What a difference six years makes …

We were on a family holiday in Spain for the London 2012 opening ceremony on 27th July. I’d never been a fan of such ‘spectaculars’ in the past, but we watched this one, gathered round a small TV in the sticky heat of a Spanish summer evening, and right there, right then, I was bitten by the London 2012 bug which ignited the most beautiful two weeks I can remember.

Not only was the sport breathtaking, the organisation fantastic, the drama unending, but much more than that was the feel-good factor that permeated the entire fabric of Great Britain.

There were the volunteers of course, the games makers, who were heroic. Visitors (guests) were welcomed at airports and guided across London, nay, across the whole country, to their sporting event of choice. Cultures mixed, laughed and cried together.

It might have only been two weeks but it felt like an entire summer. TeamGB exceeded all expectations, but the real heroes were the men and women who made it all possible, the Great British public and the millions of overseas visitors. During those two weeks Britain was a truly magical place to be. People smiled, helped, supported, cared, cried and celebrated together. We were a truly united nation and pride dripped from our shores.

Six years on from that opening ceremony and look at Britain now – a broken, dispirited nation divided and fractured by Brexit. Politicians on all sides placing personal interests before their country, and all sense of community, one-nation pulling together, has evaporated in the dry, oppressive heat of the summer of 2018.

Chris Hoy, Mo Farah, Bradley Wiggins and Jessica Ennis-Hill have been replaced in the headlines by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Theresa May and a disappointingly recalcitrant Jeremy Corbyn.

Community seems to have been replaced by disunity, pride by shame. Hatred is the new currency.

Bar-room talk these days isn’t of success and gold-medals, but about stockpiling medicines and food, of mile long queues at Dover, and instead of reaching out to visitors, welcoming them, helping them, our 2018 games makers are closing our doors not opening them. Visitors are no longer welcome and they’re beginning to understand – ‘they’ being the rest of the world, bar Donald Trump.

I want the spirit of 2012 back. Perhaps football didn’t manage to come home this summer, but maybe the pride in our nation can. Not the ugly pride of fascism, but rather pride borne from openness and collaboration.

The European Union is a coming together of countries which share common interests – a continent first and foremost, but also a union that strives to work together, to solve problems collaboratively, not to create more of them.

Six years on and I want my country back. I want to feel like this again.


Ken and Katerina Brexit – a tragic love story

Ken and Katerina Brexit had been together more than 45 years, having wed on 1st January 1973, but over recent years their relationship had become rather tumultuous and rocky.

Friends and family always thought it was a rather odd marriage in the first place. Ken Brexit, quintessentially British, happiest when at home watching TV and eating simple, British food – bangers and mash was his favourite – whereas Katerina Lautenschlager was always looking outwards and upwards, looking for new experiences and new horizons to explore. Katerina loved nothing more than to socialise, meet friends and to holiday on the continent where she truly felt at home. She loved to party, loved to meet new people, experience new cultures, try different foods – exotic, exciting foods like snails, frogs legs, calamari, paella – all things that quite frankly kept Ken awake at night, the stuff of nightmares.

And so when they tied the knot on Jan 1st 1973, there were a few raised eyebrows, but to their credit, Ken and Katerina were adamant they could make their marriage work, and work it did, for many years. For sure they argued, doesn’t everyone, but they found a way. Katerina admired and respected Ken’s traditional lifestyle, his love of home cooking, his yearning for routine and familiarity. Ken was Katerina’s anchor, always there for him, reliable and dependable, and in return Ken let Katerina do her own thing. She planned all their holidays to places like France, Spain, Italy, Greece and her homeland Germany, and Ken became a little more adventurous and definitely was a richer person as a result.

It was a relationship that worked and life was good, but then in 2016, this all started to change. After 43 years of marriage, Ken started to feel somewhat ill at ease, slightly unhappy in their relationship. He became rather mawkish over his bachelor days and he began to question whether his marriage was actually giving him all that he wanted from life. He started to become a little distant and somewhat awkward with Katerina, and so after some thinking, admittedly muddled thinking, and without much of a plan at all in fact, he sat Katerina down and reeled off a list of demands he wanted from their marriage going forward.

Basically he wanted more say and more control over matters. He wanted more holidays at home, on British shores, and whilst he was OK with a few foreign holidays, he insisted they be to British themed resorts where you could still get fish and chips and a decent pint. Of course Katerina rather baulked at this, but in the spirit of true partnership and compromise, she tried her best to accommodate at least some of his needs. She respected Ken’s desire to retain a strong sense of Britishness within his identity, but in return she wanted to also continue to enjoy her more cosmopolitan life too. She tried to meet him in the middle, but he flatly refused, and for more than a year they fought and bickered back and forth, trying hard to reach a compromise solution, but sadly it was all to no avail, and in the summer of that year – 23 June 2016 in fact – they formally agreed to separate.

When friends and family woke the following morning, no-one could believe the news. This came as a huge shock to everyone, a bolt from the blue. The very foundations of their long relationship had been torn asunder, and there was no going back. Ken was adamant this was what he wanted and there was nothing Katerina or anyone else could do or say (although everyone tried).

They agreed on an official divorce date – 29 March 2019 – and throughout the intervening two years as they approached D-day, they continued to live together whilst working out the details of their separation. But after more than 40 years where everything had been shared, this was proving very difficult indeed, and finances in particular became hugely contentious.

Katerina had always been the bread-winner, earning the big salary from her global marketing role which took her all over Europe. Ken, meanwhile, brought in a more modest but steady income from his civil service job in London. He’d been there forever, man and boy, his father worked there before him.

There were many details to be sorted, things they just hadn’t thought about. For example, Katerina had already booked their June 2019 summer cruise out of her salary, and as they would now have to cancel, she insisted Ken pay for his share. Ken refused.

And then there was the much thornier issue of the house and the mortgage which was in joint names. But again Ken refused to pay anything, for he had little money. He felt it was unfair that he should have to pay anything, after all he earned less, whereas Katerina earned shit loads.

‘But you have to pay your share, these are commitments you already made, and you want the divorce!’ Katerina kept insisting, but Ken steadfastly refused. Gradually things got worse, to the point where Ken was prepared to just walk away from the marriage, a ‘no-deal divorce’ as he coined it, thinking himself rather clever.

Nevertheless, in the end, he realised he was being unfair and with his back to the wall, even his friends were disagreeing with him, and with nothing else to negotiate, he finally agreed to pay all his outstanding financial debts.

‘Good’ Katerina said. ‘We’re making progress finally’.

But when Ken actually did the sums he realised his debts were rather large, much larger then he had expected. And when he looked at his income, he started to realise he had absolutely no way of paying these debts back. This was getting very messy, this wasn’t how it was meant to be.

Katerina insisted they only pragmatic thing to do was to sell their house. She would buy her own place out of her share of the proceeds, and suggested Ken do the same. But Ken couldn’t afford a house, not even a small one. In fact all he could afford was a rather small, damp looking bedsit on the high street, and so he came up with a cunning fallback plan – his plan B.

Ken suggested they continue to live in the same house, but sleep in separate rooms. And as Katerina earned the most, he said she should pay most of the bills because that was only fair. And as she was the better cook, it would be jolly decent of her if she continued to make Ken’s dinner each evening, but nothing too fancy and foreign, obviously.

Katerina listened to this and was gobsmacked, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

‘So let me get this right. You want a divorce, but you want us to continue living in the same house, under the same arrangements as we do currently, the only difference being that we sleep in different rooms, and I pay for everything?’ She added.

‘Yeah … and you cook tea as well’, he said. Katerina glowered at him. ‘And in return I’ll put the bins out on Monday morning’ he added, sheepishly.

‘You’re not taking this seriously Ken, you’re an idiot. You’re making this up as you go along. You have no plan at all. You want your independence yet you don’t want to leave, you want to do things your way yet you want me to do them for you, this is a fucking joke, you do realise that don’t you?’

‘Divorce, is Divorce’ he replied, crossing his arms crossly, wondering what the fuck that actually meant.

But Katerina had had enough. ‘Fine, if that’s how you want to play it.  But you need to know I have found someone else’

‘What?’ Ken said, looking rather wide-eyed and panicked.

‘I’ve found someone else. He’s called Luigi and it’s serious, he wants me to move in with him’

‘What the actual fuck?’ Ken stuttered.

‘Ken, this was your idea you insisted on the divorce! I have a life to live too you know. There are two sides to this and two sets of consequences’ she continued.

‘Are you and Luigi having sex?’

‘Oh grow up Ken. Anyway, haven’t you met anyone else yet?’ Katerina enquired.

‘No I bloody haven’t, believe me I’ve tried but I can’t find anyone. I did meet a girl at Tesco’s but she said I was too small-minded, what a cheek! It’s difficult, harder than I thought if I’m honest. Oh and I don’t want that bloody Luigi staying here!’

Katerina bit her tongue and remained calm. ‘OK so we have no choice. We will have to sell up and we will have to get our own places’, she insisted.

But this stark realisation panicked Ken. Suddenly reality smacked him across the face like a piece of his most favourite wet Grimsby cod …

‘But … I can’t afford my own place! … Oh Katerina what have we done’ he said forlornly. ‘I will miss you so much … I think … I love you Katerina … please don’t do this .. can’t we try and talk this through? Let’s not be too hasty, what do you say we give it another try?’ Ken was now coming across rather pathetically.

But Katerina had had enough, and true to her word, and their agreement, on 29th March, 2019, she walked out of their house and their relationship for the last time and drove into town to meet Luigi for a coffee. Afterwards they visited an art exhibition and then enjoyed a walk through the park before returning to Luigi’s apartment where they celebrated D-day by making love  to each other for the first time.

‘Happy Divorce Day’ said Luigi, stroking back Katerina’s hair and kissing her softly on her cheek.

Meanwhile, across town, at the same time as Katerina and Luigi were making love, Ken was finishing off a packet of Cheesy Wotsits for his tea, and with stained orange fingers, he watched low grade porn on his phone and wanked into a dirty sock as tears rolled down his lonely, British, gammon cheeks. As he sobbed and wanked simultaneously, he wondered what the fuck he had done with his life.

Ken Brexit was a fucking disaster of epic proportions, you really couldn’t make this shit up.




When we were young …

This amazing photograph, titled “Kids jumping onto mattresses” was taken by Tish Murtha in 1980, and rather beautifully encapsulates life growing up in urban Britain in the 70s/80s.

Youth Unemployment in Elswick

image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

Notwithstanding the kid in the foreground holding the ventriloquist’s dummy (wtf?), the rest of the scene could have been from any summer in my early youth growing up in  an industrial corner of Yorkshire. We did that kind of thing to entertain ourselves – we climbed trees, rummaged through quarries for pram wheels (with which we would make and then race trolleys), and we played in and around abandoned, or semi-built, houses and burned out cars.


Elswick Kids, image by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha, All rights reserved.

How times have changed. No longer would such a derelict house or rusty old car be left so blatantly abandoned and accessible like that. And no responsible, modern day parent would ever dream of letting their children loose, especially unsupervised, in such dangerous environments.

Through modern eyes, and with seemingly ever increasing levels of paranoia, we can see nothing but danger and neglect in these scenes, but with our 70s outlook we can see only fun, excitement, camaraderie and danger.

Back then, we climbed and fell out of trees, we played football on fields laden with broken glass strewn with (white) dog shit. And we jumped out of abandoned or derelict houses onto filthy, disgusting mattresses, before returning home, scruffy, scratched and grazed, starving hungry and totally and completely knackered. If it was Saturday we may have had a bath, otherwise our mums reluctantly washed our faces with a flannel, fed us a jam sandwich and sent us to bed. The next morning we would wake up, hurriedly get dressed and repeat it all over again, for six glorious weeks throughout the summer.

Should we return to those days? Of course not, that’s a bygone age and we have moved on. But looking back, none of us died, yet we did have immense fun and learned ever such a lot about the harsh realities and dangers of life, something I wonder if kids today in their sanitised, indoor, digitised cocoons, will ever get to experience?


The two faces of an English September …

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our lousy summer is over.

A summer that started so promisingly, with BBQs firing and drinks fizzing as far back as May. And back then we all thought this was it, this was going to be just like the summer of ’76 – that sizzling, scorching, dream of a summer when us kids played out for six long, glorious weeks, from dawn until dusk.

We think of ’76 every year, but like every other year, this one wasn’t to be. June was hotter than average, but wetter than average too, and this pattern repeated through July. August was cool and wet. Rain never seemed far away these past months.

And so here we are, the week that children, teachers and MPs return to school and work, the week our roads and public transport networks regain their familiar bloated, unkempt and overcrowded personas.

After a summer of over indulging, it’s time to can the booze, time to wheel out those empty promises of healthy eating and regular exercise in the safe knowledge they will be long discarded once again before October is out.

The clouds are forming, the first leaves are falling alongside the raindrops and the central heating is starting to creak and burp into life.

Deep breath ladies and gentleman, here we go.

Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions and endings. September is Janus with two faces, one looking back, reflecting on the summer that’s gone, one looking forward, excitedly planning for the autumn and winter to come.

Less than four months to Christmas, initial plans are afoot – who should we invite? what days shall we take off? what about new years eve?

Is that boiler actually working?

It’s time for jumpers, time for soups, casseroles and stews. Time for hot brews, time to snuggle down and watch TV, time for good BBC dramas, time for decent films at the cinema.

Sod the boiler, it’s time for log fires. Put the lawn mower in the shed, get out the rake. Time for rosy cheeks and wellington boots, time for long walks in scarves and gloves. Look at those leaves turning brown and gold. Let’s make a fire!

It’s September and it’s a bit shit outside. This is England and our beautiful autumn is just beginning.



Running to stand still …

Today was one of those special days when the sun came out and shone brightly all day long. Supermarkets were selling BBQ food by the skip load, lawnmowers were purring, the birds were singing and everyone appeared to be in a good mood.

And I had to go for a run. I just had to. There was no freewill involved, this was an executive order issued from upon high, and so I strapped on my lime green running shoes and I ran …

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Within seconds of starting my run I felt real joy, which sounds a little stupid and Hollywoodesque, but its the most accurate word I can come up with. It was like I was in sync with the world (there I go again). I felt the cool breeze on my skin (stop it), marvelled at the blue sky and cotton white clouds (no really, stop it), smelled the flowers in the fields (oh ffs), heard the birds in the trees (tra-la-la) and felt like an integral part of this sunny day, like I was somehow a piece of the jigsaw, instead of the jigsaw builder (better).

And that’s what running does to me, it’s what running does for me. It makes me feel whole. Running for me is an inclusive experience because it connects the dots and joins up the pieces. Running is the thread that binds me to the world, and for a few moments I stop being the passenger who watches the world go by, instead I become part of the world’s fabric.

I often consider myself a spectator. In a meeting room full of business people, I’m continually scanning the room, trying to work out or second guess people’s back stories, trying to see what lies behind their corporate facade. I’m the same at a party, on the outside looking in, searching for clues, gauging the atmosphere, trying to read between the lines. I float around the edges of conversations, a few feet above my own right shoulder, looking down on and witnessing events, but never really being part of them.

A consequence of such behaviour is a feeling of disengagement. I berate myself for not participating more in meetings, or for not chatting more at parties where everyone else appears so much more involved. Instead my mind appears distracted, in absentia, rarely in the ‘now’, usually to be found trying to guess the future or poring over the past.

Except when I’m running.  When I run I flow within the world (don’t go there). There is no third person at these times and no shoulder to sit on. The world is running with me and I’m running with the world. The world is running within me, not without me (another U2 lyric?).

Running won’t make me rich or make me a better person, but it does give me a sense of connectedness and purpose. Running opens up a brief window into a place where I suspect many luckier people already inhabit – people in meetings, people at parties, many of my friends and family, I suspect they’re all there already.

I wonder if a life can ever be lived wholly in flow.

In the meantime I look out of the window, somewhat disengaged, looking forward to my next run.

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This post was written on Sunday 9th April, hottest day of the year so far …

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

In July 2004, London was sitting in 4th place out of the 5 contenders to host the 2012 Olympic games, but just a year later, on 6th July, 2005, the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2012 Olympics to London.  I know exactly where I was at that moment. My eldest son was off school sick, he was tucked up in bed watching TV and I was in the room when a live news bulletin interrupted our viewing to announce the 2012 Olympics decision …

The London 2012 bid team had played an absolute blinder, and set in motion a series of events lasting more than seven years, culminating in one of the greatest Olympics ever held. It didn’t end with the campaigning, it was also in the planning, the preparation and the execution. Historically, olympic projects have always been beset with financial problems and delays, but somehow London 2012 was delivered on time (if not quite to budget), regenerating a part of London long forgotten to many, even those that lived in the UK and even those of us that worked in London.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Team GB athletes delivered the greatest athletic performance the country has ever seen.  For GB (~60 million population) to finish third in the medal table behind USA (>300 million) and China (>1.3 billion) was just staggering. It was as if the momentum of the successful bid and the enthusiasm the nation wore like an overcoat, somehow fuelled the athletes to also overachieve.

We had government funding and we had a willing public, not just the fans that filled every nook and cranny at every event, but also the army of volunteers who helped, supported and advised, from Heathrow in the west, all the way across town to Salford in the east.

Being British, national pride has often been tinged with guilt for me, as it often brings out an ugliness that seems to have its roots in our imperialistic past when Britannia was arrogant enough to believe she truly ruled the waves. The Union Jack has long been associated with extremism and thuggery, yet somehow at London 2012, the flag was reclaimed as simply the colours of a very proud nation.

London 2012 was a great example of humanity at its best and Britons at their finest. It wasn’t just about the medals, it was also about collaboration, about community, about belief and passion, about friendships, and most importantly about pride.

Fast forward four and a half years to 2016, the same people, but now divided, tangled up in a messy divorce from the EU. Much of that national pride has turned to anger and discord, and politics once again feels dirty and corrupt, no longer a lottery funded cause for the greater good. And unlike 2012, where we opened our borders and outstretched our arms to the world, post-Brexit, we seem to be once again pulling up the drawbridges and closing our doors, not just to outsiders, but to our neighbours too.

We seem to consume our daily news these days through gritted teeth and half closed eyes, wondering what on earth will happen next. We have a government which appears incompetent and ill prepared for Brexit and the challenges that lay ahead. Brexit seems to have beaten us down and created a disharmony that feels a world away from London 2012, and our 2012 passion seems lost in a difficult and uncertain 2016.

But it needn’t be this way.  National pride can, and should, be a force for good, free from any strain of politics, government or economic circumstance. And pride should never be about superiority. French people should be just as proud to be French, Americans to be American, Germans to be German, as I am to be British. London 2012 just reminded us British that we have a lot to be proud of, in the same way other nations should rightly be proud of their own achievements – achievements that should be openly shared and celebrated across a unified world, not envied in a divisive one.

Whatever happens in the coming months, post-Brexit, I’d like to think we in the UK can all regain our own sense of national pride, in whatever way seems fitting for us. Pride can be misplaced and misinterpreted, but it can also be a good thing when kept in context.

The following video encapsulates perfectly what pride meant around London 2012. It’s as funny and quirky as it is beautiful, and it’s joyously optimistic too. It portrays a better time perhaps, but one that can be reclaimed, even in today’s turbulent times.

And we don’t need our governments to do that for us, we can start doing that for ourselves, in whatever way feels right for us.

What have you done to make yourself proud today?




Foie-Gras footballers …

Granted this is the Daily Mail, but strip away their usual level of sinister spin and crass veneer and you can still see the very real problem facing English football today.

Raheem Sterling on return from Euro 2016

And I don’t mean to single out Raheem Sterling. I’m sure he’s just one example of the elite clique that represent English football at international level, but this story neatly sums up the current problem we seem to be facing in the English game.

The mere fact that these players earn £180,000 a week says everything you need to know. No human being on earth needs that kind of money. I’m pleased Raheem spent some of it on a home for his mum, a fine gesture, but to video it, to upload onto snapchat (if that’s what he did), and to glory in it just a day or two after returning from the Euros, says to me that he is totally disconnected from the grass roots game of football in this country.

Whilst the rest of us English are still smarting from the disappointing, rather pathetic and lacklustre exit from the Euros, leaving us watching balefully (pun intended) at other teams like Wales and Iceland playing with a genuine passion, a demonstrable camaraderie and togetherness from shirts 1 to 11, Raheem’s making this little video vignette of vulgarity and uploading it to social media.

Such behaviour suggests to me the current crop don’t really give a shit. £180,000 a week, why should they care about anything?  The life of these Premier League rockstars is now so far removed from reality it almost feels like fiction. And the Premier League is the breeding ground, fuelled by Murdoch’s Sky it has become a Hollywood freak show, a grotesque distortion of the grass roots game of football.

Below that we still have the football league – the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2 – 72 teams, the majority of which still play the game the way the fans want it played. Money talks down here too, and it’s far from perfect, but money talks to a far lesser degree and the product is far more representative of what many of us think of as real football.

As a regular watcher of League 1 football this season, did I ever watch Match of the Day with envy and wish my club were in the top flight? Well, yes I did, but that’s because I want my team to beat other teams week in, week out. I am like every other football fan anywhere in that respect, what I am saying is I don’t want the Premier League in its current form, an institution so distorted by money that it’s ruining our national game.

As far as I am concerned the Sky funded Premier League should be cut free, pushed into the Atlantic and floated off to Hollywood where it belongs. Let me be clear, I don’t want us to lose, nor do I have anything at all against, the current Premier League clubs. There’s just as much tradition, fanaticism and passionate loyalty at Everton, Manchester United and Arsenal as there is at Notts County, Huddersfield and Exeter City. There is no difference in the make up of a Liverpool fan and a Barnsley fan. This isn’t a rant against any clubs, or fans, it’s a rant at the system, one created and fuelled by greed, one that solely exists to line the pockets of the few.

Our national team should be filled with our best players, and our best players should earn a fair wage, but not a grotesque one. Our best players should be as normal as possible but also hard working, hungry whilst hopefully also being delightfully talented. Look again at Wales, at Iceland, look at Leicester City, look at what a club like Barnsley can achieve. What happened in ALL these cases is that a team was built around passion, hard work, teamwork and certainly intelligent and skilled management. Teams that care, comprised of players that care, teams that believe, team that can defeat the odds, teams so passionate they almost burst with pride.

That’s what I want from my England team. The answer most certainly isn’t yet another corporate regime change at the management level. We don’t need a different manager who still conforms to the same FA template as the previous 10 managers, all who similarly failed to breathe life into a disparate collection of overpaid, Premier League celebrities.

What we need is a change in the top league if that’s possible. We need to stop force feeding ever more gold sovereigns down the gullets of our spoilt starlets in an attempt to create an even richer blend of grotesque, Foie Gras football. Or if we must do that, if we can’t stop that happening, round them up and put them in a circus tent and let people watch them on a pay-per-view channel.

I want my England team to be formed of players genuinely proud to wear the shirt, players desperate to win,players that bleed, players that hurt like us whenever they lose, simply because they care. Just like us.




These boots were made for walking …

These Boots Were Made for Walking

The boots shown below are my walking boots. I bought them circa 1991, so long ago I forget their exact age, but I think they are dated ‘BC’ (before children). I was with my wife in the Yorkshire Dales, I think we were walking Malham Tarn that week, and we treated ourselves to brand new Scarpa walking boots.

It’s never a wise thing, some would say foolish, buying boots and walking in them straight-away, especially up and around Malham Tarn, but we were young and reckless back then. You’re meant to wear them in, gradual mileage at first, allowing them time to mould themselves to the unique shape of your feet to prevent chafing and blisters. We did none of that, we just put them on and walked and we were just fine.

In 1992 our first child was born and within 5 years we were a family of 5 and walking was soon a long forgotten pastime, replaced by visits to zoos, petting farms and the seaside. Nevertheless the boots made regular appearances over the years. Weekends in the country often involved a sturdy walk, carrying the kids in slings or backpacks.  Both sets of parents enjoyed walking and our boots always accompanied us on day-trips and weekend jaunts.

In 2005 I took my boots with me to the Himalayas for my charity Trek in India. We endured all weathers and all terrain and my Scarpas, already teenagers by then, behaved impeccably, never once letting in water or rubbing.  Friends with newer and fancier boots fell by the wayside whilst my trusty old Scarpas marched on proudly.

And then, in 2015, wild camping with friends in the Lake District, my 24 year old Scarpas marched their final journey. It was cold and very wet, we were trekking with 15kg rucksacks on our backs, often through boggy, sodden ground for 12 hours a day and I noticed my feet were wet, tired and blistered. In over 20 years they had protected my feet through all weathers, over many different terrains spanning North America, Europe and Asia, always uncomplaining, always doing their job impeccably and unflinchingly.

However, that wild camping weekend was to be their swansong. They could no longer keep out mother nature, they were tired and finally flagging. They had done their job and some. In an era when things aren’t designed to last, my Scarpas refused to comply, their ne’er say die attitude saw them through the most of the 90’s, all the 00’s and half the 10’s.

I have new walking boots now, and I like them, but I don’t yet love them. They’re just not my old Scarpas.

I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away and so I still have them now. In fact this photograph was taken this evening. They still sit out the back – wise, proud and loyal.

These boots weren’t just made for walking, they were made for me, and if it’s dry tomorrow I might just take them for one last jaunt down the lane, for old time’s sake.



2012 Olympics

I have to confess, I was an Olympic 2012 cynic.  Not from a sporting viewpoint as I’ve always loved live sport, but from a corporate standpoint.  I had my fingers badly burned in the ticket lottery last year.  I banked our family summer holiday on the Olympics, committing over £2,500 in ticket applications from opening ceremonies, gymnastics, rowing, swimming, equestrian, football through to the closing ceremony.  All I got was football at Coventry.  At first I put this down to bad luck but soon realised an awful lot of people who lived in North Buckinghamshire seemed to get tickets for non GB football at Coventry.  Hmmm.

And then of course there was all the furore leading up to the events about empty seats, about corporate greed, and I became a real cycnic, so much so that we booked a week in the sun that overlapped the opening ceremony of the Olympics and I didn’t really care.  Quite glad to be out of there, I thought.

Fortunately, our villa in Spain had a TV, and fortunately, we tuned in to watch the opening ceremony.  I was hooked.  It was beautifully done, a very British affair, with real humour, humility, style and pomp which we seem to do as a nation really, really well.

And the following day as we arrived home, the games started for real.  Rowing at Eton Dorney.  Eton where? Cycling through the streets of London out into the suburbs of Surrey and beyond.  Swimming, lots of swimming, and everywhere you turned there were crowds, huge crowds.  Gymnastics, beach volleyball in the West End!  The BBC TV transmissions were superb, every sport accessible live through multiple digital streams, excellent commentary, and those fans!

The first few days didn’t see too many medals for Team GB but that all changed midweek when the rowing finals started at Eton Dorney (ah yes, Eton Dorney, familiar by now), and the cycling began at the velodrome, and then on the Friday the athletics opened in the main stadium and Bang!, on your marks, get set, Go!

Gold medals seemed to be raining down on the home nations.  By the weekend we were third in the table which is amazing when you think about it.  Yes we are a fortunately wealthy nation who can invest in such non essential luxuries, but 21st in the world population wise, and we are third behind China and USA.  Quite unbelievable.  The country was going wild, but what was becoming interesting was that it wasn’t about the medals, it was all about the people, the individual athletes and their back stories.

I have been reduced to tears on several occasions over the last few days, seeing individuals who have sacrificed so much, people with such unrelenting dedication it makes you feel very humble indeed.  These weren’t famous people.  The majority of the people were unknown, they were running amongst us last year, 2 years ago, 3 years ago.  People who have been working a lifetime for this event.  People who sacrificed hedonism, not just for a weekend, but for a decade or more.  People who got up at 4am, day after day after day to train.  People with part-time jobs.  People who had to fundraise to get the money together for a second hand car to take them to the training ground.

People doing sports I know little of, participating in categories I barely recognise – Kirin, double sculls, repecharge, peloton, skeet, double trap – terms that come round every 4 years to most of us, but which are part of daily life for others.

To take just one example, I was utterly engaged and fascinated by the mens double trap – clay pigeon shooting to you and me.  The pressure on those guys to hit those discs in less than 0.25 secs, time after time, the amazing talent required, the hours and days and months and years of dedication and training.  And then the ultimate pressure is mind boggling.  Imagine training for four years for an event, sacrificing so much, to find yourself in the final, to find yourself one shot away away from Gold, as did Peter Wilson.  Imagine lifting that rifle, preparing to shoot for the release of the discs that would change your future from hereonin.  Unbelievable.  And the release of pressure afterwards is the end of four years of hard work, or in some cases over a decade of hard work.  An easy sentence to write but just imagine that.  We could all run our socks off on that Olympic track in London 2012, but how many of us could get up on Christmas day at 4am to go swimming, or go for a run?  How many of us could do that day after day after day, foregoing parties, take-aways, booze and all the other temptations to which most of us succumb?

The tears and emotion are because there are no people more deserving than Olympians.  The tip of the iceberg is August 2012, that’s what we get to see, but when we then hear the back stories, so excellently pieced together by the BBC, we see the other 99% of the iceberg and it’s that which makes us cry, because we see the true, naked human spirit in all its glory, and it’s just beautiful.

We see sporting excellence every week, but often its ugly.  Premiership football is the best and worst example.  Undoubtedly these footballers have innate and profound talent, but its innately unpleasant.  People who have been force fed money and wealth all their adult lives, people who abuse their position, who get drunk and smash up bars, who rape, cheat, abuse, bully.

Alan Campbell, who won bronze in the single sculls rowing, was pushing tractor tyres up a muddy hill in Coleraine on Boxing Day.  No-one outside of the sport knew of him.  He wasn’t earning vast amounts of money for pushing those tyres up that hill, in fact it was probably costing him money.  Contrast that with the Premiership teams playing football on Boxing Day, driven to the stadium in coaches, listening to ‘drum n bass’ on their Dr Dre Beats headsets as they exit the coach flanked by security gurads as they are whisked into the changing rooms.  Players who refuse to come off the bench as a sub because they are sulking as they didn’t get to start the game.

Don’t get me wrong, there are superstar athletes in Team GB too, and there are no better examples of this than Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah.  Perhaps not as wealthy as the footballers, but almost as famous.  Yet what a contrast.  Jessica Ennis is beautiful, and I don’t just mean physically (although she is that too), but she has such charm, such grace.  She makes time for people, she is modest, self effacing, totally charming but also passionate and successful. It can be done.  Mo Farah is no different, a beautiful man.  The image of Mo repeatedly slapping his head after winning the 10km last night is so humbling.  He couldn’t believe it, and there it was for all the world to see in all it’s raw glory.  Contrast that to Maradonna smacked off his tits on coke screaming into the camera after scoring in the World Cup, overweight and bloated on drugs.  Or Joey Barton kicking a player to the ground and swinging out with his fists after receiving yet another red card for physical abuse.

I didn’t want this to be an indictment of football, but it helps provide a contrast to all that’s wonderful about the Olympics.  I’m a real convert from the cynic I was two weeks ago.  My corporate cynicism still exists but has been swamped by the emotion of the games and most importantly the athletes that make it all happen.  And of course its not just Team GB as there are beautiful examples everywhere you turn, from Michael Phelps superhuman achievements, to Usain Bolt, to the new generation of athletes coming along like Missy Franklin.

But I don’t think I have ever seen my nation get together like this, certainly helped by the fact we are Team GB, not individual countries, but it’s really underpinned by the fact that we are watching the human spirit in its most beautiful form.  We can all relate to these people in ways we will never be able to relate to Wayne Rooney.

I would give anything to be competing in London 2012, or any other Olympics for that matter.  Ever since I was a child I have had a dream, always of me entering the stadium at the end of the marathon, in second place, the roar of the crowd as I entered the stadium making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end as I closed in on the leader, overtaking him in the home straight to win gold.

I still have that dream now, 40 years on.  It will never happen, it can never happen,  It never happened.  That makes me a little bit sad. But then I look at the other qualities people like Mo Farah, Peter Wilson, Becky Adlington, Missy Franklin, Chris Hoy, Michael Phelps, Vicky Pendleton and Jess Ennis have – humility, passion, respect, dedication, commitment, all qualities which don’t have to be just consigned to the sports field.  They can apply in equal measure to all of us, in any, and every, walk of life.

The Olympics are beautiful.  I contend there is no other event on the planet that comes close to showing all of us how life should be lived.  It’s surely the greatest spectacle ever.  And if we can all take something from watching these heroes, it should be that we can all become slightly better citizens of this planet.  We can all watch and learn from what’s happening here.  Because it’s all just so fucking beautiful.

A sense of belonging …

The first 11 years of my life were fairly straightforward.  I was born in the upstairs bedroom of the house I grew up in for the first 14 years of my life.  My Junior school was in the same village and so everything was simple as all my friends were also living on my street (or very close to it).

Then, aged 11, I switched to my local Comprehensive which was in a neighbouring village, and for the first time I encountered the ‘us and them’ tribal divisions that affect us all at some point or other in our lives.  To varying degrees obviously.

It’s true to say there was a considerable degree of animosity between the local Kendray kids and us  Ardsley kids from the east, who were now invading their territory.  Not only were we outsiders but we were posh too.  Posh is a very relative term, especially in Barnsley, and like most towns, it had its good and bad parts.  Kendray was undoubtedly one of the rougher parts, separated from Ardsley by the daftest roundabout in the whole of Christendom, called Stairfoot.  Stairfoot is in a valley, Ardsley up one side, Kendray up t’other, hence the place in the middle was at the foot of the stairs, at foot o’t stairs, Stairfoot.  Try it one day, you won’t be disappointed.

Anyway, us Ardsley kids were not made to feel very welcome.  To walk to school meant walking through the local council estate and regular kickings were handed out by the locals.  I remember my older brother was the recipient of a fairly brutal shoeing, and I too ended up one year in a fight with a local kid (he was small) and I had to be driven home by Mr Earnshaw the metalwork teacher on account of the gang waiting for me at the school gates at 4pm.  I slept fitfully that night and for many nights thereafter.

Games/PE was the scariest of all.  I remember having Wednesday-itis, a stomach complaint every Wednesday accompanied by a rash on my back.  Dr Matuk put it down to not very much and for weeks I just had to endure this puzzling ailment that recurred every Wednesday and subsided by Thursday.  We had games on Wednesdays and I didn’t enjoy it much.

Then a funny thing happened.  Around my third year at the school, my mum and dad reminded me we had relatives in Kendray.  A cousin of my dads had a boy who went to my school.  He was in the year above me, but most importantly of all he was cock of the year.  I appreciate ‘cock of the year’ might not translate far outside of the S70 postcode.  It doesn’t refer to the size of your nob, but to the best fighter.

Cock, as in rooster, I guess, and like wild animals, we had a pecking order, and I swear that every kid knew their place within the year.  I knew who was above and who was below.  Put a new horse in a field of horses and you will observe the same behaviour.  The new horse will be attacked, kicked and bullied until finally the pecking order is worked out and order is once again returned to the field.

I have mentioned this to my kids and they thankfully look at me blankly.  When I’ve asked my boys who is the best fighter at school they don’t have a clue and think me very odd for asking it, but back then it meant everything.  You knew your place and you stuck with it.  I wasn’t very high up on the pecking order and relied on my wit and charm for survival.  This might go some way to explaining why I was driven home by the metalwork teacher.

Anyway, my cock of the year cousin took to me.  I went to his for lunch some days, and I walked with puffed out chest through streets previously well and truly out of bounds to such poncey posh puffs as I.  He was the coolest kid on the planet as far as I was concerned and I immediately became untouchable.  I had a lucky escape.  It was a truly grim school and a difficult five years for everyone there, kids and teachers alike.  When I look back and recall some of the appalling bullying dished out by the kids and sometimes by some of the teachers, I shudder.  I was no better than any other kid, I knew my place and whilst I wasn’t a physical bully, I made my fair share of jokes to the detriment of others.  If you were the last kid to be picked when football teams were created, your life was shit.  I often wonder what happened to some of the less fortunate kids at that school.  Kendray Oaks school was knocked down and no longer exists.

I then went to sixth form in Barnsley town centre.  It was a lovely old college in a very nice part of town, and it was a college where kids from all over Barnsley came to do A levels.  The net was now cast wider.  There wasn’t any of the bullying thankfully and because it was effectively a neutral venue we were all in it together.  I enjoyed sixth form but was shocked at how hard A levels were. At school I had been one of the clever ones but this meant I was a target, not just posh but a smart-arse too, thank God for cousin Nige.   I didn’t revise much though.  I thought I had to beat the competition, be better than the others and I would succeed, and this flawed logic gave me a false sense of perspective which was exposed as soon as I got to sixth form as I very quickly realised there were lots of kids way smarter than I was.  I had to work hard for my A levels and felt I scraped through.

I then went to University in Colchester, Essex.  It’s about 1 million miles from Barnsley to Colchester.  You cross about 37 cultures and 53 languages to reach it, and when I arrived I quickly experienced the “Eeh-bah-gum /Burnley Effect”.  That’s my term, but one I guarantee anyone from Barnsley has experienced in some shape or other when down south.  It goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”
“Eeh-bah-gum Baaaaarnsley!  Dickie Bird!  I’ve been to Turf Moor once”
“Turf Moor is Burnley”
“I know”
“I’m from Barnsley”
“Oh is it different?”

I also became very self-conscious whenever I spoke at University.  I was like a pet that was brought out to perform at parties:

“Hey Ramsden, what time is your maths lecture tomorrow?”
“9 while 10, why?”
“Pffft! When is it? Say it again!”
“9 while 10”

It turns out that that the word ‘while’ functions both as a noun and as a subordinating conjunction, it’s meaning varying largely by region and dialect.  You fucking bet it does.

I saw nothing wrong with saying “while” instead of “until”.  When I said “until” I felt like a big toffee nosed Jess.  It didn’t sit well in my mouth and I couldn’t help it.  It’s the same reason why today I still can’t say “Waitrose” except as “Way’t’rose” with a very softened, almost non existent “t”.  I’m told I sound common but if I say “Waitrose” in what I would grudgingly say is in fact the correct way with a very loud and clear T sound in the middle, it sounds so wrong coming from me.  I’m sorry but I do sound gay.

University was hard, I was so out of my depth intellectually.  My O levels had looked good at the time, but not when put in context nationally and I didn’t have the tools, the grounding, I needed.  I chose to study maths which just exposed my gulf in knowledge even more widely.

Somehow I bluffed my way through and I then took a job in London.  Northern monkey done good.  By now my accent had softened somewhat but there was always plenty to talk about when northern lad was around.  Usually by ignorant southern twats who knew no better, but as London was their ‘turf’, it was OK.

I often returned home to Barnsley, usually to coincide with a home game and that meant meeting up with mates for a pint before the match.

“What thar doin nar Rammo?” [For ‘Rammo’ was my nickname, long before Rambo was conceived]
“I’m living in London”
“Eyup fucking hell thar talks dead posh theee nar!”

I couldn’t win, I was an outsider at home, and an outsider at home.  I didn’t really fit anywhere any more.  I always felt, and always have felt northern, particularly Yorkshire.

My favourite football chant of all time is the very tribal “Yorkshire! Yorkshire! Yorkshire!” which is sung at Oakwell whenever a non Yorkshire team comes-a-calling.  We usually sing it when our backs are against the wall, which means it gets plenty of airings, and I love it because its exactly what I feel.  It’s childish, pointless, culturally unsavoury but I just love it and make no apologies for it, it’s in my DNA.

But here I was in Barnsley, singing chants about Yorkshire, living in London, yet feeling slightly out of place in both.

Oakwell is Barnsley’s football ground and even if the locals think I talk ‘dead posh nar’ it will always have a special place in my heart.  I first went there in 1972 when I was 7 and I have been there every year since.  This means it’s the oldest place I still visit.  We moved from my old house in ’79 so Oakwell is the one and only constant (place) that still exists today.  It’s the last link to my childhood.

It’s also special because my dad took me to Oakwell, and for 30-odd years that became our meeting place.  I often went several months without going home but I would sometimes drive back up north for a midweek evening game, always my favourite with the floodlights on.  I would pick up dad, we would go for a pint, watch Barnsley lose, go for another pint, listen to Praise or Grumble on Radio Sheffield, then head home for a brew with Mum before I headed back down the M1.

Saturday 19th April, 2008.  Dad wasn’t very well.  I had a season ticket in The Ponty End that year for some reason.  We were on the verge of relegation and due to play Leicester.  My family and I were up visiting and my dad wanted to go to the game even though he wasn’t feeling too great, so my mum, dad, my kids and my wife, all got tickets in the East Stand lower, near the corner flag, Ponty End.

I could see them from my seat.  It was an awful game and we were losing and I looked over at Dad.  He looked tiny and old and I remember it really shocking me.  He was seated in what was known as the old Brewery Stand when I first went in 1972, standing room only back then of course.  I think I knew he was seriously ill and I remember feeling really pissed off and angry that he was very probably going to die soon, and I really didn’t want his last memory of BFC to be associated with relegation.

We were never going to score, but seconds before the game ended there was that murmur in the crowd, difficult to describe, but anyone who has ever been to an end of season game with relegation or promotion looming, will know only too well.  Blokes with radios glued to their ears – a score had come in that someone else was losing.  I forgot who it was, but it meant that even if we lost we would most likely stay up.  We lost and we stayed up, and I remember looking across at my dad and smiling.  He stood up and clapped at the end.  That was as close as he ever got to unbridled ecstasy and joy.

That was my dad’s last ever game and I miss him most whenever I’m at Oakwell.  I always see him in the crowd, I always miss listening to Praise or Grumble with him in the car after, and I certainly miss having a pint with him.  And if Barnsley ever do become rich and move to a new flat-packed stadium on the edge of town, the fate of so many clubs these days, then I will be absolutely gutted.  I love Oakwell me, warts n’all.

My favourite ‘al-fresco’ toilet ever.  Behind the West Stand, Oakwell.

Bit of a departure from my original theme, but the point I was trying to make was that I have never felt I truly fit in anywhere since I was 11.  I don’t mean that in a ‘oh woe is me’ way, it’s just an observation and probably everyone has their own spin on this line unless you have lived in a cave all your life.

I’m sat writing this in Texas, I just got back from breakfast:

“Good morning sir, what can I get for you today!”
“A cup of tea please”
“Sure, hey is that a British accent I hear?”
“Yes I’m from Barnsley”
“Eeh bah gum they sure miss Owen Coyle at Turf Moor these days!”

I made the last line up.