Politics

Two wrongs don’t make a summer

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Strong and stable, my nether regions. That’s two huge miscalculations by Tory Prime Ministers whose sole aim was to benefit the party and retain power. In Teresa May’s case, of course, the “worst manifesto in living memory” (and that from her friends in the party) and the idea of basing an election campaign on her personality when she clearly doesn’t possess one and had to be hidden from the press, the public and, basically, the world, was guaranteed to fail. But none of that compares with the folly and incompetence of David Cameron for adopting a core policy of blaming the EU for his government’s failings, calling a referendum on our membership and being taken by surprise when he found that many people had believed him.

With a year having passed since the referendum, no potential benefits having yet been identified and the huge costs – financial, social and environmental – becoming increasingly clear, it’s not surprising that those supporting Brexit are reducing by the day.  Nevertheless my social media space is regularly invaded by an ever diminishing band of hardcore Leave voters claiming victory, as if claiming the accolade of “chief lemming” were a great line for one’s CV.

And yet. Because our two biggest political parties fear a voter and tabloid backlash if they were to act in the interests of the nation and terminate the absurd Brexit process, we press on into the mire with our friends in Europe and across the world shaking their heads and wondering how a once moderately respected and influential country could shoot itself so determinedly in the foot.  At the time of writing the government’s plan appears to be to spend many billions of pounds, firstly on a divorce settlement and thereafter on a trade agreement with the EU on significantly worse terms than the present one while – of necessity — allowing for little change in immigration levels, and, as a non-member of the club, with no ability to influence any future EU policy. After two years of “negotiation” a “deal” will no doubt be presented to satisfy the Leave vote and pretend that something has been accomplished, as is the way with these things. To be in serious competition with the US as global laughing stock does us no favours.

At a recent public debate which I attended in my own town involving local politicians of the significant parties (I choose my words advisedly – UKIP weren’t there) the speakers were invited, having had at least a year to think about it, to indicate what, if any, benefits might flow from Brexit.  After musing on the opportunities which would now surely open up for us to work with China to improve their human rights record, the chief merit identified by our sitting MP – herself a self-confessed Leave voter and therefore at odds with her own constituency — was that the anomaly of French nurses having priority for jobs in our NHS over, say, Philippinos would be ended. Eh? Say again? At least that worrying problem seems to have been solved: in the light of the referendum result the NHS has seen a 96% fall in job applications from nurses overseas. Result! The fact that our MP is herself a nurse I throw into the pot to assist your understanding…

One hopes even at this stage that politicians might display statesmanship and either act directly against Brexit or at least ask the nation if this lunacy is what they actually want. The wellbeing of the UK matters far more than party unity and our younger citizens will not forgive us for treating their future with such disdain. Politicians who allow this absurdity to proceed will have it on their conscience for many years to come. The rest of us won’t forget. Never in my lifetime have the prospects of the nation seemed so bleak. And I’m someone who can remember Lynsey de Paul in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Two constructive themes did however emerge from the general election. The nauseating and preposterous garbage which has been the stock in trade of waste paper producers like the Express, Mail and Sun for so long appears to have had its day and seems to have influence on nobody below the age of 50.

At last, a respectable use for the Daily Mail

And, very sadly, it has taken the Grenfell Tower atrocity to highlight that there is nothing inherently beneficial about cutting taxes, local authority budgets and regulatory standards.

Also in a more positive vein – though not a jolly one – was the news last week that there will be criminal prosecutions arising from the 1989 Hillsborough stadium atrocity (apologies for reusing this word from the previous paragraph but words like “disaster” may suggest just an unfortunate accident or freak of nature).

Personally I’ve always felt more anger about the malicious, organised and sustained cover up by the police and others that followed Hillsborough than the fatal mistakes and incompetence of the authorities on the day. Justice has been too long in the coming but we seem to be getting there.

But in Brighton the sun has been shining, and not just because an excellent young man and good family friend has been elected as one of the city’s MPs. Go Lloyd!

Mrs Blog and I, on our current (modest) exercise kick, took a five mile stroll along the city’s seafront at the weekend, taking in the ambitious programme of regeneration and renovation, an excellent bacon and egg roll and a mint’n’choc chip ice-cream. Mrs B also liberated from the beach, without the benefit of planning permission, several nicely rounded pebbles. These are key elements in the continuing struggle to defend her birdfeeders against the predations of squirrels. The pebbles, you should understand, are not intended to be launched at said grey rodents, either manually or through the mechanism of tripwire and crossbow, but are to be lowered into place on top of the seeds in the feeders to prevent the grey b*st*rds going headfirst down the tubes, from which one has already had to be rescued. The adorable little chaps are nothing if not determined and resourceful but Mrs B is their intellectual equal and they provoke her at their peril. Marguerite Patten is silent on squirrel recipes but hey….

The sun has also brought ‘em out a mile or two along the coast in Saltdean – to be precise, to the newly reopened Grade 2* listed, 1938 lido close to the seafront. Having closed and reopened more than once before, let us hope that the present incarnation will prosper. The specially constituted charitable body that acquired the lido on a lease from Brighton and Hove City Council has worked its socks off, secured millions of pounds from the National Lottery and other sources, reopened the two heated pools to great acclaim in June and is still pursuing grant applications to enable the full restoration of the gorgeous Art Deco buildings next year. Brilliant people, brilliant project.

Talking of restoration (see what I did there?), Blogdaughter and I paid a visit in June to another Grade 2* listed treasure — Wilton’s, just east of the Tower of London, the world’s oldest surviving music hall, evolving over the years from Victorian sailors’ pub to music hall, from Methodist mission to rag warehouse. Reopening – and not for the first time – in 2015 as a multi-arts performance venue, Wilton’s is, like Saltdean lido, a jewel, saved and adapted by devoted volunteers.

This Blog waited to visit Wilton’s until it was scheduled to host an event of particular interest to him – in this case, a Tom Lehrer tribute act. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre in the 1950s and 60s, Lehrer – a professor of Maths at Harvard – wrote and performed at the piano such evergreen gems as “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”, “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, “The Old Dope Peddler”, “We’ll all go together when we go”, “Masochism Tango” and the immortal listing of the periodic table to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” known as “The Elements”. Lehrer said of his musical career, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

So, Blogdaughter and I arrived early to take in the ambience, appreciate the history, the beautifully conserved architectural features and a leisurely drink in the bar and eagerly await the “turn” in our front row seats in the gallery.

Shame about the acoustics that evening but, as most of us could have sung the words in our sleep, little matter – I think it was a one-off issue involving something technical with amplifiers and cooling fans. Don’t let it put you off the venue. You can, and indeed should, buy the Tom Lehrer CDs. In your car they let you sit right at the front and the only one singing along annoyingly will be you.

Tom Lehrer is, as they say in Private Eye, 89.

 

 

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Uncategorized

Reasons to be cheerful

2016

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I thought about heading this post “Reasons to be cheerful in 2017” and leaving it blank. Sort of making a point about 2016 and saving me some effort at the same time. A bit existentialist?  (Wikipedia: sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.)

There have been plenty of articles and books about the year 2016 along those lines and I subscribe to the sentiments behind them. Being forced to face the reality of other people’s voting habits, both here and in the US to name but two obvious ones, can only be deeply depressing. One can but hope that reason, integrity, truth and decency make at least a token reappearance on the political scene sometime soon.

It was also of course a year when we lost some famous names, seemingly more than usual. Inevitably some impact on you more than others. I don’t think there’s any obvious logic to this: I have nothing against Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett or David Bowie – fine fellows all – but somehow the premature loss of Jo Cox, Alan Rickman, Caroline Aherne, Johan Cruyff speaks to me (to borrow the jargon) in a different way. In the case of Jo Cox MP, of course, the reason for widespread deep sorrow and anger is clear; in others it may be down to a single performance, even a single phrase which burrowed into one’s memory banks and will never leave.

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And what to say about Victoria Wood? I don’t have the words; Victoria would have done. Long ago I selected the Ballad of Barry and Freda as one of my Desert Island Discs for when I was interviewed after winning the Nobel or a Brit Award and it’s retained its place through the years. Anyone who could come up with just one lyric like this deserves to die happy, and I hope she did.

I can’t do it, I can’t do it, my heavy-breathing days are gone.

I’m older, feel colder; It’s other things that turn me on.

I’m imploring- I’m boring- Let me read this catalogue on vinyl flooring! I can’t do it, I can’t do it tonight.

Let’s do it, let’s do it, I really want to rant and rave!

Let’s go, cos I know, Just how you want to behave:

Not bleakly, Not meekly- Beat me on the bottom with the Woman’s Weekly- Let’s do it, let’s do it tonight!

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But a glance back through trustworthy sources – I’m thinking in particular of this blog – reminds me that there has been, amongst the dross, the occasional beacon. The findings of the second Hillsborough inquest in April, for one, which confirmed unequivocally what more or less anyone connected to Liverpool had known for 27 years – that is, where blame lay for the tragedy and the nature and scale of the subsequent organised deception by the authorities. The authorities, that is, like the police and emergency services, whose priority should have been ensuring that they didn’t make the same grievous mistakes again, not working out how best to cover their tracks – and costing the public at large, as well as the bereaved, vast sums of money and immense heartache in the process. Everton Football Club described the jury findings as the greatest victory in the history of football. I’m not going to argue.

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In the last few days news has emerged that Professor Phil Scraton – Liverpudlian, criminologist, academic, author, member of the Hillsborough Independent Panel and responsible for its research – has turned down the award of an OBE in the New Year Honours List. This, because:

“I could not receive an honour on the recommendation of those who remained unresponsive to the determined efforts of bereaved families and survivors to secure truth and justice… I could not accept an honour tied in name to the ‘British Empire’. In my scholarship and teaching I remain a strong critic of the historical, cultural and political contexts of imperialism and their international legacy.”

What a player! When you think of gongs awarded to wealthy folk for funding political parties and other nefarious goings on ….   But I’ll start drafting my acceptance just in case.

If, at a political level, things have been essentially crap in 2016, decent people continue to make their own contributions. A double page spread in the Christmas edition of the Big Issue highlights just a handful of the many cafes, pubs, football clubs, churches and mosques adding their own kind of hospitality to the efforts of the better known charities, spending time over “the festive period” to prepare and serve hot meals and provide other comfort and support to those less fortunate, and not worrying which part of the world they were born in.

One such venue, hosting a dinner on Christmas Day organised by Liverpool Homeless FC, was the Florrie, or Florence Institute, named as her chosen charity by Radio 2 presenter and DJ Janice Long on this year’s Celebrity Mastermind and a place that provided one of my own 2016 highlights.

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The Florrie before rescue…

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….and after

I’ve been particularly fortunate during 2016 to meet inspiring people and visit some fascinating places. In my first dabble in what I will, when nobody’s checking, call “travel writing” I planned and executed my own coast to coast walk from the Mersey to the Humber, specifically New Brighton, of childhood memory, on the Irish Sea to Spurn Head as a random and slightly weird point on the North Sea worthy of new memories.

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The start of my walk: New Brighton tower, football club, ball room and its “unlucky” demise…

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… and the end: Spurn Head

Some of you reading this (and I have it on good authority that you are doing) have contributed to making this trip so enjoyable en route by providing good conversation, pints of bitter, accommodation, chips and the occasional toe nail surgery. Along with a rugby league game in Castleford, an evening at Mecca Bingo in Hull, a morning at the Pontefract liquorice festival, a (successful!) pub quiz in Liverpool, a visit to the Museum of the History of Policing in Cheshire and an afternoon at the nation’s most luxurious cat hotel near Dewsbury, there have been numerous, sometimes odd, theatrical productions, a ferry, a canal boat trip and a touring waterside theatre, brass bands, more museums, slavers and abolitionists, churches, statues, splendid old railway hotels, a ghost train, swimming baths, pubs, hostels, and more curries, scouse, spam fritters and “full English” than you could shake a black pudding at. There’s been snow and torrential rain on Merseyside, heatstroke on the Humber, Billy Fury, Anthony Gormley, Elizabeth Gaskell and Philip Larkin and an awful lot of walking. And Kay Kendall.

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But what made the whole venture such a joy was being welcomed at so many wonderful community and conservation projects and meeting volunteers and staff making huge efforts to preserve and enhance the social and environmental soul of the country – with little reward beyond the knowledge that their contributions are greatly appreciated by those who benefit from them. While core public services continue to be sacrificed to the false gods of austerity and tax cutting, the nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to those who unflinchingly put their fingers in the dyke and strive to stem the tide. People like Britt at Anfield’s Homebaked project, Anne and Janine at the Florrie in Liverpool, Barry at Victoria Baths, Judith at the Pankhurst Centre in Manchester, David at the Huddersfield Canal Society, Jenny at Nostell Priory, Paul at the Sobriety Project, Margaret at Goole Civic Society, Doug at Fort Perch Rock, Brian at Fort Paull.

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Many thanks to all of you for making 2016 a better place. I hope my scribbles can do justice to your efforts – I’ll be back in touch!

Thanks also for your generous contributions to the JustGiving page set up for the walk on behalf of the British Heart Foundation. Over £1300 raised so far and it’s still open so if you’re feeling Christmassy here’s the link:

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Stephen-Ankers-the-Road-to-Hull-is-Paved-with-Good-Intentions

I hope the New Year brings you joy and so on and so forth and that you kept all the receipts.

Blogfamily made it to Bruges last week for the Christmas market before the barriers to European travel are erected. We plan to go back in 2017 and spend a few days – Mrs.Blog didn’t allow me time during this visit to take in the museum of chips. I see that its website has a tab for “reservations” so I’m looking forward to checking in for a few nights’ hard earned sleep handily placed amongst the potato peelers and vinegar bottles.

Father Christmas apparently decided that what this blog most wanted to open on Christmas morning was two coffee grinders and two bags of beans (coffee – no beanstalk in sight). His representatives in Sussex, Mrs. Blog and Blogdaughter, are currently occupied with the instructions. Mrs. B tells me that the coat and special writer’s hat she bought me a few weeks back were my main presents and that we’re economising this year in case Donald Trump gets his way and we all end up living underground burning old copies of The Guardian for warmth and buying slightly used spam on the black market.

Hoping that enough of us will still be around in 2017 to make up a four for bridge, I wish you all you would wish for yourself. Unless of course you support Manchester United, Brexit or UKIP, in which case I can’t help you.

 

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Football

Hillsborough: Truth, Lies and Justice

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No jokes today from this blog. It’s taken 27 years, and the longest jury trial in British history, but it’s finally arrived – the truth which Liverpool fans knew back in 1989 but needed to share with the world. Their parents, siblings and children were not responsible for their own deaths. Whatever the media and politicians had said in the aftermath, they had not arrived drunk and forced their way into the ground for an FA Cup semi-final, they hadn’t obstructed the police and they hadn’t looted or urinated on the bodies of victims.

It had been quite wrong of the authorities to regard the 96 who died and the injured as suspects in a crime and to prevent anxious and grieving relatives from seeing their loved ones.

All this has been said repeatedly in Liverpool since 1989 but nobody in any position of authority seemed keen to listen. Those we now know to have been responsible for the disaster – the largest in British sporting history —  had their own reasons to cover up the truth and, in a distinctly unholy alliance between government, certain media and two police forces, they have until today succeeded.

But, through the untiring efforts of the families and their support group, and the implicit support of a whole city, they have reached a major milestone. Let’s set out some of the jury findings:

  • Police errors caused a dangerous situation at the turnstiles
  • Failures by commanding officers caused a crush on the terraces
  • Mistakes in the police control box over the order to open the Leppings Lane end exit gates
  • Defects at the stadium
  • An error in the safety certification
  • The police and the ambulance service delayed declaring a major incident, thereby delaying the emergency response
  • Inadequate signage at the ground and misleading information on match tickets
  • Kick off should have been delayed because of the large number of fans still outside when the game was due to start, owing largely to hold-ups on the motorway

… and that’s just a selection.

Why does this matter? Why, as friends of mine have occasionally said over the years, haven’t the families “moved on” and got on with their lives – as, no doubt you’re supposed to do after a child has died too young or been the subject of some atrocity?

Why? Because these football fans were not just killed in a tragic “accident” in May 1989; they were “unlawfully killed”, meaning that organisations and individuals were responsible and should be held to account, and because the victims themselves were held for so long to have been the guilty parties.

I’m prepared to believe that, in most parts of the country, this has all become a bit tedious. Is there nothing more interesting on telly tonight? Liverpudlians, eh, what are they like? Get over it!

But, from where I sit – as a native of the city, lifetime supporter and long time season ticket holder at Anfield, and now an ex-pat, professional, grumbling northerner living in the south – I feel proud today of the city of my birth.  I’m not sure this story would have developed in the same way anywhere else. Perhaps in some “nicer” location with less “baggage” than Liverpool there would not have been such a swift assumption of fan misbehaviour, there would have been less inclination on the part of the authorities to organise such a cover-up of historic proportions, and lastly there might not have been the determination and community cohesion among the wronged to see it through.

This has not, as some have suggested, been simply a witch hunt against one or more individuals who “lost it” in a crisis and who themselves have no doubt suffered from the consequences. It has been partly a campaign to clear the names of the dead, partly a need to know the truth, and also a wish to hold organisations and their behaviour to account.

For me, however – not so personally involved as this was the first semi-final for many years that I had been unable to attend — an even bigger story is still working its way through. When we have finally heard, as we will, the detailed account of how South Yorkshire Police set out to cover their tracks and doctor their evidence, and how the investigation into their behaviour by the West Midlands force conspired largely to whitewash them, then we may have achieved something of lasting benefit in terms of accountability. With the passage of nearly 30 years it now seems so much more unacceptable that the police should have regarded their cover-up after Hillsborough as a feasible option. That it no doubt seemed a plausible option at the time says a huge amount about the politics in this country in the 1980s.

Everton Football Club has today described the jury findings as the greatest victory in the history of football.  And I’m not going to argue.

 

Normal service is likely to be restored in my next blog. I’ll be back in the north west this coming weekend to resume my coast to coast walk.

 

 

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Football

Hillsborough 25 years On

I was not present at Hillsborough – Sheffield Wednesday’s ground – in 1989 for Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. As a season ticket holder with Liverpool I knew I was eligible for a ticket for the cup final if we made it through the semi but, due to an inexcusable mix up over dates, I was aware that I would be on the Algarve for a family holiday on the day of the final. I was reluctant to find myself at the Hillsborough game, supporting my team to victory, but subdued by the prospect of not being able to make the “big one” at Wembley.

I had however been present at the Heysel stadium in Brussels four years earlier when nearly 40 people died before a European Cup Final between Liverpool and Italian team, Juventus. So I am no stranger to the tragedy and grief that has on occasion accompanied “the beautiful game”.

The bare facts pertaining to 15 April 1989 are well enough known. 96 Liverpool fans eventually died from the effects of overcrowding at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, leading inter alia to the elimination of standing terraces at all major football stadia in England, Wales and Scotland.

Some of you may still associate what happened with fan misbehaviour, perhaps involving alcohol. Smear stories have a habit of staying in the subconscious far longer than truth. And smear stories were rife on that day and subsequently.

It has taken 25 years for some approximation of the truth to emerge but, little by little, it seems to be coming out. It has now been established to the satisfaction of all agencies concerned that no evidence of fan misbehaviour has been identified, and that the disaster arose from mistakes by the police, health and safety authorities and emergency services. A 1991 inquest verdict on the 96 of “accidental death”, suggesting something unfortunate, perhaps unavoidable, rather than the result of culpable human error, was eventually quashed in December 2012. A new inquest is due to open on Monday 31 March in a business park on the outskirts of Warrington.

While many will be prepared to exonerate the officials present on the day, making genuine – if fatal – errors when under great pressure, there surely can be no excuse for what happened afterwards as South Yorkshire Police, with assistance from others, set about what became one of the most extensive cover-ups in British history. Statements both by serving police officers (in their hundreds) and members of the public were subsequently doctored, all with the intention of shifting blame from those responsible to the victims and survivors.

Revisiting that time, when perhaps the police force was viewed by some as a bastion against the “enemy within” following the miners’ strike and other civil strife, one can see how that pattern of behaviour may have come naturally to some. Viewed from the distant perspective of the 21 century, it is clearly grotesque.

Thirteen retired or serving police officers have so far been identified by the Independent Police Complaints Commission as “suspects” in the continuing investigation into the police cover-up. Most of these have already been interviewed under caution relating to a range of offences including manslaughter, misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice. There is now an ongoing criminal inquiry into these events.

The football club has continued to share the grief of the bereaved and to support the call for “justice”. This year’s memorial service at the club’s ground in Anfield Road on 15 April will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

I have heard it suggested that the club, its supporters and the city as a whole (the “other” club, Everton, has been nothing but generous and sincere in its support) really should “move on” and put the whole thing behind them. Seeing where we are now, after 25 years of grief, condemnation, ignorance and campaigning – the uncovering of a national scandal that beggars belief – we should all be grateful that they didn’t throw in the towel. Perhaps the day is not too distant when the Hillsborough families will be able to reach an accommodation with the day when 96 men, women and children went to enjoy themselves at a football game and didn’t come home.

 

I didn’t promise that all these blogs would be entertaining. Some things just don’t lend themselves to humour.

For those who would like to see a potted history, there’s always Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillsborough_disaster

 

 

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