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

When you walk through a storm

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As the pound continues to fall, food prices and the cost of holidays rise, businesses switch their investment to mainland Europe, the universities struggle to attract foreign students and the NHS, farming, construction and hospitality industries highlight their growing labour shortages, and the Leave EU voters mutter, “Nothing to do with us”, this Blog has sought diversion in harmless pleasures while awaiting the next Tory party inspired crisis known as the general election.

Owing plenty not only to the NHS but also the charities that keep it afloat, this Blog and Mrs Blog, and, in the past, both Blogdaughter and Blogdog, set out each May in the sponsored Brighton Heart Support Trust stroll along the seafront. I think this is aimed in part at showing bystanders that bionic “body parts scroungers” can still put one foot in front of another, and perhaps also at convincing us survivors of the same thing.

This Blog has made full use of the NHS over the years

The weather usually looks kindly on our walk, it provides more opportunity to enjoy the city than when you’re trying to park, and it offers unlimited prospects of bacon butties and donuts on the pier.

 

Displaying great self-discipline, we restrict ourselves to just one sandwich each….

….so we can afford to be a little more self-indulgent at the donut stall.

Mrs Blog and I, both being semi-retired, have taken to walking on the South Downs and  visiting National Trust properties, shops or tearooms during midweek with the result that the world seems full of old people. I suppose they have to be somewhere but they do seem to take a long time to choose a cake.

Midweek matinee fun

On the other hand, we find that children are also best avoided. The housing estate where we live (Mrs B doesn’t like me using that word — I think she has middle class aspirations) has organised a Street Party one Sunday in June. Now, we’re British and, despite recent security warnings, not easily frightened, at least not until the threat level hits “Replacement Bus Service” or “Street Party”. We have accordingly Googled, “HELP! Where else can we be on 11 June??” and will be attending the annual memorial service at the Chattri.

Our cul de sac always overdoes it with these things. This was to celebrate the completion of the draft neighbourhood plan

As it happens, this is a favourite walk destination for us and we have planned to make the service for a while. The Chattri is a fine, marble monument, a listed building, set high on the Downs outside Brighton with distant views of the sea. It marks the spot where Hindu and Sikh soldiers, injured in action in the WW1 trenches and brought to the temporary hospital in Brighton’s famous Pavilion, were cremated if they failed to recover. (Only if they died, as Mrs Blog rather pedantically insists that I point out.) Wiki tells me there were over 800,000 Indian soldiers fighting for the Empire at the time and that King George V felt that the exotic mock-Indian surroundings of the Pavilion might help them feel right at home.  That, and the pier, sticks of rock and Donald McGill postcards, no doubt.

Visiting any scene of “ultimate sacrifice” like the D-Day beaches, Flanders war graves or the Menin Gate is inevitably a most moving experience and to stand at the Chattri and think of those men a century ago, fighting and dying so very far from home, is right up there.

There must be something in the air because I met up with an old school friend a week ago at the Imperial War Museum. (Did I say I was seeking diversion in harmless pleasures?) He was over from where he now lives near San Francisco (it’s always sensible to retain friends in useful places) where they don’t have any history of course. This Blog isn’t really into weaponry and not obsessed about set piece battles, but the IWM is about so much more. It’s one of the best places I know for telling a story and engaging your interest. We spent a good three hours without even making the shop or café, which Mrs B found hard to believe – the shop and café bit. The more or less permanent, extensive exhibition on the holocaust would be hard to beat – and we did take in the equivalent in Jerusalem during a recent cruise – but our starting point was the temporary gallery on “Fighting for Peace”, the story of conscientious objectors, the Greenham Common women and protest marches against the Iraq war.

You put your whole self in….

The age old scenario: you finish your demo and there’s never enough buses

Adopting our “we’re approaching middle age” practice of buying tickets for midweek matinees, Mrs Blog and I went to see Richard Wilson as the headmaster in Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On at the Festival Theatre in Chichester. Having read the play several decades ago it was nostalgically comforting to hear Bennett’s familiar lines:

“wild horses on bended knees couldn’t have dragged me away”

“it was the kind of library he had only read about in books” and

“I have never understood this liking for war. It panders to instincts already catered for within the scope of any respectable domestic establishment”

That’s about as experimental and challenging as theatre needs to get for Mrs Blog and me.

Not exactly Alan Ayckbourn, though, is it?

Next week we take another adventurous step, this time musically, to the hip coastal resort of Eastbourne. Sorry, that should read, the hip replacement coastal resort.  It’s for a Gerry and the Pacemakers concert and there’ll be pacemakers everywhere. Along with all the other scouse ex-pats on the Sussex coast I’ll take me red and white scarf for the cardiac recoverers’ encore…..

“Walk on, walk on, with hope in your hearts….”

Gerry always gets a great encore at the Eastbourne Hippodrome

 

 

 

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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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Travel

The Road to Hull is Paved with Good Intentions

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I’ve read most of the internet. And what I haven’t read, Mrs. Blog has read out to me when I was trying to watch television. It was ok but it needs a beginning, a middle and an end. Like a proper book. And more maps.

I’ve decided that I’m going to write my own. Book, that is, not my own worldwideweb. With a beginning, a middle and an end, and maps.

I’ve always fancied the idea of being a travel writer – all expenses paid trips to Mauritius or that place in the Caribbean where they make Death in Paradise. Nothing too cold or scary – I suppose that rules out the Death in Paradise island then, although the murders there seem quite civilized, rarely messy. But you have to start small as a travel writer, I guess, and local. Somewhere where you can get a decent pint and pop home if you don’t like the pillows.

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The author contemplates the next day’s walking on the South Downs Way

 

I’d read about people who did coast to coast walks and wrote about them – across the Lake District and the North York Moors or, once they had the hang of it, their boots were worn in and they could afford a bigger rucksack, across the U.S. or Australia or the Pacific.

All the obvious nice places had been taken but, so far as I could tell, there hadn’t been any books written about walking from the Irish Sea to the North Sea through post-industrial Britain. (As Mrs. Blog helpfully put it, “And there are very good reasons why not.”)  But I say this, “The beer will be cheap, I won’t need subtitles like in Denmark or Sweden, and it’s got to be less dangerous than that P&O cruise we went on with all the Zimmer frames.”

Mrs. Blog pointed out that I’ve done so little walking in the last few years that I get short of breath when changing TV channels, but she greatly underestimates my sense of purpose and my determination, being a man, not to admit to having made a poor decision. Mark Wallington said, somewhere near the beginning of his book 500 Mile Walkies, that he decided to walk the whole of the south west coast path “to impress a girl that he met at a party”. I suspect I’m beyond impressing more or less anyone these days, and I don’t stay up late enough to get to many parties, but there’s an orthopaedic surgeon in Brighton who will be deeply surprised if all of me makes it to Hull.

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The author tries out one or two gentle pilates exercises in advance of his coast to coast walk

The Great Trek, as absolutely nobody will call it, is due to get underway at the beginning of April from New Brighton on the coast of Wirral. It’s very much like the real Brighton here in Sussex, but newer, obviously. I have family photo albums with pictures of my brother and me in black and white, taken with a Box Brownie, rock pooling on the shore at New Brighton in the 1950s. I was so thin in those days that I used to hold onto the top of my shorts to prevent them falling down; this is not a problem for me anymore.  For reasons that escape me, I thought it would be nice to start my walk from a place with childhood memories. By lunchtime on that first day I plan to be in a grown up dockside pub in Liverpool and put all that nostalgia stuff behind me. I will keep you posted, whether you like it or not. And you will be expected to buy the book.

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Preparing to head north. Merseyside holds no fears…

 

Last weekend Mrs. Blog and I headed to the north west, primarily for the football at Anfield but also to check out some of Liverpool’s attractions for possible incorporation into the walk. With the state of Liverpool FC at the moment, the enjoyment usually peaks five minutes before the actual kick off with a full throated rendering of You’ll Never Walk Alone, which has me on Strepsils for the remainder of the week.

 

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LFC fans are renowned for their grace and generous humour

 

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…though Mrs. Blog rarely experiences the passion of the game as the author does

 

This match included its own highlight when between 10 and 15 thousand fans walked out in the 77th minute, protesting at increased ticket prices (£77 was to be the new top price ticket.)  Mrs. Blog and I used to “walk out together” but never from a football match — we’d paid good money to be there and travelled a long way. The price increases were rescinded by the club during the week that followed. The footy may be a bit rubbish at the moment (the team is “in transition”, where it has been since around 1992) but we do an inspirational walkout.

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“The 77th minute walkout” by LS Lowry.  Liverpool FC fans show their disapproval for the latest hike in ticket prices. 

 

The following day Mrs. Blog and I headed to the Lowry Centre at Salford Quays. I’d been a few times but it was a first for Mrs. B.  I prised her out of the “factory outlet” shopping mall opposite and we took in the permanent Lowry collection. I’m not good at describing paintings, and anyway you’re all familiar with them and you like them or you don’t – I don’t care. Mrs. B and I are both fans. I couldn’t help but notice that, almost without exception, the figures are walking. Or just leaning into the wind. You don’t see many driving about. Now, what’s that about? Can you not get those little figures into vehicles, or is Lowry saying something about pedestrianisation schemes in urban areas? Or the high cost of bus travel? Or – and I favour this – is he quietly saying “Look Blog, you can do this. Walk yourself thin….”

 

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Postscript

Blogdaughter invited us up to her flat in London for dinner a couple of weeks back. The journey, being Sunday, was something of a lottery – are there any more chilling words in the English language than “Replacement bus service in operation”?  But the dinner and the company were excellent. By my reckoning, that’s just another 15,000 or so hot meals and we’ll be quits.

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Southern Rail: Haywards Heath to Three Bridges replacement service Sunday 7 January

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Travel

Fat Margaret, the Mad Monk and smelly herrings: It’s Holiday Time!

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Disasters, as they say, come in threes. Stevie Gerrard has left Liverpool FC to ply his trade in Los Angeles; the least said about the general election the better; which means we set out on our Baltic cruise wondering if our timing was wise. Sinking without trace when we’d paid in advance for our drinks (Mrs. Blog is essentially teetotal so I’m obliged to drink for both of us) was the last thing we needed, if you see what I mean.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for a spot of sightseeing we were probably in a minority of cruise passengers to divert into Harwich before embarkation in order to check out the splendidly conserved Electric Palace, one of Britain’s oldest (1911) cinemas. (This blog was formerly a member of the Cinema Theatre Association which devotes its attention, not to films but to the splendid buildings they were or are shown in – and the Electric Palace is a belter.)

We were then serenaded with the refrain of Mull of Kintyre as we sailed away by what I took to be the Harwich and Parkeston massed pipers, providing passengers with a slightly surreal “Sound of Essex”.

Mrs. B had laid down a few cruise guidelines for me in advance, having viewed some preparatory videos and scrutinised the leaflets: no politics, no singing of football anthems in the bar, no participation in the dads’ bellyflopping competition. And would I like to give thought to the “Beat the Bloat” package in the on-board spa?

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Having helpfully explained to me how to work the shower in our “stateroom” (CABIN), Mrs. B suffered a sudden setback when Captain Stig announced on our first evening the prospect of Force 5 winds and rough seas. At which point she started mainlining on Stugeron seasickness tablets and couldn’t be raised until Day 4.

When she did come round it was to discover (and I had to choose a suitable moment during a Showtime Spectacular to break the news) that Wi-Fi would be unavailable during the cruise other than at a price which even she couldn’t justify. (I did spot her at one stage trying to scale the rock climbing wall for a signal for her cell phone.) I could tell it was getting to her when she offered to give up two hot stone massages for an hour’s connection to her beloved internet – OK, I had said, comparing our addictions, that I wanted to have Steven Gerrard’s babies, but that was — more or less —  a joke.

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Mrs. Blog is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to picking up a signal on her cell phone

 

Our only previous cruise having been along the River Nile at the start of the recent troubles, I hadn’t realised that other cruise ships don’t necessarily carry armed guards in the spa and restrooms. Perhaps they were present but incognito.

Copenhagen was our first port of call. We had chosen not to sign up for the package excursions – other than in St. Petersburg where it’s easier to go with the group than arrange one’s own visa – and were happy to explore under own steam and on foot. This was my fourth visit there, and Mrs. Blog’s second, so we were relaxed about what ground we covered and enjoyed some delicious, if Danishly priced, Smorrebrod in Tivoli Gardens.

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What my Dad would no doubt have referred to as “messed about food”

 

Back on board to put on my best M&S shirt in time for dinner.  I was a little surprised as we reached the restaurant to be greeted by two exiting diners who handed me their dirty plates and informed me that the hand sanitiser needed refilling.  A little further into the restaurant and I became conscious that the entire waiter cadre, male and female, appeared to have been kitted out in the same Blue Harbour range of men’s leisure wear that Mrs. Blog favours for me. At least I now know somewhere where I’ve got a head start for a handy job with excellent prospects for travel and meeting people.

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If I sit here like this for long enough, someone’s bound to fill my glass…

 

We found ourselves in one of the lounges after dinner, relaxing over a couple of drinks. Well, relaxing until presented with the bill with its additional 18% gratuity and an invitation to add yet another tip on top – having already pre-paid a total of nearly £200 for tips before the cruise. The music on board was varied and enjoyable and we rose to demonstrate our best dance moves. Indeed, we cleared the floor with our cha cha, though probably not for the right reasons.

A highlight of the next day at sea was the helicopter transfer to Stockholm of a crewman suffering from appendicitis. The chopper didn’t land; a paramedic was lowered to the ship and brought the sick crewman back up in a cradle. One could only hope that the patient had the presence of mind to capture the moment in a selfie – though, as Mrs. B sagely pointed out, if it were a female being transported she might not have been prepared to ascend to the helicopter in front of the watching passengers unless her hair was right.

We witnessed two further medical rescues during the cruise – a second helicopter “event” for an ailing passenger, and a transfer to a Danish port of another passenger using the cruise ship’s own tender, the Danish lifeboat service having – so we were informed – declined to assist “owing to the sea being rough”. Which just doesn’t look good in my book.

Always on the lookout for an opportunity to grab a bit of limelight, I did contemplate devising a “condition” which might justify a spectacular evacuation of my own, with the prospect of a lucrative book deal and possible film tie-in. I was carrying a cut on the end of my index figure, incurred when putting out the recycling on our day of departure, and I thought about flirting with norovirus by only using the hand sanitiser on alternate days, but neither of these got me past first base.

The ship lays on a programme of fun activities each day. Mrs. B and I don’t really do fun these days and we decided to pass on the demonstration of towel sculpturing that we’d already taken in during our previous cruise along the Nile. You can have too much fun…

Tallinn, birthplace of Skype! Home to Fat Margaret!

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We arrived in Estonia’s capital almost without noticing. This blog is enough of a geographer to have worked out in advance that the planned clockwise tour of the Baltic would mean that views of land were more likely to loom up on the left hand side (oh, alright, the port side) so that’s where I booked the cabin. Unfortunately the cruise was postponed for health reasons from last summer and I hadn’t twigged that the cruise would, on its new date, be in an anti-clockwise direction….

Anyway, Tallinn. Very accessible on foot from the ship, a delightful old town and another delightful lunch of beetroot soup and (I never thought I’d say this) assorted pickled herrings. Our highlight, and seemingly off the radar for most cruise passengers, was the Museum of  Occupations. Nothing to do with jobs, and everything to do with the battering that this small nation has taken through the centuries from waves of foreign invaders and enforced evacuations. WW2, amongst others, looked very different over there from the GB perspective that Mrs. Blog and I grew up with.

Next stop St. Petersburg and two days of organised excursions. We had been warned that Russian immigration officials don’t do “welcoming”. Showing our passports on landing to a smartly uniformed young officer, we struggled to comprehend what additional paperwork he wanted from us. In response to his third attempt to tell us that he needed to see our (excursion) “tickets”, Mrs. B uttered the words “Tickets! I thought you said chickens!” The world held its breath while the official risked a swift one-way trip to the gulags with just the hint of a smile.

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A traditional friendly hug and greeting from a Russian border official

 

I had visited the place forty years ago in its Leningrad days, making my own travel arrangements, and it seemed a little sad to be making even less contact with “real Russians” than under the previous regime. While permitted a “safe”, sanitised glimpse of the city and its magnificent architecture and palaces, we felt that we knew little more about Russia than when we arrived. We did learn that Ra Ra wasn’t Rasputin’s real first name and we even visited the palace where he was murdered. We spent a couple of hours in the Hermitage, including the Tsar’s winter palace, going “wow” a lot at the scale of the museum and its contents but, not being into Russian religious art nor Rubens’ portraits of repulsive children, it was a shame that we were not able to seek out some preferred exhibits for ourselves. And basically, I think most of us wanted to speed round to the dining room in the winter palace where the Provisional Government was “stormed” to mark the start of the Revolution in October 1917.

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But why would anyone want to harm this chap?

 

We were also taken to a number of spectacular churches in the city and told how, during the communist period, some had been turned into ice rinks or, in the case of St. Isaac’s Cathedral, a Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Now, that I would have fancied seeing.

Onshore days were now coming thick and fast. Next stop Helsinki, again in easy walking distance of the cruise terminal and one of the highlights of our holiday with its range of (mainly modern) architectural styles, lively markets and delicious lunches and cakes. How do they make potatoes seem so enticing? We took in the Sibelius monument, comprising over 600 hollow steel pipes welded together in a wavelike pattern; we were informed that the pipes had been fabricated elsewhere and erected in Situ, which we took to be a different Finnish town.

Stockholm followed, the next day. Another city I vaguely remembered from my hitchhiking days of yore. We visited the Nobel Museum in the old town (we take our holidays seriously) and tracked down the spot on a busy city centre shopping street where Sweden’s then prime minister, Olof Palme, was shot and killed in 1986. Having a reputation for outspoken opposition to imperialist and authoritarian regimes, and a fierce critic of Franco, Salazar, apartheid and the Hanoi bombings inter alia he was clearly the kind of politician that this blog could do business with. There has been no shortage of suspects.

Much against Mrs. Blog’s better judgement we went in search of the fabled surströmming , or soured herring, allegedly the world’s most foul-smelling foodstuff. According to German food critic and author Wolfgang Fassbender, “the biggest challenge when eating  surströmming is to vomit only after the first bite, as opposed to before.”

At the end of last year a cabin-owner in Norway called in a fermented herring expert from Sweden to “disarm” a 25-year-old can of surströmming, which he had become terrified would explode. Inge Hausen contacted an explosives expert from the Norwegian army in desperation after finding the can, which had swelled so much that it had lifted his roof by two centimetres. He was referred to Ruben Madsen of Sweden’s Surströmming Academy, who travelled to Norway to carry out the procedure, watched by crowds of journalists. “What I will do is first reduce the gas pressure – slowly, slowly, slowly, because it’s risky, and then open it,” explained Mr Madsen, who describes himself as “the king of surströmming”.

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It’s suppertime in Malmo, and the guests start arriving…

 

In the circumstances it may be just as well that we didn’t succeed in “sourcing” any of this tempting treat, though I will put an appropriate suggestion to our local branch of Waitrose. And then move house.

Our final shore visit turned out to be something of a damp squib as sea conditions were too rough to make a landing at Skagen on Denmark’s Jutland coast (and too rough, as we have seen, for the Danish lifeboat service), so we were treated to three successive days “at sea”, which tested the ingenuity of the ship’s Entertainments Manager. To avoid having to sign up for Body Sculpt Boot Camp, Napkin Artistry or Karaoke Power Hour, I eventually succumbed to a special one hour offer on Wi-Fi and, as I can see from my “search history”, I happily googled away my hour on “Rasputin”, “Olof Palme”, “cruiser Aurora”, “Alfred Nobel”, “Paavo Nurmi” and “Are there any famous Estonians?”

We arrived on English (Harwich) tarmac early on Saturday morning to find the car with a flat battery but eventually made it back to Sussex via “Constable country” (Flatford Mill, the Haywain and all that). We seem to have become institutionalised and are currently finding it hard to accept having to make our own cups of tea and not being able to choose from a range, not only of menus but of dining rooms. This will no doubt pass.  But I do think we need a holiday…

 

This blog warmly commends the staff and volunteers of Harwich’s Electric Palace cinema

http://www.electricpalace.com/

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Uncategorized

Myths and Miscellany

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It’s good to be properly mobile again after months of poorly-hip-based inertia. This blog headed to London (wherever you’re reading this, I expect you’ve heard of it) a week ago to see an exhibition at the Royal Academy called “100 Buildings, 100 Years”, promoted by the 20th Century Society with an accompanying coffee table book. As its title may suggest, this features a sample of buildings representing each year of the past century, some of which are no longer with us as they were demolished before society as a whole appreciated their value.

Founded as The Thirties Society, the 20th Century Society exists to safeguard the heritage of architecture and design in Britain from 1914 onwards. Its creation was in part a response to threats such as the fate of the art deco Firestone Tyre factory on London’s Great West Road, demolished over a bank holiday weekend in 1980 just before a preservation order was due to come into place.

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Now you see it, now you don’t…

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The achievements secured in this country in terms of recognition and conservation of our built heritage have not been reached without huge effort by individuals and organisations. (I recall from a visit to Miami Beach some years ago that its wonderful collection of art deco buildings was, similarly, saved only by its designation as a “US historic district”.)

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I’m pleased that I made it to the RA exhibition just before it closed but I confess that, for some of the featured buildings, I had to be told by the accompanying information boards just why they were special. But that’s true of any period. As followers of this blog may be aware, it loves art deco (remember its rapturous support for the restoration of Saltdean lido), whether or not it actually understands what it’s looking at.  I have to say, I had expected the display to be in, you know, some sort of gallery rather than what felt like the corridor to the toilets. Many of the photographs on display would probably be bigger in the coffee table book, and that can’t be right.

To Liverpool the following day, taking Mrs. Blog – without too much of a struggle – to see the Reds against West Ham. (How are you expected to fire up your team by singing “I’m forever blowing bubbles”? Just as well they can never come up against the All Blacks and their haka.)

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Quick lads, we need more bubbles…

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After the game, to meet friends in the Philharmonic “dining rooms” on Hope Street – an opportunity to combine very sociable chat with beer and the most ornate pub, and gents’ toilets, in the UK, so they say. Which says something about priorities.

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Ladies, eat your heart out…

 

The Friday night before the game, however, did bring out one of my (yes, OK dear, one of my many) failings. We ate well in an excellent Indian restaurant which we’d visited before on Liverpool’s waterfront. But a deadly combination of over-ordering, over-generous portions, Mrs. Blog’s determination to shed 14 stones in time for our Barbadian holiday, and my own inability to leave anything on my plate, delivered me into what is known in the Blog household as a food coma, scarcely capable of getting back unaided to our hotel. I apologise to those who will wish to remind me that there are others who could have made better use of this bonanza – I recall only too well being instructed at school that I should think of the starving millions and eat up my gruesome lunch: it was never made clear how this helped them.

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Please admire the determined grip on the wineglass…

Believe me, I have tried to leave stuff when full but it isn’t easy. Is that a post-war thing, imposed unwittingly by my parents? I feel the need to allocate blame, you understand, rather than admit greed.

My mother burnt many things into my “world view”. If my brother and I felt full before we’d quite finished our meal, we were told to leave the vegetables and just eat up the meat before being allowed to leave the table – I presume the meat was the part that had cost the money. We were obliged to eat up all the fat on the meat as that was supposedly the part with most of the goodness in, even if it made you feel sick (see previous blog about my cardiac history.) Some of my mother’s “life principles”, I now suspect, may not be true – eating up my crusts, for example, would make my hair curl (I think this was viewed as a positive) – while others are probably very wise (I am now congenitally incapable of running with scissors even if my life depended on it.) I have lost count of the number of comestibles which, I was assured, would put hairs on my chest – this has turned out to be true – but, on reflection, it’s as well Mum only had sons.

Could you help me out here please? I imagine there’s a helpful support group on the web but it would be good to know of any direct experience, to confirm or deny what I have faithfully carried with me since childhood:

  • Does eating tomato skins give you appendicitis?
  • Does too much butter cause jaundice?
  • Eating cheese late in the day automatically means nightmares, right?
  • If you fall asleep leaving the electric blanket on, you get piles?
  • You have to burp your rubber hot water bottle, otherwise, if you squeeze it in the night (and who doesn’t?), the hot water will force its way out? Does anyone know anybody to whom this has happened? Or have we all been suitably careful?
  • There were, I believe, a whole range of activities which would, if pursued, have stunted my growth, which was seen as undesirable.
  • It is dangerous to put on a silly face or cross your eyes on the grounds that, if the wind were to change, “you’d stick like it”.
  • Cracking your knuckles causes arthritis.
  • Chewing gum takes seven years to pass through your system.
  • Going out with your hair wet means you’ll catch a cold.
  • Sitting too close to the TV makes you go blind.

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Major surgery just waiting to happen…

I spent my childhood in fear of the consequences of these behaviours and have tried to lead my life accordingly. Mrs. Blog tells me that her mum insisted that, if she shaved her legs, it would encourage the hairs to grow back thicker – I don’t remember this one, but perhaps my mum never caught me at it.

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Should have listened…

I understand that I am not alone. Listening to the talkSPORT channel the other day, along, no doubt, with a million or so white van drivers, I heard of a boy who had been informed by his dad that the French writing on the side of the HP sauce bottle (“Cette sauce de haute qualite…”) explicitly warned on health grounds against its consumption by anyone below the age of 18 – but I expect the father may have had his own motivations for this one.

None of this, I suppose, really explains why I feel under so much pressure to clear my plate at every sitting. Perhaps Mrs. B has it right after all – I’m just greedy.

I will point out that, on the morning following my food coma at the Albert dock, I was in our hotel dining room bright and early to tackle the brunch that came as part of our hospitality package. Mrs. B said she just fancied a coffee but, hey, we’d already paid for the hotel spread. And you just have to knuckle down and battle through it, don’t you?

 

PS   I’ve just finished reading “Unexploded” by Alison Macleod. It contains a paragraph in which one of the main characters reads aloud an extract from Virginia Woolf’s “The Years” with more punctuation than you can shake a stick at. It finishes with the heroic construction:

…. a tide that comes twice a day without meaning?”’”’

How about that? I shall henceforth make it my life’s work to devise a sentence to beat that collection of five successive punctuation marks.

Or I may go and have a lie down. I think I may have just eaten too much…

 

 

 

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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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