Nothing to blog about …

manatpc

Not me, I have more hair

I let my blog run dry. I tried often, but I couldn’t find anything to blog about that didn’t sound contrite or repetitive. I just kept staring at the blank page, stood up from my desk and walked away. And then I did that again and again, several times over.

I probably played a game on my iPhone, or I read Twitter. Or Facebook. Whatever it was, it was almost certainly time-stealing, counter productive and procrastinating in nature. To be fair, in fleetingly brief periods of positivity, maybe I also considered going for a run, but then remembered my sore back and tight hamstrings and thought better of it.

Arriving at the conclusion that I couldn’t run on account of my ‘tighter-than-a-tourniquet’ hamstrings probably made me feel even more fed up, compounding the already fed up feeling of Blogger’s Block that kicked off this maudlin’ malaise in the first place.

Things then got worse.  I scratched an itch on my head and I felt dry skin. I burned my head skiing. That’s not a sentence you see very often.  I have hair, I definitely have hair. If someone were to describe me they might say … ‘Andy is average height, has a big fat blotchy red round moon face, a beer belly and grey hair‘. ‘Hair‘ would definitely be in there.  Admittedly it’s thinning a little, but still, I undoubtedly have hair, and that’s definitely noticeable when you see me, and yet I didn’t see one other single person with a burned scalp on that skiing trip.  Not one. Even bald men had unburned scalps, I kid you not.

Which begs the question, why did my scalp burn? It can’t have just been strong sun, or there would have been other casualties. Ergo, I must have a scalp problem. It’s probably sensitive. In fact if you were to say anything vaguely hurtful to my scalp, it would probably cry, storm-off to its bedroom, sulk, not come down for tea and withdraw from society for days, only to emerge wearing all black clothing and a sullen smile. It wouldn’t have a pale complexion though, it would have a bright red one.

So I can’t blog any more, I can’t run on account of my bad back and ‘steel-guitar-stringed’ hamstrings, and I can’t go out in daylight in case my scalp catches fire.

I have something else to confess. On my last day of skiing, in fact on my last downhill run, I tried to break my speed record, as recorded on my skiing app. My current top speed was 68.7km/h, and due to having a bit of an OCD thing especially around numbers, I decided I needed to break 70km/h. And I tried, but at around 69.993km/h I lost control, my left ski flew off to the left towards a group of young French people and I somersaulted a couple of times, banging my head in the process.

skier-crash

Not me, but you get the idea … #wearahelmet

If you’re reading my blog for the first time you might be mistaken for thinking I’m aged 17, but I’m in fact 52 and I really should know better. 70km/h isn’t even very impressive. I’m an awful skier and 60km/h is probably 10km/h beyond my best capabilities, so why I thought trying to achieve 70km/h on my last run on my last day, without a helmet, is so pathetically idiotic to beggar any semblance of vague belief.

Anyway, I did that, and I returned home with a few injuries but kept them to myself as it was all a little embarrassing. Nevertheless, when I awoke the next morning and couldn’t lift my neck off my pillow, and then felt very dizzy when I eventually did, I decided to see my GP.

I was diagnosed with whiplash. Thankfully no obvious or sinister signs of head trauma (scalp aside), but just as I was leaving, the GP asked if she could take my blood pressure. I obliged. It was high. She was concerned. She tested it again. Same.

So, I have blogging constipation, a fused series of vertebrae, tighter-than-a-snare-drum hamstrings, ultraviolet-shy scalp and arterial-busting blood pressure.

I think I’ve put weight on too.

 

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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.

 

 

 

The Zen of running …

I wasn’t going to go for a run today as it was tipping down with rain, or ‘pissing stair-rods’ as they say up north. I usually don’t need much of an excuse to avoid anything, I have a deep seated propensity to do bugger-all if the chance arises, but rather unusually today something inside nudged and cajoled me to get changed and head out.

This is what greeted me – this is the street outside my house, amusingly called Water Lane, and now we know why:

I do love running, and have been an on-off runner most of my life. I was fairly good at it at school, and particularly enjoyed cross-country which put me in a minority group of 1. I always enjoyed running ‘off-piste’, leaving the pavements and roads behind me as soon as I could, finding peace and solitude in whatever fields, footpaths and woodland areas I had access to.

I never consciously sought out the countryside, it just seemed to find me. It was like an instinct – birds fly south in winter, salmon swim upstream to lay their eggs, Andy turns off the road and into the fields as soon as he can. Running like this just feels right, it feels nice, I feel like I fit here. Running along a pavement, along a road, all those cars, all those people, it all feels stressful and that’s probably why I have never enjoyed cycling where you are consigned to the public roads. I can feel myself physically relax once I hop over the style, leaving the noise, pollution and people behind.

Today was muddy, seriously so, and at times it was difficult to stay upright, but it was hugely enjoyable. Within 5 minutes I was soaked through from head to toe and I had mud splattered everywhere and it felt bloody brilliant.

I ran for around an hour, tracing a loop across the fields, slipping and sliding through mud and puddles. I covered just over 5 miles so no records were in danger of being broken but that was fine, I wasn’t running for speed, I was running for running’s sake, running because I can, running because it feels good.

Running makes me feel happy, a pursuit, a hobby like no other in that respect. I love the solitude, the thinking time, the rhythm. It’s almost meditative, some call it ‘flow’, where you lose track of time and focus only on what you’re doing right now. The usual fears, anxieties, worries and concerns prevalent in everyday life are cast aside when you’re in ‘flow’. You hear nothing, you see nothing, you just are, you are 100% in the now, no regrets from the past, no fears for the future.

In flow, I just am.

The rain became heavier, the paths more sodden and boggy, but by now I no longer worried about finding dry spots, I just ran and even waded in parts. Fuck it.

I hadn’t a care in the world now I was in full flow. I didn’t want to stop and felt like I could run forever.

I do a lot of thinking whilst running, I process thoughts, often arriving back after a run with solutions to earlier, seemingly insurmountable problems of the day. They say sleep is the time most people process their thoughts, that’s why we dream, but I’m a poor sleeper, and perhaps running is my place to do the necessary care-taking of my mind’s thoughts? I certainly arrive back from a run feeling better, not just physically, but mentally and dare I say spiritually too.

I love running, running is my thing, my ‘flow’, my Zen. For you it may well be different – perhaps it’s reading, cooking, building model boats out of matchsticks. I don’t think it  matters what ‘it’ is, so long as you find your ‘it’.

For me my ‘it’ is definitely running, and if I’m fit enough to run I feel very lucky.

‘I might go for another run tomorrow, or perhaps the day after’, I think to myself, and so I turn for home before I’m really ready, because I want to do it all again very soon.

IMG_3482 (1)

My shoes

 

I warned you …

When I started this blog, way back in March 2012, I predicted, and in fact pronounced in the tagline of my blog, that it would become ” … tumbleweed within a month”.  I was wrong, it took just over a year before the tumbleweed rolled into town.

April 2013 was my last entry and it’s now November 2013, some 7 (seven) months on.  That’s how they do it on the football vidiprinter, for large numbers they spell the number (word) just in case you can’t believe your eyes.

Vidiprinter: Barnsley 7 (SEVEN) Huddersfield 1.  “Is that a ‘7’ or a ‘1’?  Was it a draw? Surely Barnsley didn’t score SEVEN did they??  But wait, if you look closer, they actually spelled it out S-E-V-E-N, it really is SEVEN-ONE to Barnsley!”

And that did in fact happen in November 1998, and this was the best goal of the match, no the season, no, ever:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UdBOgZPHLw  See, told you.

I tried to work out why that happened.  No, not Darren Barnard’s screaming volley, I will never understand why or how that ever happened, but rather why did I stop blogging? I had a year to get used to the fact my blog wasn’t going to set the world alight, and anyway my enjoyment came from the writing, not from the responses.  ‘Good job!’ I hear you heckle, but fair heckle, for indeed the responses were indeed spartan at best.  In fact if I had a penny for every response I ever got, I would have about 13p.  I’m guessing, I really haven’t counted but it’s a low number, certainly not one worthy of spelling out on the vidiprinter of “Blog response” scores on a Saturday afternoon, that’s for sure.

I changed jobs in February 2013, and then again in May 2013, and such changes are always quite significant.  On both occasions I had to adjust to commuting again after years of being a homeworker.  That was very significant.  Going from a 2-minute commute to a 4hr round trip commute certainly has an impact on one’s work/life balance.  Something had to give and I think the blog was probably a casualty, but is that really an excuse?  A long commute means a lot of down-time, a lot of sitting, surely there was time right there to do some blogging?  Damn you and your logic …

So what else changed?  Probably the biggest change (after commuting) was travelling.  My Feb 2013 job was entirely UK based, in stark contrast to the transatlantic jet setting life oft blogged about before.  In fact the May 2013 job was also UK based and involved no overseas travel .. until last month.  Last month involved a trip to New York. This month has seen trips to Germany, Poland and France, and more are planned. And here I am, blogging again.

I’ve said it before,  I love travel, in fact I said it at the very beginning of this blog. For sure I find it stressful, tiring, sometimes a little lonely, occasionally a bit scary, but I really do love it. It feels like it’s always meant to be there. My first ever job, way back in 1986, was an international job, and ever since I have gravitated towards international work.  It’s like the travelling awakens the blogger within.  Sitting on a BA plane isn’t that different from sitting on a First Capital Connect commuter train but it certainly feels different.  You feel part of a bigger world, you meet new people, you hear different news, encounter different problems.  You experience different cultures and hear fresh perspectives, and you see your self differently too, and I think it’s that essence of travel that sparks my desire to be more introspective and therefore to blog*, more than anything else. More than anything else in the whole wide world in fact.

*This blog was written on a Paris to London Eurostar train on 14th November, 2013.

Believing …

When I was a kid I genuinely thought I could influence the outcome of sporting events.  I used to watch a lot of test match cricket, and if England were doing badly, for example needed to take a wicket, I would convince myself I needed to leave the room for 5 minutes and it would happen. Sometimes it did happen, and if I had been having a wee when I was out of the room, I believed it was my wee that forced the outcome.

By the time of Headingley, 1981, when England did the unthinkable and came back from the brink to beat Australia I was drinking tea by the bucketful.  I did it for my country, pissing like a racehorse throughout the day, and I have to say I felt rather peeved when Botham and Willis grabbed all the headlines the next morning.

Same thing used to happen with football.  If it was a penalty against my team, I would shout loudly to anyone that would listen, “He is bound to score! 100% guaranteed!”, whereas if it was my team taking it, I would proclaim “He’s bound to miss! He never scores penalties!”.  This reverse psychology occasionally worked in effecting the right outcome.  Onlookers thought I was a fool.  “You were wrong!” they would shout.  But I knew they were just idiots.  Little did they know that I was applying reverse psychology to the penalty kickers to influence the outcome my way.  Of course sometimes I failed, and the result went against my team and I felt sick, but at least I looked knowledgeable by making the right call.  

The worst thing was if it was a big sporting event of national importance where I was no longer in control.  If it was perhaps a big Euro Finals game, maybe a semi-final match for England, where people generally not associated with football would become interested as the whole country readied itself for the match, and many people not normally associated with football would often say “Oh England should win comfortably tonight against Germany”, and I would look on angrily, muttering under my breath that this cockiness and arrogance was misplaced and was going to get us knocked out.  I would reply with a barrage of reasons why we would lose in the hope of cancelling out their ill-educated and misplaced optimism.  If England won, I had done it, if they lost, it was those cocky amateurs that spoiled the party for the entire nation.  

To think Stuart Pearce blasted high and wide because I hadn’t had time to shout “He will miss!”. He was crying and it was all my fault.  I barely slept a wink that night through guilt.  40+ years of hurt and still counting …

I know it feels silly and stupid but I still do it.  When Alastair Cook carried his bat through to 160 not out on Saturday, I was watching the match on my iPad.  I have a large wired HD TV in the lounge, but Sunday morning I felt I should continue to watch the final day on my 10″ iPad via dodgy WiFi.  I convinced myself that this was just silly superstition, and I settled down in front of the TV, only to see England fall apart, 5 wickets for 60 runs or something, who cares.  We lost, and I scolded myself, ‘If only I had watched on my iPad’ it might have been different.

Now let’s pause for a moment at this point and reflect on this.  I am fairly sure every single one of us would agree that such behaviour is misguided, illogical, juvenile and rather silly.  We’re all agreed, right?  We’ve probably all done it and then reprimanded ourselves afterwards. No?  Just me? 

I think today the establishment have a name for this condition.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s almost certainly a mental flaw, something related to paranoia perhaps.  To actually believe you can influence the outcome of an event 3,000 miles away in Ahmedabad from your settee in Buckinghamshire, simply by thought alone makes you look a bit silly. Fact.

I know it’s ridiculous, and as I get older it becomes even more pathetic.  It’s kind of endearing when an 8 yr old girl closes her eyes, crosses her fingers and makes a wish, but when a middle aged adult does it, it suggests mental health problems.  

And that’s because it makes no logical sense.  If my neighbour does the opposite to me, do we cancel each other out?  If Germany have 50,000 people doing it but England only have 49,999 people doing it, does Stuart ‘Psycho’ Pearce miss? Of course not.

Call it superstition, call it belief, but whatever it is, it’s certainly illogical.  I mean who do I think I am?  To have such talent I must, by deduction, be at the centre of the universe. I must actually be, or very closely connected to, God. There can be no other explanation unless you can put your faith into something we don’t yet understand. “We don’t know how it works, it just does” some might say, but that kind of suggests there is a God-like person, a superior something that we can’t comprehend so it all comes back to the God argument anyway.

I think I might have mentioned before that I have a problem with religion.  Try as I may I struggle to believe in a monotheistic God.  I’ve tried but I just can’t.  And yet, I look at nature, the wonder and absolute beauty of the universe, the sheer complexity of it all, how everything just works, everything comes together to make the world operate, and I think it can’t be entirely accidental, there has to be something preceding it all, something must be in control.  Yet believing in a monotheistic God doesn’t make any logical sense to me. 

I do admire, and genuinely respect religious people.  It must be nice to have that feeling of being overseen, of being protected.  I worry about death, I think many of us do, but religious people seem to be able to at least find peace with it, reconcile it somehow, and that must be great.  I just don’t know how they do it.  

I think my biggest failing is that when confronted by religion I try to reduce everything down to logic and science instead of just applying faith.  Take prayer.  I’m not sure of the strict OED definition but prayer seems to be about communication with your God, one to one, private communication, but I can’t see past the physics.  I don’t understand how He hears prayers? How does He handle 2 billion people all praying at once?  Do your palms have to be together, fingers pointing upwards? Or can you cross your fingers?  Must your hands be touching?  Must you ‘speak’ your prayer or can you ‘think’ it? And if you can think it, what about all my other not-so-nice thoughts, does He hear those too? Uh-oh.

And how do you sign off from a prayer?  I normally use the word ‘Cheers’ on email but that sounds a bit rude, a bit casual for Him.  And are prayers assessed? Is there a criteria one has to pass or are they all answered?  Actually, I know they’re not all answered because I have prayed and yet Barnsley still lost to Ipswich at Wembley, although I have to admit when Craig Hignett’s goal went in I did for a brief moment think that maybe, just maybe, someone was up there listening.

And what if people involved in a war pray for a successful outcome for their side?  What about people on the other side of the war praying for the opposite outcome?  Are we back to the Germany v England scenario where biggest vote counts?  

I see athletes on the starting line making the sign of the cross.  So how does that work?  What if all 8 people on the 100m start line all pray, who wins then?  And anyway I’ve seen footballers make the sign of the cross as they stepped onto the pitch and they were shit. 

So is there really that much difference in me thinking that having a wee causes a wicket at the cricket, versus me praying for that wicket to happen?

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?”
“Barnsley”
“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.

Hindsight is a mischievous thing

What do I have in common with Sir Ian Botham and Freddie Mercury I hear you ask?  To answer that we need to return to August 1986, but before that let’s travel briefly to the mid-70s.

I was a very skinny kid.  Growing up I was always conscious of my bandy legs, pencil thin and knobbly kneed they were.  Strong, muscled, masculine they weren’t.  I have a lingering memory of my mum coercing me to put shorts on during one particularly long, hot summer.  It could have been the heatwave of ’76, I can’t recall exactly, but I do remember that I was so self conscious of my twiggy extensions that I refused to take off my (probably flared) corduroy trousers when I went out to play.

And yet here I am, in middle age, now overweight, and now as conscious of my heftiness, as I was of my skinniness as a child.  I’m not the kind of person who gains and loses weight, I don’t yo-yo like some people do. To borrow a mathematical term, my weight has been monotonically increasing since the day I was born, give or take the odd diet or Delhi belly episode, here and there.

This led me to thinking therefore, that there must have been a point when I was the ideal weight, sometime between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  There must have been a moment where my physical stature was just about right.  I don’t want to con my readership by suggesting I was ever Adonis-like in any way, and I am sure even back then I was still unhappy about certain features, but of course what I never realised or appreciated, was that that was it, that was the best it was ever going to be for me.  Only hindsight offers me such a perspective.

I remember after I left university and started working in London, that I slowly started to become conscious of my weight.  The heavy boozing through my university years and the inevitable slowdown in physical activity that accompanied it, were starting to take their toll.  That was September 1986, ergo, I reckon August 1986 must have been when I was at my absolute physical peak.

I remember now, I went on holiday to the USA in August 1986.  We were 2 boys and 2 girls fresh out of university.  We travelled through Connecticut, New England, New Hampshire, Vermont, Montreal, Toronto, Chicago.  We visited Niagara, we took in a baseball game at the White Sox, we stayed in cheap motels, we stopped wherever and whenever we wanted and we partied long into the night.  I think one hot day on that trip I even took my t-shirt off, further evidence if needed that I was indeed at one with my physical self.  Happy days.

Also during that month in August 1986, when I was enjoying my peak, one of my boyhood heroes, Ian Botham (a man who ironically also battled with his weight later in his career), returned to test cricket after a ban for taking Cannabis.  He was recalled at The Oval against New Zealand, and with his second and 12th balls took the two wickets he needed to equal, and pass, Dennis Lillee’s then world record of 355 Test wickets.  Botham went on to play international cricket until 1992 but only collected another 30 or so wickets in those intervening 6 years.

August 1986 was also the month that saw Queen play their last live gig with Freddie Mercury as frontman.  Mercury’s final live performance with Queen took place on 9 August 1986 at Knebworth Park and which was rumoured to draw an attendance estimated to be as high as 300,000. 

So the answer to the opening conundrum is that Andy Ramsden, Ian Botham and Freddie Mercury all enjoyed their peak in August 1986. Although none of us knew it.  It’s only with the luxury of hindsight that we can look back and identify the peaks and the troughs.  At any point in real time, whether we feel low, or high, we never know if we have troughed or peaked until some time after the event.  Ah, the benefit of hindsight.  

‘Beefy’ probably thought he could take another 100 test wickets.  Freddie probably already had the lyrics laid down for his next album, and as I drove along the freeways of North America, fresh out of university, reading Jack Kerouac, listening to Joni Mitchell, contentedly stroking my six-pack with one hand whilst drinking a Michelob with the other, I certainly never believed for one moment that I had a 20 year career at BT waiting for me at Heathrow in just 2 weeks time, along with a monotonically increasing waistline that would continue to grow with me from that day onwards.

Sadly Freddie is no longer with us, but Ian and I continue to waddle on.  With life experience behind us instead of in front of us, we re-adjust and reset our goals to more realistic levels.  

Ian and I both still enjoy a glass or two of red wine (allegedly), and I don’t doubt that just as I occasionally sit back and think about that crazy, hot summer in North America, that Ian perhaps does the same, recalling the LBW of Jeff Crowe that gave him his world record 356th test wicket.  

If only we had known then what we know now, would we have followed different paths?

Carpe Diem.