Friday, 21 December 2012

Guns and Roses...

Picture courtesy Dipity.com (via Google Images)
I may be wrong, but the Connecticut massacre, on Friday, 14th December 2012, seems to have had even more publicity than many previous mass killings. Perhaps it is because of the fact that this has involved kindergarten infants and their bravely protective teachers, and that it has painfully and poignantly made us all feel the grief to a much greater degree. I felt myself choking up in my own grief, thinking all the while of my own grandchildren, whilst I watched some documentary background on the whole thing the other night.

Equally, but perhaps more uncomfortably, it is not difficult to understand the utterly heart-wrenching position of some parents, who, in life's random deck of cards, are dealt the hand of a child with a mental illness and all the side effects of this condition, both on the child and on their family and wider community. The USA's crisis with mental illness is also easy to understand, and is clearly illustrated in this article, but it is not just confined to the USA. It is everywhere in the world.


The response to the Connecticut killings has, as ever, polarised commentators, politicians arguments and discussion. The anti- versus the pro-gun lobbies are lost in their own arguments about whether or not tighter regulation of firearms is a relevant solution. It does not surprise me, however, that not enough has been made of the discussion about mental illness, quite possibly because it is so often a taboo subject, particularly amongst the better educated and more affluent middle class. 


Let me explain that statement. 


When I point a finger at the 'middle classes' I do so with reservation, but not to be 'accusing', and not just as a reference to the natural process of denial, in a social class for which mental issues could be deemed an 'inconvenience'. There are of course those who have had to endure any number of experiences with children suffering from some form of mental illness, whether this be a less severe form of depression or the most serious mental illness such as that - and this is an assumption, prior to the official conclusion - which it would seem very likely affected the ill-fated young man responsible for the killings in Connecticut. I would, in fact, argue that mental illness knows no class boundaries. It is just as likely, if not more so, to affect the less well educated, the less privileged in society. However, I defer to the educated, affluent middle class, because they are more likely to have the ability to lobby, to articulate and to influence the powers that be, to help create a seed change in attitudes toward mental illness. It is only our denial, our inability to cope with mental illness, that causes this block to genuine progress. Yes, it is very hard to come to terms with mental illness, when it is so close to home.


If I were to summarise my feelings about this disaster, it would be in this way... 

Unlike the central theme of media coverage, which seems to have been focussed solely on the gun laws, I maintain that there is no one single cause that needs to be looked at; no one single course of action, on its own, that needs to be taken in response to Connecticut and all the other killings; there are, in fact, several things that need to happen in parallel. Let me propose at least two of those things.


The first is not only that more resource and education is needed to create a wider and more thorough public awareness, understanding and, perhaps the most important objective of all, acceptance that mental illness is a fact of life. Whilst improving how everyone in society can learn to cope with mental illness is very important, to improve it's treatment by the medical professions is equally so. I have personally witnessed the best signs of the use of CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) lead crisis teams to support the individual as well as their family, which is a logical extension of an holistic approach to treatment that enables, empowers the service user as well as the people close to them to assist in the healing process and thereby reduce dependence on the pharmacy as well as the paid professionals. It would appear, on the face of it, that there is a gradual change in the establishment's attitude to the treatment of mental illness, although, from some perspectives, there is still a long way to go! The following article, written and presented in his previous life by friend and Poet, Peter Wilkin, is a revelation to me: "A Feminine Economy of Caring: Gifts and Wrapping". There is also a follow-up article, by Peter Wilkin, that appeals to the poetic as well as to the logical spiritVale of tears or Vale of Soulmaking? Keats’ gnostic vision as an alternative to mainstream mental healthcare’. 


There is another trend emerging. Organisations that promote understanding of mental illness are gaining an increasing presence, particularly with the aid of social media. There are a number of front running organisations like Rethink as well as personalities like Alastair Campbell (search for articles in his blog on the subject of 'mental health' and you'll find plenty), successfully raising public awareness in this way. 


Meanwhile, back in Newtown, Connecticut...


The second thing that must happen, whether or not you are a supporter of the Second Amendment (that part of the United States' Bill of Rights, which protects the rights of people to keep and bear arms), is an old favourite logical argument of mine. Given my scientific training, if you have any understanding at all of the statistical concepts of chance, probability and risk, it cannot be denied, that, whilst tighter firearm regulations will not necessarily remove the risk of these incidents altogether, the irrefutable logic for me is that reducing the ability for everyone to get hold of guns and ammunition, restricting access to firearms, simply must result in a reduction of the probability, the risk of such incidents recurring in the future. The number of firearms in circulation and available to be used, must be proportional to the number of victims of gun crime. If this is not obvious, then please explain to me why? It is a matter of proportion: getting things in proportion to their potential effect on an outcome.


It is unlikely to be coincidence that, following a massacre, at the Scottish Primary School in Dunblane, of sixteen infants and one adult in March, 1996, and the banning in the UK, one year later of handguns, particularly those used in this incident, which were magazine loading semi-automatic weapons, no subsequent such incidents, at least at a school, have recurred. The only subsequent incident, the Cumbria shootings in 2010, was marked by a different set of circumstances, not involving school children, albeit still using guns, but not handguns.


I therefore do not believe that tighter restriction in the availability and ownership of firearms cannot enable a reduction in the risk of such incidents recurring in the United States. Nor can I believe that a sizeable number of United States citizens, particularly parents of small children, don't feel the same way. It may only be those, perhaps with a vested interest in the firearms industry (understandable), as well as those absorbed by the dogma and 'tradition' and almost sacramental belief in the Second Amendment, who oppose such restrictions, and who, I believe, are blinded by that conviction. The Second Amendment, like any law or regulation, anywhere in the world, was written and constituted by people; it can by altered, like any law in any land, by people.


It is people, their mental health, safety and security of their families and communities, which are the most important features of civilised life on earth. So come on, Mr President Obama, have courage to bring about significant change; sow the seeds of such change as could have far reaching consequences, for the benefit of mankind. Let us put down the guns and pick up the red rose 
that represents the love of humanity. 

(The poem, "Rose Petal", which I wrote eighteen months ago, in response to another, but different signal, seems more than particularly poignant in light of these circumstances).


Friday, 26 October 2012

A Tribute to Our Paralympians

Lest we forget their achievements...

Another poetic collaboration from my friends, the very special Grass Roots Poetry Group.

Enjoy

Saturday, 20 October 2012

There's some Poetic Creativity Going On...

For those interested in what's going on in my world of poetry, here are a few links: -

My Poetry Library is my own library of poetry and occasionally that of my poet friends

dVerse ~ Poets Pub is a meeting place for poets, which has regular events and prompts

New World Creative Union that great supportive nexus of artistic creativity

My Favourite Australian Poet - Marsha Berry

My Favourite New York Poet - Jacqueline Dick

My Favourite New York State Poet - Joe Hesch

My Favourite Dutch-born, South African, German Poet - Quirina Roode-Gutzmer

My Favourite South African Poet - Craig Morris (he's also a Grassland Scientist)

My Favourite Welsh Poet - Shan Ellis-Williams

My Favourite English Poets - Abigail Baker, Peter Wilkin & Louise Hastings

My Favourite Canadian Poet - Natasha Head

My Favourite All-round Creative Nexus - from the USA, Mr Roger Allen Baut

My Favourite writer, supporter, indulger in intellectual debate and all-round good person - Eden Baylee

And there are dozens more to mention... in due course

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A New Song for Torquay United Fans

In the wake of Tuesday night's fantastic result against the Shots...

(To be sung to the tune of Que Sera, Sera)

Que nil-three, nil-three
Whatever will be, will be
Your future will see, Torquay
Que nil-three, nil-three!

Que one-three, one-three
Whatever will be, will be
Your future will see, Torquay
Que one-three, one-three!

Que two-three, two-three
Whatever will be, will be
Your future will see, Torquay
Que two-three, two-three!

Que three-three, three-three
Whatever will be, will be
Your future will see, Torquay
Que three-three, three-three!

Que FOUR-THREE, FOUR-THREE
Whatever will be, will be
Your future will see, Torquay
Que FOUR-THREE, FOUR-THREE! 
Que FOUR-THREE, FOUR-THREEEEEEE!


(Repeat the last verse as many times as you like)

And don't tell me that it's too long for you, because I know Torquay fans have the biggest hearts, the largest lungs and the loudest voices in the whole of the football league!

You are simply the best!

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Every Name That Begins with a 'K'... and some more

Inside Main Stage 1 at Shrewsbury Folk Festival
So, what's all this, then?

I've always wondered what it would be like going to a music festival, taking a long holiday weekend, and roughing it under canvass! More's the point, doing the one thing we always objectively avoid, the very habit of many that fills me with abject horror: going out and driving any distance on the roads of Britain on a Bank Holiday weekend! Well I should cry out loud: never say die, because we did all of these things last weekend!



The Wee Tent
The Shrewsbury Folk Festival did live up to my expectations, but there are a couple of exceptions: (i) a minor one really, but the only two toilet 'wagons' on Campsite 2, where we pitched our tent, broke down for twelve hours, although, when they were operational, they were still kept remarkably clean throughout, which must be as much of a tribute to those of us who used them as to those who maintained them!  (ii) More of a major issue, I'm afraid; there is a notable tendency for some sound engineers to think that folk musicians, like rock musicians, need to rattle the brains of their audiences by Richter scale booming drum and base beats - those that we would not expect this from, namely Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart, in particular, did manage to avoid this sin to keep the sound pure, so that each instrument, the voices and every word were clear and audible, so as to prove that it can be done and still leave their audience in awe. This tendency leaves me in no doubt that the greater the 'noise', the lesser the quality, not just of the sound itself, but of the performers, at least that is the clear statement it makes. Performers themselves do have control over this and, if they don't, then they should focus their resources on getting control, because it is really an unacceptable and sometimes intolerable assault on the hearing; many people whom we spoke with about this were in strong agreement. So, please, Shrewsbury Folk Festival people, will you take note for next year? 

There was a third exception that slightly marred our enjoyment of the weekend, that my wife's back 'went' just before the weekend, so she was suffering a bit. However, she soldiered on through the whole festival very 'womanfully', for which effort I am very grateful. 


DADGAD Workshop
This was a very enjoyable weekend, not least because of the simple arrangements of camping and eating on site, seeing many additional aspects of folk, including a veritable jamboree of country dance and many related activities in the so-called 'Village Square' of the festival's site. We saw all the musicians we came to see, sadly save one, K T Tunstall, who suffered a bereavement and had to cancel, and we became newly aware of several more musicians and bands worthy of note. Musical workshops abounded everywhere, all very well attended. Watching a DADGAD guitar workshop reminded me I should have remembered to take my own guitar, but also how useful a D-tuning this is. Although some purists would say it's a cheat, because chord fingering is 'easier', it actually enables a different tonal quality from the guitar by leaving more strings open. 


Weird Morris costume
I also went to a 'Singaround' workshop, run by Winter Wilson, a very impressive singing / songwriting duo, whom we had seen in concert last year. Uncertain what to expect, I was pretty unprepared for what happened. Sitting in the inevitable circle, each of us were called upon to sing a song, accompanied or unaccompanied. There were a lot of traditional, some funny and some moving songs sung by the others, many of whom were clearly seasoned 'folkies', and many of which we were able to join in the chorus, sometimes very effectively in harmonies. So when it came to my turn, the only song I could just about remember the words to was "The Irish Ballad" by Tom Lehrer; it's dark comic satire seemed to go down well. Anyway, before the end of the two hour session, it came round to me again. I was without any lyrics for another song, or the prop of my own guitar, so I dug out one of my poems! Winter Wilson had just sung one of their own songs 'Storm Around Tumbledown', which had already been covered by none other than John Tams on his album, 'Persona Grata', and which was a moving account of that battle towards the end of the Falklands War. I still found it difficult to read 'Twenty Nine' without choking, but managed nonetheless and I was surprised to be complimented by Dave Wilson; "very well read" he said. I'll happily take that from a songwriter.

Over the past three or more years, I have been trying to learn how to write 'proper' poetry. You know, the flow of words that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, that flood the lacrymal ducts, choke the throat and give you one of those moments, when so much suddenly comes into focus, all at once. It is poetry that enables a way of communicating that sometimes rarely sees the light in our everyday lives; that seeks out feelings, emotions; addresses fears, uncertainties, nay even hangups; brings to the consciousness of many who read it the ability to see another perspective on this sometimes astonishingly complex thing in life, which we call the human condition.

So, as my learning journey continues, I have become more acutely aware of the power of words, the power of that simple turn of phrase to make us feel the passion of the writer. If you then combine these with a tune, a melody, particularly one with more than the obligatory three chords, more even than a C, Am, F, G combination, which we all learn when we pick up a guitar or open the keyboard cover of a piano, the heartstrings are plucked, the soul is seared or the spirit elevated, or maybe all three at the same time.

This last weekend, at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, as we became immersed for a time in the music and the culture, I felt this most especially. This is not least because we saw a couple of our favourite class acts, Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart, who, for me, are proof, if proof were needed, that a pure voice combined with great lyrics, a soulful tune, a class arrangement and proper delivery of the song can elevate your spirit, sear your soul and pluck your heartstrings like no other art form. But more of the eulogising in a bit.

I should point out that, whilst there, we also saw performances by Vin Garbutt (a very funny entertainer and talented songwriter), Lau, with the talented and distinctive voice of Chris Drever, whose music I could describe as symphonic folk; Show of Hands, comprising of the incomparable Phil Beer, Steve Knightley and singer / double-bass player extraordinaire, Miranda Sykes. We also experienced Plainsong for the first time, sadly on their farewell tour after forty years together; with the rich tones of country music combined with super musicianship and four part harmonies, this band was comprised of Ian Matthews and Andy Roberts (founder members of Plainsong, Ian Matthews himself previously a member of Fairport Convention with Richard Thompson et al), Julian Dawson and Mark Griffiths. Then that Demi-God, Mr. Richard Thompson OBE, himself, who headlined on Sunday night. With just one acoustic guitar and no gismo's to assist him, he graced the stage with a solo performance of many of his great songs. And what a truly remarkable guitarist and songwriter he is - "Vincent Black Lightning 1952", "Persuasion", "Beeswing" and no doubt hundreds more. I am a fan of this man. Such is his virtuosity with the guitar, as if to prove his musicianship, he can be found occasionally to cross over to Jazz amongst several other genres of music, evidence his album '1000 Years of Popular Music' released in 2003.

Kate Rusby
Kate Rusby has the purest of folk voices on the scene, certainly amongst English singers, and is almost certainly back to her best with her new line up of musicians, including her partner and the father of her two children ( so she tells him ;) ) a fine guitarist and seemingly the arranger, Damian O'Kane.

However, in spite of her relatively low billing (first of three acts on Main Stage 1, Sunday evening) it is Karine Polwart who ticks all the right boxes for me, not just from her two performances at Shrewsbury, both of which we watched this weekend, and for both of which she sang different sets of songs, but for all her performances; I've not seen a bad 'un yet. In all, I have bought, and listened to over and over again, well over fifty of her songs and there isn't one of them that doesn't move me in some way; I cannot think of any other singer / songwriters for whom I can say that and, even when she sings what might be described as an 'ordinary' folk song, the tone of her voice and her vocal delivery, giving as she does full value to every word and vowel sound, as well as her cadence, makes her very special to me; and, as a member of a mixed voice choir, I guess I should know a good cadence, when I hear one and how to get my tongue and voice box round a vowel! Add to all of this her musicality, the melodies she composies and the musicianship and vocals of her brother, Steven Polwart and the inimitable Inge Thompson, who provides so much colour to the orchestration and arrangement of Karine's songs, it is almost perfect in every way. I hope this great combination never changes and I have no doubt, at the next opportunity, I shall buy tickets again to see her perform. She will soon catch up with our Kate Rusby in the number of times we have seen her perform.


Karine Polwart
Being at Shrewsbury Folk Festival has brought me in a full circle, because it was three years ago that I first came across Karine Polwart for myself. I bought some tickets and persuaded some friends to come with us to Buxton in Derbyshire to see her in concert. There was one particular song that truly plucked the heartstrings that night, more than most. Karine had composed it as part of the Darwin Song Project at the 2009 Shrewsbury Folk Festival to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, which became one track on an album that included many devoted to remembering Charles Darwin, not all for his contributions to the theories of evolution and life science. I first heard 'We're All Leaving' at that very first concert three years ago and bought a signed copy of Karine's 'Build Your Own Cathedral' EP, which tells the story of how Darwin might have come to terms with his 10-year old daughter's death. It featured in poet, Kona Macphee's blog post 'Music for Mewling'. She sang it again at both sets she performed at Shrewsbury on Sunday afternoon and evening, only out of respect for the fact that it was spawned at Shrewsbury. It has to be said that I much prefer the first version of this song. The latest version that appears in her latest album, 'Traces', has perhaps a little too much orchestration. For me, this song can stand alone without woodwind and brass, in it's beautifully simple original acoustic version. Goodness me, I'm sorry, KP, but that almost sounds like a criticism! It isn't, honest. I just love the first one too much. (By the way, your new album, 'Traces', is superb; I love it all and I do like the extra orchestrations in all the other songs. So glad you included your 'Trump card', "Cover Your Eyes", it's such a beautiful song).

However famous or otherwise Karine Polwart may become, having met her on Sunday to sign our copy of her new album, I judge her to be an earth mother, someone with her feet on the ground, who does not seek fame for its own sake, but she does merit recognition for her astonishing ability to write lyrics that are poetry in all but name; and music that is so creative, authentic, colourful, spine tingling and a joy to the ears. It is the combination of her poetry and musical composition that will, without question, endure.


Q.E.D.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Once More into the Breach

(in memory of leaks and competence)

Months of preparation
weeks of detailed costing,
another week or two of work,
to fix a cleansing issue
we started to put our lives
and chattels back into
cupboards, onto shelves,
to welcome back normality.
We looked at the product
of our plans and saw
that it was good,
but for a lengthening list
of minor snags, it did appear ok.
On the surface.
We waited patiently
for all their dust, which spread
throughout the Universe,
to settle out, so to clean
for one last time.
We enjoyed that special feeling,
you know, the one you get
for things when they are new,
like a child at Christmas,
that makes you feel 
that it was all worth waiting for.
Through all their soot and grime,
we tolerate
their tendency to make it worse
when they cleaned up 
after they had done.
Their habit of making
you feel like it wasn’t your home!
Then a sight that took us back
to where it all began,
dampening our ardour,
crushing our spirit.
Enraged, we watched
a patch upon the ceiling,
where it started, and where
we saw a rather 
expensive alternative 
to what we had before,
grow larger and larger
and larger.
So they came back 
to deconstruct
to reconstruct
to seal it properly
this time.
Near three hours it took them
to bring back hope
to our oh so forlorn hearts.
And so we let another day,
or two, pass into chaos.
And on the third day…
we stepped in, spirit renewed,
to wash away the anger
to cleanse our spirit
once more.
Once more…
Once more and they are dead,
I’d said, with feeling
like I really meant it.
Once more into this breach
and all that will be left of them
are entrails and body parts.
We’d wash them down 
through the drain
and out into the earth
to feed the worms.
Once more, this morning 
I was clean and happy,
for a few short moments,
as I stepped out
with towel around,
my hopes for future life…
...dashed in an instant.
The sight of it, 
a trickle, a little stream,
dribble, ooze, seeping as it was
through micron gaps,
a percolating spill,
pouring, gushing
rivulet that found its way
down below, to flee its source,
to prove them singularly
incapable
incompetent
unable to seal
the breach in the damn.
If I were a psychopath,
I’d cut their fingers off,
stick one in the faulty dyke
and float one in the puddle 
I found a while ago
upon the kitchen floor.
© 2012 John Anstie


A poetic picture prompt...?

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

All White Then Black

On Thursday, 7th July 2005 I managed to organise working from home for the week, having spent the past few months working every week in London from Monday to Friday, returning home only at the weekends. I was back in London again the following week.

I sometimes wonder, if I had travelled down to head office in Marylebone, as normal via Kings Cross that very week, whether or not I might have been involved in some way. It was a Thursday, so it was less likely, but who ever will know?

Last Saturday, 7th July, was the seventh anniversary of the London bombings. Three of them occurred simultaneously at 08:50 on three tube trains : at Aldgate, Russell Square and Edgware Road - the other one an hour later on a No.30 bus at Tavistock Square, which was more than usually crowded because, by then, the whole London Underground had ceased operation in light of events and people were trying to get to work overground instead.

I wrote this poem as a direct response to this human tragedy, but particularly having watched an extraordinarily high quality, moving, but very sympathetically made television documentary on BBC2, "7/7: One Day in London", which was shown late on Wednesday, 4th July.

I have used the first hand accounts of a handful of the characters interviewed in this documentary to provide the substance of the poem. These were people, who were directly affected by the bombings. I've focussed on four victims in particular, with one stanza to talk of their personal preamble and another stanza later in the piece to recount their personal outcomes.

Through this poem, I offer my belated condolences for the families of the fifty-two people who lost their lives and to those who survive and will probably carry with them for the rest of their lives not just the physical scars, but also the emotional scars, that are etched into their conscious and sub-conscious minds...

...I'd like to make mention of some of those, who took part in the documentary, both the living (who had the courage to speak with such honesty) and the dead: William, Stan, Martine, Tracy (who recounted her experience in such an impressive, poetic way, that she effectively provided the title and theme of the poem), Philip, Yoko, Kathy, Bill, James, Matt, Laura... and many more whose painful memories and suffering live on.

And all because the minds of four young men were damaged by extreme indoctrination. From whatever source, extremism must be tempered by a balanced education.

Yet, once again this shows how even the most horrific acts of inhuman behaviour always seem to be met by the strength, generosity and goodness of the human spirit, in an undoubtedly unifying act. The last line of the poem makes this point. You will find it here.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

British Tennis...

I'd just like to say how very pleased I am for a fellow Sheffielder, Jonathan Marray and his Danish partner, who, as last minute wildcard entrants into the tournament, not only vanquished their fifth seed opponents, Robert Lindstedt and Horia Tecau 4-6 6-4 7-6 6-7 6-3 in the Wimbledon Men's Doubles Final in an astonishingly high quality display of doubles tennis, but, more importantly, brought back hope to all grass roots tennis players throughout the country that fairy tales can happen.

Jonathan Marray, I hope, when you woke up this morning and pinched yourself, that you will also remind yourself that you are a Wimbledon Champion... and always will be!

And now, to another rather important game of tennis... this afternoon.

Andy Murray, may every ounce of strength, resolve, good fortune and self knowledge that you are one of the best tennis players in the world... be in your mind all day until the final ball is played.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Queen... and Monarchy


It's not surprising to me that I should be writing something about Her Majesty the Queen, with so much colourful stimulation prompting us last weekend. It does surprise me that I have not written a poem or two, because I have been very moved by some of the things we've seen. But hey, that's creative life, or is it more than that?

Copyright John Anstie 2012
I feel that I am writing something that addresses more than just the pageant, the colour, the magnificently organised ceremonies and events (only we can do this so well and with such style), the street parties, the visual and audible nature of the celebrations. No, I am going to nail my colours to the mast, colours, I might add, that I've held close for most of my adult life.

I believe in the importance of the monarchy as it exists today and as it has existed for the past sixty years; in the way it has developed during the reign of HM QE2, which spans the vast majority of my lifetime - I was a wee tot when HM KG6 died.

I am going to try and defend this, but I am not necessarily going to employ lots of reason, philosophical and intellectual gymnastics in the process. I'm rather going to do so by gut feeling, by emotion, by instinct. However, before you dismiss all this flag waving as irrational emo (isn't that cool street talk?), I perhaps need to explain my belief in a certain aspect of the human condition, which it is important to understand.

This is that we are essentially emotional animals. My life's experience has taught me in several different ways, and in several different departments, that we are thus, irrefutably so. Starting out in my life, my education and my early career programmed me as a scientist and an engineer. This early influence is still with me today and informs many aspects of my life, particularly when it comes to problem solving. Its downside is that it affected my thinking to the point where I felt I had to analyse everything I did, every decision I made to the 'n'th degree, to the point where I sometimes ended up in a state of high anxiety, incapable of making a decision! For things that are important, I still do analyse carefully, particularly in life affecting financial decisions, but I was once informed by someone with a certain financial expertise that, even in the financial sphere,  decision-making on the Stock Markets is 90% emotion and 10% reason! Now is that scary or what! I do think the emotion here is inextricably linked to instinct, but, whatever it is, it is not what you'd expect.

Anyway, I digress, slightly; but, as I go on, don't forget the emotion, the instinct bit.

Behind every one of us is an influence, a whole host of influences. These include every aspect of our upbringing, education, life experiences and particularly our long term relationships. Mine were very conservative (with the 'c' in both lower and upper case!). So I grew up believing in and respecting the monarchy and very normal middle class conservative values and aspirations, many of which still hold me in good stead today. I didn't grow up feeling envy and in need, although we were not well off by any stretch of the imagination and a whole bundle of domestic difficulties tainted the second and part of the third decades of my life with unhappiness and uncertainty, although that in itself is not a particularly unusual human experience. I feel that very few of us will have led perfectly enchanted lives, and I only write about these things because I believe they do inform our views on the privileged classes.

I was blessed with comfortably above average intelligence, even though emotional strain impaired my ability to concentrate and therefore comprehend during my teenaged years. I have therefore always had to work very hard for all that I got out of my working life. I married a woman who is at least my equal in those departments of intelligence and hard work, which was the beginning of a long road to recovery.

So these were my influences. I tell you about them simply because, I hope, it helps you see how my opinion formed; how I, like most people, may not be what I at first seem to be. The fact that recently, I have found myself veering slightly towards the left hand end of the political spectrum, has been influenced by the effects, particularly over the past five years, of my observation of the unbelievable behaviour of some investment bankers and, worse still, by the disastrous influence that 'speculators' have been allowed to wield on the financial markets, on economies and whole nations. Above all what has disappointed me, even upset me, is the fact that the present and past governments have been too slow to address these misdeeds, but then I think we all know very clearly why they haven't; they are weak and frail human beings, who are unprepared to stand up to reality, just like most of the human race!

So I believe unequivocally in the monarchy as it stands, because it has provided a largely unchanging and constant anchor to keep our inherent culture rooted with an oh, so subtle, but significant common purpose. This is particularly what HM QE2 has achieved for the country. She has not been a contrary Mary, locking protestant detractors up in the Tower, torturing them and cutting off their heads. She has not ransacked churches, cathedrals and monasteries to wage war on the Roman Catholic church. She has not retreated behind closed doors in dereliction of her duties.

That the Royal family attracts tourism and business in many ways is undoubted. That she has championed the Commonwealth of Nations, which has had a largely unrecognised influence on how we have coped with our new multi-cultural society, and has steered a course through some difficult times during her reign and evolved as a monarch is undoubted, but there is something more fundamental, something far greater in the scale of human achievement, something more important that wins my vote more securely than any of this.

If you saw any of the celebrations in London and all around the country, you cannot fail to have noticed the masses of people who lined the streets and waved their union jacks. Hundreds of thousands, nay millions, of people were not hand-picked and marshalled or dragooned into the streets (North Korea take note); they were not brainwashed by a massive sinister PR machine. They were all there by their own choosing, and not just for a good party! There is a strong undercurrent of loyalty that cements us together, there is a kind of voluntary fealty that transcends all political allegiances, that is at the core of our sense of community in this country. It is almost beyond reason, at least beyond popular rationale, but yet it isn't beyond my understanding of the human condition, driven as it is by powerful emotion and a need to work together.

I think it's fare to say that most of us are tired, not to say heartily sick of the self-interest, greed and corruption, with which so many of the systems of economic and political management seem to be afflicted. The monarchy does stand above this and stands for values that I think are very clear - and I'm not talking about financial values, so, for a moment, set aside the visual surface of monarchy, which we sometimes see daubed with extravagant dress and jewellery. Instead think of the values that are beyond financial measurement. In the fullness of time, their possessions and landed wealth cannot truly belong to them, they belong to the Nation; members of the Royal Family are merely custodians of it all. They are unlikely to sell off Buckingham Palace to raise funds to buy into a property development in Chelsea, or speculate for or against the value of currency movements somewhere else in the world, like Greece!

If you can rise above the feeling we all inevitably have from time to time, that feeling of envy and try another perspective, one which looks at the long term and how immediate members of the Royal Family are tied to their duties, it becomes easier to get a more reasonable perspective. OK, there are some very privileged so-called 'hangers-on', around the periphery of the immediate family, who may need to do more to earn their keep, to say nothing of all those lesser aspiring members of the middle classes, the social climbers, who would wish to elevate their status and associate themselves with the Royal Family, but who never will. They do need to get a life as soon as they can, rather than find out, all too late, that their destiny is far more humble, and their old pride is too stiff to cope.

And finally, as we kick and scream against the rising retirement age, let us remember how HM QE2 hasn't retired yet. She has been performing her duties day in day out, week in week out, month in month out, year in year out, decade upon decade... for sixty years; SIXTY YEARS!

The next monarch, probably HM KC3, has got a lot to live up to, albeit he has already reached retirement age, so will not start young, but HM QE2 will be a hard act to follow. As a result of her extraordinary efforts, The Royal Family, at least that part of it that is close to her, is the envy of many people in many parts of the world.

Copyright John Anstie 2012
So, for those of you so inclined, don't knock her any more. As it is, there are enough dark clouds hanging over the future of this country's constitutional, political and economic shape, so let's try to stand up straight and, in the words of Eric Idle, writing years ago for Monty Python, try to look on the bright side and maybe, just maybe, we will learn to see and appreciate what a constant, solid, consistent gem of an institution we have in the Queen and the present Royal Family. They will, all too soon, be faced with more challenges and change, when they will need our support.

I say God save the Queen.. and help us to understand what is good for us, what works, and, in the process, avoid killing the goose that laid the golden egg. If we sack the monarchy, there would be no voting them back in again, if it failed, or if a Republican style President became a touch too tyrannical! 

And you think that couldn't happen to us... in this country ..? Think again!

(In case you do feel the need for some poetry to mark the occasion I give you this. It is not by me, but by the talented Louise Hastings, soon to be published by Winter Goose.)

Thank you for reading.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Torquay United Football Club

Another post on one of my common and favourite themes; that of family values, community and the strength that can be garnered by the unselfish act of working for others.

Three days ago, our family found themselves fighting that feeling of bitter disappointment that Torquay United had fallen short of the last hurdle in the promotion play-offs! It is almost exactly a year on from when I last wrote about them, in "Coping with Defeat..." following their narrow defeat in the play-off final by Stevenage at Old Trafford.

But now, a few days have passed and some perspective and a sense of proportion has returned, so I feel able to write something about it.

Firstly, a reflection of how well they have played all season; given that it is always tempting to ponder on the result of one or two games, which it's easy to feel they should have won, but didn't, that, if they had, they would have gained automatic promotion; that is how close they got and there is no doubt that would have been an astonishing success!

Secondly, the play-offs are, almost by definition, a separate knockout competition, in which it can be argued that each of the four teams, who have earned the right to be there, have a one in four chance of winning through to promotion. This is despite the observation that it is so often not the team who, out of the four, finishes the season with the most points in the table; more often it is the team in the third or fourth play-off place, who wins promotion. If you accept the evenness of their chances then there is a one in four chance for each of them to win through to promotion. And, as if to provide evidence for this, Torquay United have been involved in the play-offs in four out of the five seasons my son-in-law, Kevin Nicholson, has played for them; and they succeeded in one of them, beating Cambridge United 2-0 at Wembley three years ago to win promotion back into the football league.

The third and final point of perspective here has to do with the spirit of the team. I think it's fair to say that Torquay United do not have one of the largest playing budgets in League 2; they are not a 'big' club. Their location, geographically speaking, is not ideal to attract players and anyone that does move there, as Kev would tell you, have to be prepared to spend a large number of hours in the season sitting on a coach. They have a relatively small first team squad of players and it is a tribute to the fitness and commitment of the players that their legs have carried them this far.

There are bound to be opinions that run counter to these and, if there are, I hope you will accept my invitation to you personally to make your feelings and knowledge known in the space for comment below. Given these perspectives, however, Torquay United have, without any shadow of doubt, punched well above their weight over the past two seasons. But how do they do this? How is it possible in an industry, whose headlines are punctuated by money, big budgets and players, who are paid tens of thousands of pounds a week? There is an answer to these questions, but in case you hadn't already spotted it, allow me to reveal what it is.

Can't recall who owns this photo... any clues?
Before I do, however, I want to express my overwhelming feeling of pride for the thoroughgoing dedication and professionalism of, you might not be surprised to hear,  my son-in-law, Kevin Nicholson, who recently gave a very honest and revealing interview with 'bechampionstv', part of the support systems being set up by the Professional Footballers' Association, and who has played probably the best football of his career this season. But of course it is not just down to him. His neighbour, friend and the inspirational Captain, Lee Mansell has also been a force to be reckoned with all season, along with a number of other core players in the Torquay United squad, the whole squad of players, in other words, who, with what proved to be some seemingly quiet but astute management by Martin Ling, who gives me the impression of being an unusually human of human beings (as football managers go), have melded together a team to be reckoned with. So much so that Kev, along with Lee Mansell and team mates, Eunan O'Kane and goalkeeper, Bobby Olejnik, were nominated in the League 2 'Team of the Year' PFA awards; four players from one team out of twenty four teams; joining seven players from other teams out of perhaps more than four hundred players in the league. That is some recognition!

Now, I need to bring another sense of perspective to all of this by asserting that I have no inside knowledge of the workings and budgets of Torquay United Football Club. I have very few if any conversations with Kev about what goes on behind the closed doors of the changing rooms and, if there is any discussion about this, then it is often about how his team mates are feeling, how is team spirit. The majority of conversations I have with Kev are about how he feels he is playing, how fit he is feeling, how is the ankle injury that he carried for the last couple of months of the season. It is none of these things that I bring to bear in all of this.

No, I'm making no attempt at a commentary on a game, of which I have little technical experience (I played Rugby Union for twenty years) it is my own observations of human nature, of the human condition, that I bring to the table.

It is about team spirit, the bond (and band) of brothers, the close support of wives, girlfriends, family and last but not least the amazingly loyal and supportive fans. Also, the management and supporting staff of a club are involved, in this respect, to make this club probably the best that Kev has played for in his fifteen year career as a professional footballer. It is this sense of 'family', in the literal as well as a broader sense of that word, that I think gives so much added value to the success of this football club. Aside from the fact that Torquay has proved to be not exactly the worst place in the world for him to live with Jen and their two children, it is the cohesive effects of this 'family' that enables synergy to be achieved - that is to say doing the sum, 2 + 2, and coming up with 5 as the answer!

Since we are talking about family, it is also very timely and appropriate that I should mention that Torquay United has just been awarded the 'Family Excellence Award' for the 2011-12 season by The Football League. You can read about this here. This is why we have so much enjoyed going to watch the football that Kev plays in this league, because there isn't the same level of celebrity hype and hysteria that associates itself with the game at the highest levels.

You can put all the money you like into a man's pocket and, yes, he may have almost all the technically prescribed attributes that the ideal footballer is deemed to need, but, at the end of the day, he is still a human being, as we all are; a unique product of his genes and environment; a human being with emotions and an ability for his subconscious mind to take control and do things that are sometimes not exactly ideal and perfect, both on the field of play and off it. Unless you have human cohesion, common purpose, support systems in the form of WAGs, families, team management and essential staff to help you through those moments when you aren't feeling at your best, and, above all else a will to work for your team mates, then, if you are a professional footballer, you are at risk of serious career damage; you are on your own and nobody but a sociopath can survive that.

It is family, loyalty to the team, working for each other and the strength of the spirit that is borne from this attitude that makes a successful team; enables them to achieve beyond budgets and expectations. The team of highly, and, in my view, over paid individuals that will represent England in the European Championships this summer, would do well to take a leaf out of Torquay United's book, which describes the journey they have taken over the past few seasons.

Well done boys, well done!