We’re all Foxes now — or are we?

12 May

If you’ve just come back from a holiday on Mars, I need to tell you that Leicester City football club have recently been crowned Champions of the Premier League. This has been such a shock that their  unpredicted triumph has spread from the Sports channels to the main news broadcasts. Their surprising success has leapt from the back page to the front.

It seems that Leicester’s trouncing of the bigger, richer, “elite” clubs has captured the public imagination. It’s a heart-warming David and Goliath story. A team of so-called journey-men, unknown foreign imports and loanees rejected by their parent clubs, has, against all the odds, come out on top. Everyone loves an underdog, especially when, totally unexpectedly, it becomes a dog.

Leicester City, known as the “Foxes”, is a football club that has not exactly been sated with success over the years. I think they might have won the League Cup ( the poor relation of the FA Cup) under the manager Martin O’Neill in the 1980’s or 90’s. They’ve won a few promotions from the lower leagues and, back in the early 1960’s, they got to the FA Cup Final at Wembley, but lost to the all-conquering Spurs side of that era. I remember watching it on our small, black and white telly. One of the Leicester defenders played much of the match with what turned out to be a broken leg, as substitutes weren’t allowed in those days. However, for most of their existence, the “Foxes” have had the usual frustrating mixture of: hope, disappointment and despair, peppered with occasional dashes of joy. In this respect, they are just like most of the other clubs in the Football League. Only the pampered fans of the wealthy elite — Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool, now joined by the suddenly super-wealthy Chelsea and Manchester City — expect and demand constant success and  regular lifting of “silverware”. ( the football cliché for trophies.)

Usually in life, money can buy you most things. As John Lennon once sang: “What it can’t buy, I can’t use.” Cash is commonly regarded as the route to happiness, although in reality, this is far from guaranteed. Materialism has taken over from religion as the main driving-force in many peoples’ lives. This is particularly true in the world of Premiership football. Huge wads of TV money has come into the top league from Sky, BT, and others, in exchange for exclusive right to broadcast a whole raft of matches live. The poor old terrestrial channels, the BBC and ITV, have been squeezed out on to the margins, reduced to showing brief, edited highlights or the occasional cup match. Top footballers demand and get obscene amounts of money to perform in this immensely popular section of the entertainment industry. Their enormous salaries are an insult to almost every other working person in the country. Money rules it seems. Multi-billionaires, many of them foreign, have taken over ownership of Premier League clubs, often to the detriment of their genuine fans. They see it as a business opportunity and are intent on buying success at all costs. “Mercenary” players and coaches are brought in at vast expense to achieve that dominance as quickly as possible.

Arsene Wenger, the long-serving Arsenal manager, who by the way earns about £1 million per annum, spoke of the adverse effects of “financial-doping” back in 2005/6 when Chelsea, previously a moderately successful, middle-ranking First Division club, had suddenly been plunged into the big time when a Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, purchased it as his plaything to go alongside his: mansions, big cars, private jet and luxury yacht. Previously, money had obviously been important, but clubs could also gain success through: good tactics, teamwork, youth development schemes, clever scouting and canny management. Brian Clough and Peter Taylor’s Derby County and Nottingham Forest in the 1970’s and 80’s are excellent examples of this. Bigger, richer clubs were temporarily put in the shade. Both Derby and Forest, lacking really big financial investment, have now become regular inhabitants of the lower leagues.  The norm has largely returned to: “the richer you are, the more successful you are.” In other words, the road to success is paved with dosh. Other clubs’ best players, coaches and managers can be poached( i.e. stolen), lured away by the prospect of bigger bucks. Thus some have argued that “financial doping”, stemming from vast TV money and mega-rich owners, has warped and ruined the traditional world of football.

Sport’s most vital ingredient is “fairness.” There should be a level playing- field. When this fairness is challenged by a gross financial disparity, then the main appeal of sport — a contest between equals, in which the best individual or team wins  — is destroyed. I wrote a piece a few years ago about why it was not necessarily a good thing that Manchester City  had won the Premier League title. Perennially the bridesmaids in their own city, in the shadow of their illustrious neighbours, United, City had won their first top title since the late 1960’s. What’s wrong with that? Most people greeted it as good news, breaking the boring Premiership hegemony of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United. ( only Blackburn Rovers had done it previously and that’s mostly because they had a rich “sugar-daddy.) However, a couple of years before their triumph, City had been purchased by the Royal family of Abu Dhabi, an oil-rich Gulf state with limitless wealth. They proceeded to use their immense riches to take the short -cut to success. They quickly achieved this in 2012 and again in 2014. Money-bags Manchester City and Chelsea are now regarded as “elite” clubs such that their owners and supporters expect and demand constant trophies. Not surprisingly, their support has swelled immeasurably as millions of “fair-weather” fans have jumped on to their band-wagons. It’s all very depressing in my opinion.

This then, is the background to Leicester City’s astounding achievement in the season of 2015/16. Whereas Manchester City paid £55million for just one player, Kevin de Bruyne, Leicester’s entire team cost less than half of that at £25million. Even that figure would be like living in dreamland for the owners and supporters of the huge majority of lower league clubs, including my own home- town team: Chesterfield FC ( the Spireites) in league 1, the third tier of English football. Chesterfield had to sell their captain and best player, Sam Morsey, for only £750,000 to help pay off their debts. However, getting back to Leicester City, in the context of the super-wealthy Premier League, they have shown that  having the most money does not always automatically buy the most success. The normal axiom of “money rules” has been turned on its head — at least for one season.

The feel-good factor of the Foxes success has been further enhanced by the fact that they are managed by a genial, 64 year old  Italian, Claudio Ranieri, who, although respected and experienced, has never actually won a national title before. He has had some success but has never managed a team of champions. In fact, he was sacked from his last job as manager of Greece, when they lost, in humiliating circumstances to the lowly Faroe Islands.( although, to be fair, the Greek FA was in complete meltdown  at the time.) The journalists have loved his story. After being originally suspected of just wanting to add to his pension- pot in the twilight of his career, Ranieri is now hailed as a genius. As the unexpected victories rolled in so did the corny headlines — the “Wily Ranieri”, the “Cunning old fox” etc. The general public have lapped it up too. Ranieri has not employed the infamous, aggressive “hair-dryer treatment” of an Alex Ferguson, or the dark, confrontational style of a Jose Mourinho ,to gain his success. He has led Leicester with a quiet, genial charm and clever tactical nous. He has won the trust of his players and has motivated them to play out of their skins, week in and week out. He has created a very strong feeling of unity and camaraderie. Claudio has lit up press conferences with his quirky use of English and his genuine modesty. The improbable success of his very moderate ( on paper) team has given everyone fresh hope and has been like a “breath of fresh air.” ( Sorry- it’s difficult to avoid clichés when writing about football.)

At first, everyone expected Leicester to collapse at some point and fall away from the top. Surely the stress and strain would get them in the end? But it never did! It was the Tottenhams, the Arsenals and the two Manchester clubs who did the falling away. Chelsea, the previous champions imploded early on and Liverpool’s inconsistency led them to change managers. When the media sensed that Leicester, against all the odds, actually had a great chance of winning the title, the clichés started to roll in. Suddenly they were every football fan’s second team. It was “like a fairy tale.” Apparently, we were all “Foxes” now, according to the press. ( If it had been Everton or Stoke City winning, presumably we would all have been “Toffees” or “Potters.”) The sentimental slush just kept on coming. Even people who didn’t follow football or had nothing to do with the city, like my sister, started to avidly follow Leicester’s results and want them to win. It had become a human interest story, not merely a football tale.

I think the success of the Foxes is great. If you’ll allow me to be negative for a moment, it has been good to see the smiles wiped off the faces of the shareholders and fans of the mega-rich clubs who have tried to purchase success. However, as a life-long football fan, I don’t suddenly support Leicester or regard them as my second team. That, in my opinion, is blatant band-wagon jumping. I am pleased for the real, long-term Foxes’ fans, the ones who have supported them all their lives, through the numerous lows as well as the occasional highs. Real supporters follow their clubs through thick and thin. They don’t just turn up for the good times. Neither do they change their allegiance to the latest champion team. To me it’s ridiculous that most Manchester United fans don’t even live in England, never mind Manchester. It doesn’t make sense to me that football fans in Africa of Asia walk around in replica: Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool or Manchester City shirts.

To me, football is a primarily geographical thing. It all depends where one’s roots are. I was born and raised in Chesterfield , Derbyshire, and so I have been a lifelong supporter of the “Spireites”, even though I now live in a different part of the country. (The Spireites are so called because Chesterfield’s church has a famously crooked spire.) If I had been born in Accrington or Hartlepool I would have been an Accrington Stanley or Hartlepool United fan. On the main stand in Hartlepool’s ground, Victoria Park, is the proud declaration: “Born a Pooly, Live a Pooly, Die a Pooly.” Hartlepool diehards have not suddenly switched their allegiance to Leicester or whoever happens to  win the Champions League. When Chesterfield score a dramatic equaliser or a last minute winner, we all sing, quite truthfully, “we’re Spireites ’till we die!” I know it sounds daft but that’s what being a serious football fan is like. Being a football supporter is both a joy and a curse. It’s simultaneously a passion and a disease! And it lasts a whole lifetime! I admire Arsenal for the attractiveness of much of their football under Wenger, but my first and last love will always be Chesterfield FC.

So no, I am not, and never will be one of the Foxes. No matter what the press claims, Leicester City are not my favourite second team. I am really pleased for them and believe their triumph is a very good tonic for the game. However, I, and most genuine football fans, will not be leaping on to the Leicester band-wagon and trying to bask in some reflected glory. We will all be supporting our own teams, even if , like Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Crewe Alexandria and York City, they have been relegated from their respective leagues. ( along with others), Misery, frustration and despair are as much a part of football as joy and elation. Football to me is not about fairy tales, fickleness or fair-weather supporting, it’s about: loyalty, identity and a sense of belonging. One’s team is one’s tribe or clan, and it would be traitorous to support another, even temporarily.

Visiting God’s First Stab at the E.U.

19 Apr

At first glance it looked like something from a medieval fantasy. In front of us stood two large, circular brick towers topped by cone- shaped, slate roofs. Long thin flags fluttered from the tips of the roofs. In between the sturdy towers was an arched brick passageway, decorated by 2 shining bands of terracotta tiles. The archway was mirrored by rows of small arched windows and was crowned with a fancy gable, complete with 3 ornamental towers. We expected a damsel in distress to appear from an upper window at any moment and Sir Lancelot to ride to the rescue on his white charger. Maybe I’m getting carried away but it was the sort of  building that evoked those sorts of romantic, mythical images. Only the cars and buses driving either side of the gateway spoilt this  pre-Raphaelite vision.

My friend, Ian, and I were visiting the picture-book city of Lubeck, in the north of Germany  near to the Baltic Sea. Many people have never heard of it, as it is not one of the more conventional tourist destinations. However, Lubeck’s  Altstadt ( old town) is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such as far back as 1987. It was the first place in northern Europe to be given this important accolade. We were standing in front of one of the main gateways to the medieval city – the Holstentor ( Holstein Gate). As we got close to it we noticed it wasn’t as perfectly symmetrical as we first thought. One of the towers had sagged and was leaning inwards. Apparently, the gateway was built on marshy ground and so did not have  a firm foundation. Most have heard about the Leaning Tower of Pisa but not many are aware of its Lubeck equivalent. There were once 4 such gateways, punctuating the city walls at each point of the compass. Now only 2 remain — the Holstentor on the west and the Burgtor in the north. They used to be protected by moats and outer fortifications. The tree-lined moat still remains, diverting water from the River Trave and turning the egg-shaped Altstadt into an island. The lovely old buildings of the Altstadt are often reflected in its waters. The Holstentor, much restored in the 19th and 21st centuries, has become one of the most famous symbols of Germany. Before the introduction of the Euro, it featured on the back of the 50 DM banknote and also appeared on various postage stamps. Bizarrely, the old gateway is also frequently depicted in marzipan as Lubeck is where this sweet delicacy was invented using fine almonds imported from Italy. The ” marz” part of the name refers to St Mark’s in Venice. Watching our figures ( at least some of the time), we didn’t indulge!

That trading link with Venice gives us a clue as to why Lubeck was so important in the Middle Ages and could build such grand buildings as the Holstentor and the 7 spired churches that spear the skyline. Lubeck was one of northern Europe’s leading trading cities from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Beyond the Holstein gate is a whole medley of beautiful medieval architecture, mainly in brick, as stone was not close at hand. Wealthy merchants built lovely homes decorated with an array of ornamental gables. They erected: massive, brick churches in the French Gothic style, ornate, frescoed hospitals and charitable institutions, and a picturesque Town Hall ( Rathaus) which is still in use. The Rathaus, built mainly in the 13th century, features inventive, alternate rows of red unglazed and black glazed bricks, shield- like, colourful coats of arms and 2 large holes to lessen wind resistance. Next to the Town Hall stands the enormous, twin towered Marienkirche, built by the merchants to show off their vast wealth and to hopefully book their place in heaven. It puts even the Cathedral ( or Dom) in the shade, the latter being perched on the outer edge of the city centre. This was a merchant city and even the church had to know its place.

In fact Lubeck was  the leading city of the Hanseatic League, a huge, successful trading alliance of  German-speaking cities. It reached its peak in the 15th century. Not all of these trading centres were in Germany, or the Holy Roman Empire as it used to be known. Those outside included: Amsterdam, Danzig ( now Gdansk), Bergen, Stockholm and Riga. The League came to control much of the trade in and around the Baltic and North Seas of northern Europe. It was just a loose federation and worked in a cooperative spirit, based on mutual trust. Trading ties were strengthened by marriage and family connections. At its height the Hanseatic league included about 200 member cities. These included: London, Boston and Kings Lynn in England. The Hansa organisation owned very little but controlled much. Its power was based on a complex web of trading routes spanning the North Sea, the Baltic Sea and the great rivers of northern Europe. In effect , it linked the Volga to the Thames, controlling an area from Novgorod to London. The Hansa merchants connected eastern and western Europe. The League defended its trade routes by raising armed fleets. They waged war if necessary if their interests were being threatened but largely they were a peaceful, organisation, concentrating on making money. The Hansa had their own commercial laws and had a sort of parliament to discuss mutual interests every year in Lubeck.  In recognition of its wealth, power and success, Lubeck was declared a Free Imperial City . Buildings such as the Holstentor, the Marienkirche and the Rathaus were designed to reflect this wealth and high status. As with every era, medieval architecture was mostly about showing off!

The age of the Hansa only came to an end when the focus of World trade moved from the Baltic and North Seas to the Atlantic Ocean after the discovery of the New World ( America) and new sea routes to India and the Far East. Naval defeat by Sweden and a disastrous intervention in a Danish Civil War just about finished it off. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learnt there –war is almost always a bad thing. Cooperation is usually preferable to confrontation.

In a way, the Hanseatic League, at its height, can be seen as an early version of the European Union. It linked cities from right across the continent in a  mainly peaceful, cooperative, economic organisation. So Lubeck was the medieval equivalent of the EU’s Brussels or Strasbourg. Although it did get involved in a few military conflicts, it can be argued that the League did a lot to keep the peace in northern Europe for significant periods of time, as it was in everyone’s interests to get on and reap the material rewards of trade. It’s much later successor, the EU, has also kept the peace in Europe since its inception in the late 1940’s, with the notable exception of the Yugoslavian Civil War. Yugoslavia, being a member of the former Communist block was not a member of the EU.  France and Germany who had gone to war 4 times in 140 years, wanted to put an end to the constant tit-for-tat conflicts by deliberately inter-meshing their economies at the end of the Second World War. Thus it would be in neither country’s interest to attack the other. Four other countries — Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy — joined Germany and France, in the European Coal and Steel Community. This later morphed into The Common Market, the European Economic Community and finally the European Union.

Britain, at first, stuck its nose up about joining a pan-European trading organisation. This was despite Winston Churchill’s stated vision of a united Europe. Maybe, like today’s British Euro-sceptics, politicians in the 1940s and early 50’s didn’t want to exchange British independence for European cooperation despite the latter’s promise of  continental peace and prosperity . They looked to the Empire, the Commonwealth and the so-called “Special relationship” with the Americans as reasons for not getting too closely involved with Europe, even though the latter was their own continent. It was only when the British Empire started to disappear rapidly and the relationship with the USA was severely dented after the 1956 Suez crisis  that the British Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, did a dramatic U-turn and applied for British membership of the European club. Rebuffed, in the early 1960’s, by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who was still not convinced that the British displayed the right attitude to be good Europeans, it was another decade before Prime Minister Ted Heath finally led us into an expanded Common Market, a decision validated by the referendum of 1975 called by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government. It’s ironic that Wilson called the Referendum mainly to conceal the splits in his own party over European membership. Doesn’t that sound familiar? The probable reason for the current 2016 referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership is probably so that PM David Cameron can by-pass the severe splits in his own Conservative party over Europe. So Britain’s whole membership of the EU is being put on the line because of Tory party squabbles!

Should we stay or should we go? The interminable debate rumbles on, with journalists rubbing their hands in glee at all the opportunities they have to exploit the politicians’ divisions. Having just returned from Lubeck, it seems strange that large numbers of Britons seem to think they would be better off by going it alone. The strongest economy in Europe, Germany, is not having this debate. The Germans are in for the duration. Despite its many problems the EU has delivered, as it had brought peace and prosperity to the German people as well as to much of Europe. Lubeck and the Hanseatic league was an early example of the advantages of cooperation over competition. Lubeck also contains a stark warning of the dangers of non-cooperation.

About a quarter of its lovely, historical centre was destroyed in a devastating bombing raid by the RAF on March 28th/29th, 1942. Yes, I know it was Hitler and the Germans who started it. And I also know that the attack on Lubeck was in part retaliation for the Nazi bombing of London, Coventry and other British cities. I am not qualified to make a proper judgement anyway, as I didn’t live through the horrors of the Second World War, being born a few years afterwards. However, I think it’s a great shame that both sides seemed to think it was fair game to attack and devastate beautiful, historic towns and cities with limited military or industrial significance. The German reaction to Lubeck was the equally appalling “Baedeker” raids on English historical and cultural centres such as : Canterbury, Bath, Exeter, Norwich and York. Later the British destroyed Hamburg and the beautiful city of Dresden  — and so the sad story goes on! I suppose the nearest modern equivalent is Islamic State vandalising the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria or the Taliban blowing up those sacred statues of Buddha in Afghanistan. The tragic Syrian civil war has also destroyed unique and precious historical cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Back in 1942, Lubeck lost over a quarter of the historic buildings in its Alstadt. 234 bombers dropped 160 tons of high explosives and 25,000 incenduries. Bomber Arthur Harris’s idea was to blow open the brick and copper roofs of the medieval buildings and then the incendiaries were dropped into the ruins to create a fire-storm. He used it as a test case for the similar bombing of cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. In some ways it could be viewed as Britain’s Guernica! To judge from his memoirs, he was very pleased with the results. Joseph Stalin was also pleased, expressing his delight at this “merciless killing.”

The German people have now rebuilt Lubeck, restoring or replacing the buildings destroyed in the war. Unfortunately, this now means that some non-descript modern buildings have spoilt the medieval completeness of the main square outside the Town Hall. The magnificent, twin-towered Marienkirche has also been rebuilt — the third largest church in Germany. The church was severely damaged in 1942 and we saw a sad photo of it burning. Both organs and much fine wood-carvings were lost. The restoration is impressive but one part has been deliberately left untouched. The bells in the south tower have been left where they smashed, half-melted, to the ground. They are a memorial to the tragedy of war. I have also visited Coventry and seen the ruins of its old cathedral standing next to the impressive new one, also acting as a memorial.

Lubeck is a beautiful, historical city. It has somehow survived the ravages of time and of modern warfare. We enjoyed walking the streets lined with 15th and 16th century gabled buildings. We enjoyed walking along the waterways and exploring little cobbled alleyways leading to secluded courtyards. We viewed impressive art and artefacts in the museums and enjoyed coffee and strudel in several of the excellent bakery/ cafes.( We weren’t always watching our waistlines!) It is a very civilised place to visit and we enjoyed our stay. Lubeck also reminded us of two important lessons of history  — the rich rewards of free trade in a time of peace and prosperity, and at the same time, the grave consequences of confrontation and war. The Hanseatic league was a medieval forerunner of today’s European Union. Both of these trading organisations have produced peace and prosperity for many.

Now I’m back in the United Kingdom and the constant din of the EU Referendum campaign. The 24 Hour news channels love it! Should we remain or should we leave?  That’s a question for every thinking person’s conscience. But the lessons of history, as reflected from my trip to Lubeck, suggest strongly to me that  the UK should stay in a cooperative union with its European neighbours.

The Day I Met the Scunny Bunny.

23 Mar

At first it seemed an outrageous, if not plain silly, idea. A 66 year old man travelling for 3 hours by public transport to see a third tier football match in a rundown East Midlands steel town. For a while I held back from mentioning this crazy plan to my wife, for fear of being laughed out of the house. After all, I could save a lot of money and time by staying at home and watching some footy on the telly. And if I was desperate to see an old, crumbling iron and steel town — then there was one just down the road from us. However, that’s twice missing the point. It wasn’t any old match in any old industrial town I wanted to see, it was the one involving my home team — Chesterfield fc — otherwise known as the “Spireites.” I grew up in that town and spent my formative years going to see the Spireites play, first with my dad, then with my mates. More recently, I’ve watched them with my cousins, my late uncle and my nephew. Supporting Chesterfield runs in the family. You might say that this particular football team has now got into my blood. Chesterfield fc forms part of my DNA. So perhaps it wasn’t such a crazy idea afterall, wanting to go and see them play at  Scunthorpe fc, known as “The Iron”. It was the clash of “The Iron” and “The Spireites”, and reader, I was there!

  I like travelling on trains– when they run on time! I get to read my book, observe human life as my fellow passengers get on and off, and see the scenary constantly changing through the window. For me it’s far preferable to driving down endless miles of anonymous motorway, unable to take my eyes off the road, unable to move and getting increasingly cramped in my seat. It may be the “freedom of the road” but it is a very isolating experience, being trapped in one’s own little metal box, not able to speak to or interact with any of the people only a few feet away . In the end it becomes a case of counting the miles and just wanting the journey to be over and done with. Stopping at a service station fails to dispel the monotony as they are more or less all the same, with their franchised food and retail outlets, canned music in the toilets and glazed-eyed  motorists drinking bad coffee and wishing they were somewhere else. Give me a railway station anyday!

  My “exciting day” began in anti-climax though. I live in Saltburn, a tiny Victorian seaside resort which forms the terminus of  a branch line off the East Coast mainline. The little 2-coach trains leave the coast, grind their way through the blackened industrial landscape of Teesside, to finally link with the main line at Darlington. I decided to catch an earlier train than strictly necessary in order to make my mainline connection comfortably. However, without any notice, the train was cancelled. It never turned up! I stood on the platform with several bemused fellow passengers all thinking “What do we do now?” It was a tense wait to see if the next scheduled train was going to turn up. I sat in the platform shelter, read my paper and tried desperately not to bite my nails. Finally it came — 2 minutes late. My relief was palpable. For the past half hour I had been worrying that the whole trip was in jeopardy!

  So I made my connection and caught the mainline express at “Darlo.” We sped smoothly south. I enjoyed looking at the Cleveland and Hambleton Hills to my left and was looking forward to seing York’s ancient Minster and medieval city walls. You don’t get that on the A1! I was also looking forward to reading my novel. However, my reserved seat was right next to a noisy, high spirited Geordie “Hen Party”. There were 6 of them, heavily made up and  sporting funny hats and gaudy Dame Edna Everidge specs. Pink balloons announced to the world who they were, as if we didn’t know! They were drinking sparkling wine, telling jokes and laughing and shrieking at the tops of their voices. They were obviously having fun  and seemed pleased that they had an audience, albeit a reluctant one, to perform to. After a noisy half hour, Dawn’s Hen partiers stumbled off the train at York, sloshing drink over everybody as they went. They were replaced by a quiet group of Chinese students reading their textbooks and testing each other. So the next half hour to Doncaster was much calmer.

  At Doncaster I swapped trains to meander east, up another branch line into the flatlands of North Lincs. My train was terminating at Scunthorpe but others on this line, went on to the delights of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. A long time ago I went on several Sunday School trips to Cleethorpes, where we sat on the sand and gazed at the pier. There were very few distractions or amusements. It was pretty boring. I remember vowing never to go there again. I also remember the overpowering stench of fish as we passed through Grimsby docks. However, I had never been to Scunthorpe — its heavy industry putting me off.

  Our little train passed through a flat landscape punctuated by drainage ditches, short lines of poplars acting as wind breaks and gaunt forests of wind turbines. It was obvious that we were not far from the Fens with its similar flat, desolate landscape. We stopped at little places that I had never heard — Thorne, Crowle, Althorpe. Hardly anyone got on or off. It was a bit like the end of the world. Soon the train starting to run parallel to a long, straight canal. (the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation). It went on for miles and miles without even a hint of a boat or any human life. All I spotted was: a couple of ducks, a coot and a cormorant on the far bank, poised to strike. Eventually, after half an hour of monotony, we crossed a large river on a big  metal bridge of soaring green girders. ( Think of a smaller version of the Forth Rail bridge in Scotland.) I later learnt that this was the River Trent on the last few miles of its journey to the Humber, just south of Hull. It flowed through a largely empty landscape, much of it reclaimed land from the Humber estaury.

After all this excitement we finally arrived at Scunthorpe station. I had a fair amount of time and wanted to see a bit of the town before going to the match. However, the town centre was nowhere to be seen. I seemed to be on a semi-main road on the edge of an old housing estate. I resisted the temptation to get into one of the hopefully waiting taxis and followed a small blue sign indicating town centre and bus station. I passed the “Scunny Car Wash”, my first sign of life and walked on. Few people were around and I had no obvious clues, such as a church spire or tall public building to guide me in. Eventually, at a confusing junction I met a young woman and her son. I asked the way. Apparently I was only 5 minutes outside the centre, but then she added that there were hardly any decent shops there and they all now go to Tescos!

 At last I got to the centre. It was a late 60’s/early 70’s pedestrianised shopping precinct — neat, clean but anonymous. There didn’t seem to be any old, interesting or distinctive buildings. Yet the town goes back a long way and was actually mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1085. It got it’s slightly unfortunate name from the old Norse “Escumesthorpe, which translated, means “Skuma’s Household.” The precinct today however, celebrates the town’s more recent history. It’s  called “The Foundry Shopping Centre.” Just in case you’ve forgotten: Scunthorpe is an iron and steel town. It sits on a large bed of iron ore and limestone and became heavily industrialised in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the background, near the shops, I could see the Tata Steelworks, still dominating the centre. Further out I spotted the large, concrete cooling towers of the Drax Power Station. At its height Scunthorpe had 4 large blast-furnaces, all named after Queens: Mary, Bess, Anne and Victoria. However the town has struggled since the sharp decline of its heavy industry in the 1980’s and 90’s. The iron and steel workforce has shrunk from 27,000 to around 4,500 and is just about hanging on by its fingernails. The mines had all gone by 1981 as it was cheaper to ship in foreign ore. Scunthorpe’s boom years appear to be behind it. The town centre seemed very quiet for a Saturday lunchtime. Maybe that young woman was right and they had all gone to Tescos! I had a quick snack at the Jazz Cafe and then asked for directions to the football ground.

I knew the Scunthorpe United ground was out of the centre. The club’s advice was to take a taxi from the station to avoid the long walk. Buses out there seem to be infrequent. It was a fine day so I decided to walk. I took directions and learnt it was a long, straight, 2 mile hike if I turned left at Primark. So I did. My linear route out of town was a bit like a geography lesson. The newer shops of the precinct soon gave way to older, more decrepit businesses in Victorian or Edwardian terraces. Old houses in bare streets gave way to 1930’s leafier suburbs. Next came modern housing estates and finally the out of town retail park just off a busy roundabout near the motorway. ( the M181, a spur of the M180) I did pass a few, large, older buildings — a church, a private school, a red-brick arts centre being modernised but only half finished. On the edge of town were a couple of big pubs — the type that people drive out to for Sunday dinner or to watch a match on the giant screen.

I started to worry that I had gone wrong and quickened my step to catch up with a couple of blokes walking a little in front of me. But as I got closer I could hear that they were speaking a strange eastern European language. I remembered reading that the newer engineering and food processing factories had a large Polish and Slovak workforce. A young woman pushing a baby buggy told me that she “thought” the ground was about half a mile away. This was only slightly reassuring. Would I find the football ground in time? Would I miss the match that I had gone to so much trouble to see? It’s a shame that so many English football grounds are  out of town and thus more difficult to locate. The close link between the club and the community it belongs to has been partly severed. Newcastle United’s St James’s Park, is an honourable exception. The stadium still dominates the city and the roar of the crowd can be heard all over the centre.

I passed the “Welcome to Scunthorpe- Industrial Garden Town” sign and kept walking. But then I spotted the reassuring sight of the floodlight pylons of Glanford Park, and suddenly I was following scores of people, all walking in the same direction wearing their claret and pale blue shirts, scarves and hats. I kept my blue and white Spireite scarf hidden safely in my bag, although, to be honest, the atmosphere was easy going and friendly. Thankfully, the days of football violence are mostly over. Scunthorpe’s ground, built in the 1970’s, is part of a retail park just off the motorway. It shares the space with M and S, Debenhams, Boots, Costa Coffee and Subway. The whole lot is surrounded by large car parks. Here was Scunthorpe’s alternative town centre. It’s not actually in Scunthorpe! No wonder the real centre was so quiet. Everything is organised around the car, such that many matches up and down the country begin and end with a traffic jam.

  I collected my ticket and went through the turnstyle of the “Away End”. Here I met a sea of blue and white — the travelling Spireites. I reckoned there were about 700-800 of us in a total crowd of 3,800. I put on my scarf and grabbed a seat high up behind the goal. When you’re an away supporter, you usually have to go behind one of the goals. The atmosphere is great as we’re all squashed together, but the action is telescoped and you cannot judge distances very clearly. It was suddenly wierd to be amongst loads of people from my home town, all speaking in broad Derbyshire accents and calling each other “duck.”

  The whole stand smelt like a giant, steaming meat pie. This is still the standard fare of many football grounds, along with beer and Bovril.( actually, I think the popularity of that famous beef broth is at last on the wane.) On the stand opposite us I saw a  massive advert for PUKKA PIES. Maybe it’s not the healthiest of sponsers for a sports team! The players were out practising and the crowds chanting and singing, warming up their vocal chords for the actual match. The Chesterfield chants seemed to consist largely of “slagging off” Scunthorpe rather than extolling  the praises of their team. Basically they were saying that Scunthorpe was a dump, but they used a ruder word than that. It’s a pity that fans have to be so negative, but that’s actually one of the attractions of going to a match. You can be as negative and foul mouthed as you like and nobody cares. Expletives are just par for the course. ( so long as they are not racist.) No doubt the Iron fans were singing rude stuff about us as well, but we couldn’t hear them as they were at the opposite end of the ground. In fact they seemed to be so quiet that our lot suggested that their team was playing in a library!

  The atmosphere was great and building by the minute, and then I saw it — the “Scunny Bunny”. A man ( or woman) dressed in a slightly tatty Bugs Bunny outfit ran right in front of us waving and giving us thumbs -up signs. It is a quaint but charming custom for every team in the football league to have a nickname and to have a mascot. At Chesterfield we have a big grey  mouse , amusingly dubbed “Chester Fieldmouse” Ha Ha! So I now was confronted by the legendary “Scunny Bunny” his Scunthorpe counterpart. It was a memorable moment!

  The match itself was full on. It was 90 minutes of: hope, expectation, disappointment, frustration, and tension with explosions of anger and/or joy . I suppose the atmosphere must be very like it was in the Roman Colosium, except the gladiators now wear shirts, shorts, socks and boots. The action was full-blooded and fortunes swayed from one side to the other and then back again. To quote the well known football cliche: it was “a game of two halves.” The Iron were on top in the first half, but the Spireites came roaring back after the break. The final score was a fair 1-1 draw. When Chesterfield equalised right in front of us, everybody went berserk. We all experienced an irresistable surge of pure adrenaline. That’s why we go to watch football!

 Then it was the long journey home — the same 3 trains, but this time with half an hour waits at each station. I just holed up in a cafe with a coffee and my book. My last train was held up by a fight in the other carriage. Police were  waiting to haul the miscreants off the train at Middlesbrough. It was another one of the “joys” of public transport. Arriving home at last, I looked back on a fascinating, unpredictable and stimulating day. It had been much preferable to sitting on the sofa and watching the 6 Nations Rugby. Live sport is always far superior to  watching it on the screen, no matter how big. And just think, I had had my first, unforgettable encounter with the legendary “Scunny Bunny.”

Destroyed By The Humble Duvet.

23 Feb

When I was a child, if it was a cold night, my mum or dad would pop an extra blanket on the bed before tucking me in for the night. I’d lie there all nice and cosy, beneath a sheet  and 2 or 3 woollen blankets. This was before the days of central heating and the all-conquering duvet, formerly known as the “continental quilt”. Spare blankets for extra cold nights, were kept on top of the wardrobe. We were a traditional, working- class British family and we didn’t bother with, or weren’t even aware of , “new-fangled” items that were popular in the rest of Europe. This was before the UK joined the Common Market (EU) in the early 1970’s.  Our view, which we shared with  most of our friends and family, was that British goods and customs were obviously the best and that most things “foreign” were not to be trusted. We were proud to be British and not bothered about being thought of as insular.  Those blankets would have been made in Britain, part of a long tradition of wool- making that stretched right back to the Middle Ages. More likely than not, our blankets and other woollen products were made in Witney, Oxfordshire. Chris and I recently visited the town on a family trek  to the south. In  word association games, “Witney” and “blankets” were once inextricably linked. Even my mum, who unfortunately suffers from memory loss, said “blankets” as soon as I mentioned  Witney to her.

Until a few years ago I had barely been aware of the town, having lived most of my life in the north of England. Then it registered on my radar as the parliamentary constituency of the present Conservative prime Minister: David Cameron. Luckily he was busy in Brussels and London at the time of our visit so we were able to sneak in and out without facing the possibility of an awkward encounter. Today, Witney is mainly a dormitory town for the nearby city of Oxford, 12 miles to the east. It is also a bit of a tourist centre, being on the eastern fringes of the popular  Cotswolds. But, over the centuries, its main claim to fame has been as a wool town. This is proudly commemorated in numerous names and signs dotted about the centre. We stayed in a guest house next door to The Fleece public house. Just down the road was another hostelry called The Company of Weavers. In the churchyard some of the headstones bear images of shuttles and other symbols related to cloth making. A new shopping centre has been named The Woolgate Centre. The former Blanket Weavers Guild HQ is now a museum/heritage centre and is named Blanket House. This weaver’s guild was set up in the reign of Queen Anne in 1714. The presence of the  wool industry in the town actually dates as far back as 969 AD, in late Anglo-Saxon times. The industry really took off  with the arrival of Huguenot weavers from Flanders in the early 1700’s. This is an excellent example of the positive results of immigration for the British economy. I wonder what UKIP or the Daily Mail would have made of it? When Daniel Defoe, the famous writer and a pioneer tourist, passed through Witney in the mid 18th century, he noted that “you see a (spinning) wheel going in almost every door, the wool, and  yarn hanging up at every window.”

Like many of its neighbouring Cotswolds towns to the west, Witney built much of its wealth and reputation on the Wool industry. “Wolds” are gently rolling hills, and “cots” are sheep enclosures. So there was a plentiful supply of wool to supply a flourishing enterprise. Many of the attractive historical, stone buildings which help to make the Cotswolds so popular, were put up by wealthy, successful wool merchants. There was a lot of money to be made. As well as grand mansions, they paid for impressive churches, schools and even almshouses for the poor. This is evident in Witney as well as in its popular near neighbour, Burford.

We stayed on Church Green which is probably the most attractive part of the town centre. Nearby are the old market hall and butter cross. The green itself is a large expanse of open space headed by the Church of St Mary with its impressive spire. It can be seen for miles around. Back in the day though, Church Green wasn’t so peaceful. The whole green was filled with crowded sheep pens as farmers bought and sold their valuable livestock. The nearby River Windrush provided water for the washing, fulling and dying of the wool. Later the river provided power for the early spinning and weaving machines and was subsequently used to generate steam when the industrial revolution got into full swing. Part of the attraction of the Cotswolds to today’s tourist is that it is a throwback to a bygone, pre-industrial era. Bypassed by the main transport routes, most of it’s wool manufacturing towns fell into decline and economic stagnation in the 19th century. In fact it is difficult to spot a Victorian building in any of these places. This explains their  current popularity — they present a chocolate box version of Ye Olde England. However, Witney is the exception that proves the rule. It’s merchants and manufacturers successfully lobbied to have a rail link and it was already an important stop on the coaching routes. It never became a nostalgic backwater. Instead, it embraced industrialisation and the centre of  its cloth production moved from workers’ cottages to large mills. While trying to navigate ourselves out of the town one day we suddenly came across a tall, brick chimney– a remnant of one of those steam powered factories — Witney Mill. It looked incongruous in rural Oxfordshire, as this was a sight we associated more with the Pennine mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north. Until it closed in 1962, Witney Mill was the town’s last working blanket factory.

I have always been fascinated by the Textile Industry having taught countless children about it in my days as a History teacher. When my pupils complained about having to do their schoolwork, I reminded them what their life would have been like 150 to 200 years ago. Children worked long hours in factories and mills. Before that, when industry was centred on people’s homes ( cottage industry), every member of the family was expected to contribute. In the textile industry for instance, the boys would help their fathers do the carding ( combing of the raw wool), while the girls assisted their mothers with the spinning ( i.e. — turning the raw wool into thread or yarn, by stretching and twisting it.) Thus the name for an unmarried woman is still a “spinster”, although it might be deemed rude to actually call someone that today. One can imagine the girls and women telling stories as they worked — “spinning a yarn.” Meanwhile, the man of the house, when he wasn’t working in the fields, would busy himself on the loom, turning the thread or yarn into cloth. In Witney this was mainly turned into blankets. A shuttle containing the thread was passed quickly from side to side, weaving in and out of the vertical threads already attached to the loom. Thus today we get the term “shuttle service” for a bus or a train that goes back and forth between two close destinations. The weaver worked in the room which had the biggest window to maximise the light he needed to do the job. This is why old weavers’ cottages have their biggest windows upstairs, where the loom was operated. Examples of these can still be seen in and around Witney.

In the past, the fields around Witney would have witnessed a very strange sight — countless rows of blanket-drying racks. Blankets were not woven individually. Instead they came in “stockfuls” which equated to about 24 blankets in one piece. After weaving, the blanket cloth was washed and pounded to make it shrink and become firmer. This was done in  fulling mills which were situated along the river. A “stockful” was the amount of cloth that would fit into a fulling mill’s stocks. I hope you’re following all this! The cloth would obviously be wet when the fulling was complete so it had to be dried on the large racks in the fields. Afterall, no-one wants to be a “wet blanket”, do they? Gangs of men hauled the large lengths of soggy cloth up on to the wooden racks, attaching them by means of “tenterhooks.” It must have been a difficult and rather tense job, giving rise to the modern phrase — “being kept on tenter hooks.” The hooks made holes in the eventual blankets which, for a long time, were an accepted part of the product. On a fine day, it was possible to dry over a mile of blankets outside. Once it began to rain however, every available man had to be mobilised to get the cloth in quickly. In the 20th century, indoor tentering lines began to take over, but outdoor tenter racks could still be seen in the Witney fields up to the late 1950’s. It must have been a spectacular sight. I suppose the nearest we come to it today is rows and rows of shining solar panels.

So Witney embraced the industrial revolution and became the blanket capital of the UK. It exported a lot of its woollen products too. At the time of a devastating earthquake in Sicily in the mid 20th century, the Witney mills worked round the clock to provide warm blankets for the poor, homeless victims in Italy. Then it all finished. On 19th July, 2002, the looms fell silent for the final time. A thousand years of wool making in the town came to an end and the industry that had dominated the economic and social life of the town was consigned to the waste-bin of history! The Witney wool industry had successfully survived many great changes and challenges, moving out of the cottage into the factory; changing from muscle power to water and steam power and finally electricity. Yet it met its match in the early 1970’s with the rise and rise of the humble duvet!

This soft, flat bag filled with down, feathers, wool, silk or synthetic alternatives is very effective in keeping us warm at night and has made bed making much simpler. The bag is place in a cover and then just placed on the bed. Its insulating properties are very effective in keeping us warm. Duvets have been around since Viking times. They were originally developed in northern Norway. The name comes from the French for “down” The down of the Eider duck is particularly effective. From the 16th century it was popular with wealthier people in the west. In the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Princess and the Pea”, published in 1838, the royal lady lay down on 10 eider-down duvets!

Maybe ordinary British people avoided these “Continental Quilts” because they were strange and foreign. But eventually, in the later 20th century, the duvet overcame all resistance and the blanket was largely vanquished. Thus Witney’s wool industry is no longer a going concern. It now provides the raw materials for museums and heritage trails to amuse and interest tourists like myself. Having said that, just today, I was passing a bedding shop in my home town of Saltburn by the sea, on the North Yorkshire coast, and couldn’t help noticing a pack of pillows with the label: “Made in Witney”. So it seems that Witney has not quite vacated our bedrooms afterall. It has not totally  succumbed to its  seemingly all-conquering  foreign rival! And, considering its political connection with Mr Cameron, it is still the heartland of the “dyed in the wool Tory.” As a Labour supporter it pains me to acknowledge this, but I wouldn’t want to “pull the wool over your eyes” would I?

 

 

Harold and Bowie.

22 Jan

I went to a funeral yesterday. It was held in a small, obscure Methodist church in north-east Derbyshire. About 50 to 60 people turned up to mourn the loss of a long standing member of their congregation : Harold W——. He was 89 years old. He’d enjoyed a good, long life. Harold’s passing was mentioned in a short announcement in the local paper: The Derbyshire Times, along with the deaths of around 30 others who had also lived in the area. It was not featured in the Nationals and did not dominate 24 hour TV news for a day. Harold’s death will sadden a few score family members, friends and acquaintances, but tens of millions of the wider public were not even aware of his life, never mind his death. As the cricket commentators might say: “He didn’t trouble the scorers.” This is very different from the sudden, unexpected death of the pop star and performance artist, David Bowie, in the same week. Bowie had also led a good, long life but was only 69 when it ended.So part of the big reaction to his death was because it was regarded as being premature. He still had to reach the average life-expectancy and still had a lot to offer.

So 2 deaths of 2 Englishmen in the same week in mid-January, 2015. The loss of one life was mourned by a few but ignored by the many. The other was mourned by the many and ignored by very few. Even those who did not  like the music of Bowie would have been very lucky to escape the knowledge of his passing. There was saturation coverage on television and in the press, and a general outpouring of vicarious grief on social media. So why the massive difference in the reaction to these 2 sad deaths?

That question is easy to answer of course — it’s the consequence of fame. We live in an era of stars, superstars and so-called celebrities. Their lives are presented in great, constant detail to us  by the media. We know their likes, dislikes, activities and movements. We hear about their love affairs, marriages and divorces. We even hear about their weight problems and slimming regimes. One has to feel sorry for them really as the price of their fame is the loss of their privacy. Thus, it’s not surprising that it’s big news when one of these “stars” dies. It’s almost as if their death is just their latest contribution to the entertainment industry. To be fair to David Bowie, in his latter years he largely shunned the publicity machine. He kept his illness confidential, withdrew into obscurity in New York, far from his British homeland, and made his last 2 albums in secret. Maybe at the end, even he had grown tired of constantly having to parade in front of cameras and perform on the public stage. Maybe even great fame palls in the end. I admired him and liked his many different styles of music. I was also intrigued by  his multiple personas. He was very clever and creative. I admire his stance at the end. He had a quick, quiet cremation and denied the hungry media the opportunity for another mass feeding -frenzy. In doing this I think he maintained his dignity and integrity to the very end. In this sense I think he showed himself to be a real star. His legacy was his music and his writing. He also left millions of vivid memories for people all around the globe.

But was David’s death more important than Harold’s. Is the significance of a death measured by how many people were touched by that person in his/her life? Some may think this is true. However, I would argue that quality far outweighs quantity. Harold led a quiet life in one area. His passing didn’t cause many ripples at all. But he was  a faithful husband in a long-term marriage, a good father of 2 daughters and a son and a loving  and much loved granddad. He touched these people deeply not superficially. These were quality relationships. Harold  won great respect for his work as manager of the local Cooperative store, his long term union work and his lifelong support of the local Methodist church. He was much valued as a friend including by both my parents who shared meals, trips and holidays with him. Naturally, David Bowie had these close family and work relationships too and also probably had numerous close friends. I am not saying he was superficial by any means. So in the relationships that count, Harold and David were equals. To me, their deaths were of equal importance. The anguished outpourings of  people who only knew Bowie through a piece of vinyl, a picture in a pop magazine, an image on a TV screen or a distant dot on a stage, cannot compare with the genuine, deep grief of those who knew him in the flesh and with whom he had formed intimate, meaningful relationships.

Maybe I’m being pedantic. I’m just stating the obvious really. I know that people are not always treated equally in life. The famous few get a lot more attention and preferential treatment compared to the anonymous masses. I know we need “stars” — people to inspire us and illuminate our lives. ( I’m talking about real, talented stars like Bowie here, not the has-beens on “Big Brother” or “I’m a Celebrity.”) Bowie was a hero to many people in many ways. Yet Harold was a hero too. He enriched the lives of those who were closest to him. he worked hard, kept his family provided for and was successful in his career. He won the respect of many. Thus, in my eyes they were equal, and will be missed in equal measure by those that knew them. In one way Harold outdid Bowie. In one crucial respect he was not equal. He lived a full 20 years longer. The tragedy of David Bowie was that he still had a lot to offer and, up to his final illness, still had the drive and energy to create more memorable works of art.

Harold, I think, was happy that he had achieved his major goals in life. In the end, the ailments and physical restrictions of the ageing process, cut deeply into his quality of life. His beloved wife had pre-diseased him by over a decade. He was in need of daily carers and had lost much of his independence. Maybe he was relieved to slip quietly away in the end.

So Harold and David-two sad deaths in one week. Two completely different, contrasting lives lost in the same short space of time. There was a vast difference in the reaction to their deaths, but they will both be equally missed by those who loved them.

 

 

Short memories but Long Term Consequences.

8 Dec

Only a few weeks ago the United Kingdom conducted the very solemn ceremony known as Remembrance Day. Up and down the country wreaths were laid, poppies were worn and fine words spoken to remember and honour the country’s war dead. People recalled the terrible tragedy of war and grieved the  deaths of tens of thousands of soldiers who were lost in Britain’s conflicts from the First World War to Iraq and Afghanistan. The most high profile ceremony was, as usual, at The Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Our most prominent politicians and representatives of the Royal family were present to take part in this ritual of national mourning  and of grave, sober remembrance. And quite right too — we must not forget those who gave their lives fighting for their country!

Thinking about all this, it seems very strange therefore, that less than 4 weeks later, this country, the United Kingdom, has once again voted to go to war! So more unfortunate victims will be created for us to remember in sad ceremonies of the future. The House of Commons, with a large majority, voted for British warplanes to start bombing the ISIS held parts of Syria, even though Syria is a separate and sovereign country. And it seems that despite the solemnity of Remembrance Sunday, many were very excited about this new rush to war. There was wall to wall media coverage, cheers in the Commons when the result was announced and vilification of those who voted for Peace. The Prime Minister, David Cameron described them as “terrorist sympathisers” and refused to apologise for these incendiary remarks even those he was asked to do so in parliament 12 times.

This is the 5th time in this short 15 year century, that the UK has gone to war. The reason this time is to attack the terrorist group, ISIS, who recently carried out the appalling massacre in the streets of Paris and who also claim responsibility for the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Egypt , killing all passengers and crew. In their territories in Iraq and Syria they have carried out atrocities such as: rape, murder, beheadings and crucifixions. Every decent human being is shocked and horrified by such outrages and I suppose it is natural to want to hit back at ISIS or Islamic State as soon as possible. However, is it sensible to make serious decisions such as going to war as part of an emotional, knee-jerk reaction? Surely it would have been best to count to ten and use that time to consider the possible consequences of our actions. We could have used that time to think of the alternative ways of bringing down ISIS other than bombing. We could also have used that time to remember the tragedy of war that we were all thinking about less than a month before. It’s a serious case of short -term memory loss and I don’t think the MPs who voted for war in Syria can use Alzeimers as an excuse.

So what might the consequences of this rash, rush to war be? First of all, although it is supposed to be defending us from terrorist attacks by hitting their bases in the Middle East, our bombing raids immediately put our air-crews in danger. I shudder to think what would happen if their war-planes crashed or were shot down over ISIS territory.  Secondly, the British bombing will almost certainly make the UK an even greater target for an ISIS inspired terrorist attack. Thirdly, many more people in Syria  will hate the British, once the bombing casualty figures start to rise. Thus the raids will be a superb recruiting tool for ISIS, as more fighters join their ranks to gain revenge on the bombers. Some belief that this is the very thing that ISIS wanted, so the British have played right into their hands. As Stephen Fry tweeted — In a war you do what the enemy least wants you to do, not the thing it most wants you to do. ( or words to that effect.)

The British government has tried to make this issue very black and white. We are bombing ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq, in order to protect ourselves from a Paris-style terrorist attack. We also want to support our close ally: France. It sounds so simple. However, we are actually entering a very messy and murderous civil war with multiple warring parties. Russia and the USA are already involved in major bombing campaigns, along with the French, the Turks and now the British. The great danger is that the Russians are supporting President Assad but the Americans are supporting the anti-Assad fighting groups. The potential for a major incident between America and Russia is very high. They are supporting opposite sides in a civil war and both are flying their bombers in the same tiny airspace. Already, the Russians and the Turks have come to grief with the shooting down of a Russian fighter that is supposed to have flown into Turkish air-space. The British , along with the French have now entered into this volatile, dangerous situation. Two years ago the British wanted to bomb President Assad’s forces. Now they are bombing some of Assad’s enemies in the civil war. Has the British Government and parliament really made a sensible decision?

It can be argued that this war, like the Iraq invasion that preceded it, is illegal. It certainly does not have the full sanction of the United Nations. Resolution 2249 which the UN passed, does not invoke Chapter 7 of the UN charter. Only this chapter can authorise such military intervention. The military raids of the western allies ( as well as those of Russia) are not respecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity, independence and unity of the Syrian state, as demanded by the UN Charter. As in Libya, the western powers have taken sides in a complex civil war which could have disastrous consequences for the future.

A terrible consequence of bombing is civilian casualties. Ask anyone who lived through the Blitz in 1940. The Airwars project ( airwars.org) estimate that at least 10% of airstrike casualties are non-combatants. With thousands of raids being planned and ISIS using the poor civilian population as a human- shield, civilian deaths and injuries, including to women, children and elderly people are going to be considerable. Politicians and military people cynically and coldly call this “collateral damage.” To many people who campaign for peace, this is simply unacceptable. I remember at the start of the Iraq war, seeing a photo of a teenager who had had his arms and legs blown off during the American/British bombing onslaught on Bagdad. The British papers tried to dress it up as a feel-ggod story, as the poor lad had been kindly flown to England for medical treatment. Maybe it would have been much better if we had not bombed his city in the first place. I stared at the picture and then had to hide it away. It made me feel physically sick. I fear that many such scenes will be replicated during our Syrian bombing campaign.

The atrocities of ISIS and their followers are terrible but will revenge attacks make the situation better or worse? I would suggest the latter. My grandma and mum used to advise me “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” They are very wise words. It would be difficult to follow Jesus’s advice and turn the other cheek or forgive. However, surely the powerful countries of the West, plus Russia, can cripple ISIS economically by setting up a blockade?  They could also put diplomatic pressure on Islamic State’s supporters such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Pressure could be brought to bear on Turkey to stop it purchasing Isis oil and stop it giving Isis fighters easy movement across its borders. There are many alternatives to bombing, which is a dangerously simplistic solution.

Maybe, Prime Minister David Cameron is more interested in trying to maintain Britain’s status as a so-called Great Power. He wants to keep his place at the “top table” , I would suggest. He wants to save “face” when meeting up with Hollande, Obama or Putin. I would suggest that he is suffering from a severe attack of “Churchill syndrome.” Unfortunately, by joining in the bombing he has sacrificed a lot of the influence he or his Foreign Secretary might have had in Syrian civil war peace negotiations. The British cannot present themselves as honest brokers any more. They have revealed their hand to the opposition.

The Syrian Civil war is savage and dangerously complex. There are many sides involved in the fighting. Atrocities are being committed by all sides. In the end, only a diplomatic solution seems possible. By joining the war, the British, I would argue, are pouring oil on very troubled waters. They , along with the other powers have got involved without having any clear plan for the peace, if it ever comes. The interventions in Iraq and Libya have had disastrous consequences. Afghanistan is still a dangerous mess. I doubt that Syria will be any better.

It’s so sad that we seem to have forgotten the meaning of Remembrance Day so quickly. In joining the war instead of campaigning for a peaceful solution in Syria, the UK is failing to learn the lessons of even the recent past.

Mad Kings and Mass Tourism.

2 Nov

Being a History buff, I’m a sucker for castles. Living in the north east of England I am spoilt for choice as there are numerous fine examples within an easy day trip. The Normans built them to consolidate their hold over the country they conquered in 1066AD and, in my neck of the woods, to guard against marauding Scots.  They are some of my favourite places, providing enduring fascination. Some are now museums, some are stately homes and others just picturesque ruins. Most of my castle visits have been shared with just a sprinkling of other people, the only exceptions in Britain being The Tower of London and Edinburgh Castle, which are both on the international tourist trail, and Warwick Castle, which has been transformed into a major entertainment venue by the Tussauds organisation. It seems to me that usually, castles are a bit of an acquired taste.

So it came as a massive surprise to find that when I decided to visit a German castle in the Alps of southern Bavaria, Neuschwanstein, I found myself fighting for space with hundreds, if not thousands of tourists from around the world. At first I couldn’t understand why. It is situated in a fairly remote, rural area. It is a 3 hour journey by train and bus  from the nearest city (Munich). Even when  one gets to the village below the castle ( Hohenschwangau), there is a stiff 30 to 40 minutes walk up a hill, or one faces a very long queue to board a crowded bus or  horse- drawn wagon. The crowds are so vast that one can only visit Neuschwanstein on a guided tour and these have to depart every 5 minutes throughout a 9 hour day to accommodate everyone in the high tourist season. Even then, many people are turned away as they have arrived too late. One reviewer on Trip Adviser gave up his plans to visit the castle after learning that the queue for a ticket was 2 hours long and then there would be a further 5 hour wait before finally getting in. I had seen photos of the castle perched on a precarious rock , surrounded by mountains and had imagined a quiet, rather lonely place, cut off from the world in splendid isolation. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The place was heaving, and this was in September, outside the main tourist season. So I didn’t get much peace and there was little opportunity for quiet reflection. Maybe I should have done more research before going to Neuschwanstein. Even a cursory glance at Trip Adviser reveals mass adulation for the place. The last time I checked, it had attracted no less than 858 reviews!

So what’s all the fuss about? Why has this particular castle, tucked away in an obscure corner of Germany, attracted such a massive following? Every year it is visited by 1.4 million people. In summer, 6000 visitors a day stream through rooms only intended for one inhabitant. Neuschwanstein is one of the most popular castles or palaces in the whole of Europe. Why? What is even more astonishing is that it is not even a real, authentic castle. It’s a 19th century fake. In Britain, we would call it a “folly”, not the genuine article. It is actually the realisation of a King’s fantasy. Although loosely based on a medieval model it was largely conceived inside the King’s head, a product of his vivid imagination and romantic attachment to the past. That King was Ludwig II of Bavaria, sometimes called “Mad King Ludwig”, and it is his colourful back-story that partly explains the castle’s immense popularity.

Many people these days don’t seem to mind if something is a fake or not. From imitation “Rolex” watches to false eye-lashes; from spray tans to tribute groups — people don’t seem to care so much whether something is real or counterfeit. So why worry if a so-called “medieval” castle was not actually built in the Middle Ages or that it has never been involved in a battle and was never intended to? This castle was an eccentric monarch’s fantasy home. Ludwig had a megalomaniacal passion for creating fantastic architectural projects. Neuschwanstein was never meant to be an instrument of war. It is a fantastical confection of towers and spires, spectacularly situated on a high rocky ledge above a river gorge.  It has the elements of a castle but is merely an extravagant invention. Since the arrival of gunpowder into Europe at the end of the 15th century, the original fortified castle had been largely made redundant anyway. I believe it is the fantasy element that has fascinated so many people and goes a long way to explain the great popularity of this place. People don’t just come to see the building, they come to hear about the “Mad King”.

Ludwig II was really a king without a kingdom as in 1871, Bavaria had been incorporated into the newly unified Germany led by Prussia. It was the King of Prussia who became German Emperor, not Ludwig. He was reduced to the role of vassal. Although Ludwig was convinced that he had been chosen by God to rule, he never had any real powers.  Disappointed with the real world, he began to have Neuschwanstein built in 1868. It was here where he hoped to escape into a dream world based on the myths and legends of the Middle Ages which he was so enraptured by. These were the themes of the powerful operas of Richard Wagner, whom Ludwig greatly admired. Wagner would give private recitals to the King in his other pseudo-medieval castle at Hohenswangau down in the valley. The new mock castle was dedicated to Wagner and decorated with large picture cycles based on the stories told in his operas. The interiors are thus adorned with medieval Kings and knights, poets and lovers. They also prominently feature the swan, the heraldic creature of the royal courts of Swangau and also the Christian symbol for purity. Ludwig saw himself as a pure, ethereal messenger of God, sent to earth on a divine mission.

Yet the Middle Ages appearance of  Neuschwanstein is just an illusion. Behind the medieval façade lies a very modern building for its time. It has hot- air central heating, running water on every floor, hot and cold water in the kitchens, flushing toilets, electric bells to summon the servants and a lift to carry the King’s meals up to his chambers. Beneath limestone cladding, the building is really made of brick, not stone like the original castles. The spectacular Throne Room which also doubles up as a chapel, incorporates a steel frame. I think this intoxicating mix of the new and the old is another reason why so many people are drawn to visit it. The Throne Room was inspired by Byzantine churches. It features an enormous chandelier, a cupola decorated with stars and a beautiful mosaic floor featuring plants and animals. It’s all a bit “over the top” and I certainly wouldn’t want to live there myself, but it makes for a fascinating visit.

Ludwig built Neuschwanstein as a retreat. He allowed virtually no-one to visit him there. It is therefore richly ironic that vast numbers of people now come to visit what was supposed to be a private refuge. Here he lived out his fantasy life. From 1875, Ludwig lived mainly at night and slept during the day. He spent less time in his capital, Munich, and more and more time up in the mountains. He travelled around on elaborate coaches and sleighs. Sometimes he wore historical costume. Ludwig identified himself with Parsival, a legendary medieval figure who was famed for his purity. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s castle- building turned into an expensive obsession. He had several other castles built as well as Neuschwanstein. He got into great debt, and the foreign banks he had borrowed heavily from began to close in. The king’s behaviour became increasingly bizarre and erratic. Finally the Bavarian Government, supported by his family, declared him insane and deposed him in 1886. His brother has previously been certified as well. Ludwig was interned at Berg Castle. The very next day he drowned in mysterious circumstances in Lake Starnberg, together with the psychiatrist who had declared him insane. They were found in only a few feet of water.  These mysterious deaths have never been properly explained. Did Ludwig take his own life because he couldn’t live with the humiliation and disgrace? Did he and his psychiatrist make a suicide pact? We will never know. It is this mystery that has added spice to the tale of “Mad King Ludwig”. I believe that it is this strange story with a mystery at its heart that helps to draw thousands of tourists to this remote place. It has certainly been hyped by the modern tourist authorities. You can now buy: Ludwig tea-towels, Ludwig chocolates, Ludwig mugs, Ludwig calenders, etc etc. This rather sad, deluded man has become a tourist cash-cow. People love a mystery, and to misquote Churchill, Ludwig is “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.”

So, we’re beginning to get to the bottom of why this fake castle in Bavaria is such a massive tourist draw. It is in a spectacular mountain location. It was built for an intriguing, mysterious character( though never finished in his lifetime). It is an eccentric mix of the ancient and modern. On top of all this, it is a perfect fantasy version of a castle rather than being hampered with the imperfections of the real thing. But the biggest reason behind Neuschwanstein’s phenomenal popularity, I believe, is it’s connection with the Disney Organisation, which has made “fantasy” its stock in trade. Walt Disney used it as the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the cartoon film of the same name. It was also the template for Cinderella’s castle in the Magic Kingdom theme parks.  It’s image is replicated in the Disney Tourist Parks in the States, Hong Kong and Paris. The shape of Neuschwanstein also features on the logo for Walt Disney Pictures, Disney TV, Disney Music Group and Walt Disney Studios. In other words, it has been placed at the very centre of 20th and 21st Century popular culture.  I think this is the real reason why it is so overwhelmingly popular. People see it as the archetypal “fairy-tale” or “story-book” castle. Instead of a real castle, it is Disney’s imitation of an imitation that has come to represent a castle in the modern, global public’s consciousness.

I doubt  whether many of those tourists are serious students of history or architecture. Neither do I believe that many of those who flock to see Neuschwanstein have read the biography of so-called “Mad King Ludwig” and are desperateto to see where he lived. The mountain location is stunning but this is still not the main reason for the tourist stampede. I believe it is the power of  the Disney cultural empire that brings so many to this corner of Germany. I hate using the word, but this castle has become “iconic”. The hype of the Disney organisation has sold this imaginary image of a romantic, medieval castle to the world. It is an idea of a castle rather than the real thing. This is why when I went there, even though it was slightly out of season, I had to fight for space with fellow tourists from all over the world. I met Europeans, Americans, Australians, Kiwis and especially Asian people. That is why I counted 30 large coaches parked up by 11 am and noted that the small village of Hohenschwangau has 5 enormous car parks ( all full). This is why this tiny rural settlement has: souvenir shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels, guesthouses, and all the other trappings of a mass-tourist hot-spot. It’s certainly not your average peaceful Alpine village. The bells of the cows in the meadows are drowned out by the drone of the traffic and the clicking of a thousand cameras. This is why I had to duck and dive amongst the selfie-sticks and queue for everything. The trouble with mass tourism is that it is always in danger of “killing the goose that laid the golden egg.” The density of the crowds means that it  can be more like a rugby scrum than an historical or educational visit. Any vestige of a medieval atmosphere ( fake though it is), is extinguished by the pressure of the constant crowds.

Despite all this it was still worth the visit. The wonderful location, the fantasy nature of the castle, the mysterious back story, all make for a memorable occasion. Even the tourist hordes are an interesting phenomenon in themselves. I can also add that one can fairly easily escape the crowds by walking along the lovely shoreline of the nearby Alpsee lake. From here you can view both the upper and lower castles ( Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenswangau), in their proper Alpine setting.

My wife, Chris, and I stayed in the nearby town of Fussen. It’s a picturesque, historical place, with attractive old buildings festooned with illusionist paintings, a monastery and its own castle. It had a sprinkling of tourists but when we visited the beautiful baroque monastery and the interesting schloss up on the hill, we virtually had them to ourselves. We met less than a dozen other  tourists in the whole of our 2 hour visit. Only 3 miles away the mass tourist hordes were pouring in to Neuschanstein. It’s the power of hype and the power of popular culture. That is why it has ended up on so many people’s “bucket lists” — a must-see sight that has to be ticked off. We met an American on the train down from Munich, who had come all that way just to see that one castle. He wasn’t interested in anything else and was returning to the city as soon as he had made his brief visit. Everyone to their own I know, but I find it difficult to understand this approach to travel. I like to stay in an area for several days at least and soak in the atmosphere. But many don’t stay. They flock to see this “fairy tale” caricature of a castle before rushing on to the next thing on their tick list.

It was a memorable experience for me but I cannot wait to get back to the genuine castles in my home region, where I will have space to breathe and where visitors are generally there for the history rather than the fantasy. It’s so strange that an out and out replica can become so much more popular than the genuine article. Still “that’s life”, as they say, or in this case “that’s Mass Tourism.” One can only imagine what “Mad King Ludwig”, so jealous of his privacy, would think if he returned to his former retreat today. At least all those tourists have paid off  his debts and have given his estate such a handsome profit which accumulates every year!

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