Aberfan – 50 years ago today – is the earliest memory to which I can put a specific date.
I don’t know if I can truly remember the World Cup final in the same year, because the key imagery has been shown so many times I can’t sort real memory from received memory. But Aberfan is fused in my mind by a single image from TV news, a rescue worker (in my 6-year-old head a soldier, but more likely a policeman or a Welsh miner) giving a young girl a hot drink in one of those enamel tin mugs.
The treatment of the victims’ families was a disgrace and shows that callous indifference by the Establishment knows no party allegiance, but an appalled nation responded with a kindness and generosity that seems to belong to an earlier era. In this – of all miserable years – the British people, I think, would do well to remember how bloody marvellous they can be.
Ask any émigré of Welsh descent where they want to go when visiting the Old Country, and Aberfan is high on the list – as it was with my Canadian relatives – as a place to pay their respects. The pits are all gone now, along with the lethal slag heaps, but the memory remains.
Anyone who has ever read accounts of the disaster will appreciate how touched by genius this Karl Jenkins tribute is. The quiet morning, the unmistakable Welsh accent of the hymn. And then, and then…
Tip: it does not end when you think it does:
The trouble with economists and political scientists is that they do not understand space. While the notion of borders may seem clear to them, they are not properly trained to understand geography.
So forget the market turmoil and the potential threat to the UK’s dominance in key markets, especially financial. Forget that the UK has chosen to complete its transformation from global superpower to complete irrelevance.
Consider these two maps (you can click for larger versions, or follow the links to the source). The first, from the Guardian, shows the distribution of referendum results, adjusted for population. The source has some interesting graphs as well.
The second, from the BBC, shows the distribution of various immigrant groups (no Scotland because that’s how Census data is published).
In the context of a Leave campaign that was shamelessly (and shamefully) racist, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the areas where people have actually met migrants, day-to-day – worked with them, socialised with them, talked to them are the ones who voted most strongly for Remain – the main exception being Birmingham. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. UKIP’s heartland in the East of England is the part of the country with fewest immigrants (although farming relies a lot of migrant labour).
The big cities and the centres of knowledge voted Remain.
But the largely white, English (not British, English) working classes in areas that have been pretty well bankrolled by the EU voted for Leave and a truly impressive case of cut-off-nose-to-spite-faces.
This white son of a truck driver has written quite often (sometimes intemperately) on the capacity of the white English to find other people to blame for their woes. But, really, it is to do with the crushing of aspiration more than anything. They do not care that our kids will find it harder to travel for work to 27 countries. They (we) are no longer expected to aspire – indeed aspiration is actively discouraged, so when times get tough the fingers get pointed. Compare and contrast with the get-up-and-go of the stereotypical Polish brickie, who could be a poster child for Norman Tebbitt’s childish aphorisms.
When I graduated there was nobody in the room prouder than my Dad – left school at 13, Burma Star, drove all over the continent for Marconi, grafted his way to a senior position, dyed-in-the-wool Conservative. He and Mum couldn’t afford the “parental contribution” to my grant, and I only once made the mistake of asking for it.
And, of course, that was in the days of a grant: even if the modern white English working classes could be persuaded to aspire, to lift their eyes and look around the World of opportunity, they would be discouraged by the prospect of a lifetime mountain of debt.
It is an ugly, ugly situation in a homeland that is becoming nastier by the day.
But look back at that map. It takes no imagination at all to see Scotland opting for independence. If I were Nicola Sturgeon I’d be seriously considered going for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. OK, probably not – but it is hard to see David Cameron as anything other than the PM whose hubris cost us the Union.
But what of those cities, and especially of London?
How well will England’s great centres of finance and knowledge respond to being asked to pick up the tab for regional policy that is, right now, 100% EU funded? Anything that is seen as moving resources out of the capital – financial or physical – will, history shows us, be seen as anti-London and resisted fiercely. Twitter jokes about a London Independence Party will remain just that, of course, but the underlying feeling will not go away. London, for better or worse, has kept the UK afloat since the days of Thatcher (and there is a very strong case for saying “the worse”, but that is entirely moot).
Add the Government’s (perfectly laudable) taste for city-regions exercising greater autonomy – and note that the main one, Manchester, voted Remain; season with the thought that Plaid Cymru might see a nice anti-English stick to beat the campaign drums with, and division may not be limited to the exit of Scotland.
It’s called Balkanisation for reasons that history (not just recent) teaches us. It doesn’t need to be at all literal.
It will still be cancerous.
It was, pretty much, an impulse purchase.
Since somebody had gone to all the trouble of sorting out absurdly complex music rights, it seemed downright rude not to take the opportunity to wallow in a bit of nostalgia for lazy Sunday mornings watching Channel 4’s diet of comfort telly.
A bunch of graduates and postgraduate students, more or less hungover, in the back end of the 80s easing themselves into the day. The Waltons (entire, in the correct order) and a rotation of The Fugitive, Bonanza or The Invaders – all terrifically atmospheric. But teeing it all up, The Wonder Years.
It is a show that succeeds for a variety of reasons – music from when blues-based rock and pop was in its pomp, tight scripts and stories rooted in truth. Mostly I think the key is that it was never afraid to let central character Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) be a total dickhead. Despite entirely American cultural references, the suburb could have been anywhere on in the industrialised World where people had no choice but to work hard for a living and, even then, earned barely enough to get by – something the kids didn’t quite get.
So I settled in for a wallow. It it was fun, rediscovering how it knew when to prick the humour with pathos and vice versa, and exactly why it got us out of bed of a Sunday morning. I remember Karl and Gus and Alex and Maria and, of course, Kath, from Rowfant Road with whatever the inner equivalent of a dopey grin is.
And then the last 5 episodes of Season 2 happened. They are an extraordinary essay on the pain of childhood loss – of the brother killed in Vietnam, of childhood starting to slip away and for a society showing the first signs of the fragmenting that would shape the World ever since.
And it began with Brightwing, which centred not on the three main characters, but on Kevin’s big sister, Karen (Olivia d’Abo). She induces Kevin to help her bunk off school, and lures him into her rebellious hippy world – blind that he is desperate to rekindle their earlier childhood bond. But she is trying to get out of the suburbs and, despite a promise to Kevin, jumps in a car with friends and tries to run away to San Fransisco. I doubt that Donovan’s Catch The Wind has ever been used to greater emotional effect.
There’s a lot of literature about brotherly love, about sisterly strength, about the pain of parents letting go and children moving on. There is much about father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, father and son.
But this story understands the brother-sister bond, and that seems to be a very rare thing indeed.
It is a bond that cannot be broken, whether you like it or not. It can be stretched until it is a filament, no thicker than a molecule of DNA. It can rip at your heart, or ignite you rage.
But it doesn’t break.
“When rain has hung the leaves with tears” it will still glisten in the morning mist.
Profoundly envious of those making the trip tonight. Bugger depression for fucking me up so badly that I had to sacrifice the season ticket to stay afloat.
A few years ago I wrote this, as part of a paying gig for one of WHU’s advisers. I was there for that goal:
It was football as poetry. At 3:10pm on Saturday 23 March 2000 Marc Vivian Foe played the ball out to Trevor Sinclair on the right wing. Sinclair’s lofted ball to the far side of the penalty box should have been straightforward for any reasonable player to trap and lay back into the box, for the advancing Frederick Kanoute.
Paolo Di Canio is not a reasonable footballer.
As the ball made its 35-yard flight, Di Canio slipped past the retreating Wimbledon defenders, never taking his eye of it. Near the far edge of the box, about twelve yards from the touchline, he leapt into the air, adjusting his balance constantly – while in the air – and struck the ball on the volley with the outside of his right foot. It flew just inside the far post. To Hammers fans it will always be “That goal”. More than 25,000 of them gasped in astonishment, before exploding into wild cheering.
It’s that gasp, as people tried to work out what they had just seen, that those who were there remember.
Anyway this is lovely and the best of many videos from people exorcising their sadness:
And this is wonderful, via David Squires at the Guardian: Designing Herbie The Hammer, and other stories.
On a December evening in 2001 at Upton Park, West Ham were drifting to a limp 0-1 defeat to Aston Villa. The clock ticked to 90 minutes and, as was our wont, the season ticket holders in the Bobby Moore Lower shuffled from our seats to the stairways in the forlorn hope of a quick exit, once the ref put us out of our misery.
Then Jermaine Defoe equalised, right in front of us. A staircase full of people surged forward in a 15-second or so flashback to watching football from terraces. You had no choice but to go with the surge and hope you stayed on your feet, a tart reminder of why terraces were such fun – and also so dangerous. It was quite, quite exhilarating.
And then it was over and we all went home.
At four minutes past three on 15 April 1989, a shot by Liverpool’s Peter Beardsley hit the Nottingham Forest crossbar in front of the Spion Kop at Hillsborough. At the other end of the ground, the Liverpool fans in the packed Leppings Lane terraces surged forward, as always happened at exciting moments. A crush barrier collapsed and, if I have read the various reports on Hillsborough correctly, this was the point at which around 10 victims died. Keep that in your mind for a moment.
This week the families of The 96 finally got something approaching justice, as a catalogue of arrogant, incompetent and grossly negligent policing was deemed unlawful and the fans declared free from blame.
And yet the pushback is not just from the Murdoch press, so culpable in one of the most disgraceful cover-ups in British history. Consider this otherwise hugely intelligent and thoughtful blog about the disaster from lifelong West Ham fan Robert Kelsey:
But Liverpool fans were noted for something else: a peculiarity if you like. It was their habit of “steaming the gate” at away matches, and particular bigger (all-ticket) games. As kick-off approached, a large enough group would gather by the gate and, indeed, force their way in. It was “something Liverpool just did” – at least according to their reputation.
It is an odd football snobbery. The Scousers may have been better organised, but I don’t know a single fan – of any team – from back in those days who did not brag at some point about bunking in, especially to big all-ticket matches. To be fair, Kelsey is stating this both to dismiss it and to set up a much more interesting point. But let’s be clear: there was a crush of around 5,000 fans outside the Leppings Lane stand 10 minutes before kick off, faced with turnstiles that had managed to admit around 1,000 fans each over the previous hour or so. The police panicked, opened Gate C and the rest is bleak history. To try to shift blame onto the fans for steaming is as stupid as would be trying to blame Peter Beardsley for the deaths caused by the collapse of Crush Barrier 144.
Liverpool’s fans did nothing that did not happen every week at every ground and were treated accordingly – and that is the point.
Football’s hooliganism problem was deep-seated and deep-rooted and this shaped the thinking of Match Commander David Duckenfield to the exclusion of all else. He sent in dogs before he sent in ambulances. But, while hooliganism is well recorded, the other side of the coin is not. As Kelsey points out, police thuggery towards fans was the norm, with beatings meted out for the offence of Being A Cockney In Manchester or any variant of “local” and “visitor”, or of police mysteriously vanishing when a local “firm” set about travelling fans.
Lord Justice Taylor, in his 1990 report on Hillsborough used the imagery of prisoners of war to describe the treatment of football fans and, at its launch, noted: “If you treat people like prisoners of war, you should not be surprised if they act like them.”
But in the 1980s this thuggery found comfort in the highest places. Thatcher’s disdain for the working classes came out as contempt for football fans and the same police force who had been her shock-troops during the miners’ strike felt it had impunity. Kelsey hits the nail on the head:
But – then – that was football. The clubs knew it. The authorities knew it. And the fans knew it. It was also dangerous and unsustainable. And one day something was going to go very badly wrong. And to make that event, when it inevitably happened, the fault of one man: Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield is – despite his lies and failings – wrong. But that seems to be where we’re heading on this.
Duckenfield is culpable, no ifs no buts. But he was the point man, promoted far above his competence. Then-Chief Constable Peter Wright set the tone and ethos of South Yorkshire Police and personally oversaw the cover up. He is a much bigger villain, but he died in 2011 and is beyond Earthly justice.
And the bigger villain by far is the ease with which the privileged, aided by a compliant and now largely foreign-owned media, can set ordinary people (let’s set aside the loaded term ‘working class’) fighting among themselves. It is stark in football, even in these sanitised days, where tribalism generates a strong instinct to find fault – even moral failing – in fans of other teams.
Normal, decent, sensible people are shockingly prone being led astray by spin. Whether it is Ken Livingstone (admittedly, too often prone to foot-in-mouth disease), a life-long anti-racist being branded an anti-Semite, or junior doctors being branded greedy; whether it is people fleeing war-shattered countries being labelled “a bunch of migrants”, or teachers being branded as addicted to long holidays; whether it’s the dismantling of the Legal Aid system, denying ordinary people access to justice, or the sterile dogma of “free markets” being used to tear down the welfare system, while blaming the poor.
Or all football fans being branded hooligans.
Ordinary people fall for it all the time.
The victims at Hillsborough weren’t “football fans”. They were factory workers, teachers, university students, school boys and school girls, healthcare workers and finance consultants, shopkeepers and carpenters, would-be computer programmers, clerks and sales reps, machinists and roofers, fork lift drivers and firefighters.
And it was not just a police and political cover up that denied them justice for more than a quarter of a century.
It was a society that doesn’t know when it is being lied to and, frankly, did not seem to give a toss.
For those interested in the science behind climate change, here is a superb and easy to read explanation of why you should be scared shitless for the world your children are going to grow up into.
I started the “Global Warming Basics” posts specifically to help people who are interested in what’s going on, wondering whether we should do something about it and what, but want to keep things simple. My purpose isn’t to turn you into a scientist — it’s just to give you enough information to make sense out of what you hear about the subject. Alas, that can be all too difficult, because so many people, and politicians, are willing to distort the truth.
Perhaps the most basic question for a lot of people is “What has changed?” Has climate changed already? In what way? What have we seen in the last few decades that concerns us? What did we see last year? Last month? What’s been going on, really?
Let’s take a look.
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I can say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that there is no sweet relief quite like the sweet relief that arrives the exact moment an endoscope is removed from your bottom.
I know because this Saturday morning was spent with said endoscope up said bottom. This was only slightly more painful than, later, watching West Ham labour to a win over – a frankly not very good – Sunderland.
It was in the name of bowel cancer screening (the endoscope, not West Ham v Sunderland) and once your age hits the magic number you get the letter. A friend cheerfully admits that when his number comes up, the letter is going in the bin. But I have reasons of family history to figure that a quick poke and a prod, to make sure all is in order, has its merits.
Quick poke and a prod.
That’s where I went wrong.
You see, many moons ago, for entirely cancer-unrelated reasons I’d had another medical device – the name of which is bleached from my brain – stuck where the sun doesn’t shine and, although it was a tad uncomfortable, I didn’t feel too humiliated in front of the two winsome medical students who observed that procedure. Lucky women.
With that initial misconception outlined, let me get this out of the way: the staff at the Endoscopy Unit at Milton Keynes General Hospital are absolutely fucking fabulous. Every bit as fabulous as the A&E staff who looked after me a month or so back. That cannot be said often enough.
The thing with a sigmoidoscopy (which is the name of the procedure used for screening) is that it relies rather a lot on the area being scoped having nothing to block the view. Now, we’re all grown ups and we know what the bowel is used for, so you can figure out what might block the view.
There are far too many puns on the word ‘enema’ for me to be bothered, but the thing I didn’t know was that, these days, they are supposed to be self-inflicted. If this is what hippy-dippy types do as ‘colonic irrigation’, then they are utter, utter morons.
Here is where my problem started. The flushy-out kit is a squeeze-bag of some magical liquid, with a tube. I am sure you can work out where the tube goes prior to squeezing the bag. The instructions were clear and easy to follow, but unfortunately it turned out that the tube was a lot more flexible than me. I did the best I could, but the results did not seem to be consistent with those predicted in the instructions (I mean, technically yes, but not – um, how can I put this? – as Amazonian in quantity). I suspect the problem is that my daily rhythms weren’t quite in the best sync with the timings for my appointment.
Also, I doubt my cat will ever look at me the same way again.
the staff at the Endoscopy Unit at Milton Keynes General Hospital are absolutely fucking fabulous. Every bit as fabulous as the A&E staff who looked after me a month or so back. That cannot be said often enough.
So, one perturbed cat and an unsatisfactory-feeling cleanse, and off I toddle to MK General. I reported my cleanse concerns to the lovely young lady at reception (I really should have paid more attention to names because, as I said, these people are fabulous and deserve recognition). She said it shouldn’t be a problem.
Technically she was quite right.
After a few minutes I was called in to do the paper work and a few minutes after that was sent to a cubicle to don medical gown and the fabulously named ‘modesty pants’. They are like normal chap’s pants only the other way round (think about it). After a few minutes – which seemed a lot longer – I was called into the procedure room.
Now, from my previous experience with backdoor medical equipment, the only bit of diagnostic information I could recall was “clear to 9 centimetres”. I guess that was the standard back then and was considered an all clear. Remember that.
And so the professionals attempted to begin and, it turned out, my cleansing concerns were well founded. Before I knew what was happening I was having all sorts of liquids poured into my wrong end; as this was happening I was told that I would want to go to the loo very soon. This was true.
The problem is that the distance from the procedure room to the nearest toilet was approximately 15 miles. Coming back it was only 15 feet – space-time is funny like that when you have a colon full of effluvia generators. The Amazon flowed, as if fed by a storm of apocalyptic proportions. It was strangely unsatisfying, but this may have stemmed from the knowledge that everybody nearby knew exactly was was happening. At one point the charge nurse (I think that’s the title) tapped the door and called “Are you still alive in there?” which was very funny at the time. Nobody does gallows humour like nurses.
So, suitably effluved I now had to wait my turn, since it was busy and someone whose self-cleanse had gone to plan, rather than to pot, was dealt with first.
That’s nearly an ar… no, wait. What?!
Then the short trip back to the procedure room. Remember that 9 centimetres?
I am pretty sure I heard the consultant say “80 centimetres” at peak discomfort. You can, should you be so minded, watch the progress of the camera up your fundament, and I fully intended to until the first puff of air used to make a little room for manoeuvre. If you will excuse the expression, bugger me that smarted. That is when I remembered the gas-and-air. Whoever invented Entonox should be given a Nobel Prize for Making People Not Give A Damn.
Actually, that wasn’t why I didn’t look much. Very early on I saw something that looked polyp-y to my eye and at the same time I heard the consultant say “3 millimetres” as she excised it. After that I didn’t really want to know ‘as live’. With the Entonox in full flow, I was now very much in the realm of not giving a shit (not that I could have). The only other thing of note was hearing the word ‘diverticula’ and thinking “Oh, Mum had them”. Genetics, eh?
And then came the sweet, sweet relief, which is – so to speak – where we came in. My own ineptitude at not being able to use a squeezy bottle, combined with being too slow to hit the Entonox made for an amusing yarn at my expense (I hope you will agree) and all is good (pending biopsy). One 3mm polyp removed and three diverticula noted.
But here’s the thing.
The Endoscopy Unit was pretty damned busy this Saturday (that’ll be the 7-day NHS) and it was not just people like me getting their spot checks. There were samples handed over and people asked to wait at one end, and at the other end of the line…. Well, there was more than one ashen face, and the look of stoical grimness that only those in the midst of a really bad situation present.
In early 2001 Mum had a raft of procedures including a colonoscopy which removed a “rather large polyp”, as she said to me when I phoned to check. But over the following weeks she experienced more and more pain and finally, in early March I called the surgery in frustration to see what the hold up was with the results. Dr Khan had – literally – just opened them. Mum never knew that I knew she was dying before she did. Dr Khan thought months rather than years, but it turned out to be weeks rather than months. This kind, gentle doctor was visibly shocked at how fast the cancer progressed in this kind, gentle woman.
Don’t throw the letter away.
And if things don’t seem right down there, get it checked anyway. There is no dignified way to have an endoscope stuck up your arse. But half a day of no dignity and half and hour of sucking on the Entonox might just save your life.
Just make sure you have plenty of soft fibre in your diet.
There are only 7 left now. There will come a time, in the not too distant future, when there will be nobody left living who has walked on The Moon.
That is absurd.
Richard Dimbleby came under intense pressure from the higher-ups at the BBC to tone down his descriptions of Belsen. He stood firm, as history now records.
Today, of all days, everybody should listen to them.
Especially people stupid enough to refer to people fleeing war as ‘a bunch of migrants’.
When my radio alarm went off at the top of the hour, as it does, it jumped, as it does, straight into the news headlines. David Bowie has died. After maybe 20 seconds I rolled over and turned the radio off. It wasn’t – as it often is – irritation at the increasingly fatuous nature of modern journalism, but because my mind filled with this:
At that moment, I really didn’t want to think about that. But it is later in the day now.
Some time in the late 1990s – so when I was living in Docklands with my then-girlfriend – we were watching Top of The Pops 2, which sliced and diced TOTP appearances from across the entire run of the show. And this performance came on, in full Ziggy Stardust flow. Mick Ronson sharing the mic, TOTP deploying its amplifier-in-the-back-pocket, lip-syncing style.
And I realised that I remembered seeing it the first time round. Bowie and Ronson, arm-in-arm, sharing the mic. Then I worked out that, when I saw it for the first time, I hadn’t even started secondary school.
For the first time in my life, at the wrong end of my 30s, I felt something other than young. The impact was much too complex to summarise as either positive or negative, and it is not the only thing from my past that has popped up to stir my emotions. But it was sobering.
Artists can never know the full impact their work has. It can be at the individual level, like my unscheduled sobriety. But it can be much bigger, like the song that was – nominally – a poem to West Berlin youth’s penchant for making out at the Wall in full view of the East German watch towers, which became something much more potent. And you don’t have to take my word for that:
And, lest you think this a wistful whim of the German FO’s Twitter team, then Germany’s foreign minister put that to bed:
This dimension was exemplified by the years David Bowie spent in Berlin during the 1970s, when he recorded his song “Heroes” in the legendary Hansa Studios, a homage to Berlin at the height of the Cold War and a soundtrack of the divided city.
“Genie”, in its French form, génie, translates as “genius”. Pop stars, we were told in our rebellious youth, wouldn’t be remembered as the old singers were.
I’d be willing to bet that Heroes will be played a lot in Berlin tonight.