Friday, 25 September 2009

Sir Bobby Robson, gentleman of football

BOBBY ROBSON and I both played for the same football team.
The club, Langley Park Juniors, stands at the end of the road out of the County Durham village where Robson grew up. In my teens I could almost see it from my bedroom window in the hilltop village above.
Bobby joined the club in 1944 at the age of 11 and within four years was an inside-forward in the Under-18 side. He left at 17 to turn professional with Fulham.
I had five minutes as a substitute full-back in a trial game in 1972. I left with a brief word of thanks for turning up.
By then Bobby was a former England international and the (not yet very successful) manager of Ipswich. By the time I moved, ten years later, to the village of Sacriston, where Bobby was born, his Town side were the UEFA Cup holders.
Like Robson, I was in my mid-thirties when I arrived in Suffolk and began establishing roots there. He’d moved on by then, adding to his CV the Dutch league title, the Portuguese Cup and honourable defeats in the late stages of two World Cups.
More honours were to follow – the Portuguese title twice with Porto, the Spanish Super Cup, Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.
None, though – perhaps significantly – with the club he and I both supported as boys and which he was finally to manage from 1999 to 2004.
Lack of success, however, is relative. Bobby’s last three seasons in charge of Newcastle United saw them finish fourth, third, then fifth in the Premier League.
In racing terms, the subsequent five years have thoroughly franked Robson’s form. They have brought the Geordies an astonishing 11 different managers and a constant reminder of what real failure is.
The contrast between Bobby’s unfailing dignity and gentlemanliness and the undignified state of the club ever since his ungentlemanly sacking no doubt heightened the sense of love and loss felt in the North East at his death.
Despite the way our lives have entwined, I met Bobby only once, in the early 1990s.
I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo when he brought his Sporting Lisbon side to play a pre-season friendly at Roker Park. I went to watch them train and spent half an hour standing with Bobby on the touchline.
No particular anecdote, no revealing quote, stands out. I simply remember that he was warm, friendly, interested and interesting. A man (unlike many in football) with no unnecessary airs or graces. A gentleman in all the best senses of that term.
I found him, in other words, just as everyone else seems to have done throughout his life.
I have never come across anyone who had a bad word to say about Bobby – and there aren’t too many top football folk you can say that about.
I have heard it said that he was a lucky manager, and maybe there’s something in that.
Lucky to have been given so long to learn his trade at Ipswich, lucky in the coaches he worked with. Lucky, at both his World Cups, to be forced into team changes that turned out to be crucial improvements.
But surely he earned at least part of that luck.
And it can be argued that taking England so close to the final in Italy in 1990 was as great an achievement as Alf Ramsey’s in lifting the trophy at home in 1966.
Perhaps if Robson had been a little less likeable he’d have won more trophies, as both player and manager. But then he wouldn’t have been Bobby, and he might not have won so many friends.
In his late years he moved to that hilltop village where my sister still lives.
She knows little about football and had scant idea who he was, but she too found him a warm and likeable neighbour.
Bobby’s final resting-place is barely a mis-hit shot away from the village green where I played so many kick-about games as a lad.
Despite my respect and affection for him, I found the public reaction to his death – the efflorescence of shirts, scarves and flowers at St James’s Park and on the Portman Road railings – pointless and disturbing.
I am uneasy at best about all this Dianification, whoever it relates to. There seems to have been an inflation of public mourning in recent years that feels somehow un-British.
Nevertheless, I am glad that on Saturday the two clubs I love, as he did, will unite in honouring him.
And I am glad that from now on I will watch my football from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand. It seems appropriate.


SO the government is proposing to cut £2billion from its education budget.
Their plans including “squeezing” teachers’ pay and, incredibly, axing thousands of headteachers, amalgamating schools under “super-heads”.
They say by chopping up to 3,000 posts they can save £250million a year.
Sounds a lot. Until you realise this is the same government that blew 200 times that amount in one go when they bailed out the banking business last year.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A sledgehammer that misses the nut

IT’S been described as a humiliating climbdown. And even by the standards of this dithering government, four days between announcement and U-turn looks pretty quick.
Except that promising a review isn’t quite the same as a climbdown.
And in any case, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind when you’ve made a bad decision.
What’s truly humiliating is that an appalling, half-baked idea ever made it into policy at all.
Sir Roger Singleton, the man charged with reviewing it, has already said the vetting scheme for those working with children is unlikely to be scrapped.
So not a U-turn, then. Just braking sharply as you pass the cameras before flooring the pedal again when you think you’re clear.
Children’s secretary Ed Balls has a good face and voice for TV, more plausible than many politicians. He almost had me convinced when he talked of the need to make sure children are safe. Almost.
It’s an easy fear to prey upon, isn’t it – the fear we all have for our children.
Because it’s the worst thing we can imagine, there is a natural tendency to exaggerate enormously the danger of our kids coming to harm.
That’s why we over-protect them.
Why we keep them cooped up at home when they should be out playing.
Why we insist on driving our young ones round the block (and round the bend) rather than letting them walk anywhere – which would certainly be healthier, and probably safer.
Why that almost mythical monster the Paedophile has become the bogeyman of our times.
There are, of course, genuine paedophiles out there. But very, very few. (Though I suspect their constant pillorying in the media has paradoxically caused their number to grow.)
It is probably appropriate that teachers should be should be checked for previous criminal convictions.
I had such a check myself before being allowed to assist with school visits to a Wildlife Trust farm. I didn’t mind, though it seemed over-fussy and unnecessary.
But to extend this to sports clubs, music and theatre groups, parents who drive each others’ kids to ballet classes?
There must be a real danger that tying them up in more red tape will lead clubs to close. Locking even more kids into an unhealthy regime of computers and TV.
Balls says: "I want to do nothing that makes it difficult for adults who are volunteering and working with children to continue to do so. No unnecessary checks, no bureaucracy."
Great. I only wish I believed him.
Because unnecessary checks and bureaucracy is surely what we’re going to get.
For this is another opportunity for a government obsessed with surveillance of its citizens to grow its Orwellian database.
The Paedophile, like that other monstrously exaggerated spectre, the Terrorist, is another convenient excuse to invade our privacy.
And frankly I object to being assumed to be a paedophile until proven innocent. It goes against every proper principle of law and society.
Not that having a clean record proves innocence anyway.
Predictably, Balls cites the Soham murders as a reason for the official paranoia.
Yet, despite the previous raising of doubts about him, Ian Huntley had no criminal record before he killed Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.
No CRB check would have prevented him from getting any job or volunteering for anything.
The proposed scheme isn’t a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s a case of wielding the sledgehammer – and missing the nut.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Guantanamo reading list

AN AWFUL lot could be written about Guantanamo Bay, and over the years most of it has been.
It may not be quite the wickedest thing ever perpetrated by the American government, but it remains a potent symbol of international wickedness. And it’s rather shocking that eight months into the Obama presidency it’s still operating, even if the worst excesses of treatment there have ended.
Presumably, like other messes Obama inherited from Bush (and, incidentally, Brown from Blair), it’s simply not that easy to close down, move out. Think Iraq. Think Afghanistan.
Still, it remains a blot on human relations. So much so it seems almost prurient to take an interest in some of the less offensive things that go on there. Like what the prisoners – of whom 229 remain – choose to read.
Recently, however, journalist Besan Sheikh from the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat went to report on conditions in Guantanamo. (That’s one thing you couldn’t imagine happening in the Bush era.)
And one of the people he interviewed was the prison librarian, who has 13,500 books in his care.
Many of those volumes are Arabic books on Muslim themes. But apparently the most requested books are, in order, the Harry Potter novels, Don Quixote, and Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.
It may be vaguely dispiriting to learn that the ubiquitous Harry Potter has got even there, but it’s not really surprising. No doubt readers wish for a wand-wave of Potter-style magic to whisk them away from their real-world Azkaban.
The Obama book is no real surprise either. Perhaps he’s regarded as a hero even in the jail whose key he holds. Perhaps the inmates simply want to read between the lines for a clue to their own futures.
But Don Quixote? A 400-year-old Spanish novel about a mad, wandering old knight? How on earth did that come to be so popular among those more or less indiscriminately rounded up in Bush’s shameful “war on terror”?
I can offer only one explanation, and I’m not sure it tells us anything significant about Guantanamo – except, perhaps, the kind of people who are still locked up there.
Cervantes’s rambling novel is supposed to be one of the greatest works of “Western” literature. Second, some say, only to Shakespeare.
It’s also very long – over 1,000 pages in the latest Penguin edition.
It’s one of those things I’ve always meant to read, but somehow have never found the time for.
And of course the one thing the Guantanamo detainees have in abundance is time.


I STILL can’t make up my mind whether it was right or wrong to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Or, as we (but not the Libyans) call him, the Lockerbie bomber.
Unlike many Americans, who are apparently incapable of distinguishing moral shades of grey, I can see good arguments on both sides.
But at least one good thing does seem to have come out of it.
That old Special Relationship between Britain and the US is now over. So they tell us.
Which should mean we won’t have to send our boys off to die uselessly the next time they start a pointless war.


SURVEYS are barmy. Surveys conducted as marketing stunts are barmier. And newspapers, mags, TV and radio shows that use them to fill up space or time are arguably barmiest of all.
And yet. There can be something irresistibly entertaining in the results, even if (maybe especially if) you know deep down that it’s all a lot of nonsense.
Take biscuits. More specifically, take them and dunk them in your mug during tea-break.
Apparently, more than half the adults in Britain have been injured doing it. An estimated 25million grown-up people. Injured. Dunking biscuits.
You couldn’t, as one unaccountably popular columnist might say, make it up.
Except I have this sneaking suspicion that somebody has. And then all the rest of us have fallen for it. Or not.


AND speaking of not being able to make it up…
There are various reasons why you can’t always believe everything you read in the papers. But you might have expected the star writer on a national daily to check just a little more thoroughly before firing off: “Somewhere out there in Shropshire is a single mother called Kate Pong with quins, variously named after an American pop singer, a model and the US President.”
Well, yes. Kate Pong – as revealed by the Shropshire local weekly the Newport Advertiser – has indeed given birth to BeyoncĂ© , Tyra, Bobbi, Barack and Earl.
Kate Pong is a chocolate labrador.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Do we need an 'unsend mail' button?

HAVE you ever walked away from an infuriating encounter thinking of all the clever put-downs you wish you’d had the presence of mind to come out with moments earlier?
I think we all have. But in most cases it’s probably really as well that our witticisms – or our true feelings – don’t emerge in the heat of the moment.
Somehow the restraint that seems to hold us back naturally in face-to-face meetings doesn’t always work to hold back the emailing impulse.
A few years ago I had a colleague, based at another office, with whom I corresponded mostly electronically. To see some of the emails we exchanged you might think we were forever rubbing each other up the wrong way.
In fact, whenever we met we got along fine. But without the benefit of facial expressions, body language or even the tone of voice that can help on the phone we were frequently at loggerheads. Winding each other up by simple misunderstanding.
Which is perhaps not surprising if you consider recent research suggesting that a mere seven per cent of face-to-face communication is conveyed by the actual words we use.
Smily emoticons such as :-) and ;-) or even :-p can help a little, but they’re a pretty inexact tool to convey real speech.
All this might not seem very good news for a writer. And it does suggest that maybe the research was carried out with a particularly inarticulate group of subjects.
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that emails sent in haste or with undue thought can come back to bite their sender.
The angry letter written in the middle of the night is usually best left unsent. When the writing takes place at a computer terminal it’s all too easy to hit the Send button while you’re still in that nocturnal muddle of emotion.
Maybe a good addition to an email program would be a delaying system that asks you in the morning if you still want to send the message you dashed off in the night.
A little dialogue box, perhaps, that asks “Have you slept on this?” before it allows you to commit yourself.
Not that that would have been much help to another ex-colleague of mine who marked his departure for a new job by leaving messages to everyone in the office telling them just what he thought of them. Most weren’t very complimentary.
Six months later, having been sacked by his new employers for another breach of email etiquette, he came asking for his old job back.
The reply to which could have come straight out of one of his own messages.
The other potential social danger with emails is how quickly and easily they can be forwarded by an outraged (or amused) recipient.
One national newspaper columnist is probably best known in the business for the blisteringly rude messages he fires off to any sub-editor who dares to improve his carefully crafted prose by altering a word or comma.
Which wouldn’t be quite so funny if his original work was even half as brilliant as he clearly thinks it is – or as his late lamented father’s often was.
I shall never be able to read his purplish prose again without thinking how I might improve the flow of his words. Or what four-letter blast it might occasion if I were to do so.

TWO shocking news stories:
• A survey reports that a third of teenage girls in Britain suffer sexual abuse and a quarter are violently assaulted by boyfriends.
• Britain has the worst rate of teenage drunkenness in “the industrial world”, particularly among girls.
Setting aside all doubts about the accuracy, or objectivity, of the first survey, could these two things be in any way related?