Category Archives: Indulgent

How I’ll Remember Gary Speed

Match-goers understand that it’s those life-lasting ‘I-was-there’ moments that keep you going back week-in, week-out despite the dross. You’re lucky if you get even one a season. Real fans know these snatched moments-in-time don’t just mean cup finals or last-day relegation dogfights. Sometimes they happen on a cold, foggy December day in a mid-season, wrong-end-of-the-table, hum-drum match in a place like Leicester. So it was that in 1997 Gary Speed etched himself forever in my brain.

Filbert Street was a dump, and the atmosphere had a slightly narky eighties feel to it. The game itself was scrappy and ugly. Our team at the time was so mediocre I struggle to remember anyone else in our midfield. For context, it was an entire calendar year since Everton had last won an away game. I’ll say that again: an entire calendar year. Muggins had nearly bankrupted himself travelling to, and suffering through every single one of them. Anyway, it was heading to, and should have been a nil-nil draw. Then, right on the brink of injury time Everton got a penalty. Step forward, without hesitation, Gary Speed. I can still remember that adrenalised joy surging through my veins the instant the spot-kick was given and then that equally sudden emotional surge where the joy flicked to heart-thumping, crowd silencing anxiety through those seconds while he waited to take it. He scored. The joy let loose again unrestrained. A whole year of angst felt lifted. It was bedlam in the away section. A couple of thousand Evertonians celebrating as if we had just won the world cup. A chorus of ‘Jingle Bells’ with a line substitution ‘Oh what fun it is to see Everton win away’ sung all the way home. It was a nothing game in the history of football. But any Evertonian who was there will never forget it. Gary Speed gave me that moment.

Gary departed Everton in strange circumstances, never fully explained. Perhaps the stubborn length of time many Evertonians have borne a grudge is actually a telling measure of how highly regarded he really was for us. He was treated as a pantomime villain by chunks of the crowd whenever our paths crossed again (on a par with Steve McMahon, Nick Barmby or Wayne Rooney). It was a sorry end to his spell with the club he supported as a boy, shone for as a player, and was so proud to Captain. Events this weekend add some much needed perspective to all that pantomime villain nonsense.
For an outsider his actions seem unfathomable. Anyone who watched him on Football Focus on Saturday will not be able to reconcile the Gary Speed they saw with a man within 24 hours of ending his own life. The testament of his friends suggests that even aside the theatre of TV they had exactly the same impression. He hid his depression. The consequences of that are unbearable for his friends and family.

Perhaps the best insight we can get comes from another footballer from that era. At around the time Gary Speed took his life, Stan Collymore posted this remarkable description of his own recurring depression on the net: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/ecoqm1 I urge everyone to read it and reflect.

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes & Hyperbole

You will have clocked that the East Coast US was hit by both an Earthquake and Hurricane in the last fortnight.  You probably thought the international media made a meal with their coverage.  Let me assure you, whatever undue focus these things got in Europe it was as nothing compared  to the certifiable overdose by  local US press.

The earthquake was, if you forgive the pun, no great shakes.  Truth be told if you are going to be caught up in an earthquake then 5.8  is about the right size.  Big enough that you are going to feel it, small enough that you never feel in mortal danger.  I was on a sunlounger on a Cape May beach.   It lasted 30 seconds and there was no doubting what it was. Just for a moment, with a flashback to the Japanese Tsunami, I had a mild anxiety that a beach would not be the smartest place to hang-out.  A quick look at Twitter and the news confirmed that the epicentre was inland.  Relax.  Recline.  Back to the book.

The earthquake headlines were a giggle.   Reporters led the news with “…and look at these  CCTV pictures of some tins of beans falling right off a shelf in a supermarket in West Virginia”.   The footage was as unremarkable as it sounds, but the news presenters believed if you add a sensational  enough narrative,  or just shout,  then the footage will magically become dramatic.  The anchors hit a full ten on the hype scale.

Then came Irene.  And they turned it up to eleven.

We were hunkering in  a friend’s house just outside Philadelphia.  I swear the local news ran film of a provincial official demanding that everybody “get a piece of a paper, write on it your name, your social security number and the cell phone number of a loved one.  Place that piece of paper in your left shoe.  That will help aid us with body identification”. Flipping heck. His next line “only do this in proper shoes, not flip flops” marginally detracted from the gravity of his statement.  My friend looked at me gravely, at last he seemed to have a flicker of concern:  “We should go out now and get beer and wine in.  Oh, and some batteries”.

We couldn’t find batteries anywhere.  It was quite something to see every bottle of water and every battery shelf in every store bare.  Thankfully, both the beer and wine shops (which amazingly, by law, are separate stores in Pennsylvania) had not had a run of panic buying.  We may have no light, but we had booze.  Bring it on Irene.

We had a bit of wind.  We had a lot of rain.  I am talking cats and dogs.  Rain you would have to punch your way through.  The local news had every junior reporter  placed in locations where if it was half as bad as forecast death would be near certain.  You felt kind of sorry for them, but it did make good TV.  Then they really got to me again:  “Tornado Warning!  We have a tornado warning!”  The map they showed put the tornado likely impact on top of us.  The news anchor knew the drill, full fear factor:  “If you are in any of those counties, get your family away from windows, off the top floor and into the cellar.  Stay there till this has passed”.   Just as he said this my host came in looking panicked and announced the cellar was flooding.  Shit.

The rational part of me, said this was nuts.  Pure hype to keep you glued to the news.  But the bit of me that loves my family told me I would rather laugh at taking over-the-top action in the morning, than regret not taking any action forever.    Mattresses were moved from the top floor to a downstairs spare room. We slept in our makeshift bunker.

I got up at 5:45am at what was supposed to be the peak of the storm.  In all honesty, at that point it had died right down, it was no worse than we seem to get most Monday mornings in the UK.    We did laugh at ‘our over-reaction’.

When we went out the next day though, it was clear the storm really had brought some kick.  Across the road a large tree had blown-over taking with it a wrought- iron gate.  Had anyone been in its path they would not have stood a chance.  A quick drive around the neighbourhood showed similar damage was widespread.   A listen to the news and it seems that tens of people did lose their lives nationwide.
So it is quite easy for me to chuck rocks at the US news for overhyping all this.   However, I consider myself pretty cynical and yet they altered my behaviour and kept me indoors out of harm’s way.  Multiply that change of behaviour by millions of people and statistically at least some will be alive today who would otherwise have fallen victim.  The media will think they did a great job on that calculus.  The counterpoint  is that bad as the storm was there was still quite a big gap between the Armageddon forecasts they pushed at us and the reality.   They have a tricky balance to strike.   You can only get away with a few strikes of overhyping  before you get into the territory of the little boy who cried wolf.  The earthquake and hurricane are strikes one and two.

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What was this ‘Wilful Blindness’ Stuff?

Midway through their mammoth testimony, long before the custard pie, James Murdoch was asked if he had ever heard of ‘Wilful Blindness’?  He gave an out-of-place smirk and shrugged.  His father chipped-in that whilst he’d heard of it “we’ve never been guilty of it”.   Hold that thought.

Later, during Rebekah Brooks testimony, she was asked how payments to private detectives were authorised.  The gist of her reply was that News International set an overall budget for a newspaper,   the editor would then allocate budgets downward to ‘managing editors’, they would fund individual reporters and so long as everyone stayed within their authorised threshold they were accountable for their own spend.  Underlings were trusted.  If you were within your limits it seems no questions would be asked.  None of the witnesses had any idea as to the actual transactional mechanisms -cash, invoices or whatever – that allowed their reporters to pay private detectives (or actual detectives come to that).

Now, I’m no lawyer.  I’m not clear on the line that has to be crossed in corporate governance or financial control arrangements before executives fall legally foul of neglecting their duties.  However, I’m pretty sure the MPs were trying to establish if the delegated payment authorities were so piss poor as to appear manufactured to ensure there wasn’t visibility of how junior staff were spending the company’s money.  Our inquisitive MPs danced around this.  The questions, though never framed in such direct terms, were steering them to infer they had therefore allowed ‘plausible deniability’ to become institutionalised at the News of the World.  No wonder they  introduced James Murdoch to the phrase ‘wilful blindness’.  In the US folk go to jail for that sort of thing.   If the committee smelt blood on this point they chose not to go for the kill.  For now.

Regardless, the testimony painted a picture of executives who simply didn’t grasp whole chunks of the detail you might expect. I’m happy that they wouldn’t have been in the micro-detail at the time, but troubled that given the magnitude of what has happened they still didn’t seem to have really drilled in on it since. The more mundane narrative to explain this  is that the Murdochs and Brooks had a lax grip on the internal controls in their company, they delegated to the wrong people (you can delegate responsibility, you can’t delegate accountability) and they failed to assure a culture of ethics, audit and active management on a high profile part of their stable.   If it isn’t conspiracy (and to be honest, on balance I don’t think it is) then there is still a measure of old fashioned incompetence.  Either way,  it is no wonder Rupert feels humbled.

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An Apple Easter Resurrection

So last week, the toddler had been watching ‘CBeebies’ on the iPlayer on my wife’s iPhone.  She left it on our bed.  My wife then went into do the laundry and gathered the bedsheets quickly…. you can guess the rest.   One very shiny iPhone went right through an entire hot cycle in the washing machine.  Unsurprisingly, it was dead.  Pressing anything brought about nothing.

My wife in one of life’s optimists.  She scoured google and decided that the thing to do was – and I am not making this up – place the iPhone in a bag of rice, and place in an airing cupboard for three days.  Oh, how I laughed at her thinking that would work.  This was an incredible piece of technological precision with highly advanced and sensitive silicon circuit boards whose connections had been flooded with water.  Rice and time?  Come on.

Oh, how my jaw dropped when a couple of days later she plugged it back in and it sprung back to life with no apparent ill effect.  Amazing.

And so I leave you with this thought – when the iPhone first came out the techy geek types nicknamed it the ‘Jesus Phone’ – with my wife’s Easter iPhone resurrection I put it to you that it is a nickname it has now earned.  Kudos to Apple.

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My Tiny Brush With the Mubarak Regime (1993)

In 1993 I had my first sapping experience of what it must be like to live under a truly authoritarian state.   My misfortune took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo.   It is no surprise to me that this place has now become the focus of popular rage against the State.  My own Orwellian brush with petty officaldom has left me with an aversion to ‘big government’ that still influences my politics today.

It was the winter months and the much younger, slimmer me was backpacking around that part of the world.  I’d come down into Egypt by bus from Israel.  My original plan was to stay a couple of weeks, maybe hit North Sudan then get a sail-boat back up the Nile, get over to Suez and then ferry over to Jordan.   More aware travellers told me I had no chance of getting into Jordan with an Israeli stamp on my passport – the two countries were still technically in conflict so if I turned up with my current passport they simply wouldn’t let me in.  No problem – I could get a clean UK passport from the embassy and carry on with my plan.  Fair play to our consular staff, three days after I turned up at their door I had my nice new passport.   I was told I would have to go to the interior ministry to get a replica entry visa in my new clean passport or I would have trouble leaving.   The place I had to go to was called the ‘Mogamma Building on Tahrir Square’.  Now my problems started.

The Mogamma was an enormous 1950s Soviet-style-architecture building which acted as the hub for all aspects of the operation of Mubarak’s state machinery.  If you lived in Cairo and needed a licence for anything (and you needed a licence to do just about anything you may wish to do) this was where you had to go.   It teemed humanity.  Folk wanting permission to open shops, permission to import goods, permission to export goods, permission to go-to-university, permission to employ foreigners, planning permission for new buildings, permission to keep animals, permission to install satellite TV etc.  all had to find the relevant official, with the relevant Government stamp somewhere in this building.  They then had to convince the official to press that stamp on their piece of paper.  That step, as I found, could never be taken for granted.

I expected a long haul.  I got there at 9 in the morning and joined a queue.   Three-and-a-half hours later I got to the front.   I explained what I needed, I was given a desk number and told to report there.   Another long trip through a seemingly endless Labyrinth and I found my ‘desk’.  My heart sank.  Another enormous queue of people with tickets for the same desk.  I stood in line for another two hours.   I got to the front and was confronted with a stout, middle-age lady with a black Islamic head-dress and as stern-a-face as I’ve ever seen.  She looked me up and down  and curled her nose and lips.  Body language is broadly universal, so I don’t need translation to know when someone is looking at me with disdain.   “What?”  she barked.   I explained I needed a new entry visa.  She sighed.  “Give me your passport.”, she ordered.   I passed it under the glass.  She opened her top drawer, dropped the passport in and slammed the drawer shut.  She did it in one fluid motion without breaking her gaze of resentment at me..  “Come back this time next week – now go away”.  She sneered.  I tried to clarify.   She looked around me and shouted what I assume is the Arabic equivalent of “Next!” – I tried to hold my ground and ask for a receipt at least.  “This time next week.  Go Away.”.

You couldn’t travel outside Cairo without a passport so I spent the week exhausting the city’s charms.  The Egyptian museum is truly astounding – but other than that the technical description I would use for the place is ‘a shit-hole’.   The next Tuesday could not come fast enough.  I got there even earlier.  There was still an hour and a half queue to see my charming lady.  “You.” she said.  For a small moment I was pleased she recognised me,  it saved having to explain why I was there again.  “It’s not ready.  Come back next week.”.  I was dejected.  Again, I tried to protest.  She again looked around me and called the next person, and told me in perfect English to “Shut your mouth and go away”.

Another week to kill.  A miserable time, the local food had got to me, and I spent the week reading in the hotel room not able to get very far from a bathroom.   For my next weekly visit I had to bung up on stomach drugs in the hope I could last out the queue without disgracing myself.   A very uncomfortable queue (usual couple of hours).  Exactly the same script.   It required my every ounce of self control not to lose my rag.  I decided I was not going to move.  I demanded to see a superior.  She barked behind the glass to someone in her office.  They muttered to each other in Arabic.  The man came around to my side of the screen and told me “Sir, you must go.  Your passport will be processed by next Tuesday.”   I pointed out I’d been waiting two full weeks.  He looked at me earnestly “Sir, if it is urgent we can have an express service for 100 dollars.  It would be ready by end of day.”    Suddenly I realised I was being shaken down.   Two things stopped me just paying up.  The first was I was actually on quite a tight budget, the second was that I was still quite ill and realised that even if I got my passport that day I would still probably be stuck in my hotel recovering for another few days going nowhere fast.  I told him I didn’t have that sort of money, and would come back next week – when I expected it to be ready.  He said very politely “As Sir wishes”.  That was it for another week.

I was feeling much better on the final week.   I’d spoken to the embassy for advice and had my plan.   I got to the building before it opened.  I raced to the desk and was still beaten by a couple of others but this time the wait was only 15 minites.   As predicted, we went through the now usual weekly ‘not yet ready – so piss off’ dialogue.  I smiled, and told her I ‘would see her later’ – and made my way to the Egyptian Tourist Police Station.   The ‘Tourist Police’ in Egypt are an agency dedicated to stopping Tourists from being ripped off.  Mubarak knew that Tourism was vital for his country’s economy and anyone who went home bad mouthing Egypt could harm that revenue.  So he had a whole separate police-force just to look after people like me.  I explained my story.  The captain sighed wearily.   “Come with me.”   We marched over the Square, back into the building, up to the desk, he ignored the queue, banged on the glass and gestured with his thumb to the ‘lady’ to head to a corner office.  Her eyes narrowed and she snarled at me as she went to join him.  You could see through the window her standing arms folded as he jabbed his finger at her whilst shouting.  She half-shouted back, and for a moment I thought he was about to punch her.  She walked out the office, back to her desk, opened the drawer where she had dropped my passport three weeks earlier, pulled it out, opened the back page, picked up a rubber stamp on her desk and pressed it down.  She passed it through the glass and said.  “It’s done. Go away.”

The passport had never had to go anywhere.  The stamp could have been done in five seconds flat entirley at her gift.  She waited three full weeks and would have kept going until I paid her.  The policeman shouted at her once more and we left.  “Enjoy the rest of your stay in our Country” he wished me as he went back to the station.

Now as ‘police state experiences’ go I got off lightly.   I don’t even register on the scale of possible abuse of power.  I was merely delayed for a few weeks in a crappy hotel.   I wasn’t held in a cell, or tortured with electricity or any of the other nightmare things that citizens of dictatorships endure.  But it did give me a tiny glimpse of how crushing to the soul it must be live in the kind of place where your every interaction with government has the potential for you to be held to ransom simply because some minor official is bored by their pointless job and wants to show off their minor power or increase their pathetic state salary.  I imagine all of those thousands of people in that building, all chasing their licenses for this and that, and all being frustrated unless they had the means to pass on the expected ‘baksheesh’ to grease-the-wheels.    I imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who must have been frustrated by officialdom in that building over the last 18 years.  Those people who would have no ‘Tourist Police’ agency to help them solve their nightmare.   The collective frustration.  The accumulated economic damage to the Egyptian economy.  The simmering resentment of Mubarak and his elite.

So it is no surprise to me at all that they camp in their thousands outside the Mogamma building in Tahrir Square.  That the place hasn’t been flattened or burnt to the ground by the protesters is, in my view, testament to extraordinary restraint of the Egyptian people.  I wish them well.

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Shock! Horror! Britain is Crap With Snow!

“[…] for Northerners snow is something to skive for and go sledging in while for Southerners it is a ‘national emergency’.”*

*Slightly misquoted from the book “Pies and Prejudice.” By Stuart Maconie

The first dump of proper snow each year is a very easy time to be a UK news editor.  The story has already written itself many times over the preceding years;   “Britain Woefully Unprepared for Cold Snap” is the headline followed by pages of:

  • outrage at lack of salt or gritters;
  • closed schools;
  • musings that Switzerland or wherever copes so much better with so much worse;
  • forecasts of the devastating economic damage that the nation will endure because thousands like ‘Mrs Jones from Guildford’ could not get to their job as a receptionist at the dentists or whatever.
  • Etc. etc. –

Given this current freak cold-snap is of a severity encountered this early once every couple of decades the newsmen can wallow  in a dreamland of subtle variations on the above being spawned from  copy-paste then minor edit of articles from last time around.  It’s a similar news phenomenon to the annual “GCSE Results at Record Level – Accusations of Dumbing-Down” circus.  I’m convinced most news editors book their holidays for the third week of August and leave that one pre-written on the deputy’s desk before they set off.

Anyway, I tend to be a bit more philosophical about snow in the UK.  When people predictably lament our lack of preparation I wonder – what do they really want?  Do they really wish us to spend an equivalent percentage of GDP on snow preparation that the Canadians or the Swiss do to cope with the few days a year we get hit?  If so, which services are cut or which tax do we raise to fund this elite snow-disaster-management hit-squad?

And the people who are moaning loudest – can I just check that they have taken personal responsibility for shovelling their own drive and steps?   And heaven forbid, while they were at it – have they actually thought of gritting their own street immediately beyond the boundary of their dropped kerbs or are they just sitting on their backsides moaning that big government only does the main roads?

Actually, on that last point I will join the curmudgeons and moan about the vanishing yellow or green grit boxes that used to be on every street so we could help ourselves.  These have vanished over recent years almost in direct proportion to the increasing prevalence of the view that for every ‘problem’ there is a government solution, as drilled into us by New Labour.

That aside, I’m going walk my daughter to the childminder then work-from-home today.  I can’t see the point in putting myself or anyone else at risk by setting off to the office.  My wife, who is a hospital doctor, doesn’t have the luxury of that choice – so she used healthy common sense and set off very early.  Once out of our side-street the roads were clear and she got to work quicker than normal thanks to gritted roads and lighter traffic.  All power to our supposedly ‘unable-to-cope-with-the-snow’ council for that one.

For everyone who is wound up I suggest you copy the kids enjoying their day off school and treat snow a bit like other annual inconveniences such as flu and food poisoning.  The difference is that if you get out on your sledge, build snowmen and have snowball fights then this ‘inconvenience’ can be enjoyed.  In a word Britain, pun fully intended:  Chill!

This article was first written in January 2010 and I will shamelessly republish it at first snow dump every year.

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Whatever You Think of Him, Why We Should All Stand Up For Gareth Compton

It is the stuff of nightmares.  You’re listening to a radio interview.  The interviewee  winds you up by saying that you have no moral authority to take a view on human rights.  You react immediately by putting on Twitter an ironic response to that specific point.  You don’t think hard.  You just hit send.   Just another moment in the day, just  another narky tweet.   Then things get out-of-hand.   Within 24 hours this tweet makes worldwide news headlines.  Next there are statements made in Parliament.  Next the police come and arrest you.  For Gareth Compton this nightmare is a terrifying reality.

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really,

Any reasonable person given just those words to judge would conclude that the author is a bigot, an idiot and nasty.  I know Gareth Compton.  He is none of those things.  But you only have that one tweet to judge him on.  So I don’t expect you to believe me.

Context matters.  He was listening to Alibhai-Brown on a Radio 5 Interview (which you can hear in full here – fast-forward to 53 minutes).   Alibhai-Brown made her point that British politicians do not have any moral right to protest human rights abuses including the stoning of women in other countries.  She claimed only human rights groups or Nelson Mandela should engage in that debate.  I can imagine Gareth’s jaw dropping with outrage at the assertion he should shut-up on human rights.  He is, and I don’t expect you to believe this either, a believer in human rights and a fighter of bigotry.

If you knew Gareth, were listening to the radio and clocked the tweet when the interview was playing you would probably have ‘got it’.  You may not have found it funny, you may still have taken offence but you would have ‘got it’.  The world doesn’t know Gareth and wasn’t listening to the radio when the tweet went up.  So, the world didn’t ‘get’ it.  Truth be told, even with full context it is neither funny nor clever and has an unpleasant snarl to it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t incitement to murder. It is simply what the kids would call ‘an epic fail’ in joke telling.  Since when was that a crime?

Gareth Compton is a grown man and a partisan politician.  He takes and gives heaps in the virtual political bun-fights that litter the internet.  He has apologised unreservedly but in the rough and tumble of politics he would now expect the opposition vultures to circle and tear shreds.  If the boot was on the other foot he would do the same.  He would expect calls for ‘resignation’.  He would expect the Conservative Party to suspend him given the furore.  All of that is fair game in the playground of local politics.  But the Police? Arrest? Criminal charges?  Come on.

Voltaire famously nearly said:  “Sir, I do not agree that your jokes are funny, but I will defend unto death your right to tell them”.   I would appeal to anyone who has ever said anything knee-jerk in a pub, who ever momentarily wished harm to George Bush and said so, who has ever said anything they regretted, or ever had anything they said taken out of context (which must be all of us, right?) to stand up for Gareth in the event of any prosecution.

Even if you still think he is an idiot, a bigot, and nasty (he isn’t).  Even if his politics are Mars to your Venus.  Stand up against this thought police nonsense.

This whole sorry affair has left me terrified to type.   I have a real sadness that the hysteria that these storms whip up will deter our politicians from engaging in new social media.   It brings to mind the telling scene in “The Social Network” where the main character is confronted by an ex-girlfriend he berated on his blog.   His apology falls hollow, she looks him in the eye and says with all the power of a great metaphor –  “The internet is not written in pencil.  It is written in ink.”   It is a lesson for us all.

Nevertheless, no matter how staggeringly misjudged Gareth was, the chain of consequences has been out of all proportion.  I honestly wish Gareth well.  I believe his apology and I hope that Alibhai-Brown can find the grace within herself to accept it.  I trust the Conservative Party will be fair in their investigation and measured in subsequent action.  Our democracy needs us to have the right to say daft and wrong things without criminalising us.  We already saw yesterday with the mad judgement in the Robin Hood Airport case that this right is vanishing.  So most of all –  I pray that all thinking people – whatever their political hue or view of Gareth – demand the CPS drop this case.

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