I’ve just been to Croatia, but was I really there?

17 Jun

I’ve just returned from a 10 day visit to Croatia, staying on the beautiful Adriatic coast. It was a relaxing, family holiday, linking up with my wife’s relatives who drove down from Milan.( Chris’s daughter is married to an Italian and so she has 2 delightful Anglo-Italian grandchildren) We all had a lovely time. I’ve been to Croatia before, when it was still part of the now defunct state of Yugoslavia. I’d taken 2 of my own children for the same sort of relaxing holiday by the sea with a bit of sight-seeing thrown in. That was in 1990, just a few months before the terrible civil war broke out and Yugoslavia started tragically tearing itself apart. Back then I was in Istria near the Italian border. A boat trip to Venice was one of the highlights. This year we were based in southern Dalmatia, staying in the Split and Trogir area on the coast. Both holidays were very enjoyable.

However when someone recently asked me what Croatia is like, I had to admit that I didn’t really know. This would have applied to my 1990 trip as well. On both occasions I had physically been present in Croatia, but apart from the landscape and some historical buildings, I cannot claim to have experienced much that was genuine or authentic Croatian. I didn’t even speak a word of the language, as conveniently, all the Croatians I met in the tourist industry spoke good English. I am actually a bit ashamed to admit I was so lazy. Even Chris’s grandchildren, encouraged by their father, said the occasional “hvala” ( thank you) and “dobar dan” ( hello) This always raised a smile from the waiter or shop-assistant who had been resigned to conversing in English and maybe a bit of German, Italian or French. It is a conceit of the British abroad that they expect every other nation to speak English, so that they can stay in their linguistic comfort-zone and not put themselves out in any way. They are just lucky that their language is spoken by Americans, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and many others. The former British Empire has given us the convenient opportunity to be idle.

For the first few days we stayed in a small guest house on a hillside overlooking the centre of Split, Croatia’s second biggest city. It is a residential area and so one would expect that we would have experienced some every-day Croatian life. But this did not really happen. We were greeted in English and as soon as we neared the city centre most of the signs and adverts were in English too. We were in an area named Veli Varos on Marjan Hill. It was ( is) charming, with winding, narrow streets and quaint old buildings with tiny gardens and courtyards. But were we really in a real Croatian neighbourhood? A generous sprinkling of parked cars had Austrian, German, Italian and even Dutch plates. Many of the old dwellings had been turned into apartments and holiday homes. The most we saw of Croatia were a few old men chewing the fat on the street corners and the odd lean and lithe cat lazing in the sun. It seems that the old parts of Split are gradually metamorphosing into tourist zones. Thus they are slowly losing their original character and are ceasing to be genuine Croatian neighbourhoods. If this process is taken to its extreme then the Croatian tourist industry will be in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. This, in my opinion, is what has happened already in areas such as the Costa Del Sol in southern Spain. A beautiful coastline has been scarred by a procession of high rise, concrete hotels and apartment blocks, thrown up to pack in as many holiday-makers as possible. Many still flock there for their holiday in the sun, which is fair enough but are they really experiencing Spain? ( or do they actually want to?) Coming back to Split, we eventually discovered where many of the locals live — in ranks of Socialist-era tower blocks, marching up the hills that encircle the city. Needless to say, we did not visit those areas, merely affording them a brief glance as we sped past in a car.

Later, we moved west from Split to a lovely apartment near the historical town of Trogir. From our balcony, we had gorgeous views of the turquoise and blue sea punctuated by green islands. As we sipped our drinks we were entertained by a kaleidoscope of yachts and boats gliding and scurrying in all directions. Occasionally, usually after dark, an enormous, flood-lit cruise-ship would glide out of Split and weave its stately way through the picturesque patch-work of southern Dalmatian islands. Every evening we would prepare a meal in the summer kitchen and eat it in the garden. It was idyllic ( except for the pesky mosquitoes) and we all enjoyed it. But on this occasion we were not travellers, finding out about the culture and life-style of the country we were visiting. We were simply content to be tourists, having a relaxing time and enjoying the sun, the scenary, the food and the wine. We were enjoying our little slice of the good life.

The trouble with me is that I am a former history and geography teacher. Everywhere I go and in almost everything I do, I want to be learning stuff or be stimulated by new experiences. Apparently the Victorians had this approach to travel as well. ( well, according to Michael Portillo on his TV railway journeys.) For him and for them, travel was primarily an educational experience. This is the sort of travel bug I have got. It is both a joy and an affliction. It has driven me to visit all sorts of places, far and near to seek out exciting experiences and discover fascinating facts. It has led me to read extensively about the places I visit so that I can appreciate them and try to understand them in a deeper way. My aim is to scratch beneath the surface of a place and see what lies beneath. I have often said that “every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it.” However, this approach also has its disadvantages. It means that I don’t often allow myself to truly relax and recharge my batteries. I am not one for lying on a beach or by a pool, sunbathing or reading a “page-turner”, day after day after day. I am usually wanting to get out and about to see the sights and experience the life of the place that I am visiting. Unfortunately this has led me to be a bit of a travel snob at times, unfairly looking down on people who go away simply to have a rest and a “chill out.” I now try hard to curb this attitude. My excuse is that being judgemental is an unfortunate family trait. Afterall, everyone can do what they want . Everyone to their own.

Having said all that, I am still a little disppointed that I didn’t see much of the real Croatia.( if there is such a thing.) The old centres of both Split and Trogir are World Heritage Sites because of their historical and architectural importance, but I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing something distinctive Croatian or Balkan. Both old towns have been turned into largely artificial theme parks created to amuse and service tourists. Sometimes they seem to be completely swamped by visitors, especially when an enormous cruise ship has docked. The tourists, decanted from their ships or planes, proceed to trawl around the old towns, passing a procession of historical buildings that have been converted into: cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, leather shops, jewellery shops, art and craft galleries, tourist information offices selling excursions and ice cream parlours. Does the local population like jewellery, crafts or ice cream so much that it needs such a dense concentration of shops and stalls? Do the locals never eat at home? Both Split and Trogir have some interesting old buildings, especially their respective cathedrals, and their, narrow old streets were certainly atmospheric, but a lot of the time, as I was walking around I felt it was an artificial experience. It felt as if I was in a cliched, fantasy world, divorced from reality. When I walk down the street at home I am never assailed by people wanting me to eat at their restaurant or go on their walking tour.

I travel to seek out the unfamilier, but this had more than a hint of familiarity about it. I had seen this sort of scenario in many places. I remember walking round an old town full of restaurants, jewellery and craft shops in Nice, France. I experienced it again on the striking Greek island of Santorini. There it was again in Benidorm, Spain and Sorrento, Italy. I call it “Tourist Land.” Tourist industries in countries like Croatia are extremely important because they contribute a lot to the local economy and provide a significant amount of employment. The tourist industry, by definition, exists to please tourists by giving them what they want. The danger is, in my view, that by supplying visitors with what they want and what they feel comfortable with, the individual character of unique and fascinating places is gradually squeezed out. In the end, tourists may end up with one homogenised experience after another. Every place they visit will start to resemble every other place.

On our penultimate evening on Croatia we left the touristy coast and headed inland for  just half an hour.  Giuliano, my wife’s son-in-law, had found out about a rustic, restaurant in the countryside that served a traditional dish called peka. It was potatoes and meat, slow cooked in special dishes in a wood fired oven, for as long as 2 hours. It wasn’t my normal cup of tea as I am a vegetarian. However, they kindly prepared a colourful and delicious dish of roasted vegetables in the same manner for Chris and myself. There was nothing else on the menu and no dessert. There wasn’t even any ice cream! But the food was great and this was the closest we came to a Croatian experience. There was even a group of Croatians eating there. As they waited patiently for their food, this group of local men drank beer and sang emotional-sounding folk songs in rich, 2 or 3 part harmonies. We imagined they were all about love and loss, or were proud, patriotic songs. It made a change from the western style pop music we had mostly experienced up to this point. Just for a few hours, it felt as if we had escaped tourist land to experience a little bit of the real Croatia.

So for that one evening I felt as if we were really in the country we were visiting. This was a very enjoyable, relaxing holiday. However, if I go to Croatia again, and I problably will, I’ll leave the tourist- dominated coast and head inland in search of more authentic experiences. In other words I’ll get as far away from the cruise ships as possible. It will possibly be a more challenging and less convenient holiday but, as I read on a t-shirt recently, life begins one step outside your comfort zone.

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375 Years Too Late.

27 May

It was the weekend of the Royal Wedding and I was travelling down to London. No, I wasn’t planning to travel on to Windsor, drape the Union Jack around me and cheer on the happy couple. Far from it, in fact. I am an ardent Republican and would like nothing better than to see the end of the expensive and anachronistic institution of the monarchy. I was actually going to see my son and his family who live on the western edge of the capital. My train journey south did however have a Royal connection and one that I was quite excited about. I planned to break my journey at Peterborough and go to see Queen Catherine of Aragon’s tomb in the cathedral there. One would expect that all  Royal tombs in England would be found in Westminster Abbey, London. However, this particular queen was laid to rest 75 miles north in a small Cambridgeshire city on the edge of the Fens. I only found this out relatively recently while watching the TV dramatisation of Hilary Mantell’s excellent historical novel “Wolf Hall.” It follows the machiavellian role of Thomas Cromwell in Henry VIII’s difficult, drawn out divorce from his first wife, the aforesaid Catherine. When Catherine died in 1536 after 3 years of enforced, unhappy post-divorce isolation, Henry refused to grant her a place of honour at Westminster and said words to the effect of “stick her in Peterborough.”

Peterborough Cathedral is one of the most intact, large Norman buildings in England. Its official name is the Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew. It stands on the site of a monastery, Medehamstede, founded in Anglo-Saxon times in AD 655 and was largely rebuilt between 1118 and 1238. Today its imposing West Front is an outstanding example of  the Early English Gothic style. Following his Dissolution of the Monasteries King Henry VIII kept Peterborough Abbey intact as one of a small group of more secular Cathedrals. This was in 1541. The reason for this was probably that the Abbey/cathedral was very prosperous and would bring in good amounts of money for the Crown. Some romantics have suggested that Peterborough Abbey was made a cathedral as a memorial to Catherine. Who knows what might have been going through the mind of that unpredictable Tudor monarch?

I have travelled through Peterborough many times on my way to and from London on the east coast main line. I always remember to glance out of the window to spot the towers of the medieval cathedral peeping out from behind a modern shopping mall. I have been to the city for 2 unsuccessful job interviews and a couple of exam markers’ conferences. In the 1960s it was designated as Britain’ latest New Town which prompted a big expansion of its population up to about 180,000.  I remember it for its anonymous housing estates, carefully demarcated industrial estates, retail parks and dozens and dozens of identical roundabouts. I got lost there quite a few times as this was before the age of the sat-nav. I used to live just a little to the south in Stevenage New Town, Hertfordshire. Yet in all that time I never visited the cathedral and wasn’t even aware of the Royal tomb’s existance. I had seen grand, ornamental Tudor tombs before, in Westminster Abbey and other ancient churches up and down the land. Now I knew it was there, I was really looking forward to seeing the tomb of this famous Tudor Queen.

Although a republican today, I have always retained a soft spot for Catherine of Aragon. It’s the history teacher part of me that is to blame. Queen Catherine is one of the 2 reasons why my second daughter shares her name. The other reason is my favourite Hollywood actress: Katherine Hepburn. I always thought that Catherine of Aragon got a very raw deal at the hands of her chauvenistic, cruel husband, but conducted herself with grace and dignity at all times.

The daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, she was brought up to be a queen. In her late teens, in 1501, she was married off to Prince Arthur, the eldest son of King Henry VII and heir to the throne of England. Her title at that point was the Princess of Wales, but she was destined to become the next Queen. Sadly though, just a year later, Arthur died before gaining the throne. Catherine, just a pawn in the power politics of England and Spain, had to quickly shelve her grieving and get married to her deceased husband’s younger brother Henry. She was 19 and he was 17 at the time. Henry and Catherine became King and Queen upon the death of Henry VII in June 1509 and a long, seemingly successful marriage ensued. They had a daughter, Mary, and then they had a son, Henry, Duke of Cornwall. Tragically, baby Henry died after living less than 2 months. Catherine was distraught and worried her family and courtiers by spending many hours kneeling on cold stone floors, praying. She was a very devout Catholic christian. In subsequent years she never gave birth to another son so Mary remained her only child. From Henry’s point of view, this was a disastrous situation. He was convinced that if a daughter succeeded him there would be a civil war, as many powerful people in those sexist times, considered that a woman would be too weak to rule. Perhaps Henry was thinking of what happened when King Henry I was succeeded by his daughter Mathilda. She was challenged by her cousin Stephen and the result was a nasty civil war which led to Mathilda losing her crown. (although she got the last laugh when her son Henry II succeeded the usurper, Stephen.) Therefore, Henry now planned to divorce Catherine and marry a younger, more fertile wife.

As you probably know, Henry VIII was refused permission to divorce Catherine, by the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope. Henry’s eventual solution, helped by Thomas Cromwell, was to take England out of the Roman Catholic Church and make himself the head of a newly created Church of England. Thus he was, in effect, able to grant himself a divorce and go on to marry the new “love” of his life Ann Boleyn. Poor Catherine never agreed to the divorce and always considered herself the rightful Queen. She was stripped of her Royal titles and was now referred to as the Dowager Duchess of Wales. She was given a house and servants but was regarded as an embarrasment as she refused to accept the divorce and continued to regard herself as the Queen. She regarded the new queen, Ann Boleyn, as an imposter. In 1535 she was moved to Kimbolton Castle where she virtually lived in one room. She only left it to go to Mass. She dressed herself in a hair-shirt of the Order of St Francis. On January 7th, 1536, Catherine of Aragon died. As we now know, she was buried in Peterborough Cathedral. Henry spitefully refused to go to the funeral and forbade their daughter, Mary, to attend. However, the funeral was a lavish affair, attended by 4 bishops and 6 abbots as well as large crowds. Ironically, on the very day of Catherine’s funeral, Ann Boleyn sadly miscarried.

Catherine’s tomb was one befitting a Queen. I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. I walked from the railway station through a largely nondescript modern town centre. The best bit was the cathedral square which had an attractive old parish church and a mid 17th century Guildhall or Butter Cross. This is where the market is held. Next I passed through an old stone archway into the Cathedral close. I expected it to be a peaceful, spiritual oasis, a world away from the noisy, bustling town next door. However I was greeted with loud pop music and the sight of yellow helmeted people abseiling down the left hand tower of the cathedral’s magnificent west front. The only valid excuse I could think of was that they were probably doing it for charity. I tried to block this raucous intrusion out of my mind and concentrate on the west front itself. As stated before it’s a rare example of Early English Gothic architecture. Three enormous archways are surmounted by statues of Saints Paul, Peter and Andrew.( looking from left to right). Peter crowns the middle and highest archway. At his feet is a fishing net reminding us of his previous occupation before he was called to be one of Jesus’s chief disciples. He and his fellow followers were now to become “fishers of men.” ( All those Methodist Sunday School lessons have stood me in good stead!) In fact the nickname for the cathedral’s west front is Galilee, after the sea where Peter fished. The city takes its name from Saint Peter.

Blocking out the pop music and the shouting abseilers, I entered what I expected to be the hush of the Cathedral’s interior. Unfortunately it was full of chattering school children. The interior is impressive however with tall stone archways and lovely stained glass windows. At the far end, an impressive “new” bit, built in 1500, has sensational fan vaulting. I stared at it for ages and gave myself neck ache! There is a very old font and interesting information boards giving a history of the Anglo-Saxon abbey that became a  Norman cathedral. However, it was the Tudor Queen’s tomb that I was most interested in. The helpful steward told me it was at the far end , on the left hand side. I approached the area with mounting excitement. Soon I spotted information boards about Catherine of Aragon. This was it, after all these years!

Then came the anti-climax — the tomb which my mind had imagined would be so magnificent, simply wasn’t there! All I saw was an engraved marble slab lying flat on the ground . Alongside it was a fancy wrought iron screen decorated with the inscription: “Catherine Queen of England, 1485-1536.” That was it! I desperately searched for something more ornate and substantial. In my haste and excitement, had I missed it? It was then I spotted another information  board. Catherine of Aragon’s tomb had been destroyed by Cromwellian troops in 1643! After they captured the town from The Royalists in the early struggles of the English Civil War, the Parliamentary soldiers went on the rampage and sacked the cathedral. They destroyed the Lady Chapel, the Chapter House, the cloisters, the High altar and the choir stalls. They wanted to wipe out any signs of Catholicism. Medieval records were ransacked and lost to history. Family tombs were attacked and desecrated. It seems strange and hypocritical that so called christian ( Puritan) soldiers wanted to do this. Of course, catholic Catherine’s tomb was a prime target. It was demolished and the gilt lettering stolen. The only blessing was that her body was left to lie undisturbed. So, if I wanted to see Catherine of Aragon’s tomb, I was 375 years too late!

I consoled myself by staring at the New Chapel’s wonderful fan-vaulting again, and swallowing my disappointment I walked on to the other side of the cathedral. To my amazement I now came across a shrine to Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been buried here as well after her execution at the hands of Elizabeth I. Was I going to see my Royal Tudor tomb afterall? Once again a frisson of excitement surge up inside me. But where was the tomb? Then I read that King James I had had his mother’s body removed from Peterborough and reburied in Westminster Abbey when he ascended the throne in 1603. Foiled again! I was 415 years late for that one! Two Tudor queens had been buried there but neither of their Peterborough tombs had survived.

The last resting place of Catherine of Aragon may not be an ornamental Tudor edifice today but it is still very smart, well kept and dignified. In the late 19th century, the wife of one of the cathedral’s canons, Katherine Clayton, started a public appeal, asking all the Katherines ( Catherines) of England to donate towards a replacement black marble slab that can be seen today. Apparently, after the Roundhead soldiers had smashed up the tomb and stolen the gilt lettering, a dean of the cathedral used the marble for the floor of his summerhouse sometime in the early 1700’s. The appeal was successful and the replacement slab was inscribed with gilt lettering and installed. On her new tomb, Catherine is now referred to as Queen of England. A wooden plaque remembers her as “A Queen cherished by the English people, for her loyalty, piety, courage and compassion.” Her notorious second husband may be more famous but I would argue that Catherine of Aragon deserves much more of our admiration and respect.

Every year, in the weekend closest to 29th January ( the date of Catherine’s passing) a special, Catherine of Aragon festival is held at Peterborough Cathedral. A civic service is held on the Friday, attended by a representative of the Spanish Embassy. Then on the Saturday, a rare Catholic mass is held in this Anglican Cathedral. Hundreds of school children attend in mock Tudor costumes. Flowers and Catherine’s heraldic symbol, the pomegranite, are laid upon the tomb. Ironically, considering her subsequent childbirth travails, the pomegranite is regarded as a symbol of fertility.

Although I was 375 years too late it was still a fascinating visit to Queen Catherine’s last resting place at Peterborough. In my opinion this historical experience was eminantly more interesting than the orgy of swooning, genuflecting and sycophancy that ensued in Windsor the next day. Surely attitudes towards a privileged, immensely wealthy and unelected monarchy should have changed in the 500 years since Tudor times?

Out Of The Ashes.

6 May

Dresden, a city I’ve just visited, is famous for two main things. The first is that it was widely regarded as one of the most exquisite Baroque cities in Europe. It was dubbed “The Florence of the North”, because of its captivating array of delicate spires, soaring towers and magnificent domes. The huge stone dome of its premier church, the Frauenkirche, inspired by the domes of Italian churches, made it into the most significant Protestant place of worship, north of the Alps. The Bruhlsche Terrasse, an impressive riverside promenade along one bank of the Elbe, was known as the “Balcony of Europe.” It would be great if this Saxon city was famous just for being beautiful. Unfortunately, its other claim to fame is that in February, 1945, its historic centre was completely destroyed by three, devastating Allied bombing raids, towards the end of the Second World War. Its heart was ripped out by the British and American bombs, reducing it to a smouldering heap of rubble. Say “Dresden” to a random collection of people in a word- association exercise, and nine out of ten would  respond with “bombs” not ” Baroque” or “buildings.” As in many cases in life, it’s the negative association that usually wins out. This city now unfortunately stands along Hiroshima as the scene of one of the most infamous atrocities of the entire war.

The greatest catastrophe in the history of Dresden occured on the night of February 13th, 1945. Up to that point it looked as if one of Germany’s most picturesque and culturally important cities would survive the conflict largely unscathed. However, that devastating night changed everything. The sirens began to wail at 9-39pm and the first bombs rained down at 10-13pm. More than 750 British Lancaster bombers dropped their deadly cargo in 2 waves of attack, 3 hours apart. The next day, American bombers came in at midday to finish the job. It was grimly appropriate that the raids came between Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, because at the end of it all, Dresden’s historic Alstadt ( old town) was literally reduced to ashes. Incendiary bombs had caused a massive firestorm. The ashes fell on surrounding villages up to 35 kms away. Over 35,000 people perished. Many of them were refugees who had fled the advancing Red Army and were taking shelter in the city. The Soviets who later entered the city, claimed that 50,000 people had died. The RAF and USAF double attack on Dresden was the climax of a deliberately destructive bombing policy in which civilian populations and historic buildings were regarded as fair game. It was total war. The sheer extent of the devastation and the fact that thousands of innocent victims of Nazism were slaughtered, put this raid in a different class to all previous attacks. An area 20 kilometres square was virtually obliterated.

Many regard the bombing of Dresden as a war crime. Dresden had no great military or industrial importance. Others point out that the German bombing raids on British cities such as London, Bristol and Coventry were similarly shocking. The Luftwaffe also attacked equally beautiful British cities such as Canterbury and Norwich, in the so called Beiderbecke raids, although even the Nazis agreed to leave Oxford and Cambridge alone. If Dresden, along with Hiroshima and Nagasaki were  war crimes , no one was subsequently put on trial. This is because these particular deadly and devastating attacks were carried out by the eventual winners of the war. Only the losers are ever tried, as at the Nuremberg war crime trials. So “Bomber” Arthur Harris, the leader of RAF Bomber Command, never got to stand in the dock alongside Hermet Goering, leader of the Luftwaffe, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, even though both of them pursued similar policies and both were responsible for mass destruction and tens of thousands of  deaths. The idea behind both side’s bombing campaigns was to break the morale and fighting spirit of the enemy’s civilian population . According to a recent BBC ducumentary, the British did psychological studies of victims of bombing raids in Kingston upon Hull. The findings were that the bombing raids had actually strengthened not weakened  civilian resolve. However, these unwelcome results were kept secret because they would have taken away the main justification for Churchill and Harris’s bombing campaign against German cities and their non-military populations. Some argue that the bombing raids on German cities such as Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden were justified as acts of retaliation and revenge following the  Blitz on London and other British cities. However, as my grandmother used to argue: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” All we can say in the end, is that the net result was that both populations suffered massively. A minute ago, I was talking about “winners” and “losers”. But, in a war there are no real winners. Everyone suffers.

My friend, Ian, and I visited Dresden as part of our Germany project. We have agreed to visit different parts of Germany, every year, for the forseeable future. I suppose you could call it our personal reconciliation mission. We are doing our small part to bring the 2 countries a little closer together. Two years ago we visited Lubeck, a beautiful Hanseatic city in the north, near Hamburg. It too suffered a terrible bombing raid in 1942. Apparently this was a practice run to see how effective such an attack on a mostly civilian population could be. Ian and I have noticed that many British holiday-makers seem to ignore Germany when it comes to choosing their destinations. Spain is easily the British tourist’s favourite overseas destination, followed, in no particular order by France, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Portugal, Italy and the United States. Although Germany is a big, important country containing many interesting and attractive places of interest and it is one of our closest neighbours, it does not figure in these top destinations. Many are seduced by the combination of : sand, sea and sun offered by the Meditarranean countries. Germany has excellent beaches but they are all in the cooler north alongside the Baltic and North Seas. It gets plenty of sun, but its warmest climate is in the south, far away from the coast. So it cannot offer that magical combination all in one place.

I wonder too, if there is still a strong residue of anti-German prejudice left over from the World Wars of last century? The last one finished over 60 years ago and 3 new generations have been born since. However, a lot of national events and commemorations to do with the World Wars are still held in the United Kingdom. Someone commented that these days, the only time that the British are truly united is when they are reliving their victories in the two World Wars. It is important to remember those who sacrificed their lives for their country, but is it healthy to constantly stir up bad memories and ill feeling towards one of closest allies and nearest neighbours? When one of the home nations plays Germany at football, the tabloid press often refer to the German players in derogatory terms, such as the “krauts” or the “huns.” A constant stream of 2nd World War films and TV programmes similarly revive old animosities. Just last year, “Dunkirk” and “Churchill. Darkest Hour” were two of Britain’s biggest box office successes. The so-called History Channel is dominated by documentaries about the war, Hitler and the Nazis. A friend of mine was recently persuaded to go on a city break to Berlin. Afterwards he expressed surprise that the people he met were so friendly and helpful. I asked him why wouldn’t they be and he answered “Well, they’re Germans aren’t they?” Did he really expect to see goose-stepping Nazis on the streets of the German capital? I have always found the German people to be friendly and obliging and  many of them speak perfect English. It’s a mystery to me why more British tourists don’t visit.

It’s a great pity if Dresden and Germany are still being defined by the war. Both have rich and rewarding histories before that tragic conflict and both have undergone remarkable transformations since it finished. Dresden’s old centre is no longer a heap of rubble. It’s major baroque buildings have all been meticilously reconstructed such that, once again, one could be walking around in the 18th century. Out of the ashes, the spectacular palaces, churches and civic buildings of Augustus the Strong and his son have been miraculously reserrected. The “before and after” photos have to be seen to be believed. Today, the Alstadt looks much as it was in the days when Canaletto was painting it. At first the East German Communist regime deliberately left the most important buildings such as the Frauenkirche, in ruins to serve as war memorials. For many years the Frauenkirche was the focus of an annual pilgrimage on February 13th. The ruins also acted as a powerful propaganda tool against the western powers. However, since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the two Germanys in the early 1990s, reconstruction has gone on at a pace.  Much work is still going on as we saw on our visit. It took great “skill” to take a selection of photos that all omitted the cranes, the dumper trucks and the scores of hard-hatted workmen. A large section of picturesque Theaterplatz for instance is still cordoned off as the reconstruction crews do their stuff, oblivious to the camera-toting tourists circling all around them.

The Frauenkirche, a “Baroque gem”, has now reappeared in the cityscape after an absence of half a century.  The original dome initially survived the raid, but then collapsed 2 days later. The reborn church was consecrated in the autumn of 2015 and represents the crowning achievement of the reconstruction efforts. People from all over the world, including the UK and the USA, made donations towards its rebuilding. These included contributions from Coventry, Dresden’s partner city. Alan Smith, the son of one of the bomber pilots, created the tower cross that sits on top of the dome. His work was funded by the British Dresden Trust. 80% of the new altar consists of 2000 original pieces rescued from the rubble. On the altar table stands a cross of nails which is a symbol of reconciliation. The church is beautiful and flooded with light. A central nave is surrounded by 5 symmetrical galleries. The magnificent dome and galleries are decorated with murals in light, pastel colours. The only problem today seems to be too many tourists, ruining any hope of a spiritual atmosphere.

Peace and reconciliation are prominant themes in Dresden. We saw another cross of nails donated by the churches of Coventry, in the impressive Hofkirche, Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral. The mistakes and tragedies of the past are properly recalled in memorials but the emphasis seems to be to move forward into a more peaceful and harmonious future. I saw very little stress on the terrible bombing raid, although this could well have been covered in the city museum which I didn’t have time to see. I felt no animosity when people found out I was British. To me, it all seemed very positive. Germany of course is a leading light in the European Union which it created with France after the war by enmeshing their two economies. The idea was to make large scale European war impossible in the future because the 2 countries and their neighbours would become inter-dependent. So far the plan has succeeded.

So, like a phoenix, Dresden had risen again out of the ashes. It stands alongside the similarly restored Polish cities of Warsaw and Gdansk, as one of the miracles of the post-1945 age. It is really 3 cities in one — there is the modern city, the Communist era GDR city and the 18th century baroque city of its golden age. Dresden began as an Slav fishing village in the shadow of its near neighbour, Meissen. Then, in 1485, the Saxon Royal family, the House of Wettin, turned it into its capital. Its glory period was in the early 18th century under Elector Augustus the Strong, who was also King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Although not a very astute political leader, Augustus loved art and culture. He encouraged top artists, architects, craftsmen, writers and musicians to make Dresden their base. The result was a flourishing cultural scene and the creation of some magnificent buildings such as Residenzschloss ( Royal Palace), several outstanding churches and the Zwinger, a Royal pleasure palace. The Zwinger is one of the most ravishing baroque buildings in the whole of Germany. We were god-smacked when we walked into it through one of its elaborate gateways. Luckily it was a lovely sunny day, so we saw it at its best. A huge, fountain studded courtyard is framed by fancy buildings and walkways festooned with baroque scultures. On the ground, well-manicured lawns are cut into symmetrical patterns, mirroring each other. Two ornate, exhuberant pavilions face each other at opposite ends of the courtyard . One, the Glockenspiel Pavilion, has a carillon of 40 bells, crafted out of Meissen porcelain. Along one upper gallery there is a giant carving of the Crown of Poland, supported by Polish eagles. The whole complex is stupendous. One of its palaces is used to house a rich, art gallery full of old masters, one of the dozen best in the world. The Opera House opposite ( the Semperor) is equally stunning. We attended an orchestral concert there given by the Saxon Staatskapelle, one of the world’s oldest and most famous orchestras established in 1548.

This is the Dresden that most people come to see. It’s the beautiful baroque city that has miraculously risen from the ashes of its wartime destruction. For a time it was a World Heritage Site but UNESCO have now had to take that coveted title away because of the construction of an unattractive road bridge across the Elbe which is completely out of keeping with its architectural surroundings. Ian and I enjoyed our time there and need to go back to visit the galleries and museums we didn’t have time to explore. It’s always good to end a visit wanting to return. Thankfully, we found out that Dresden is much, much more than the site of a war atrocity. It has risen from the ashes.

 

A Confusing Part of the UK.

22 Apr

Being a pedantic, former geography and history teacher, I still get a bit hot under the collar about people who don’t even know the name of their own country. It seems the simplest thing in the world to know where one hails from. The country I am specifically referring to is my own. To be fair, it is a bit confusing, because the names for it have changed fairly regularly over the centuries.

The Romans called it Britannia, with the people on the other side of Hadrian’s Wall being known as Caledonians. Later the various Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms united to form Angland ( Angle-Land) which later morphed into England. After the Danes or Vikings invaded, a sizable chunk of the east and the north was named the “Danelaw.” I once stayed in a lovely old guest house in Stamford, Lincs and the lady who ran it told me that the Danelaw border used to run through her back garden! This was exciting stuff for a history buff like me! Much later the English attacked and subjugated the Welsh and the Scots and the name for the new country was Great Britain.( the island consisting of England, Scotland and Wales.) Confusingly, the Scots had originally come from Ireland and had conquered the Picts. Next, after Ireland had been similarly invaded and conquered, the newly expanded country was re-christened: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Finally, after a large chunk of Ireland claimed its freedom in 1920-21, leaving only 6 counties of Ulster staying loyal to the Crown and the Government in London, the post Irish-partition country acquired its present name — The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is the grandiose name that still graces my passport. If someone abroad asks me where I come from, I say the U.K. for short. This usually works, except that one gentleman, who I met on a night train in Vietnam, concluded that I came from the Ukraine!

So I come from the U.K. It doesn’t sound very attractive does it? Get rid of the capital letters and see what you end up with — “uk” — an exclamation of distaste or disgust! No wonder the British Olympic Association decided to ignore the proper name of their team’s country. Instead they called it Team GB. Let’s face it — Team UK doesn’t have the same catchy ring to it. There is also the great temptation for some people to put a Y or even an F in front of it! Thus, Clare Balding, Gabby Logan and their BBC colleagues, working on the recent Commonwealth Games in Australia, constantly misrepresented their country as Great Britain ( GB), ignoring the fact that it is actually the United Kingdom ( UK.) I suppose this is because they work for the British, not the UK, Broadcasting Company. I wrote to our Olympic Committee about this big error when I first noticed it in 2012, but they ignored my letter, showing that they were as rude as they were ignorant.

I asked the perfectly reasonable and straightforward question — are Northern Irish athletes to be excluded from our country’s team because they don’t come from Great Britain ( England, Scotland or Wales)? I was also interested to know why the Manx cyclist, Mark Cavendish, was allowed to compete for Team GB when the Isle of Man is not a part of Great Britain. It’s a mystery — if Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man are officially part of our country, why are they not recognised as such in the name of our sports teams? It gets even more complicated when one comes to football and rugby, as each componant country of the United Kingdom competes as if it is a separate, independent entity. Thus we have England versus Scotland, Wales versus Northern Ireland and all the other permutations. These matches are actually all the UK versus the UK. It all sounds very incestuous, not to mention, very confusing. The truth is that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is an artificial construct. Three countries and part of a fourth have been tied together by war and politics in the past. However, the populations of those countries still cling to their separate identities. The UK may technically be one country but it actually contains four nations. The Devolution movement of recent decades has recognised these differences, such that we now have parliaments in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast  as well as in London.

I’ve just been to Northern Ireland for the first time in my life. I haven’t been before because of “The Troubles”, a 30 year period of bloody civil strife, that led to many atrocities, maimings and violent deaths. For much of my adult life, Northern Ireland has been a tourist, no-go area. When the British conquered Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries, they pushed the local Catholic population on to poorer lands in the west and populated the better lands with staunch Protestant settlers shipped in from England and Scotland.  Thus were sown the seeds of trouble for centuries to come. When the Catholic King James II,  was expelled from Protestant Britain in 1688, he tried to make a come-back in Ireland where he was supported by the vast majority of the Catholic population.  However he met with fierce resistance from the Ulster protestants in the north-east of Ireland, inspired by the apprentice boys of Derry, who rushed to close the city gates against James’s Catholic army, uttering the famously defiant words: “No Surrender!” James’s army laid siege to the town but despite great suffering ( many died from starvation), it was never captured. King James’s forces were eventually defeated at the famous Battle of the Boyne by the army of the new British King, William of Orange ( William III). Orange was (is) an area of the Netherlands. William, the husband of James’s protestant daughter Mary, was invited over by the British establishment to defeat James II and re-establish Britain as a Protestant nation. Thus William, a Dutchman, became a hero of the Northern Irish protestant. I told you it was confusing! I have a friend Alex who came over to England to escape the “Troubles” in the 1970s. His brother stayed in Belfast and is now the head of his local “Orange Lodge”, leading his “Orange Men” with their bright orange sashes, on marches to commemorate the victory on the Boyne over 300 years ago. History still looms large in Northern Ireland. Irishmen celebrating the victory of a 17th century Dutchman. You couldn’t make it up!

I was recently in Dublin, the capital of the Irish Free State since its inception in 1920. The English or British found it impossible to subjugate all the countries of their huge Empire indefinitely. The Irish were one of the first in the 20th century to break free. After a long campaign for Irish Home Rule in the latter half of the 19th century, the situation erupted into open violence with the Easter Rising of 1916. The rebels commandeered the General Post Office in Dublin’s O’Connell Street as their HQ and it was largely destroyed in the subsequent fighting against the British and then in the Irish Civil War which followed. I saw the bullet pock- marks in the classical columns of the building which has now been restored. Although they ruthlessly and viciously put down the uprising, the British  reluctantly realised that holding on to a largely resentful Ireland was becoming more trouble than it was worth. So, once the small matter of the First World War was over, negotiations for Ireland to become an independent republic began. This was in line with the campaign, promoted by the American President, Woodrow Wilson, to grant peoples who had previously been trapped in Empires, their freedom. Wilson called it “self-determination.” Thus, many new countries were created, or recreated out of the defeated Austrian, German, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The victorious French and British however, were not quite so enthusiastic about giving freedom to their own colonies and ultimately paid the price by enduring a century of trouble. For the British, that trouble began in Ireland.

The sticking point in the negotiations for Irish independence was the predominantly protestant population of Northern Ireland, the area known as Ulster. These were the descendents of the English and Scottish protestant settlers of earlier centuries. They wanted to stay loyal to the British Crown and remain part of the United Kingdom. Therefore Ireland, one hundred years ago, was bitterly divided between “remainers” and “leavers” just like the UK today, following the controversial EU Referendum of 2016. Back then though, the Remainers ( i.e. the Ulster Protestants)  were rewarded by having their part of Ireland partitioned off and kept separate from the new country of Eire, the Irish Republic. So the island of Ireland was divided into two for political and religious reasons. The partition seemed to be a neat solution to an intractable problem. However, partitions often cause terrible problems as we witnessed when the British broke up India and created Pakistan. The British also partitioned Palestine causing decades of trouble between the Arabs and the Israelis in the Middle East, the consequences of which we are still suffering from. The Americans have tried it in Vietnam and Korea with equally troublesome and tragic results. The partition of Ireland was one of the first and there has been trouble ever since. Even today, though the horrific violence has gone away, the issue of the (artificial) Irish border has become a major sticking point in the complex Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union. This is because the Irish republic is a member of the EU whereas the people of the UK have narrowly voted to leave it.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 partitioned the island. The Protestant Loyalists in the north only wanted to keep the 6 counties of Ulster where they commanded a majority over the Cathlolics. Thus Northern Ireland is a political not a geographical concept. It is not really a genuine country in my opinion. It is officially linked to countries across the Irish sea which it doesn’t have a lot in common with, and at the same time,  is artificially divided from the people and places it is naturally closest to. Once the Northern Irish protestants had their own province, they systematically excluded the Roman Catholics from power. The Catholics represented about one third of the population of Northern Ireland but were now a minority in their own country. They were rigorously discriminated against. The protestants had the majority in all the organisations of local government in the province and used it largely to look after their own. It was only in the late 1960s after over 40 years of discrimination that the Northern Irish Catholics, inspired by Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement in the USA, started to take to the streets to protest against their unfair treatment. Catholic marches were attacked by protestant/loyalists. On one march from Derry to Belfast, even the police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, attacked the protesters. The lines were drawn and so began the latest chapter of the “troubles”. Both sides formed paramilitary organisations to do their fighting, such as the IRA for the Catholics and the UDF for the Protestants. There were many murders from bombings and shootings. People were knee-capped and tarred and feathered. When British soldiers were drafted in from the mainland to keep the peace, they too became targets and came under constant stress. During a Catholic march in Londonderry ( Derry) in January, 1972, troops of the Parachute regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians after being provoked by stone throwing and insult hurling youths. 13 people were killed outright and one died later in hospital. Many people were injured, some from bullets and others from being run over by armoured personnel carriers. Some were shot in the back. A priest with a white handkerchief had to intervene to get some of the wounded out. This notorious incident is known as “Bloody Sunday.” It hardened attitudes immeasurably, such that the province descended into a state of virtual civil war. One of a British soldier’s most dreaded postings was to Northern Ireland.

The “troubles” are hopefully over now. While we were visiting, it was the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 brokered by the Prime Ministers of the UK and of Ireland and representatives of the United States sent by President Clinton. This was one of PM Tony Blair’s most commendable achievements. ( before his reputation was forever stained by the illegal invasion of Iraq.) While in Northern Ireland, my wife Chris and I visited Derry/Londonderry. The double name is a reminder that the issues between the two sides are still not fully resolved. In the Bogside area, largely populated by Catholics, we saw spectacular murals on the gable ends of houses, depicting scenes from the troubles including “Bloody Sunday.” Other posters and murals praised the “martyrs” who had died fighting for Irish unity. One mural, commenting on the current argument over the Irish border when the UK leaves the EU in 2019, simply stated — ” Hard Border. Soft Border. No Border. Irish Unity now.” It was produced by a republican organisation called the 1916 society. On the other hand, while walking round Derry’s medieval walls, we at one point looked down into a protestant/loyalist area. It had red, white and blue stripes painted on the edge of its pavements. Later, we drove through an area of Cookstown festooned in Union Jacks and pro-British posters. I think, just below the surface, the province is still very much divided. Hatchets have been buried and compromises made for the sake of peace but there is still a long way to go before the bitterness and divisions can be overcome.

We found Northern Ireland to be very much like the rest of Ireland. The accent is slightly different, the currency is different and road journeys are measured in miles not kilometres. But, in most respects the 2 parts of Ireland, north and south, are very similar. The coastal scenary is often spectacular. We went to see the world famous Giant’s Causeway on the very picturesque Antrim coast. In many ways, it was like the magnificent west coast of Donegal in the Republic, which we later visited. It’s called the “Wild Atlantic Way” and very special it is too. Another thing the 2 Irelands have in common is the fantastic hospitality of their people. The breakfasts in the guest houses are something else! Also in the pubs, on both sides of the invisible border, there is often the sound of fiddles playing Irish dance tunes while the punters drink their pints of Guinness. Most of the time, it felt we were in Ireland and not in Britain. The banks notes, although pounds not Euros, were issued by the Bank of Ireland ( not England.) The girl on the Asda till back home gave me a quizzical look when I passed a Northern Irish fiver on to her. I felt I had to remind her that Northern Ireland is part of our country. The confusion cuts both ways though. While in Antrim I watched a local news programme on television in which Northern Irish people were referring to themselves as British. They are not, they are Irish!

I’m pleased I’ve been to Northern Ireland at last. I’ve now been to all 4 countries of the so-called United Kingdom. It’s a delightful place to visit. I would like to think I have cleared up some of the confusion but I doubt it. It seems bizarre that politicians in London, Brussels, Belfast and Dublin are arguing about a hard border or a soft border between the 2 parts of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU. When we were there, we crossed the border and didn’t even notice a thing. It will be a great shame if the United Kingdom pulls up the drawbridges and creates barriers between itself and its nearest neighbours following the Leave vote in the referendum. It wants to protect itself from foreign influence, even though it cannot protect itself from its own complicated history and even though many people don’t actually know the name of the country they are claiming to protect.

Masochistic Away Day.

23 Feb

It was another insane idea. I think I must be going a bit dopey in my old age. The choice was as follows: have a relaxing day at home or undergo 8 hours of train travel and hanging around draughty stations to almost inevitably experience disappointment. I chose the latter of course. I would travel from deepest Cleveland on the north east coast, to the far north west of England to support my team, a team that was next to bottom of the whole football league and had just lost 4 matches in a row. Many people would regard this as mad but I went because it was an adventure and I wanted to show support and loyalty to the team. I think support in times of adversity is real support. If you’ve read my previous blog you might understand this a bit.

I love travel as much as I love sport. Every journey is potentially an exciting adventure. In this case I was travelling to Carlisle but I was also journeying into the unknown. What would happen on the way? Would all my connections work out? What would I find when I got there? This is what happened.

It was an early start. The alarm clock rudely interrupted my sleep at 6-45am. This was like being back at work, a feeling I have largely forgotten since I retired. By 7.55 I was at Saltburn station, joining a small band of sleepy commuters going to work in the shops of Redcar and Middlesbrough. I huddled into my seat as our little, old diesel -railcar ground its way over the points, heading slowly west. I live at the end of a long branchline, and the first stage of any rail journey usually involves painstakingly trundling our way to the main line at Darlington, about 28 miles away. I settled into my book, hoping the miles would disappear more quickly that way. On this journey though, I didn’t have to go all the way to Darlington. I was routed via Hartlepool and Sunderland so had to change at Middlesbrough, and then have a slow but scenic train journey up the Durham coast. The changeover was only 10 minutes and soon I was on my way again. In 1 hour 20 minutes I would be meeting my fellow football masochist, Ian, at Newcastle Central station. Together we would catch the Carlisle connection.

However, you know what they say about the best laid plans. My second train went only one stop to Thornaby ( south Stockton) and then just stood in the platform. I found myself getting restless and started to wriggle around in my seat.After this had been going on for 10 minutes, the guard told us there had been a power failure in the main signal box and until it was fixed, no trains in the area were allowed to move. An electrician had been sent for ( there were none on site) and he had got stuck in traffic. I could see my Carlisle connection going up the swanee and even the one after that. Maybe I would miss the match altogether? Then, an idea started to form in my head. Out of the window I had noticed a regular stream of taxis coming down a drive into the station and dropping passengers off. As worry and frustration bubbled up inside me, I hit upon an escape plan. Seeing another taxi arrive, I leapt off the train, ran across the platform and knocked on the taxi man’s window as he was checking his money. The worst case scenario was that he wouldn’t accept me as a customer because I hadn’t made a proper booking, and then the train would suddenly depart with me stranded on the platform!  That really would have been “sod’s law!”As he wound down the window I asked the driver if he could take me to Darlington station and, thank God, he said “yes.” So in a few seconds, I was on my again, weaving through the rainy, grey streets of Thornaby, heading for Darlington and the main- line.

It was one of those chance encounters one sometimes experiences on journeys. I told the taxi driver where I was going and why, and he replied with stories of the travails of Darlington football club which had gone bust and dropped out of the league. His son had had trials there as a teenager and also at Hartlepool United, another struggling north- east football club. He hadn’t been accepted. The taxi man concluded cynically that success in football is about who you know not about what you can do. He said the whole system is corrupt and very harsh. I think I agree with him.

Within 20 minutes we were at Darlington station on the East Coast mainline. With a bit of luck, I would soon catch a fast train north to Newcastle. As I was paying the fare and saying my goodbye, another taxi man ran up and told my driver that he had a near flat tyre at the back. We looked and the rear passenger- side tyre was doing a good imitation of a pancake! It was only luck that had prevented us from having the flat on the A66 dual- carriageway a few minutes earlier and having to stop to change the wheel in the pouring rain! I caught an Edinburgh express within 10 minutes and as it glided out of the station I saw my taxi man still struggling with his jack and his wrench. I hope he got it sorted alright.

The express sped smoothly northwards only affording a brief glimpse of Durham’s magnificent cathedral and castle as we raced by. Soon we were crossing the Tyne on one of the 6 famous bridges. We swept round a corner and came to a smooth halt in Newcastle Central station. Ian was waiting for me with a welcome cup of coffee. ( I had texted him of my progress.) Meanwhile ( I heard later) my original train was still stuck at Thornaby. It was delayed for at least an hour. I would have been going spare by then!

The next stage of the journey took us along the beautiful Tyne valley and into Hadrian’s Wall country. A long gentle escarpment led up to the remains of the Roman wall and then dropped steeply away. It’s lovely empty countryside. Northumberland merged into Cumbria as we headed forever westwards. We caught glimpses of hill farms surrounded by grazing sheep. As we neared our destination we passed the shell of an old castle. Quite suddenly, the scenary switched from rural to urban as we were sucked into the suburbs of the City of Carlisle.

Carlisle is a border city. Scotland is not very far away. It has seen much conflict over the centuries. Coming out of the Citadel Station we immediately saw the 16th century round, stone towers ordered by Henry VIII to strengthen the city’s defences. Further in we came across the sturdy, red stoned castle that has witnessed much bloody conflict. Edward 1st had stayed there before going on to “Hammer the Scots.” In an earlier age Carlisle had actually been part of Scotland. It’s the only large English town not to have been recorded in the Domesday Book, ordered by William the Conqueror in the 1080s. It was left to his son, William Rufus to reconquer Carlisle for the English. One might expect that, given this troubled and violent history, its citizens would be tough, hard-bitten and wary of strangers. Of course, we found them to be just the opposite as the border battles and struggles  have now faded into the mists of time. Ian and I entered a nice little cafe near the station to have lunch. No staff were available to greet us but several customers encouraged us to sit down and told us the routine. When I thanked them, a lady commented :” No problem, we’re friendly in Carlisle.”

After our teas and toasties we had a bit of time to explore. Beyond the chain stores and coffees shops there was a very atmospheric and interesting historical quarter. Some streets were cobbled and we passed many old Georgian and early Victorian buildings in striking red sandstone. We strolled along narrow lanes and along a section of old town walls. The medieval cathedral and its close are magnificent. One feature is a spectacular barrel shaped ceiling painted in sky blue with golden stars. We made a note to return for a longer visit when football was not dominating the agenda.

After more helpful directions, we started to walk towards Brunton Park, Carlisle United’s football stadium. This took us up the busy Warwick Road and the leafy avenues that run off it. This is quite unusual as many of the original football grounds are found in more run down areas surrounded by humble terraces. One of the graceful Georgian town houses we passed had a blue plaque. It turned out it was the former home of the mother and grandfather of the American President Woodrow Wilson. He was one of the main architects of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. His mother, Jessie Janet Woodrow Wilson had been born in Carlisle and her father, the Reverend Doctor Thomas Woodrow, originally from Paisley in Scotland, used to preach in a nearby church. Carlisle was only a temporary staging post however, as the family subsequently emigrated to the United States where the future president was born.

Arriving at the football ground we looked at the fields and streets that had been severely flooded by Storm Desmond in December 2015 and January 2016. The nearby river had burst its banks. The pitch went underwater too and for a while, Carlisle Untied had to play their “home” matches in Preston, Blackburn or Blackpool. When the water eventually receded, all the community turned out to clear up the muddy mess in the ground. Even the players mucked in to help. The disaster had brought the team and the fans together in a united effort.

There now ensued a tense 20 minutes or so while we waited for Lesley. I had met Lesley at the Chesterfield box office a fortnight before when I was there for a home match. To my frustration she told me that the tickets for the match at Carlisle had not arrived yet, so could I pop in the following week? Not living in Chesterfield anymore, I said I couldn’t. So Lesley said she would bring my tickets on the team coach on the day and give them to me outside the ground before kick off. This seemed a neat arrangement but inevitably, when we arrived at the away supporters end of Brunton Park, Lesley was nowhere to be seen. We weren’t the only ones waiting and worrying. A small group of Chesterfield supporters who did not actually live in Chesterfield now gathered together. I met one guy who had travelled down from Glasgow. This was the closest he got to a “home” match. Thankfully Lesley at last appeared and we collected our tickets and entered the stadium.

Being in Brunton Park was like going back in time. We showed our tickets to a real person instead of introducing a bar code to a scanner. Inside I was surprised to see that both ends behind the goals didn’t have seating. People stood behind crash barriers just like in the old days. The opposite stand to us only had seats in the top half and the rest was for standing. I thought that since the Hillsborough disaster, all grounds had to be all seaters, but apparently, this rule only applies to clubs in the top two divisions.

Before the match, as we watched the players going through their warm-up routines, a strange thing happened. The Carlisle mascot came out sporting a fox’s head. Now I had always thought that it was Leicester City who were nicknamed “The Foxes”. But now it seems that Carlisle claim that name too. They used to feature a fox on their logo because of the local connection with the legendary huntsman John Peel. In 1976 for instance, the club badge featured a golden fox jumpimg over the abbrieviation CUFC. Later, a fox was shown jumping through a ring of stars. Not any longer is a fox featured though. Now the club badge shows the castle, a shield with the cross of St George and 2 red dragons. Maybe Leicester had threatened to sue them!

I was just digesting all this when the foxy mascot brought out a real stuffed fox mounted on a base and placed it in the centre circle. It stayed there until just before kick off, presumably to bring the team good luck. Football is full of these peculiar traditions and superstitions. I later found that the stuffed fox is called OLGA, which is an anagram of GOAL.

Finally at 3pm, the match kicked off. Chesterfield put in a miserable performance and were lucky only to lose 2-0, although we were very unlucky to have what looked like a good goal, ruled out for a marginal offside. Because this was real life and not on a telly screen, we were unable to watch slow-motion replays to check if the referee’s controversial decision was correct. For a moment we had all gone berserk, in a sudden surge of emotion, but now we returned to stoical acceptance of the inevitable. There was little atmosphere in the rest of the ground. Half of the Carlisle supporters seemed to be asleep. They only woke up when they scored or when there was a disputed throw-in near where they were sitting. There were just under 4000 of them and we numbered 248. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after Chesterfield’s famous and bizarre crooked spire. Even though we lost, I was pleased to be there, enjoying a couple of noisy, raucous hours amongst the Spireite faithful. The away fans nearly always make more noise than the home fans even though heavily outnumbered. Rather than acting like separate individuals they close ranks, feel the warmth of camaraderie and lose many of their inhibitions. A funny moment came when a Carlisle player finally got back on his feet after laying on the turf injured. Some of our number thought he was feigning the injury to waste time and break up the play. One Spireite fan lept up and sarcastically bellowed ” Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! He is healed!” So we lost and we trudged despondently out of the ground and into the darkened streets. I was disappointed with the result but had half expected it. I was still glad that I had made the effort to be one of the valient 248!

Ian and I walked back into the city centre and ate a tasty happy-hour pasta at a jolly Italian ristorante. Then we were back at the station ready for the long journey home. This time we were joined by gangs of Saturday night revellers — young people on their way for a night out in Newcastle. It was noisy but good humoured. At Newcastle, Ian and I parted company and I went on to catch 2 more trains, travelling south and then east. Some young lads I talked to had been drinking in Newcastle and then in Durham city. They were now on their way to Darlington for yet more drinking before getting taxis home to Bishop Auckland. They couldn’t believe it when I told them I had gone all the way from Saltburn to Carlisle and back to see a football match and had  not touched a drop of drink! I think they thought I was mad. It was the last interesting encounter on my long away day. Some may think of it as masochistic, others may think I was insane. Maybe they have a point, but there’s no getting away from the fact that I really enjoyed  it! It would have been even better if the Spireites had won but one cannot have everything!

 

 

It’s Only a Game — Or Is It?

15 Feb

I’ve been feeling slightly sick inside for a couple of days now. No-one close to me has died. The house has not collapsed. I have not had my income cut-off. I am not really ill with a sickness bug.( I had that over Christmas)  So what is the problem? I know you will laugh when I tell you. You will probably advise me to “get a grip” and “grow up.” The cause of my malaise is a football match played about 130 miles away from my home, in the lowest tier of the English professional leagues. I wasn’t even at the match. Yet when I saw the result flash up on the screen, it hit me like a punch in the stomach! Even 2 days later, now that I have had time to pull myself together, I am still wandering around in a semi-daze.

 

You see, I am not ill in the conventional sense, but I do suffer from a terrible, life-long debilitating disease. I am Stuart Bates and I am a Chesterfield FC supporter! It’s an affliction which I know I will never get rid of. It all started when I was born. Yes, you’ve guessed it — I was born in Chesterfield. It’s a little known Derbyshire industrial town in the East Midlands. It has seen better days and it’s traditional industries such as coal mining, engineering and steel making, have all declined. It now lives in constant fear of being swallowed up by its giant neighbour to the north, the city of Sheffield. Chesterfield’s most famous claim to fame is that it’s parish church has an alarmingly crooked and twisted spire. Unseasoned timbers caused the spire to warp and twist back in the 13th century. Ironically, that big mistake by those medieval builders has given an other-wise non-descript town, a unique and special identity. It is the Pisa of north-east Derbyshire, although lacking the Tuscan sunshine, it doesn’t attract quite so many tourists.

So I was born in Chesterfield, spent my childhood there and as I became a teenager, I started to support the town’s  football team. Chesterfield FC are the 4th oldest club in the whole English football league. They have never risen out of the lower divisions. I think they nearly got promoted to the old Division 1 sometime in the 1930’s, but lost out on goal difference. So near, yet so far! They have never reached those dizzying heights since. Commemorating the town’s most famous landmark, the team is nicknamed “The Spireites.”

Supporting the Spireites has always given me a sense of belonging. I left the town of the crooked spire to go to college in Manchester when I was nearly 19, and have lived in various different towns and cities since. But I have always had that strong feeling that my roots are in Chesterfield. When I visit the town I always feel that I have come home. The feeling begins as soon as I spy the crooked spire on the horizon or as soon as a bus driver or shop assistant calls me “duck”, the local Derbyshire term of endearment. I have lived much of my adult life in the land of “Bonnie Lad” and “Pet” but, silly as this sounds, I always experience a strong surge of pleasure when I hear the word “Duck.” The Derbyshire/ Nottinghamshire/ South Yorkshire accent is not the most beautiful in the land, but because I was immersed in it as a child, it is music to my ears.

Just as I identify with the town, I identify, but in a more concentrated and powerful form, with its football team. In the ground on a Saturday afternoon, anything from 4000 to 8000 Spireites are gathered together, united by a common love and a common cause. The numbers are no- where near those who go to watch the top Premier Division teams, but it is still a potent feeling to be amongst so many like- minded people. Spireites come in all ages from young children to so called senior citizens. They include men and women, though the former still predominate. At matches I have seen babes in arms, parents and children, young, raucous men, people in wheel chairs, blind and partially sighted, genteel couples and moaning old “codgers” giving the linesman some stick. In other words one can see a large cross section of the humanity at a Chesterfield match. I have encountered Spireites from Belgium, Spain and even Japan as well as from all over UK. I even met one at British passport control in Calais, who when he had studied my documents, exclaimed “Up the Spireites!” What unites us all is support for the team and identification with the town in some shape or form. I described it as an illness above, but a more accurate word is “addiction.”

“Addiction” sounds quite alarming, as it can be of course. I have already admitted that it has made me feel a bit ill. But don’t worry, I have it under control. ( I think!) For me, being a footballer supporter is like having an alternative, vicarious life. This is particularly so when one identifies strongly with one particular team. The situation will only get serious, in my opinion, if this alternative existance starts spilling over and swamping real life. The bad result last Tuesday made me ill- at- ease and out of sorts. I had to deal with disappointment, shock, and anxiety. Chesterfield are having a terrible season and are in grave danger of being relegated out of the football league altogether. Some of my fellow Spireites use exaggerated language such as : “disastrous”, “gut-wrenching”, and feeling “gutted.” I have said such things too, while in the grip of strong, negative emotions. One of my friends described the threat of relegation as staring into “the abyss.” That’s how many people would view death — the end of existance. Even for a big football fan like myself and ardent Spireite, I admit that that is a bit over the top. The despair of a defeat or the elation of victory are the causes of such colourful language. But, hopefully, these heightened emotions are only temporary and after a calming down period, lives, even Spireite lives, inevitably return to normal.

Being part of something is a powerful feeling. It’s great not to feel alone. I remember feeling wonderful when I marched in a massive torchlight procession for CND in the 1980’s. We were all united in our wish for World peace and for the banning of weapons of mass destruction. That same feeling of togetherness is evoked by headteachers when they tell pupils to be proud of their uniforms and of their role as representatives of the school. Belonging to a team, an institution, a movement or a political party can stir up great pride and satisfaction. It’s just the same with football. I’m not talking about the fake “glory hunters” who pretend to support whichever team is top of the league. Look how many Leicester City “supporters” suddenly and miraculously emerged a couple of years go when the Foxes were Premier League champions. Where are they all now? I’m talking about a deep-rooted and long-lasting support of a club and team. My support for Chesterfield was somehow born inside me. My dad passed it on to me and he got it from my granddad. I have been to many matches with my cousin  and my uncle.( sadly now passed away.) It’s both a joy and an affliction. It’s part of our lives.

Life itself is all about ups and downs. For every high there seems to be a low. Sport, including football, copies life. At the moment I am worried and depressed because my team is not doing very well. Two weeks ago I was worried and depressed because we had a burst pipe under the kitchen floor. Both situations made me feel stressed and temporarily out of control. One was much more trivial tha the other of course. That is the important point I think. My football supporting life must not be allowed to dominate and ruin my real life. Following Chesterfield FC is, or should be, like living in a parallel universe. It’s am alternative world to escape to every now and then. So, since the defeat I’ve lectured myself with phrases such as: “it’s only a game”, “it’s not the end of the world”, and “get a sense of perspective.” Also in the world of football there is the old adage: “there’s always the next game” Thus I have grounded myself in reality and then returned to my Spireite fantasies with a renewed feeling of hope. At the moment, hope is concentrated on an away match at Carlisle on Saturday.

For some insane reason I will endure about 8 hours of train travel to get there and back. Many would see that as a waste of a day — all to watch a poor, struggling football team in a far away corner of England. But I will travel in hope, revel in the gathering of hundreds of Spireites and will enter upon an emotional, 90 minute roller coaster. Whether I (we) emerge happy and elated, or crest-fallen and in despair, depends entirely on whether our 11 men beat their 11 men in a “silly” game of kicking a ball round a field. Hopefully my vicarious sickness will not have taken a turn for the worse by Saturday evening!

How Long Is Forever?

1 Jan

Christmas cards are a nice tradition I think. I always enjoy sending them and receiving them. I especially like writing and receiving personal letters, enclosed within the cards. In this age of instant, cursory communication — texts, tweets, whatsapps and emails— it is a privilege to be able to read a proper letter which shows that the other person has been thinking of you and has taken the trouble to keep your mutual connection going. I hope he/she feels the same when they get my letter. Even a hastily written card, scribbled in the midst of a busy life, has the powerful, subliminal message: ” I care for you.” I’m not including the dreaded “round-robin” letters in this by the way. They seem to me to be all about showing off, trying to impress. However, a genuine Christmas card and/or letter is a joy to receive at this special time of the year. They are one of the things that make the festive season so special.

So how does it feel to realize that you have been crossed off someone’s Christmas card list? That person, once a friend, family member or  formerly close colleague has now decided that you are not worth keeping in touch with anymore. It’s a decision that has been made without discussion and announced without warning. It can come as a bit of a shock. It’s maybe that you are now separated geographically and can no longer develop the relationship through regular contact any more. It may be that retirement has cut-off the regular work connection that once bound you together. It may be because of a broken relationship and the failure to make that transition into being “just good friends.” I am quite happy with my life and am always willing to “move on” when a relationship has obviously run its course. It’s just the arbitrary, sudden termination of a long term connection that still leaves me feeling slightly shocked and numb.

 

Being dropped off the bottom of someone’s Christmas card list is like falling into oblivion. Presumably, as far as they are concerned, you are no longer worth thinking about. In their eyes, you no longer exist. I know this sounds melodramatic, but, in one way, this is a kind of death. The shock is increased when the silent but brutal coup- de- grace is delivered by someone who once said they loved you. Films, novels and songs like to imply that once we fall in love with the “special one” it will be forever. Once two people have met and fallen in love, they will live happily ever after. But that’s the danger of romantic fiction. In real life, “Love” does not always last forever. In my experience, it either changes and deepens, or after an intoxicating and intense spell of passion, it gradually fizzles out like a firework.

I have been lucky enough to fall in love several times in my life. I don’t believe that there is only one “Special One”. At different stages in my life I have had intense, loving relationships with several women. They loved me in return (or so they led me to believe), and even now, after many happy years in my second marriage, some of their words still echo vividly in my memory. Once I was told by a lover that she was in such a blissful state, that she could happily die in my arms. I felt as if I was in my own personal heaven and I remember distinctly going into a kind of swoon. Another person at another time declared that she “would always love me” and there would “always be a place for me in her heart.” This too was heady stuff. Passions were obviously overflowing.  The normal, precautionary safeguards that we put up to avoid being hurt, had been temporarily swept aside. At the time I believed these words. But then the relationships changed. They faded out and died. In the next stages of our lives, such words and emotions were potentially embarrassing and a serious impediment to “moving on”. I have always found it difficult to let go. Even if a relationship/friendship has clearly run its course, I am still hurt when it finally ends. This is as equally true when I am responsible for the break up as when its done to me.

Thus I cling on, and where possible, try to turn a relationship into a friendship. Thus I send Christmas cards and receive them in return. It’s trying to prove to myself that that period in my life was not a total waste of time. I don’t like waste. Even if something has gone up in flames, I still try to salvage something from the ashes. But now that I’ve been thrown off the Christmas card list, it means I have been consigned to the void. Once, that person loved me and would love me “forever”. Now she doesn’t know whether I’m alive or dead and presumably, does not care. Although I am happily married and live a fruitful and fulfilling life, this abrupt severing of a long term connection, is still hard to bear.

So how long is “forever”? We use such words when gripped by intense emotions, but, in real-life as opposed to fiction, they only apply for a relatively short period of time. Falling in love romantically and sexually, is very exciting but cannot be sustained in its intense form for more than a few months or, at the most, a couple of years. Then reality starts to bite. The loved one turns out to be not “perfect” afterall. You start to see their faults. Why do they always leave the top off the toothpaste? He/she stops being an object of worship and just becomes another, ordinary human being. This is when the rose-coloured glasses drop off. To survive, the relationship has to change. It has to feed off other things other than sexual chemistry. Love has to deepen or it will fade away.

In the case I am thinking about this Christmas, “forever” has turned out to be about 22 years, and at least 15 of them have been in the distant, polite Christmas note stage. It’s still a little wrench though. I know I will happily get on with my life but , in a small way, the lack of a card has yet again shaken my faith in human nature. I know the omission was deliberate and was not just a simple error, because this is the second year running it has happened. How can I believe anything that anyone says to me? It is quite disconcerting. How do I know that they might change their minds in the future and walk away from me? Luckily I have strong family ties and some good, long- term friends. Real friends are the ones who stick by you through thick and thin. They are not necessarily the same people who reserve a place for you in their heart or say that they will love you “forever.”

I know it sounds silly but I still don’t like being cast into oblivion. I cannot imagine anybody admitting that they enjoy not existing. Maybe I will occasionally hang around in this person’s memory even though I am no longer worth the price of a stamp. I know I sound bitter and am being totally unrealistic. But, despite all my sensible rationalisations, it is still difficult to accept that a person who once loved me has now consigned me to the bin.