myself that History is not really about the Truth but  about what different people perceive to be the Truth. Lucy Worsley, the TV historian, is currently presenting an excellent programmes about American History’s biggest “fibs”. Everyone enjoys a good story and every country likes to paint its story in the best possible light. It seems that Philedelphi’s famous Liberty Bell was never rung to declare American Independence, Paul Revere did not carry out a solo ride through the night to warn the Americans that the British were coming, and that from the very onset, America was never the land of the “free” and never had equal rights. George Washington and his colleagues were not interested in freeing African slaves or giving votes to women. To give a British example, many British people, including famous politicians like Winston Churchill, have gloried in the achievements of the British Empire.To them, it’s the story of how the British brought civilisation to the previously “dark” corners of the world. These people conveniently forget the cruelties of slavery, the atrocities of war, the economic exploitation of the countries we “civilised” and the innate racism of  our Imperial administrators.

I could go on but I am now straying too far from the subject of Brexit. I know you must have started to get twitchy because I haven’t mentioned the B word for several minutes. The point I have been labouring is that it’s a shame that “Brexiteers” often nostalgically hark back to those glory days that never existed in the first place. As well as being a Remainer ( or a “Remoaner”as Brexit supporters now cynically call us), I am on the left of the political spectrum. However I am on the “soft Left” not the “hard left”, to use terms that I don’t really like. I disagree with the left wing idea, expounded by many labour party supporters, that the Brexit crisis should be exploited to engineer a General Election and thus try to get the Conservatives out of power. It grates to say it, but I believe that the country should rally round the Prime Minister and the compromise withdrawel agreement that she and her officials have negotiated with the European Union. This is for the sake of the country and not for narrow political gain. When I expressed this view on social media I was immediately attacked for not wanting to bring down an “evil” government. At the same time I still felt under the kosh for being a remoaner.  I feel as though I am being ambushed from both sides. It is unpleasant and disconcerting.

For better or for worse, the decision has been taken for the UK to leave the EU. I think the referendum was deeply flawed, being full of false promises, lies and financial irregularities. It was only called by Prime Minister David Cameron, to try to bring his vociferous, anti Europe right-wing under control. This was a reckless decision, in my opinion, for it has now divided the country and landed it in this terrible mess. However, the vote was taken and, even though my side lost, I think the result should now stand and be respected. And yet the arguments go on and on. Some Remainers want a second referendum now that the general public understands a lot more of the facts and the possible harmful consequences of the “Leave” vote. I don’t agree but I can see their point. Meanwhile, some Leavers are now campaigning for a no- deal Brexit. They want the UK to just walk away and make a clean break from the EU. I don’t agree with this either. Anyone who has been through a divorce knows that it not easy and not right to break promises, renage on agreements and abandon responsibilities. As I said, it’s a total mess for the country, and it has created a vile atmosphere. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve lived through in my life although the 80’s Miner’s Strike and the Falklands War were pretty horrible too.

The toxic cloud over the country shows no sign of lifting. At the moment, the politicians seems to be involved in a endless game of bluff and counter bluff. People on both sides of the Leave/ Remain divide continue to be angry, upset and worried. People in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about a return to the terrorism of the  “Troubles” and the potential ripping up of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement which was made on the understanding that there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because they were both members of the EU. Now a return to the old, tragic situation could well be on the cards even though all the politicians are denying it. People in Scotland are also angry and concerned because they mostly voted to stay in the EU but are being forced out of it. The fateful vote of 2016 may well lead to the break up of the UK as well as the EU.

The vote has had many unintended negative consequences. One has been a sharp rise in racism and aggression towards foreigners. Even before the referendum campaign was completed a member of a white supremecist group shockingly murdered the Labour MP Jo Cox who had devoted much of her career to helping people and trying to bring people together. After the leave vote came through, many interpreted it as a protest vote against large- scale immigration. Certain tabloid newspapers  and leave campaigners had manage to conflate mass immigration with the EU’s free movement of people rule. As soon as the leave vote went through, some thought they had now been given carte-blanche to attack and abuse foreigners. Numerous unsavoury incidents were reported in the press. It left a sour taste in my mouth and shocked me to realize that our civilised country could so quickly descend into racial prejudice and discrimination which many had hoped was a thing of the past. It had been simmering just below the surface all the time. The politics of Enoch Powell and the far right were moving towards the mainstream. When I visit NHS hospitals or watch documentaries about them on TV, it never fails to amaze me how many nurses and doctors, including consultants, come from other countries. Immigrants are a very important part of the UK workforce  but many blame them for their troubles and turn them into scape-goats. I  hate the idea of my country wanting to pull up the drawbridge and turn its back on its nearest neighbours and most natural allies. But many people now disagree with me.

It has been a very uncomfortable period for all who live in the United Kingdom. Even the Queen, who is famous for saying nothing political, has made allusions to the country needing to come together. Royal correspondents have been wheeled in to try to interpret Her Majesty’s Regal utterings. It’s a good story for the media as it brings together two of the nation’s favourite obsessions : The Monarchy and Brexit. Yes, even the Queen has tasted the fetid atmosphere in her country and found it noxious. At last there is something that her Majesty and I can agree on. Brexit has led to many surprising consequences. Who would have thought that I, a rebublican, would have been quoting and supporting the Queen. Who would have thought that I would be feeling sorry for a Conservative Prime Minister and even rooting for her despite the many harmful things Mrs May’s government has done? Who would have thought that I, a lifelong Labour supporter, would have become embroiled in arguments with fellow Labourites? Brexit has created new barriers but has also melted down old barriers. Senior Labour, Conservative and Liberal MPs are currently campaigning together for a second referendum because in their view, they are putting their country before their party.

The whole issue is endlessly controversial, with disagreements and arguments at every turn. However, I’m sure that everyone can at least agree on one simple thing — we wish that Brexit can be achieved as soon as possible and then go away. Then we can all try to get on with the rest of our lives! If only the toxic cloud would lift so that peace and harmony can at last shine through once again.


Remembrance or remembrance?

29 Nov

Memory is a strange and elusive thing. Two people who have shared exactly the same experiences in the past can have completely different memories of them.  Memory is not only selective but can also be subjective. It is difficult to pin down the exact, objective truth. The memory of an event can be viewed through from so many perspectives. Prejudices and subsequent experiences can colour an event so much.

That is why I suppose, Governments try to impose an “official” collective memory of an important National event. It’s much easier and more convenient if everyone is reading from the same hymn sheet. Sometimes, in totalitarian states, the past has been radically re-written with massive ommissions and massive distortions, to suit the needs of the present. The Nazi and Stalinist regimes were past masters at this.  In the UK we have not gone to such extremes, but censorship and propaganda have still been employed at critical times, in order to get the population to interpret an event in an approved way. The First World War or the Great War is a case in point. That devastating conflict finished just over 100 years ago and my country, the United Kingdom, has recently been consumed by its collective, officially- approved acts of Remembrance. Nobody who fought in that war is alive anymore, so individual acts of genuine remembering are no longer possible. We are left with: memorials, prose, poetry, sculpture and paintings. We are also left with the “official” rituals and public ceremonies. Now that we can no longer talk to a survivor, we have to make the best we can of all these second-hand forms of remembering.

Some sources are informative and some are very moving, but they are second hand nevertheless. In fact some of the works of art or literature about the war  are possibly based on third or even fourth hand sources.  Sebastian Faulkes was only able to write his famous First World War novel “Birdsong” after many hours in the library (or possibly, on the Internet.) There is a danger to this. It’s like a game of Chinese whispers. By the time the message has travelled right round the circle, it could be completely different from the one that started off. With regards to the 1914 to 18 war, we can no longer check facts with the participants, and even if we could, they would all have their different points of view. There are many factors masking the “truth.” All this has made it easier for the establishment to step in and impose its officially approved narrative. The generally accepted view of the First World War now is that it was a time of heroic, stoical SACRIFICE. That is the accepted British way — to suffer quietly and make the ultimate sacrifice of dying for one’s country. A conflicting narrative of : the waste, the pointlessness and the pity of war came with the rise in popularity of the First World War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. But this idea did not take hold until the 1960’s. By then the official interpretation of the Great War’s meaning had taken a firm hold and much of it still holds strong today. It is still not acceptable to remember our war dead as soldiers who needlessly died for a pointless cause. Much more palatable then to swallow the more accepted line that they bravely sacrificed their lives to protect and preserve the freedoms of their countrymen, from the threat of German tyranny.

Alternative versions of the war’s meaning could emerge from  memoirs of course or from other primary sources such as soldiers’ letters,  diaries, photographs and films. But all of these sources can be challenged as not revealing the whole, objective reality. The Allied Commander-in-Chief, Earl Haig, almost certainly retrospectively doctored his diaries and memoirs to give his decisions the most positive spin, in the light of what subsequently happened. Soldiers writing home might well have concealed horrible truths because they did not want to upset their loved ones. The letters were probably censored anyway. After the first few months of the war, soldiers were discouraged from taking photographs of the war happening around them.  They were also discouraged from writing diaries. Press photographers were mostly kept away from the battle areas. Films served propaganda purposes. For instance, the famous footage of the British Tommies going over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in June, 1916, was actually film of an earlier training exercise. We never get to see thousands of men being mown down by machine gun fire ( thank goodness!) So many of our “memories” of this crucial event are officially sanctioned, controlled and sanitised and do not necessarily reveal the whole “truth.” In this way, officially approved Remembrance has largely replaced the more confusing, mixed messages provided by personal remembrances. It is more comfortable and convenient to have one agreed version of the war and agreed methods of commemorating it. Thus we now have our Day of Remembrance every November.

So what exactly were people doing on this last, high profile Remembrance Day in November, 2018? What were they doing at the Cenotaph and other war memorials throughout the land? It’s easier to state what they were not doing. What is certain is that the participants were not really remembering the details of what happened a century ago. The vast majority of Britain’s population were not alive when the war was raging or when the guns finally fell silent a hundred years ago. Many, including myself, cannot even remember the Second World War which followed 20 years after the “War to end all wars.”  Therefore, if it is impossible to genuinely remember the Great War, why are we being constantly urged not to forget?  On war memorials and social media posts up and down the country we have been bombarded with the phrase from Kipling’s early poem: “Lest we forget.” This almost sounds like a threat. In the dictionary “Lest” is defined as a conjunction meaning “in order that not” or “for fear that.” Thus it seems as if forgetting is a fearful prospect. We’d better not forget, or else. Or else what? What are we frightened of forgetting? What will happen if we do forget? These questions are difficult to answer because they are like thinking about the unthinkable. Of course we will not forget what those soldiers did for us. How could we? Yet the reality is that in everyday life, departed people are only remembered for about two or possibly three generations, and after that they pass into the dreaded oblivion. I can remember my grandparents but can recall nothing of my great grandparents. They are just images on a few faded photographs or words chiselled on to an old grave stone. So without the official props of Remembrance, those thousands of perished soldiers would have been forgotten already. They can only now be remembered in a vague, general sense, in ceremonies that serve to bind us together as a nation. How long can this go on for? We no longer “remember” the British dead in the Boer War, the Zulu war, the Crimean War or the Napoleonic wars. They have passed into the mists of time.

Even though they could not be genuinely remembering, people have certainly enjoyed the whole experience of Remembrance Sunday. A nurse taking my blood, commentated that this year’s ceremonies were ” lovely.” Two friends at a recent dinner party agreed that 2018’s Remembrance Day was particularly enjoyable in their respective towns. They loved the marching soldiers, the military bands, the displays of poppies, the laying of wreaths, the 2 minutes silence and the playing of the Last Post. A very good day out then. Throughout the last 4 years, people have flocked to  gaze at and photograph striking pieces of conceptual art such as images of British Tommies on a beach or huge shoals of bright red poppies flowing into the moat of the Tower of London. Massed poppies have featured in many striking pieces of art. “Nit and natter” groups have had a great time knitting  thousands of woollen red poppies to represent the British dead from that terrible, distant war. The poppy has come to symbolise the sacrifice of the soldiers who perished. The idea came from a poem, “In Flanders Fields” written in 1915 by a Canadian field surgeon, John McCrae, who was serving in that worn-torn area of Belgium. He noticed that poppies were the first flowers to grow in the churned up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders. Once the war was over, the poppy was one of the only flowers to grow on the otherwise barren battle fields.  This is why the British Legion, which helps injured soldiers, adopted the red poppy as its emblem. The powerful symbolism of the poppy is enhanced by the fact that it is red, the colour of blood. Even today, most of the public wear red poppies out of respect for those who sacrificed their lives in that far off war. Later, white poppies were produced to symbolise Peace but many refuse to wear these because they believe it is dishonouring our war dead.

The only trouble with using a poppy to remember those who  died in the wars, ( the Second World War has now been added to the commemorations), is that it is very pretty. It’s very beauty prevents real remembering, in my opinion. I wonder how many would have flocked to the Tower of London art installation if it had featured a mock-up of rats, lice and putrifying corpses?  Or perhaps an artist could have made piles of skulls with clouds of blue-bottles buzzing around them?  I believe these would  have been a more realistic representation of conditions in the Western Front trenches. Siegfried Sassoon, a war veteran and poet made the same point in his 1919 poem “Aftermath.” Thinking of the noble appeal of war- memorials to “remember”, he wrote:

“Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a

hopeless rain?”

The point is simple — war is not pretty, like displays of poppies, and not dignified, like ritualised ceremonies. It is ghastly, ugly and cruel. I find it hard to understand why some people “enjoy” Remembrance Sunday and describe it as “lovely.” In my view, remembering such a tragedy should be an unpleasant, painful and uncomfortable experience.

Another obstacle to a realistic understanding of what the Great War was about is the overuse of certain words to describe it. Phrases such as the “horror of war” or ” ultimate sacrifice” have been used so often that they have lost their meaning. They have become cliches. They convey none of the horror or tragedy of war that they are meant to express. People are well meaning but phrases that trip off the tongue in an automatic response, fail to deliver any meaningful message. Let’s face it, if you weren’t there it is impossible to use realistic words to describe the conflict. But such empty cliches make it even more difficult to gain any real insight into soldiers’ experiences in the war. It is much easier to use off-the-peg formulae when writing or talking about the war, because they free us from thinking too deeply about such a disturbing subject. However, they are another barrier standing between us and the real thing.  Few people willingly seek out pain and distress. Most of us are not masochists.

Thus we are left with commemorations of wars that are ritualistic and prescribed from above.  People love rituals it seems. Look at all the stuff that is going on in churches, mosques, synagogues and temples around the world. Ritualistic worship is a world away from figuring out one’s personal spiritual path. It is easier to follow other people’s rules and seek safety in numbers. My parents were lifelong Methodists. If they followed the “method” ( prescribed by John Wesley) they believed it would gain them entrance to  heaven. I would argue that the act of Remembrance has mostly been reduced to the same thing. Rememberers now follow a ready-made “method.” The individual does not have to deeply engage with the subjects of war, death, horror, atrocity, sacrifice or tragedy. Neither does he or she have to ask the awkward question: “why?” He or she has simply got to follow the rules laid down by established  society. There is a lot of social pressure to conform to these rules. We are all expected to buy and wear poppies. For instance, all TV presenters are expected to religiously wear them every November. People choosing to wear white peace poppies can expect to be challenged, as diverting from the accepted norm is frowned upon. Like Christmas, Remembrance Day has been turned into a festival of conformity.

Yet another problem, in my view, is that Remembrance has got inter-twined with the idea of patriotism. You don’t love your country if you don’t wear the poppy. You are not respecting the soldiers who died if you choose to wear a white poppy. I love my country, warts and all, and would never emigrate. It is the country that I belong to, where my roots are. However, love for one’s country can sometimes turn into distrust and even dislike of foreigners. In other words, patriotism can spill-over into chauvinism, and even racism. This is why I have always been uneasy about it. Far-right, white supremecist groups such as The National Front and the English Defence League wrap themselves up in the flag of St George ( ironically the flag of Genoa in Italy) and preach hatred of immigrants, asylum seekers and foreigners in general. This is why I am always uncomfortable about overt patriotism and I believe that our Remembrance ceremonies have unfortunately become coloured by this. The days have become excuses for flag waving and military marching when it is exactly that sort of stuff that got us into the Great War in the first place. A major reason why the UK entered the war was to defend its Empire and its naval hegemony against German enchroachment. For many, it was a highly patriotic exercise. We would show Germany who was boss. The same chauvenistic attitudes were prevalent in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey and the rest — leading to a four year conflict and mass slaughter. It is ironic, in my opinion, that the patriotism which partly led to the disastrous war is now being employed to remember it. It makes me feel uneasy and makes me suspect that we have not learnt the lessons of history.

I think, if we really want to commemorate the dead of last century’s murderous wars, the best way is to campaign for peace. One should try to ensure that there is not a repeat of such disastrous wars and the terrible waste of life. I have been a peace campaigner for much of my life. I was particularly active in the 1980’s and 90’s when American Cruise Missiles were being stationed in our country, making the UK a prime target in any future nuclear war with the Soviet Union. I was frightened for myself and for my young children. I did everything I could, as an ordinary citizen, to raise awareness of the dangers of war for our country and  for the World. You would think that campaigning for peace in the world would be a popular, non-controversial cause. However, during my time as an active peace campaigner I was verbally abused and called a “coward”, a “communist” and even a “traitor.” It was that patriotism thing again. I loved my country but if I spoke out against its militeristic ventures ( Falklands War, Iraq wars, parts 1 and 2, Afghanistan war, bombing  of Syria etc) I was castigated as an unpatriotic traitor. This is still the case today. I am sure some people reading this blog will think of me in such terms.

So I believe that true remembrance and true commemoration of our war dead is to campaign for world peace, not turn out to see marching soldiers, listen to military bands,  look at pretty displays of poppies and wave the Union Jack. War memorials often speak of our “Glorious Dead.” This makes me suspect that instead of reminding us of the  tragedy of warfare, they are in danger of glorifying it. Our attractively packaged “cult of Remembrance” serves as a barrier, separating people from the horrors of the real thing. I’m all in favour of remembering and not forgetting the disastrous follies of the past. But surely, remembering such shocking and abominable events should be an uncomfortable endurance test rather than an enjoyable, officially sanctioned day out.