Saturday, 27 March 2010

Catching up at last on netball

THIRTY years in sports journalism, and I’ve just witnessed my first game of netball.
I went because my daughter was making her debut for her school team.
And I was impressed, not just by her side’s runaway win over their nearest neighbours. Not just by the enthusiasm – and in some cases the skill – of the girls.
I was impressed too by the excellence of the game.
So far from being the poorer, weaker relation of basketball, I think netball has potentially more going for it as a spectator sport. There’s no less scope for personal or team creativity and it’s easier to see what’s going on.
Which leaves the question why it is so unloved, so overlooked except in our schools. And why, even in school, it gets so much less attention than football, cricket or rugby.
At one level, the answer is obvious. It’s a game for girls.
(I was the only dad watching the netball. There were both mums and dads around the corner watching the same two schools in football combat.)
What’s not quite so obvious is why we don’t take girls’ sports seriously in this country.
Back in 1995 I happened to meet a couple of Australian women who for some reason had washed up in a laundrette in Ipswich.
They were fans on their way from Oz to Birmingham for the netball World Championship. And they were stunned by the total ignorance of everyone they met in England of the fact that the tournament was even taking place.
Even though England were among the favourites for the title, no British newspaper, radio or TV channel gave a whisper. Back home in Australia, they told me, every game was a live TV event.
OK, Australia are the world’s best at netball. They have taken the world title nine times out of 12 and finished second to New Zealand on two other occasions.
But without anyone really noticing, the England netball team are ranked fourth in the world.
That is, higher than our footballers (eighth), rugby union players (seventh) or cricketers (fifth).
Did you know that? I certainly didn’t. And I reckon we should all be ashamed of our ignorance.


THE closer we get to the General Election, the more fearful I become at the prospect of a Tory victory.
David Cameron may have spent the last few years trying to appear cuddly, caring, safe and different – but how different is he really?
As Gordon Brown’s government looks like ending its days in a welter of strikes, Cameron eagerly plays the Thatcher card.
So much for different. And so much for caring, too.
According to Cameron: “Margaret Thatcher’s government was defined by taking the side of the people against the powerful, the vested interest.”
You what? Were you actually there, Dave? Or were you still trotting about the playing fields of Eton playing soldiers?
Thatcher’s government was on the people’s side like a fox is on the chickens’ side.
What Thatcher the shopkeeper and Cameron the toff have both forgotten is that trade union members ARE the people. While their employers, such as the privatised British Airways, are the rich.
People don’t go on strike for the fun of it. It’s miserable being on strike. They do it because they feel collective action is the only way to be taken seriously.
But Cameron and his like don’t take ordinary working people seriously. Possibly because they don’t know any.
The people they take seriously, the people they’ve always taken seriously, the people whose interests they look after, are those people who own land and companies. People like them. Not people like you and me.
I’ve never voted Tory before – and I’m sure as heck not going to start now.


I WAS 11 when my parents started taking me to the theatre. Serious stuff, too – Shakespeare, Chekhov, that sort of thing.
Looking back, I suppose they figured it was the only way they could get to go themselves. But I enjoyed it (mostly) and it certainly stood me in good stead when I came to study literature later.
It was with all this in mind that we took ten-year-old Lotte to the Colchester Mercury Theatre to see Huck, having missed it when it was at the Wolsey recently.
It probably helped that she already knew Huckleberry Finn, the great book by Mark Twain that James Graham’s play is based on.
Like me, she was intrigued to know how a rambling tale set on the Mississippi river would be adapted for the stage. And like me she was very impressed with the efficiency and panache with which it was done.
She noted the clever use of a set in which Huck’s raft also served as setting for a variety of flashbacks and other adventures.
And she was delighted at how well seven actors managed to portray dozens of characters – and provide all their own music too.
She laughed at many of the funny moments and felt the pathos in the character of Jim, the runaway slave.
In fact, she thoroughly enjoyed the whole show. Which is good news for her theatre-loving parents.


Four of my Distressed Sonnets are in the new issue of American online magazine Free Verse. Very pleased to be following Peter Riley and in company with Ian Seed in an excellent collection: LINK

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Bird-brained? Not exactly

HAVE you ever noticed what a great habitat dual-carriageway roads provide for certain species of bird? And what a great extra service is provided for them in the form of lighting poles?
For the crow, the seagull, the hawk or buzzard, here is a perfect perch from which to survey a place where other creatures come to be killed or maimed.
Of course there’s a risk to the carrion-hunters themselves, but they’re mostly pretty good at swooping out of the way of traffic.
And where there are no poles to perch on, the kestrel – that supreme hoverer on the air currents – is king of the central reservation.
The other day I had a close encounter of the bird kind. I was driving, not on a dual carriageway but in a typical Suffolk lane, sunk between fields.
Suddenly, just ahead of me, a kestrel flew out of a hedgerow and straight across the road.
Fortunately, I was not travelling very fast. I barely had time to touch the brakes. And in that moment, the kestrel turned its head and for the briefest instant we had eye contact through the windscreen.
The bird got safely away, but was startled enough to drop the small mammal it had in its talons. And close enough that the mouse, or whatever little creature it was, hit the car bonnet.
A few days later I was heading past Colchester on the A12 when I witnessed an even more remarkable event.
I’d just caught sight of a kestrel hovering over the verge when a magpie flew across the road and straight at it.
I’ve seen hawks attacked by other birds before, but this was the first time I’d seen one literally brought down in flight. Last I saw as I sped by, the kestrel had been brought to earth on its back with the magpie fiercely on top of it.
I find such glimpses of the wild in our midst both fascinating and compelling.
And if we really look with open eyes and minds, we should find them a little humbling too.
There are still people – even scientists – who will claim with straight faces that humans are the only species to have evolved consciousness, to use tools, or to make discoveries and inventions.
So what do you make of this?
Rooks at Membury services on the M4 have found a way of getting at the appetising titbits thrown by wasteful humans into lined bins.
A lone rook can’t do it. But with one on either side of the bin, two can lift the liner bit by bit, securing it with their claws as they go. Once they’ve raised the contents high enough to grab, they throw it with their beaks to a third rook standing by.
The level of creativity – and communication – this shows would excite a researcher watching chimps in Africa.
But this is in Berkshire. And it’s a creature vastly more different from us, with a brain very different, and much smaller.
We like apes to be clever, because we know they’re like us. That we are apes too.
Meanwhile, some birds are a lot cleverer than we like to think.
Which ought to make us a bit more open-minded. And a bit less arrogant.

Evolution of an atheist thinker

AN INTERESTING theory of evolution is proposed in the current issue of National Geographic magazine. Interesting – and rather attractive to people like me.
The author of a new study suggests that atheists, pacifists and those of liberal inclination are more highly evolved than other people.
According to this view, blind aggression and blind adherence to tribe or faith were useful in an earlier stage of human development. But now it is the thinkers, the questioners, the fair and open minded, who are in the natural ascendant.
Great. Except for one thing. That little weasel word “highly”.
It implies progress towards something better. An idea which the great theorists of evolution, from Charles Darwin onwards, would reject as a misunderstanding.
It’s unscientific. But it’s worse than that.
It contains in it the idea that one type of human being is better than another.
And that’s the idea that was used to justify slavery. The genocidal obliteration of native peoples in America and Australia. The oppression everywhere of the working poor by the property-owning rich.
It’s the perversion of evolutionary science that led HG Wells and others to suggest selectively breeding out what he regarded as “lesser” human strains.
And which the Nazis took to extremes.
However tempting, it’s a road which no one of liberal inclination should even consider starting down.
And there is another problem with the study, by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics.
He bases his ideas on the discovery that children with higher IQs were more likely than others to reject religion when they grow up, and to be less conservative.
Which is all very well and not very surprising (to me, at least). But it assumes that IQ is a fair and proper measurement of intelligence. Which it isn’t.
Do I, incidentally, suppose Dr Kanazawa regards himself (as I do) as liberal and atheist? What do you think?

Friday, 5 March 2010

Islam and the modern girl

HOW many ironies do you see in this photo?
The girl who cannot be seen but who is eager to capture the spirit – and the detail – of the world around her in photo form.
The concentration on the eyes, because that is all her Muslim dress allows on show. The eagerness of those eyes to see – and, who knows, perhaps to be seen as well?
Given the Qur’an’s ban on figurative art, both could be seen as contradictory to her dress code.
Mohamed objected not just to representations of the human body, but to pictures of any kind.
Or that, at least, is a long-held interpretation. Just as the code that causes this girl to cover up in public is an interpretation of his medieval views.
But she doesn’t seem to object to being caught on film herself by my friend Christos. A Greek holidaying in Turkey, which may almost seem to be some sort of irony in itself.
The shot was taken in Istanbul, where both Chris and the unknown girl were apparently tourists, both wielding their respective lenses.
But a mobile phone and the modest hijab? Isn’t the greatest irony here the clash of ancient and modern?
Not really. Because both are in fact modern fads – at least away from the Arab world, where covering the face with a scarf is a time-honoured custom. Surely as much to keep out a dusty wind as to follow Mohamed’s instruction for women to dress demurely in public.
Away from parts of north Africa and the Middle East, this mode of dress is a recent development. An invented tradition.
While it’s become fairly commonplace on the streets of London and some other British cities, it hasn’t caused the furore here that it has in France.
The French government has banned the wearing of veils in school, causing an outcry among those who see the move as racist or anti-Muslim.
I don’t think it’s really either of those things. In fact, it’s one of the few things the present French regime has done that I support.
Another contact of mine, Suzanne, is an Englishwoman in France, where she married in the 1960s. Both her sons have Muslim wives, so she has more personal insight than I have.
She says: “The present veils of the hijab type are not traditional veils to most Muslims in France, even less so the full veils.
“Most Arab women here do not approve of this tradition. They see it as an insult to their human rights.
“Fundamentalist Muslim groups have gained in importance in France as elsewhere, although they are still only a minority.
“They have influenced young Arab men here who are frustrated by lack of work and the lack of consideration they perceive. These young men are obliging the women in their families and in their neighbourhoods to cover their hair.
“We see the veil as an instrument of oppression rather than a ‘custom’ or a religious prerogative.”
Like Suzanne, I worry that a rise in religious fanaticism is hampering efforts in many countries to break down barriers between people.
But is the girl in Chris Lamprianidis’s excellent photo a victim of oppression? She looks (as far as one can see) fairly happy and free.
But if dressing as she does is her choice, is she inadvertently guilty of assisting in the repression of other women?
In a similar way, perhaps, to that in which some women choose to engage in pornography or take part in suggestive pop videos.
They might not consider themselves to be exploited. But are they contributing to a general exploitative attitude towards women?
To liken a girl with everything covered but her eyes and hands to a Lady Gaga or a top-shelf model might seem far-fetched.
But they are really more alike than you or they might suppose.
Now, isn’t that ironic?


FIRST the good news. Proposed massive changes in BBC budgeting include a £25million boost to BBC Two, which will be allowed to move back upmarket.
And even more good news. This will be funded by a 25 per cent reduction in the Beeb’s £100m budget for buying in foreign (i.e. American) shows.
The justification for paying out our licence money to commercial US corporations has always been weak. With plenty of commercial channels in that market, I’d be happy with a 100pc cut in that part of the BBC budget.
Especially if it meant more investment here.
Not in paying celebrity wages to a handful of supposed “talents”. But in reversing the trend for dumbing down documentaries to suit an audience with the attention span of a goldfish and the intellect of a Big Brother contestant.
And in giving proper promotion and a non-digital wavelength to 6 Music – an important outlet for new and innovative bands and almost the only ad-free station where you can hear non-classical music for grown-ups.
Ah, there’s the bad news. Along with the Asian Network, BBC Switch and Blast!, 6 Music is facing the axe.