Tag Archives: History

The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!

1 Feb

It’s difficult to write about football ( or soccer) with any objectivity. Thanks to saturation coverage in the media, its importance has been inflated to ridiculous levels. Hooliganism has been largely sorted in Britain ( though not completely) but other unsavoury developments constantly rear their ugly heads. Numerous Premier League clubs have become the playthings or part of the cooperate business- plan of foreign billionairres, be they Russian, American or Gulf Arab. Top level players are paid unbelievably high salaries that are an insult to every ordinary working person in the country. I heard of one highly paid footballer who regularly burnt £50 notes to impress his mates in the pub. Top players are now ranked alongside film and TV stars as A-List celebrities, their every move, utterance or tweet given the full glare of publicity. Then there are the armies of followers, dazzled by the hype, wealth, fame and success, who attach themselves to the biggest and richest clubs. Many of these so-called supporters don’t even come from or live in the place where their team is based. Many “fans” don’t actually come from the same country! The power of television has made football into a global force, and an important part of the show-business industry. Thus we get the strange, confusing situation of finding droves of Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona fans throughout Africa, Asia and all parts of Europe!

Famous players are mobbed and idolised when they visit these far-flung outposts of their club’s empire. Gullible fans may not even realise that the visit has only been organised in order to sell more replica shirts and club merchanise to generate yet more wealth for the “business.” How can a person support a team which he/she can never get to see live? I don’t understand. This blog isn’t about that side of football — the false, over-hyped worlds of the Premier league, La Liga or Serie A. It’s about the other side of football that doesn’t appear in the celebrity mags, the back pages of the tabloids or on Match of the Day. This is the football of the poorer, unfashionable clubs who struggle on despite: low attendances, financial hardship and perennial lack of real success.

Every Saturday, towns up and down the land witness a curious ritual. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, all start walking in the same direction at around the same time. A few women mingle in with them but it’s mostly men. Cars too, head for the same destination, starting to thicken and clog up the streets as the goal gets closer. Special buses deliver yet more people. Almost all are bedecked in scarves, hats or shirts of the same colour, as if they are in uniform. If this was a Sunday in days gone by, you might think that the throng was making its way dutifully to church. But this is a Saturday and the hallowed focus of the pilgrimage is the football ground or stadium. Its large stands and tall floodlight pylons rear up, dwarving the buildings around. The football ground is the modern equivalent of the cathedral or of Ancient Rome’s Colosseum or Circus Maximus. It is a place where people can go to forget their troubles, even if only for a couple of hours. Today it’s not bread, circuses or rousing sermons that are fed up to the “masses” but football and more football ( and perhaps “reality TV”). Football is in some ways the new religion. Loyal fans flock to worship their idols, pray for a win, take part in communal call- and- response chanting and exercise blind faith. The similarities between a football crowd and a church congregation are striking.

For many ordinary supporters, football is not the glamour of the Premiership or the Champions’ league (except on the telly.) It is shivering on a terrace on a freezing winter’s afternoon, watching a rubbish game littered with clumsy mistakes and supporting a side that’s not won anything for decades and probably never will. This is what I call “grass-roots football”, where supporters shout and cheer for their team irrespective of their position in the league. They would despise the pseudo- fans who only support sides that are at or near the top. These are dismissed as “fair-weather supporters” and awarded scant respect. Real, grass roots fans are always there, through rain and shine, cheering, moaning, screaming, groaning, often swearing, but always hoping. They root for artisans rather than artists. Constant failure and disappointment is hard to swallow but the genuine fan grins and bears it. There’s always next week or next season. Football at this level breeds stoicism, not a bad quality to have amongst the modern clamour for instant gratification. It also breeds incredible loyalty. I know a lifelong supporter of Chester City, a team that was relegated from the football league and thrown out of the next league down because it’s lack of finance meant it couldn’t pay the coach firm to take it to away fixtures. Chester City, a proud, historical club, was declared bankrupt and ceased to exist a couple of years ago. However, my friend Andy and thousands of other Chester supporters, refused to give up. Chester was reformed as a “phoenix club” on the basis of money proferred by loyal fans and resumed life in the “Evostick League North”, 2 or 3 levels below the actual Football league. One super rich Premiership player, Michael Owen, donated one of his race-horses to the Chester cause. That alone shows the  enormous disparity between the top and the bottom in football. The resurrection of Chester also illustrates the lengths that real grass-roots fans are willing to go to support their clubs. As I write, the same sort of thing is happening at unfashionable Darlington FC –” The Quakers”

This unstinting loyalty is a major characteristic of a genuine football fan, irrespective of whether he/she is following a “big club” or one of the many small ones. Unfortunately this does not often happen with the players, especially in the higher echelons of the game. It seems that, aided and abetted by agents, many will move clubs simply to get more money or easier success. They may kiss the badge upon scoring but then “desert” the club that has nurtured them and developed their talents in order to earn mega-bucks elsewhere. Manchester City’s team is stacked full of such “mercenaries” attracted by the high salaries on offer. Loyal fans, who do not switch clubs, regard these money-hungry players as “traitors” and they get roundly booed whenever they re-appear at their former home ground. My Uncle Victor has not switched clubs since he was 8 years old. He is now 93 and still is an avid supporter of his home town team. Loyalty may seem an old-fashioned concept in this modern age of every one for himself ( herself) but it is still an admirable and important quality to possess. It is present in bucketfuls amongst fans, especially in the lower leagues.

Football at this level is not always a happy experience. A lot of pain and frustration has to be endured. So why do thousands take part in this demonstration of masochism every week for 9 months of the year? Being a lower league follower is a bit like being a lemming constantly hovering near the edge of the cliff and flirting with “disaster.”  The question is quite difficult to sensibly answer.

I support one such unglamerous club — Chesterfield FC.  You won’t find many people in Ghana, Malaysia or Japan supporting Chesterfield! Yet it has a long, rich history. It’s the 4th oldest club in the Football League having been founded in 1867, when either Gladstone or Disraeli was Prime Minister and Victoria was just getting comfortable on her throne. Hence it is older than Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after the town’s famous landmark — the Crooked spire. The local church of St Mary’s had its 13th century spire built with unseasoned timbers such that they warped. The spire was twisted like a cork-screw and from some angles it looks crooked and about to fall down. It’s a bit like an English Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become the symbol of the town and its football club. The crooked spire logo appears on the players’ shirts and supporters’ scarves.

The Spireites have enjoyed little big-time success but still attract a faithful following of between 3000 and 7000 supporters. In the 1930’s we narrowly missed out on promotion to the top division on goal difference. More recently, in 1997, we just failed to get to the FA Cup Final at Wembley because of a referee’s mistake. ( At least we think so.) As in the World Cup Final of 1966, the ball crashed off the cross-bar and bounced behind the goalline, but Chesterfield didn’t have a friendly Russian linesman to award a goal . The referee didn’t allow the goal which would have put us 3-1 up against 10 men with only about 15 minutes to go. So we never made it to the final to face Chelsea. Middlesbrough, our top flight opponants, forced a draw then won the replay with the help of their expensively paid foreign stars. I have always ” hated” Middlesbrough ever since, even though I now live near their ground.

This irrational “hatred”, coming from a normally mild-mannered man, perhaps explains one of the magnetic attractions of the game. In everyday life we can be pleasant and polite as society demands. However at a football match we can be as loud, raucous and rude as we like and it is accepted as “normal” behaviour. A whole gamut of intense emotions can be released within the “safe” confines of the match. Just for that 90 minutes one can become a raving “maniac”, letting the adrenaline run freely, before hopefully going back to ” normal” at the end of the game. My son, Ian, once had to pull me away to safety as I was about to carry out a suicidal one-man pitch invasion at Bradford. The Chesterfield goalkeeper was being surrounded and jostled by a posse of Bradford players and I was so incensed that I would have been on the pitch, literally fighting for my team. Luckily for me, Ian intervened and calmed me down.

Supporters exhibit emotions in a whole variety of ways. Some cheer and sing; others chant and clap. When you do it at the same time as hundreds of other people it can be very exhilerating. Meanwhile, others never seem to stop moaning and complaining, be it about the opposition’s tactics, the perceived mistakes of the officials or the home team’s deficiencies. What is really happening is that the match is acting as a sort of safety valve, helping people to let off steam and release everyday tensions. Some supporters actually sit in silence for much of the match. They are apparently indifferent to what is happening on the pitch, but you can guarantee that on the inside they resemble a boiling volcano ready to blow! Last season I sat near to such a “silent supporter” at a Chesterfield home match. He said nothing for over an hour. Then, after a petty dispute over the award of a throw-in, he suddenly screamed at the linesperson:” Are you bloody blind?” After that solitary outburst, he went back to silent mode for the rest of the match!

It’s strange being a Spireite, an Owl ( Sheffield Wednesday), a Latic ( Oldham Athletic), a Hatter ( Luton Town), or a supporter of the countless other lower league clubs. Success is scarce, failure is common, yet we climb on to the emotional roller-coaster every season. Something in our DNA dictates that we cannot remain indifferent. One’s mood on a matchday or even for the whole subsequent week, depends on the success or failure of 11 men chasing a ball round a field. If they win, we supporters go into work with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces. If they lose we feel strangely depressed and out of sorts. But as I indicated above, this can be seen as a positive thing, for  supporting  a lower club provides excellent emotional training for the realities of life.

Another attraction of following a football team is the feeling of camaraderie that exists. It’s a human need to be with other people and to feel part of something. When thousands come together with the same objective and determined to all pull together, it can be very empowering. In smaller clubs such as Chesterfield FC it’s like belonging to one big, extended family. Being part of it gives one a lovely warm feeling inside. OK, it’s a vicarious world and not our real, everyday life, but it still makes us feel secure and accepted, if only for the duration of the match. Supporters of the same team watch out for each other, greet each other in the street and enjoy each others’ company in the stands. I recently went with my son, Ian, to see Chesterfield playing away at Wycombe Wanderers. Ian, for some incomprehensible reason, is a Newcastle United fan but sometimes helps me to support the little club of my birthplace. We took the train up from London to High Wycombe but just missed the bus that would have taken us out to the ground on the edge of town. The last taxi started to drive off as we approached. It looked as though we were in danger of missing the start of the match. Then I spotted a flash of blue and white in the back of the taxi. It belonged to a Chesterfield fan we had just followed out of the station. I stepped forward and waved frantically. He spotted me and stopped the car to let us in. We had never met before but we were automatically friends and allies because we had all travelled into “enemy” territory to support the “Spires”. The next 20 minutes were full of strange, excitable Spireite talk, incomprehensible to the taxi driver who had probably never even heard of the crooked spire. When we arrived at the ground, Adams Park, our new friend insisted on paying even though I had our half of the fare all ready. He said it was because we were all Spireites. He came from London but he still supported the Spires whenever they ventured south.

It was a cold but exciting day in Wycombe. Chesterfield twice led and I shouted and cheered myself hoarse. ( something I wouldn’t normally do in my “real” life.) Despite my advanced age ( 62) I jumped up and down like a young kid. Football is very good for helping you to shed the years. When we scored, I even found myself hugging complete strangers, the normal barriers of reserve having been swept away by the excitement and drama of the match. When we lost to virtually the last kick of the match, it was like a collective blow in the solar plexus. There was a long low moan then the Chesterfield fans closed ranks in adversity, grimly swallowed defeat and trudged out of the ground hoping that next week would bring better luck.

One season earlier I had had a similar communal experience in a fixture at Darlington. This feeling of togetherness and solidarity is even stronger in away matches. It was a bitter cold Boxing Day with a raw wind whipping into us. Several hundred of us shivered on the terrace behind one of the goals. For 80 minutes, it was an increasingly cold and miserable experience, the only consolation being that we got to practice our Derbyshire grit. The pain increased as Darlington, who we were expected to beat easily, took a two-nil lead. The chanting of the Chesterfield fans was more in defiance than celebration. Apparently, according to the drum- accompanied chants, I had been recruited into “Sheridon’s blue and white barmy-army” ( John Sheridon is the current manager of Chesterfield.) I had to agree that I must have been particularly barmy to leave my warm house to endure this bleak experince. Then, out of the blue, Chesterfield scored 3 goals in 10 crazy, ecstatic minutes! They were scored right in front of us and we all went berserk! As in the match above I found myself leaping up and down, embracing strangers and singing: “We’re Spireites ‘Till We Die!” Insane and inane I know but no-one can deny that for a few heady minutes I was transported on to a different plain. My emotions had surged from one extreme to another and the whole exhilerating experience was magnified because I was sharing it with hundreds of others.

I tell you all this to illustrate that being a football supporter is often about comradeship and togetherness. Being a fan increases one’s sense of identity. Sport, especially football, can give its participants a strong sense of who they are. We all belong to the football, and in my case the Spireite, family. What’s more, this family does not consist of only testosterone-filled, aggressive young men, as is the popular conception. I have sat near to : women and young children, old men with zimmer frames, handicapped people in wheel chairs and even a middle-aged blind woman. She listened to the match commentary on the local radio,assisted by her partially-sighted husband, not being able to see a thing but enjoying the “live” atmosphere.

The live experience is a crucial part of the attraction of a match. Unlike much of our pre-recorded, packaged entertainment industry, a live sports event is completely unpredictable. Literally, anything can happen and quite often does. Who would have thought that bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers would have beaten Manchester United near the top at fortress Old Trafford? Every match is a potentially thrilling journey into the unknown. This applies equally to a match in Chesterfield as it does in Barcelona.

Being a “Spireite” gives me excitement, a strong sense of identity and the ability to patiently cope with constant disappointment. It gives me strong links with the town of my birth, where my original roots were. It strengthens bonds between me and various friends and family who also look out for the team. Even my 85 year old mother mentions the latest score in our weekly telephone conversations. I have just got back in touch with one of my closest school friends after over 30 years of lost contact. We went to many Chesterfield  matches together in the 60’s standing on the “kop” at the old Saltergate ground. Guess what Vic and I talk about at least 50% of the time? He lives in Brighton, I live near Middlesbrough, but we both still support dear old Chesterfield.

I’m pleased that I have grown up with football in my blood. My dad passed it on to me and I have transferred it to my son. I actually know some men and many women who hate football. Some, including my wife, feel sorry for me thinking me immature and silly for caring deeply about the fortunes of 11 men in blue shirts chasing a ball. They may have a point! I share the criticisms of excessive salaries in the Premier league, the antics of some of the players and the often hysterical media coverage. I also share their condemnation of violence and over- the- top aggression, whether it be amongst the fans or out on the pitch. However, I have no intention of joining them in their empty world of indifference.( to football partisanship that is.) I’d rather be passionate about something, even if others think it silly. Why would I want to deny myself: all that excitement, drama, spectacle, skill, history, comradeship, solidarity and strong sense of identity? In some ways I feel sorry for those who don’t wish to involve themselves in this rich world of experience. ( Can shopping offer anything close to all this?) I know it’s like a drug or even a disease but it gives me huge pleasure and a special edge to my life.

These days, Chesterfield FC is so relatively poor that it has to borrow spare players from richer clubs. You might think we supporters would find it difficult to accept them, as they technically have given their allegiance to another team. But to me, it doesn’t matter whether they play for us for 10 years or 90 minutes — as soon as they pull on the blue shirt with its crooked spire logo, they instantly becoming “Spireites,” carrying the hopes and dreams of the thousands on the Chesterfield terraces. Each one has the potential to become part of the club’s history, as a hero or as a villain. Maybe, if he scores a hat-trick or saves a crucial penalty, he could become part of Chesterfield folk-lore. Come on you Spireites! Silly I know, but there you go!

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ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!

2 Nov

THANKS A LOT JULIUS!  —  I came, I saw and I photographed. It was October,2011 and I was at last taking up Julius’s open offer of a reciprocal visit. On my 62nd birthday I stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square, gazing at the great domed basilica. The fountains were gushing, the tourists were queueing and I was watching the statues on top of Bernini’s curving collonades slowly turning into silouettes as the late afternoon sun dipped. I had made it to Rome at long last! It’s the “Eternal City” that uniquely and generously offers two countries for the price of one — Italy and the Vatican. Eat your heart out Tescos! What follows are a few of my impressions.

THE COLOSSEUM FROM OUR WINDOW  —  Our 2nd floor apartment lay just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. I leant out of the window, pushed the shutters back and looked left. There it was, shining in the floodlights — ancient Rome’s greatest amphitheatre just at the bottom of our street!

Half an hour earlier, it had been a surreal experience suddenly driving around the Colosseum in our taxi, as if we had stumbled upon an abandoned film set. Next to it stood an ancient triumphal arch. ” O look, it’s the Arch of Constantine!” I exclaimed, like the good History teacher that I am. It was like a giant textbook suddenly springing to life! Now I was gaping at it through our window. Separating us from the 9th Wonder of the ancient World was: a cobbled street, a line of pavement cafes, tightly parked cars with moter-bikes squashed inbetween them, a half-excavated gladiators’ academy and a cream-coloured early Christian basilica. The next morning, I watched the first school groups and parties of tourists arrive to visit the Basilica of San Clemente with its 3 layers of Roman history. On our second day we visited this fascinating place ourselves.

MIXED-UP HISTORY and STRANGE JUXTAPOSITIONS.   —   San Clemente is a 12th century Greek style church which sits on top of a 4th Century Basilica, which in turn is built over the remains of a 3rd Century pagan, Mithran temple. The historical multi-layering of San Clemente is typical of Rome as a whole. The city groans beneath the weight of its own history. Different eras and architectural styles crowd in on one another, creating a constant whirl of confusing juxtapositions. A medieval bell-tower rises up beside an ancient arch; a flamboyant Baroque church- facade looms up behind the columned porch of an early temple, and so on. In certain places, like The Forum, buildings of different ages mix together in an intoxicating jumble, all the time being encircled by open-topped bus tours and camera touting tourists.

TOURISTS OR TRAVELLERS?  —  There is supposed to be a subtle difference between a traveller and a tourist. Travellers, it is claimed, are a bit more thoughtful in their choice of sights , not just flocking to the more obvious, famous destinations which appear on most people’s tick lists. I smugly think I belong to the former category but probably am also a fully paid-up member of the latter. Whatever — Rome pays host to thousands of tourists AND travellers. This must be especially so in the height of summer but parts of it were still very busy when we visited in mid-October. It appears that Rome has developed into a whole year destination. The trouble is , many of the visiters want to go the same places, the so-called tourist ” honey-pots”. Thus the hordes of people we encountered at the foot of the Spanish Steps one morning were probably mostly the same as those we had met throwing their coins into the Trevi Fountain the previous evening.

You can always tell when you are approaching a tourist “honey-pot”. The crowds thicken and the streets start filling up with souvenir stalls, buskers, pavement cafes and ice-cream parlours. You will probably get to meet a golden Tutankhamen or a silver Statue of Liberty who only move when a coin is put into their pot. I got to kiss the daintily gloved hand of a Jane Austin -style lady in the Piazza Navona, for the bargain price of 1 Euro. Sometimes it seems as if tourists are a bit like sheep, all flocking to the same few places just because they are famous. On the other hand, a more discerning traveller might seek out more obscure but equally rewarding sights, or wander down quiet streets and through deserted squares just to see what exciting surprise might pop up. Chris and I tried to do a bit of both. We visited a mixture of the famous and the obscure and did our fair share of aimless but fascinating wandering.

We walked around Rome most of the time. apart from a couple of Metro journeys. I have never been attracted to the easy but expensive convenience of the open-topped bus tour. This seems to me to be a way of seeing everything without actually seeing anything. Whizzing round the Colosseum and taking a couple of hurried, blurred photos is no substitute for actually visiting the building and soaking in its history. We visited it shortly after opening time and it was still quite busy. It was awe-inspiring standing inside the 2000 year old stadium and imagining 70,000 people blood-thirstingly screaming at brutal gladiator fights or hapless criminals and Christains being torn apart by wild beasts. However, by the time we left at around 10-30am, any historical atmosphere had been ruined by the hordes of tourists pouring in. It’s ironic that they seemed to be destroying the very thing they had come to experience. Sometimes, modern tourism is like that — killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe budget airlines are partly to blame for opening up foreign travel to so many people, but then again, if it wasn’t for Ryanair and their like, we would probably have not been there either!

WHAT I LOVED.  —  I loved the evocative ruins of the Forum and the Palatine and Celian Hills. I loved the Renaissances palaces, the over-the-top Baroque churches and the piazzas with their flamboyant statues and fountains. I loved the faded yellow, orange and red buildings of the old town, glowing in the sun. I loved the sculptured, pollarded trees with their deep green tops. The multi-flavoured ice creams were absolutely delicious like everywhere in Italy. I loved looking at the hieroglyphics on the ancient obelisks that seemed to punctuate every grand piazza even though we were in Italy not Egypt. They were a reminder that the Romans were plunderers as well as civilisers. However, the most memorable moments for me were entering 5 special places of worship. ( 5 of the many in Rome.)

The first two were Greek style early Christian basilicas : San Clemente and San Saba. Both have shining medieval mosaics, fading but still colourful frescoes, stately columns and geometrically patterned marble floors. The 3rd and 4th were 16th Century Renaissance churches — San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. Both had strikingly luminous works by Caravaggio, in side chapels, looking as though they were painted just yesterday. The intense light and shade, the dramatic foreshortening and the startling realism make this a thrilling experience. They even eclipsed the spectacularly frescoed ceilings.

The final unforgettable place of worship was the incomparable Pantheon — the Roman temple of all gods. It was later converted into a church. Entered between giant Corinthian columns, one enters a majestic circular splace, surrounded by ornate shrines and tombs of the “great” and the “good”, including that of Raphael, which we somehow managed to miss! However most of one’s attention is taken by the huge, hemispherical dome that just seems to hang magically in thin air, with no visible support. It was designed by the Emperor Hadrian himself in the 2nd Century AD. Sunlight pours through a circle in the centre of the dome, its shafts illuminating different sections of the coffered ceiling as the sun moves across the sky. There is little else to do but sit down and stare until one is in danger of contracting permanent neck-ache. Awe-inspiring seems to be a phrase specially invented for this ancient building.

FINAL THOUGHTS — NO COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN.  —   So that’s our first visit to the “Eternal City”. Yes, it’s got lots of noisy traffic, crowds of tourists, enough pizza and pasta to feed a small army every day, pestering street sellers and devious pick-pockets. But Rome is also a beautiful, enchanting place full of memorable sights, sounds and smells. I know we will be back, though we never actually threw any coins into the tourists’ favourite fountain.

Walking the Northumberland Coast, Days 2 and 3 – Sacred Cave to a Blistered Foot.

29 Oct

On day 2, after a big, fried breakfast, which probably cancelled out the benefits of the previous day’s walk, we detoured inland to join part of another long-distance path: the St Cuthbert’s Way. This follows the route taken by the Lindisfarne monks as they carried the sacred remains of their revered former Abbot. Cuthbert was a Scottish shephard boy from the Borders who became a famous preacher and healer after he saw a vision of St Aiden’s soul passing into heaven. Eleven years after his death, Cuthbert’s body was found to be miraculously intact as if he was just sleeping. The famous Lindisfarne Gospels were written to commemerate his elevation to sainthood. The monks took Cuthbert’s body away from Lindisfarne to escape Viking pillagers in the 9th century.

Leaving our lodgings near Holy Island, Colin and I climbed gently away from the sea but still enjoyed wide ranging views of the coast. Inland, we skirted moors and through woods, getting views of the dark outlines of the Cheviot Hills. In a sloping wood of Scottish pines, we visited the sandstone cave where the monks and their sacred cargo came to rest for a while. It is a special place and has been dubbed: St Cuthbert’s Cave. ( see previous blog — “Getting up from the couch…”)

We walked on through a field with a very large white bull in it. Luckily it was more interested in its harem of cows than in us.In fact it was sniffing one of their rear-ends! We passed a little silvery lake in a woodland glade. On it, 2 swans glided gracefully and above it 2 buzzards circled on the thermals. Colin and I walked alongside newly ploughed fields of dark earth, with shiny furrows snaking off into the distance. Tractors trailing clod-breaking harrows worked their way up and down the post-harvest fields. Sudden explosions of feathers made us jump as startled pheasants broke their cover. Belford was announced by its church steeple and a crenellated tower called West Hall.

Belford is either a big village or a very small town. It has the old Bluebell Inn at its centre near the market cross. Having a drink there, the inn reminded us that this place used to be on the Great North Road, formerly doing a brisk trade servicing the stage coachies which plied up and down it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Now the A1 bypasses it about a mile to the east and it is a quiet backwater. Belford no longer has a school and lost its Post Office a few years ago, such that it briefly found fame on a TV programme about the decline of rural settlements. Tourism has led to a sprinkling of guest houses and on the edge of the village is another golf course. Big houses lurk up long drives. But for most of our time there, all was quiet in Belford, as it slumbered undisturbed in the late September sunshine. After a pub meal, Colin and I retreated to a comfortable guest house which unfortunately suffered slightly from an over-chatty landlady, but was otherwise very nice, especially when we discovered a decanter of Lindisfarne mead on the landing!

On day 3, fields, woods and country lanes led us back from Belford to the coast. We passed huge metal grain silos with roaring exhaust fans. Colin said they were for drying grain. We crossed the busy A1 and then the East Coast main railway line after we phoned the signalman ( on a freephone provided), to make sure that we were not going to be mown down by the Flying Scotsman.

We emerged from a short climb through another wood and there across the rolling wheat fields was the huge fortress of Bamburgh. It sits on a dominating platform of volcanic rock known as the Great Whin Sill. Beyond the dark bulk of Bamburgh were the white, guano-stained cliffs and white light-house of the Farne Islands. These are 2 of Northumberlands biggest tourist attractions. The imposing castle used to be the seat of the Kings of Northumbria. It now belongs to the wealthy Armstrong family. The Farnes are famous for their spectacular birdlife ( especially in the summer nesting season), basking seals and the legend of the Victorian heroine Grace Darling, who helped her lighthouse keeper father to rescue survivors of a shipwreck on the rocks one stormy night. The legend is milked unashamedly by the tourist industry. Coachloads of visiters are deposited at the Grace Darling Museum which some describe as charming but others find quite silly. Apparently, you can actually see a lock of the heroine’s hair on display!

Bamburgh is approached via a magnificent sandy beach made famous in films such as “A Lion in Winter.” This is where King Henry II met Thomas a Becket on horseback, although why they had to ride all the way up to Northumberland just to have a chat, I don’t know. Maybe it was something to do with the supremely photogenic location.

Before we could get to the famed beach, Colin and I had to negotiate another caravan site and yet another golf course! ( Play is continuous, rake the bunkers after use, respect the dress-code.) Prior to finally hitting the dunes we slipped by the mysterious, glistening mud-flats of Budle Bay, Northumberland’s very own version of The Wash. It is a paradise for birds with big, splayed wading feet and long, thin beaks which they endlessly poke into the mud in search of breakfast, dinner or tea.

In Bamburgh village we battled with the tourists pouring off their coaches to sit on every seat in the park below the castle walls. Luckily Colin grabbed a place to sit while the trippers were distracted taking photographs. When they all traipsed off to the teashops or perhaps to the famous Grace Darling Museum, we walked slightly wearily on to Seahouses, a few miles further south.

Seahouses is a little working fishing port. It is also where the boat trips to the Farne Islands set off from. It sounds as if it should be charming, quaint and picturesque, but it’s actually full of tourists, crowded car-parks, fish and chip shops and ice-cream parlours. It’s convenience as a base for visiting many of Northumberland’s tourist attractions has squeezed any charm out of it.( in my opinion.) We trudged into the town and had a drink in the beer garden of the Olde Ship Inn with great views of the busy harbour and the Farne Islands beyond. Then we retired to another very nice guest house. It was time to relax.

Unfortunately we were now ambushed by the great blister crisis! I already realized that my feet felt pretty sore. But as I peeled my boots and walking socks off, I was not prepared for the shock of the largest blister I had ever seen — and it was on the ball of my very own left foot! It looked like a small, partly inflated balloon. It was accompanied by an array of smaller blisters on the ends and sides of my poor toes. “Oh my God!” I exclaimed melodramatically, and Colin, a look of alarm on his face, uttered the dreaded words: “We may have to abort!”

I had been too blase. Apparently I should have upgraded my walking boots and socks, put in special insoles and soaked my feet in cold tea before setting off on such a long trek. I had not been scared of the distances ( they were not that long anyway — averaging about 11 miles a day), but it was the day after day nature of a long-distance walk and the carrying of a heavy pack that I had not accounted for. I actually had an aching shoulder as well as a blistered foot. Curiously it was my right shoulder but my left foot. ( Yes, I know it was a film with Daniel Day Lewis!)

Thankfully the crisis subsided. After limping to the Olde Ship Inn for a veggie lasangne in the cosy Captain’s Cabin, I had a good night’s sleep and in the morning, my blister had hardened up. So I bravely decided to walk on. I would tape my poorly foot up, put on 2 pairs of protective socks and walk in my softer trainers. The only trouble was that I now had to carry my boots, which made my heavy rucksack even heavier! But I was determined to carry on. I reminded myself that I was not a wimp ( not anymore anyway). I thought of Ernest Shackleton, James Bond and Michael Palin — and walked manfully on into the unknown!

A History Teacher’s Ramblings About History.

4 Sep

My last post about grief and caring was prompted by the tragic loss of a close friend, C. One conclusion I came to was that C had not completely disappeared, because he would live on in my memory. Although in one sense, C has “passed into history”, a phrase which has a chilling finality about it, in another sense he is still very much around, constantly reactivated by photos, music, places, conversations — in fact, a whole myriad of memory joggers. Memory, one of our most important links with History, not only adds an extra dimension to life but also gets bigger and richer as each year passes.

Imagine living life without memory or in other words: trying to exist without having a personal history. Imagine dragging a giant eraser behind us through life, obliterating our own past and the people in it. No wonder amnesia is seen as such a terrible affliction. My 88 year old dad might constantly lose his glasses or forget where he’s put his car keys, victims of his dodgy short-term memory, but he can use his clear long-term recollections to shine a powerful light on the past. He can transport us to distant eras. He is a time- traveller without the need of a Tardis. When my dad is around, one doesn’t need a history book or a flickering black and white film to find out what it was like: to grow up between the two World Wars,to experience the frightening reality of the Blitz or to learn how people survived on rations in the Age of Austerity. I too have a nugget strewn memory. I had to smile when I learnt about the current fashion for “vintage” weddings. It turns out that “vintage” in this context, means the 1940’s and 50’s, the very time when I was growing-up, having entered the world in 1949. Does this make me “vintage”? If so, does this make my dad “antique”? I wonder whether the wedding guests will be : eating bread and treacle, popping cod-liver oil capsules into their mouths, listening to Lonnie Donegan or Bill Haley, or perhaps even gathering round an open fire to do jig-saws or make proggy-mats. In a way though, despite my slightly mocking tone, I’m pleased that this shows that some of the younger generation are  respecting history and keeping it alive, rather than dismissing it as dead and gone.

Memory and history mean more to us ” oldies” because we have got more of it to draw upon. It’s like drawing water from an ever deepening well. ( The trouble is that advancing age means we dip into the well of memory with an increasingly leaky bucket!)  My young pupils at school often challenged me with the question:” What’s the point of History?” They could not see why they should study people and events that have now passed away. They could not see the relevance of the past to their lives today. How wrong they were but I’ll let them off as they were only 9 to 13. As a History teacher I always had to be ready for that awkward question from a pupil, a parent or an OFSTED inspector. Every good Scheme of Work begins with a vigorous defence of the subject and a justification for its place in the curriculum. So I had it all worked out ( hopefully!) History helps us understand why our world is as it is today. It enables us to learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can hopefully not repeat them ( although we constantly do!) History helps us to appreciate our nation’s heritage. This in turn enhances our sense of identity and feeling of belonging. However these rather abstract ideas only come to be grasped with the passage of time. I wonder just how many of the pupils who scoffed at having to learn about the Romans or the Normans, later spent their leisure time visiting ancient forts, villas, cathedrals or castles? Also, how many of those who moaned about having to study the Tudors or the Victorians, have later settled down to enjoy a costume-drama on the telly or at the cinema? History is not one of the more popular subjects at school and the numbers of students taking it at GCSE have dropped alarmingly. Yet the same subject is a staple of the entertainment and tourist industries, and now, one of its important strands — fashion — is featuring in young couples’ wedding plans. How many times have you seen a “vintage” car or even a horse and carriage transport the bride or groom to the ceremony? It’s ironic that a wedding is supposed to be all about 2 people pledging their FUTURE together, yet it is often celebrated in the trappings and traditions of the PAST!

The power of and importance of History has been recognised in many lands and across many time periods. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung knew the potency of History because they tried to use their powers to obliterate or re-write it. In China and S E Asia, ancestor worship was popular for many centuries and still hangs on today. In Vietnam, I visited old houses ( now semi-museums) where family shrines took pride of place in the people’s living rooms. Decorated with photos and mementoes of the honoured past relatives, they forged a valuable link with these significant people of a family’s past. At first this may seem to be a quaint and ancient tradition of the Far East. However, the same idea is alive and well in the “West” as evidenced by the growing craze for geneology. It’s a thriving interest promoted by such programmes as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Heir Hunters”. The really big spur has been the availability of more and more records through Internet sites such as Ancestry.com and Genes Reunited.

Delving into family-history and drawing up family trees has been one of my main interests since retiring. It’s an endless source of fascination. It is great fun solving “history mysteries” and shining a light into the darkness of the past. For a long time I ran away from my family as I was intent on being independent and forging my own identity. But later in life, through reading and discussions, I realized the mistake I had made. I could not move forward until I had ackowledged where I had come from. Every journey has to start somewhere and in the case of life’s journey the start is with one’s family. I could not continue pretending that I had magically morphed out of no-where. I had to go back and reconnect with my parents, siblings, cousins and with earlier ancestors through photos, documents and records. Only this week I was back in my place of birth, visiting my parents, and was absolutely thrilled to discover the 1930’s grave of my maternal Great- Grandparents in a large old churchyard. My delight at the minor miracle of this discovery may seem strange considering I knew that William and Hannah’s bodies had wasted away and I was just looking at an old engraved piece of stone. Yet despite this I felt strangely connected to these 2 people who contributed to my DNA. The discovery reminded me that I was part of something big and awesome. It reinforced my sense of who I am and where I belong. I may think I am unique ( which I am), but I am also half my mum and half my dad, and I’m a quarter of all my grandparents, an eighth of my great Grandparents, and so on. Looks and personality traits are passed down via our genes and we are foolish to try to ignore or deny this fact. Recently I watched Sebastian Coe in the latest series of “Who Do You Think You Are?”  noticing the same bump on the bridge of his nose that was clearly shown on the portraits of his ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries. I like to think I’m musical. I can play the piano, have enjoyed singing in choirs for the past 20 plus years, have a large CD collection and have attended many gigs and concerts. Surprise, surprise — my Uncle Leslie was a professional singer, my mother, Jessie, sang in 3 choirs at the same time and my maternal grandfather Thomas, was a church organist, choir leader and a composer of hymns. Thomas also played the violin in the cinema to accompany the silent movies of the 20’s. I wonder where my interest came from? Our families link us to the past as well as to the future in a continuous timeline, with talents and traits perculating down through the generations.

Recently, I was quite shocked when 2 young adults told me that they were not really interested in family members who are now deceased and who they had never known. The subject arose when it was claimed that “celebs”on “Who Do You Think?” had to be faking their tears when seemingly getting upset about sad things that had happened to their ancestors. I concede that our so-called “celebrities” can be drama kings or queens and ham up their emotions for effect, but I cannot accept that Bruce Forsythe and J K Rowling were not both genuinely shocked and saddened to discover that their distant ancestors were buried in unmarked, pauper’s graves in neglected cemeteries. Being in the same family opens up the channels of empathy  — the ability to put oneself in another person’s place, even in a bygone era.

I have just finished reading an excellent book called “Stasiland” by Anne Funder. It is about life in the former German Democratic Republic, a communist, totalitarian state which controlled almost every aspect of its citizens lives. It did this through its notorious secret police, the Stasi, the natural heirs of the Nazi’s Gestapo. It was inevitable that some of the stories would be sad and dispiriting. I was challenged about why I wanted to read such a book. This was a good question. I thought to myself: why did I want to depress myself by finding out about horrible events that happened to people of another nation at a time now gone by? Shouldn’t I be indifferent to the lives of these foreign strangers from the past?  The answer soon came to me. Just like a mountaineer is drawn to tackle the Matterhorn or Everest simply ” because they are there”, so a history buff is drawn to find out about past  events simply “because they happened.” Moreover, such events may have important lessons to teach us. Reading “Stasiland”, as with all good pieces of history, provided me with with much food for thought. How would you feel if someone deliberately tried to wipe out your history and also your country’s history? This is what actually happened to tens of thousands of citizens of the former GDR, when the Stasi shredded countless files that they had kept on their own population. When the Communist regime finally collapsed along with its infamous Berlin Wall, the Stasi desperately strove to get rid of all the evidence which implicated them in numerous crimes and abuses against the GDR’s citizens. When all the shredders were burnt out through frantic overuse, the Stasi employess continued to rip the files up by hand. But there were so many incriminating documents that it was impossible to destroy them all. Many survived and many others have been subsequently pieced back together by dedicated teams of puzzle-solvers. Large numbers of East Germans campaigned hard for the right to see their files even though the new authorities of the unified Germany would have been perfectly happy for this unhappy period in the nation’s history to be forgotten. In the same way, many Germans have tried to forget the grossly embarrassing horrors of the Third Reich. Some were happy to forget. However other citizens demanded to see their files. They wanted to find out why they had never got that job or what had really happened to their disappeared relative or colleague. These historical documents were the keys to explaining the puzzling mysteries of their past lives in a now extinct totalitarian regime. Their pasts were part of their lives and they didn’t want the documents that explained important aspects of their pasts to be shredded, destroyed and forgotten. I was fascinated that so many people wanted to rescue their unhappy pasts as represented by the Stasi files. These people did not want to be denied their own histories, event though those histories were often tragic and depressing. It was another reminder to me about how vitally important it is to feel connected. One cannot make sense of one’s own small piece of the jigsaw until one has seen the whole picture, or as much of it as possible.

I have come a long way in this ramble, from the importance of remembering my lost friend, to the challenges of my pupils, and on eventually to the East German people trying to rescue their personal files. This blog may have disintegrated into a shapeless mess. So I now have to rescue it by making connections between its constituent parts. And there we have the unifying theme: CONNECTIONS. Memory and the study of history connect us not only with other people but with other times and other places as well.. They connect us so that we can try to understand and come to terms with the grand scheme of things. These connections may weigh us down and sadden us at times but at other times can bring great satisfaction and joy.

The study of history and the activation of memory is an important way of showing respect for our ancestors, ackowledging and celebrating their existance, and recognising their contributions to our world. It helps and enriches our lives by explaining who we are and where we came from. It makes us feel linked with those who went before; those who created the world and the families that we are now a part of. Some may try to dismiss history as irrelevant and politicians may try to wipe it out or warp it to suit their idealogy, but trying to exist without a historical dimension or perspective is, in my opinion, consigning oneself to a shallow and impoverished existance. What else would you expect a former History teacher  to say?

Anyone For Tennis?

27 Jun

It’s Wimbledon fortnight again, the time when many of us think of tennis. It’s always virtually impossible to get on the local courts at Wimbledon time as everyone is on there pretending to be Roger, Rafa or Andy, or maybe Maria, Serena or Caroline. I wonder how many are grunting or screeching, or smashing their rackets in frustration? Tennis is played all through the year, all round the world and on at least 4 different surfaces. However, because of the long- held monopoly of the BBC in the good old days of terrestial television, many people think it is still  only played on lawns in south-west London and for only 2 intensive weeks in June and July.

I love tennis. I’m glad the Tudors invented it and gave it to the world. I have played it on the parks since I was a teenager and watched Wimbledon since I was about 10 years old. I still remember Chuck McKinley and Rod “Rocket” Laver. The brilliant Laver was a leftie like me, but there the resemblence ended.  I recall being impressed that his left arm seemed to be at least twice as wide as his right!  Laver did the tennis grand-slam twice, once as an amateur and once as a professional in the new Open era of the late 60’s — Australia, French, Wimbledon and USA championships in the same year.  I vividly remember  Billie-Jean King and Margaret Court — little and large, but they had some titanic struggles. In those days ( the early 1960’s): the game was dominated by the Americans and the Aussies. It was before the long march of the East Europeans, the Swedes, the French, the Spanish and now: the Chinese. The British keep plodding on. but never seem to arrive, except for Fred Perry in the 1930’s, Ann Hadyn Jones in 1969( also a former World table tennis champion) and Virginia Wade in the Silver Jubilee year of 1977.

Why is tennis so gripping and addictive? Well I believe that the whole of human nature and life is laid bare out there on the court. There is: excitement, drama, skill, imagination, agony, ectasy, determination, hope, triumph and despair etc., etc. We see supreme human strengths and talents but also human weaknesses and failings. It is so much more intense than a team game because it is just one on one — a dual ,out there on the court where there is no hiding place. Sometimes this is not a pretty sight. Some matches, particularly on the slower clay courts, are long, drawn out wars of attrition. Sometimes though, a tennis match is a thing of beauty especially when featuring elegant sliced backhands, subtle drop shots and lobs or unexpected angles in the midst of intricate rallies. At yet other times we are excited and stunned by raw power or supreme athleticism such as an Andy Murray running forehand, an ace by Andy Roddick, a Pete Sampras slam- dunk smash or an Andre Agassi return of serve like a lightning bolt. I also associate watching tennis with my adolescent sexual awakenings. Where else could I observe attractive young women running around in short skirts? How could I ever forget Maria Bueno’s frilly knickers or the ravishing Gabriella Sabatina from Argentina. I don’t think my mum ever cottened on to this aspect of my passion for tennis. It’s funny but I seem to recall that my dad was often sitting there observing the proceedings on Centre Court right there beside me. I wonder who he fancied?

There have been so many great players and fascinating matches.  I recall being incredulous with disappointment when the uncomplicated serving and volleying of the blond, ramrod- straight Stan Smith defeated the wily, creative genius of the dark Rumanian, Ille Nastase( in the early 70’s.). Then there was Jimmy Connors , representing up and coming youth, blasting Ken Rosewell, representing the old guard, right off the centre court. Poor Rosewell, one of the game’s most elegant and skillful players had not had a chance to challenge for the Wimbledon title when at his peak , because professionals were barred from the championships until towards the end of his illustrious career. Thinking of the enormous prize money on offer today, it seems very strange that for over two thirds of the 20th Century, it was open to amateurs only. A year after destroying Rosewell, the seemingly unstoppable Conners was himself destroyed by the calm, serene,  intelligent Arthur Ashe. He out-thought, out-psyched and out-manouvred his young opponent, such that Connors was reduced to pathetically reading a sweat-stained note from his mom, which he had tucked down his sock. Later came the titanic duels between Chris Evert ( “The Ice maiden”) and Martina Navratilove, the great Czech player, and one of the first of many East Europeans to become naturalised Americans  .It still amuses me today when Maria  Sharapova shouts “Come On!” when she wins a crucial point, What’s wrong with saying something in Russian ? Evert later married John Lloyd, an English player, so the nation tried to adopt her as one of their own, even though she was American through and through.The British had tried the same trick a few years earlier when Evonne Goolagong, the delightful and richly talented Australian Aborigene player also married a lucky Englishman and we tried to turn her into an honorary English woman.  Later came the titanic struggles between the cool Swede, Borg, and the hot-headed American, McEnroe.  — the base liner versus the volleyer. Who can ever forget that never- ending and super tense tie- break in the early 1980’s?  My wife went out to furiously mow the  lawn that afternoon, because she couldn’t stand the stress! There have always been gripping battles between great rivals. The next era ( 1990s) brought us Sampras v Agassi and now of course we have the classic encounters between Federer and Nadal . The game has a long, fascinating history and many colourful, charismatic personalities, two big reasons for its enduring appeal.

I was going to make some profound points about the continued elitism of the game in Britain( partly explaining our lack of success even though we invented the game) or write technical stuff about racket development or courtside technology.( such as Hawkeye to sort out disputed calls, or a beeping machine to replace the net cord judge who used to sit touching the top of the net just asking to be clobbered by a wayward fast serve or swerving ground stroke). I could go on and on but I don’t wish to overplay the point. Suffice to say, I have got in the strawberries and cream and am looking forward to watching the second week of Wimbledon, 2011. Will the Williams sisters, sweep all before them? ( I think so.) Will Andy Murray put an end to “decades of hurt? “, at least in the minds of tablods headline writers — I don’t think so. It’s probably going to be Nadal. Federer or perhaps Djokovic. Will the screamers and grunters be disciplined for gamesmanship — they should be. Monica Seles really started something there. I wonder what the inimitable Dan Maskell would have thought of it all. “Oh my gosh, it’s just like an orgasm, and what’s more, it’s the vital seventh game!”” Then, just when we think it’s all over, the great tennis circus moves on to Flushing Meadows , New York —  for those of us with Sky TV that is. The BBC will only show the Murray matches or the Men’s final, if we’re lucky. That’s why for many , tennis equals Wimbledon with : Sue Barker ( it used to be Harry Carpenter), the Royal box ( which the Queen always avoids), umpires and lines people in white caps and silly blazers, Henman Hill or Murray Mount and Sir Cliff always ready to give us a song if it rains. ( except now we have the amazing centre court roof, so there will be no more complete wash-outs.) Wimbledon fortnight is a wonderful part of Britsh life and long may it continue! Anyone for tennis?