Saturday, 22 July 2017

Just how close were we to SS GB?

The recent BBC tv dramatisation of Len Deighton's book SS-GB, published in 1978 but set in 1941 in which history was rewritten presuming a British surrender after a successful German Operation Sealion invasion in 1940, made some impact. I didn't watch it - it got good reviews although, by all accounts, I would have had to use the subtitles as BBC went for their mumble setting on diction and sound. Nevertheless it posed a chilling "what if". And not the only one, as US tv was recently showing The Man In The High Castle, a dramatisation of Philip K. Dick's novel, published and set in 1962, in which the USA stayed out of WWII but got invaded anyway. Nazi Germany and Japan won the war with Germany controlling Europe, the Middle East and the USA from the east coast to the Rockies, while Japan controls everything in and around the Pacific Ocean, including the western seaboard of the US.

This all  comes to mind because some of my holiday reading was Boris Johnson's book on Churchill*. It's a rattling good read. Churchill can seem like some kind of dinosaur to us today but his personal contributions were enormous, from promoting the use of aviation in defence** and establishing the project that invented the caterpillar tracked tank - because he thought there had to be an alternative to the heavy toll from senseless Blackadder style charges on trenches and he found a way of using the Navy budget for its development  - to the first precursors of the welfare state and workers rights (amongst other things he introduced the Trades Board Bill in 1908 leading to the first minimum wages and he created Job Centres, then called Labour Exchanges, in 1909). That's long before you get to his role as prime minister in WWII, when it is often said Britain stood alone but it was damned near to Churchill standing alone.

Johnson takes us to May 1940 and the room in the House of Commons used today by prime ministers to meet colleagues. Then it was used for war cabinet meetings. Churchill had only just become prime minister, after the fall of Chamberlain's Conservative government. Churchill came to power with a Tory-Lab-Lib coalition in place on 10 May 1940. He didn't have the full support of his own party and was only prime minister because Halifax had turned it down as he did not think he could do the job effectively from the House of Lords, especially with Churchill running the war effort (Churchill had been First Lord of the Admiralty since the start of the war in September 1939), a situation Johnson describes as, from Halifax's perspective, "Churchill rolling around untethered on the quarterdeck." The House of Lords had not welcomed Churchill's appointment - the announcement of which they greeted with silence and, after his first commons appearance as PM, greeted without enthusiasm from the Tory back benches, he was heard to mutter that he didn't expect to be in post for long.

There were 9 meetings of the cross-party war cabinet between 26 and 28 May deliberating over an Italian approach to Halifax to assist in reaching a negotiated peace settlement that they all assumed, almost certainly correctly, had been blessed by Hitler. Italy was, at that stage, still officially neutral.  It is thought that, in making the offer, Italy had its eyes on British assets in and around the Mediterranean, such as Gibraltar, Malta and Suez. It was also supported by France, which was on the point of surrender and so would much have preferred to save face - and maybe secure better terms - if Britain also settled for peace.

Churchill assessed that Hitler wanted to negotiate so he could concentrate on defeating Russia. The people in Britain who might politely be called the doves thought a satisfactory settlement could be negotiated in which Britain kept control of its empire, which then covered  25% of the world's population and 30% of its landmass. (By the end of the war it was even bigger but totally unsustainable as Britain was, effectively, bankrupt).  But it was surely naive to think that Britain would have been able to continue as before. Churchill was certain that it would have to give up its Navy and accept a puppet government. Those looking for an easy life would have collaborated (and I'm not implying blame here, it's just the way it would have been). If you doubt that, look at Vichy France, who sent hundreds of Jews to concentration camps. The last train, with many children and infants on board, went just a few weeks before Paris was liberated and long after you'd have thought collaboration was a necessity for survival. Not only was the SS established in Vichy, 3000 people volunteered to join it***.

There was a lot of political support for negotiating with Hitler, in particular amongst the elite and chattering classes - the respectable liberal opinion of the day. And of course the luvvies of the day, including theatre types like John Gielgud, Sybil Thorndike and G B Shaw, were lobbying for the government to 'give consideration to negotiations'. Strange how not much changes, isn't it? Why on earth, then or now, these people think their occupation gives them the insight of the oracle and the right to pontificate.... (hmm, strange comment for a blogger, who doesn't even have an occupation, I agree!)

But even the political classes had been beguiled: after all David Lloyd George had, a few years earlier, called Hitler a 'born leader' and wished Britain had 'a man of his supreme quality at the head of affairs of our country today'. And, in their defence, the propertied classes had spent 20 years in terror of Bolshevism and so had been  much less concerned about fascism than we would expect from the distance of today. Strange now that extreme left views are the ones that seem tolerated, with the extreme right always reviled when they are usually, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.

However, back to Churchill and the War Cabinet meeting of 28 May 1940. After many more hours Churchill realised he would not win over Halifax, Chamberlain, Attlee and Greenwood. Indeed Halifax accused him of talking 'frightful rot'. The meeting adjourned for a diaried meeting of the full cabinet and Churchill decided it was time for frightful rot on steroids. Climaxing his speech by saying he was convinced everyone there would rise up and 'tear me down from my place' if he were for one moment to contemplate surrender, he said ' If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each and every one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground.'

We know this is what Churchill said from the account of Hugh Dalton, the newly appointed Labour Minister of Economic Warfare in the coalition cabinet. And we know the reaction from Churchill's own account : the cabinet cheered, shouted and some ran round to clap him on the back. With the backing of the full cabinet, when the war cabinet reconvened at 7pm Churchill had his way to fight on and not negotiate.

Of course, for most of Churchill's speeches we know exactly what he said as he wrote wrote them out long hand, a result of him drying up early in his Commons career and having to sit down, saying "I thank the House for listening to me" having lost his thread completely a long way into a speech, before reaching his conclusions. And he recorded everything: he was a prolific writer, publishing more words than Shakespeare and Dickins combined. But on this occasion he might have had to extemporise.

Johnson poses the question what would have happened if Churchill had not had his way. Many historians have considered this scenario, not just authors like Deighton and Dick who posited a Nazi war win. They are just about unanimous in their thoughts. It would have been totally, unutterably awful for Europe and the world. Germany would probably have defeated Russia (after all, starting later and with a 2nd front in the west they reached the outskirts of Moscow). The Nazis would have been free to paint their totalitarian canvas from the west coast of mainland Europe to the Urals at least, with its ethnic cleansing, eugenic experiments, etc. Even if Russia had held out, there would still have been totalitarian regimes controlling the vast swathe from Calais to Vladivostock. Britain would surely have been a compliant puppet state. The USA would have remained isolationist. Even if they felt otherwise there would have been no bridgehead, with Britain surely demilitarised and forbidden to rearm at best. A bleak prospect indeed.

So I recommend Johnson's book. It's a fraction of the length of Roy Jenkins's biography of Churchill which I read on holiday a few years ago and far more inspiring, for me, than reading a novel. The Jenkins book is the fully detailed, chronoligical, scholarly work. And you need a good vocabulary to follow it: I brought back a list of words the length of an A4 page to look up in the dictionary on my return, this being before I had a smartphone. Contumely, desuetude or recrudescence were amongst them****.

But in answer to my question, how close were we to SS-GB for real? Damned close....
after all, the German panzers stopped advancing 30 miles from British Expeditionary Force, stranded and vulnerable at Dunkirk. They only stopped, much to the disappointment of their commanding officer, because Hitler feared a counter attack, which in hindsight was not a realistic threat. Had the BEF been liquidated and captured it's hard to believe Brirain could have resisted an invasion. So, either because we gave in (which Churchill resisted) or were pushed into the sea at Dunkirk, or lost the Battle of Britain (as per Deighton) or were starved out a bit later during the Battle of the Atlantic, the result would have been much the same. Any of these outcomes seem more likely, looking back, that what actually happened. So damned close. And certain but for Churchill.

This post - and Johnson's book - have nothing to do with Brexit. But, of course, even now, these events still have some influence over modern day thinking on both sides of the channel. Though the next "Battle of Britain" looks to me to be fought out in the fields of business, commerce and banking.

*Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor, Hodder 2014
**Churchill was fascinated by aviation and flew - and crashed - himself. He was in charge of the Admiralty when he set up and fostered the Royal Naval Air Service before WWI. His pretext was the protection of our naval bases, though he was one of few who saw the offensive potential forseeing, for example, seaplanes using torpedoes to attack ships. He championed the creation of the RAF by merging the RNAS and its army run equivalent. As Chancellor he fought off attempts to cut the fledgling RAF in the early 1920s and 'spent to save' by expanding the RAF in order to save in other areas. See winstonchurchill.org, finest hour 127, Churchill, the RAF and naval (that is the full title)
***Wikipedia: 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Charlemagne (1st French)
The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis has a detailed page on Wikipedia, but Johnson's account is a much better read.
****For those as limited as me in vocabulary, contumely is an archaic word for criticisms that show a lack of respect, desuetude is the principle that laws can stop having legal force if they have not been used for a long time (to be fair this was a Churchill quote, not a Jenkins word) and recrudescence is a sudden new appearance and growth, especially of something dangerous and unpleasant

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Would Sigurdsson be a good swap for Barkley?

Everton are looking to offload Ross Barkley for £50m and acquire Gylfi Sigurdsson for the same amount. I think it would be a shame for local born Barkley, frustrating as his unfulfilled potential can be, to leave. But in terms of Everton's playing strength I thought this made sense.

After all, with 9 goals and 13 assists, Gylfi Sigurdsson was Swansea's player of last season and was seen as one of the most productive forwards in the Premier League. But there's a but. His Opta stats show that the "expected" number of goals from his assists was 6.9. So the quality of chance he was creating was not particularly high. Here's a comparison with some rivals:

Kevin de Bruyne: Assists  18 Expected Assists  13.1
Christian Eriksen: Assists  15 Expected Assists  8.1
Gylfi Sigurdsson: Assists  13  Expected Assists 6.9

And 52 of the chances he created came from set pieces. No-one else produced more than 40. 38 of the 52 were from corner kicks. So Sigurdsson's delivery is impressive, but might owe something to the ability of Fernando Llorente and Swansea's centre backs to get on the end of them.

More than two-thirds of the chances created by Sigurdsson were headers.

There were 71 players who created more open play chances than Sigurdsson in the Premier League, including Kevin Mirallas and Ross Barkley of Everton. Ross Barkley created 54 to Sigurdsson's 25. Indeed Gareth Barry and Idrissa Gueye combined created as many as Sigurdsson. And Barkley, Mirallas and Baines, sharing Everton's set plays, created 51 opportunities last season, only one fewer than Sigurdsson.

Adam Bate of Sky Sports concluded Sigurdsson is a quality player but one who "comes with considerable caveats. Buyer beware."*

I was keen on Everton getting Sigurdsson and reaxed about Barkley going. But I thought they were like for like players. I hadn't realised Sigurdsson was a more of a successor to Baines  or even Andy Hinchcliffe.

Hmmm. Hopefully Koeman and Steve Walsh can see more than the stats indicate, but on that basis I'd keep trying to get Barkley to sign a new contract.

*http://www.skysports.com/football/news/11671/10947289/gylfi-sigurdsson-to-everton-is-the-swansea-man-value-for-money

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Lion Hearts

I know it's after the event and the glorious summer of sport is moving on, with Federer's remarkable resurgence, the England-South Africa cricket series poised for the Oval decider and the Open at glorious Birkdale this week, but the achievement of the Lions in New Zealand was sport at its best.

With refereeing making a positive contribution to the series and the game at last taking action in the moment against dangerous play, we got a wonderful finale and a tied series that some (but not me) found an anti-climax. As a scratch team against the best team in the world the Lions showed that northern hemisphere rugby can compete and perhaps can look forward to the 2019 World Cup after the ignominy of having no teams in the last 4 in 2015. And maybe I can move on - and the game itself can - after the notorious spear tackle incident from the previous Lions tour of New Zealand 12 years earlier. Mind, the backwash from that was still very evident, with Clive Woodward, the Lions coach on that occasion, finding himself on stage being interviewed with Tana Umaga, one of the two All Black culprits, before the first test last month. "Lots of hugs, handshakes and smiles 12 years after it all got a bit heated on the 2005 tour, especially over one incident. We all moved on years ago...."* Well, Clive, I think you're an old softie and the game is actually only just moving on with the realisation that foul and overly aggressive play has to be dealt with. The referee from that game in 2005 took no action at the time but has finally admitted his mistake. "It should have been at least one red card, maybe two. We didn't see it so didn't sanction it. When I reviewed it at the hotel I was very unhappy. If we have to give a red card, even if it's against an All Black in New Zealand, we give a red card." Except, as Martin Samuel, also writing in the Daily Mail, said "no they don't" as at that time, before Sonny Boy Williams was sent off in the second test, that had only ever happened twice and never in New Zealand.

But the referees were up to it this time - though the television match official, having drawn the on field referee's attention to the challenge, described as "thuggish" in reports, bizarrely tried to dissuade the on field official from showing the red card.

As a result we not only got a thrilling test series - I expect the result would have been 3-0 to the All Blacks if Williams had stayed on the field - but rugby could become a better, safer sport.

I found the picture of the two teams mingling after the match with the trophy, sat in rows but inter-mingled and chatting away rather than posed, heartwarming. But there's never been a problem in rugby after the match, with teams taking a 'what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch' attitude, however 'tough' things got during the game. A game for hooligans played by gentlemen they always used to say, contrasting it with the behaviour of soccer players. And yet dangerous challenges in soccer produce the most amazing media uproar, even though they don't usually have anything like the potential of Sonny Boy's sickening direct hit on Lion Anthony Watson's head. I've always found this contrast bizarre and hypocritical.

It's not a matter of rugby being a "man's game", the phrase often used to excuse appalling challenges and off the ball assaults. The even more physical game of American football, for example, has absolutely no truck with play considered dangerous, let alone fighting. The officials take immediate action, though in that sport penalising teams by yardage penalties is enough to ensure the offences are rare. Soccer is a very different game - when the 10 yard sanction was applied for dissent or not retreating it didn't work, as territory is not as important and free kicks too close to the goal aren't easy to score from.

So I enjoyed what I saw of the Lions tour and maybe, if rugby continues to evolve in a positive direction, I could feel comfortable about youngsters I know taking up the game in the future. I don't think the game is there yet, but maybe at last attitudes to reckless play are changing, though I've still to see that change for deliberate foul play and sly play, the kind rugby fans seem all too ready to tolerate in the "man's game".

*Clive Woodward's column was in the Daily Mail, 27 June 2017

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Homecoming Prince

Of course I'm referring to Wayne Rooney.

A few days ago I was on an Everton fans' website and saw there was a poll asking "Do you want Wayne Rooney to come back?" I wondered what the balance of responses was, but the only way I could find out was to answer the question - yes or no? I hesitated for several seconds.  Yes or no? The romantic in me thought yes. The realist voted no. And then I saw I was very much in a minority, 80% had voted yes.

In the summer of 2002 I was running a business with its headquarters in Oxfordshire. I told my finance director, a lady who was a keen football fan, following England at away matches (she was there when the chairs were flying in Charleroi - I don't think she was throwing them) that there was a buzz at Everton about a 16 year old forward who would undoubtedly appear for the first team during the new season. I think what prompted me to tell her was reading that Everton had sold more shirts in pre-season with Rooney's name on the back than any other player. Before his debut. So it didn't take much foresight - lots of people knew and by October, when he scored that goal against Arsenal, ending their 30 match unbeaten run, everyone had heard of him. By the following February he had played for England, aged 17 years and 111 days.

Son after Rooney's Everton debut my FD had been startled, after coming into my office, to realise she was standing by a life size poster of Rooney, which she caught out of the corner of her eye, doing a double take. I'd bought it from a hawker in Goodison Road after a match. Now my office was a cubby hole used for one to one meetings at the most and never for hosting people from outside the company. But even so, it was perhaps a little eccentric for the office the MD of a multi-site business employing some 300 people to have a 6ft poster of a teenager on the wall. But Rooney offered beleaguered Everton fans of the day hope for a brighter future.

Understandably, Rooney felt he could not achieve his potential, in terms of winning trophies, at Everton. If he could not stay, I felt Old Trafford was the best place for him. And now, after becoming Manchester United and England's leading all time scorer and winning a deluge of trophies including 5 Premier League titles and the UEFA Champions League he is back. But will the future be brighter for Everton and Rooney as a result?

I hope so. It would be wonderful if the club could end its 23 year trophy drought, for that's what it will be by the end of the coming season, by winning a cup - the league still seems unrealistic of course. And, while minor compared with what Rooney has already won, it would add a sentimental gloss to a career that, while stellar and glorious in terms of honours, has been strangely anti-climactic compared with that youthful, sky's the limit, promise.

Even if that doesn't happen, some stirring cameos - in my dreams, him scoring the winner in a Merseyside derby - would be marvellous.

So why did I vote "no"? I don't want it to end in disappointment. For the club or for him. I hope he's still got the legs, but I'm not sure. He might not even get many minutes on the pitch. And, even though his attitude is superb - he's always just wanted to train and play football - £160k a week, while a pay cut, is still a lot to pay for a squad player who will mentor the youngsters.

I guess I just fear that getting a red card in the derby is at least as likely as scoring the winner.

But I'm still glad to see him back. Even though I long since binned the poster.



Saturday, 8 July 2017

Hillsborough - amazingly the FA get off scot free

A lot of people at getting very bored with the ongoing Hillsborough saga, but I think it's very important. I realise it won't bring back the 96 dead people. And prosecuting retired police officers who made mistakes a long time ago could appear vengeful.  Either way the families, who have lived through decades of seeing the dead relatives effectively blamed for being killed (or at least the fellow Liverpool supporters of those killed being blamed) have at least had the comfort of the truth coming out after such a long time.

I admit that for many years I thought that the issues had been raked over enough. Some fans no doubt turned up drunk, some tried to bunk in without tickets (I have personal experience of how endemic that was around that time) but the fundamental issue - the root cause - was that the ground used was unsafe. The Taylor report rapidly led to all-seater stadiums at the top level of English football and the stadiums became better places for families to attend. The big surge in money then came into the game following the advent of Sky, leading to the amazing riches of the modern game. It's hard to imagine that football could have been so rapidly rehabilitated without the Taylor changes. A Hillsborough type incident could not happen again, at least not in the same way, which was at least one positive legacy from that awful day.

That said, the trigger event on the day which turned an unsafe situation into a disaster was the police decision to open a gate and let fans pour in to pens which were meant to have specified capacities in an uncontrolled manner. There were probably plenty of other unsafe stadiums - all of us who went to matches before 1990 can remember some scary situations, especially before stadium capacities were reduced following the Safety of Sports Grounds Act of 1975, because of the sheer numbers of people present, especially trying to exit the grounds through gates, down stairways and even in narrow streets outside the grounds.

There is now still more evidence to be heard in court about why the gate was opened. We can expect to hear testimony about the crowded situation outside the ground, with perhaps a third of the spectators still outside 20 minutes before kick off time and, possibly, a defence that, with kick off approaching and fans getting agitated, it was thought safer to open the gate. The option of delaying the kick off, which had been done at the FA Cup semi-finals held at Hillsborough in 1987, two years earlier and also at the semi-final at Villa Pak that year. The FA's Glen Kirton asked the Sheffield Wednesday club secretary, Graham Mackrell, whether the police had asked to delay the kick off. The response was that they had not because delaying the kick off caused all sorts of organisational problems at the end of the game*. I wonder if this was actually because the match commander was new to the role. These days regulators in industry would surely expect a novice to have an experienced "buddy".

The reason that there was congestion outside the ground was that 12 turnstiles accessing the North Stand from Penistone Road were closed on the day, meaning Liverpool fans with tickets for both the North Stand and west end of the stadium had to enter through Leppings Lane. The coroner said: “As a result, the 23 turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end served the whole of the north and west stands, which contained over 24,000 spectators.” There were 62 turnstiles to access the Spion Kop and south stand which that meant an average of one turnstile for 468 spectators, compared to one turnstile for 1,065 fans at Leppings Lane end. The coroner, Sir John Goldring, put it to the then Sheffield Wednesday secretary that "... it was simply not safe to get 24,500 fans through the Leppings Lane end". He replied ‘It had been achieved the previous year and it had been a situation that had been agreed with the police’.

While it hadn't been a problem in 1988, when the same 2 teams contested a semi-final, it was a problem in 1989 and when the gate was deliberately opened the disaster followed. But making a mistake in the heat of the moment is one thing, even if it was the trigger for a large number of deaths. However, then there was a systematic police cover up, sponsored at senior levels and a disgraceful smoke screen of lies about the behaviour of the fans.

I had been taken in by the various inquiries and official pronouncements over the years. Though Taylor was critical of the police it wasn't a key finding and the Thatcher government didn't want to look further. After 1997 Tony Blair and Jack Straw concluded there wasn't enough information to justify reopening the issue. It was only when Andy Burnham was heckled at the 2009 memorial service that he called for full disclosure and Gordon Brown backed him, creating the Hillsborough Independent Panel. I was wrong (as very many were) in thinking that the police had probably done the best job they could, as usual, in difficult circumstances and I think the political classes were stunned at what emerged, with Cameron and May giving full support to taking things further.

Some might say why press charges now? To me this isn't about justice for the 96 - it's to protect our society much more widely. The police cover up showed an institutional level of corruption in the South Yorkshire force. It would be very difficult to investigate whether this behaviour was more widespread. Perverting the course of justice is an extremely serious offence by anyone, but by the police it threatens our whole justice system. I expect there would be very few people in the legal system who don't think these cases should be prosecuted. The police do a hard job in often trying circumstances and we have seen heroic actions by officers on many occasions. But the bar for police conduct has to be set high and it is essential that such blatant illegal behaviour must be prosecuted and, if found guilty, severely punished.

However one party is getting off scot free. The Football Association held their semi-final at a ground that didn't have a valid, or certainly not up to date, safety certificate, a legal requirement. The whole situation over the safety certificate was a mess. Some of the evidence to the second inquest stated that the certificate wasn't valid**, though the a retired senior fire officer who was on the committee monitoring the ground's safety certificate testified that it was valid, but "hadn't been updated" and that "everybody in the working party was concerned that the safety certificate was so far out of date"***. This may all seem a bit of a detail now, but one of the reasons it needed updating was because the Leppings Lane end of the ground had been separated into three pens, a modification that was a factor in the disaster. Moreover, the three pens were not served by separate turnstiles so police were meant to monitor how many were going into each pen and close them when they got to capacity. This seems a totally inadequate way of trying to meet a safety requirement, even if the gate had not been deliberately opened, leading to an uncontrollable (and uncountable) rush of fans. But worse than that: there were discrepancies in the maximum pen capacities and they had not been checked or updated either. And the required annual inspection hadn't taken place.

Now all this was the responsibility of Sheffield Wednesday, the hosting club. One former Sheffield Wednesday executive, Graham Mackrell, is amongst the people being charged. The club itself cannot be charged as it went bust and the successor company did not take on historic liabilities. There is no body corporate to prosecute, or to sue for damages. But the Football Association had a rule at the time that required all clubs every season to fill in a form, certifying their grounds had been inspected in accordance with safety legislation and the appropriate licence obtained****. It was a disciplinary offence not to fulfill that requirement. But the FA did not follow its own rule - did not even appear to be aware of it - and so went ahead and awarded the match to Sheffield Wednesday. But officially they weren't in charge of the match, the club was, as Graham Kelly the then FA Chief Executive was careful to spell out in his original witness statement*. So the FA, a hugely rich organisation, have got away with it on a technicality, because it was not legally the body responsible for the match. Even though it was the FA Cup. How convenient.

Graham Kelly had also only been in post for about 2 months when the game was held. Even so, I think he is a very fortunate man. He oversaw the choice of the ground. And the FA, with its deep pockets, is not going to be charged with corporate manslaughter and will not be heavily fined. I think an amount approximating to the cost of the 2nd inquest would have seemed appropriate, myself.

Oh, I checked in case the phrase "scot free" is now politically incorrect. It's not - yet. The derivation of the phrase comes from the Scandinavian word shot, for which the modern equivalents in Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic mean "tax". So basically without penalty. For example see here

*from Graham Kelly's Hillsborough witness statement to the 1989 inquiry which can be seen at http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/repository/docs/HOM000001380001.pdf
**http://www.mirror.co.uk/incoming/hillsborough-no-valid-safety-certificate-3616429
***Hillsborough inquests - safety certificate "out of date" at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-27639456
****https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/may/10/hillsborough-disaster-fa-serious-questions-ground-safety

Friday, 30 June 2017

Glasto - in praise of the BBC (and Ed Sheeran)

I said last year that, now the Beeb has practically had to pull out of sport, its Glastonbury coverage is not only excellent but, for me, just about the best thing about the corporation these days. And brilliant the coverage was again. I can't possibly watch all of the things I'd like to while they remain available on iPlayer. But the right wing press (ok, the Daily Mail) got its knickers in a twist about political bias because of the attention given to Jeremy Corbyn. I'm not a fan of Corbyn and even less so of McDonnell, whose comments at Glasto about housing and the Grenfell Tower disaster were truly and unsurprisingly awful. I'm not just talking about his "murdered by political decisions" comment, which had two angles. The first was his argument that housing in our country is built only for "financial speculation rather than for meeting a basic human need". Well he would think that because he won't accept that a market  produces better results than a command economy, despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the self-evident fact that the standard of housing provided by the likes of the Smolensk Workers Co-operative would not exactly command a lot of enthusiasm here. The second was fire service cuts, which was refuted by the London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, who said "there were no issues about numbers of firefighters". What one has to recognise, of course, is that when McDonnell blames "governments" and "political decisions" he doesn't just mean since 2010 as he has no hesitation in blaming the Blair and Brown governments as well as Cameron and May since, to him, they are all awful Tories of one kind or another.

But back to the accusation of bias in the TV coverage. Corbyn was invited to speak by the festival organisers. A bad call for me as I think politicians only belong there in the audience, but one the organisers are entitled to make. And it is then only reasonable for the Beeb to cover it, as it's part of the event. The fact that lots of petit bourgeoisie who can pay the nearly £250 a head for the cheapest ticket seem to be overwhelmingly supportive of someone who would tax them hard is remarkable but not surprising as they all get carried away with young person's group think on occasions like this, even if some are ageing hippies. And of course those who have a student loan would love to have it written off, though why they think they should benefit compared to the people of the same age who didn't go to university, or indeed other people who willingly signed up for a loan of any kind, I'm not sure. There'd be just as much logic in writing off the car loans of people under 30. Seems the idealistic young are just as interested in a "bung" as anyone. This seems to me of more import than the BBC briefly covering something that actually happened at an event they were televising. I suppose they could have totally ignored it and not shown or said anything about Corbyn but to me that would have been strange and tantamount to censorship.

The other thing about Glasto that caught my attention was Ed Sheeran having to explain on twitter that he hadn't been miming or using tape recordings, but simply using a loop station to create his own backing riffs and rhythms as part of his remarkable one man show. I must admit I thought everybody knew about loop stations. We first saw someone using one many years ago now at a pub or golf club gig. I was nearly as fascinated as when I realised a similar performer was enhancing his vocals through software on his laptop - I'd just thought he was remarkably good at impersonating all sorts of famous singers till I realised. I thought Sheeran did well, though the set was perhaps a little long: we were losing attention and felt the audience there was too about three-quarters of the way through. Mind, I've had the riff from Eraser on a loop in my head ever since. Its autobiographical lyric is totally risible in some places:
I forget when I get awards now the wave I had to ride
The paving stones I played on that kept me to the grind....
Guess it's a stereotypical day for someone like me
Without a nine to five job or a uni degree
To be caught up in the trappings of the industry....
I used to think that nothing could be better than touring the world with my songs
I chased the picture perfect life, I think they painted it wrong
I think that money is the route (sic*) of all evil and fame is hell....
With my beaten small guitar, wearing the same old jeans
Wembley Stadium crowds, two hundred and forty thou**
And to the next generation inspiration's allowed....
And I'll find comfort in my pain eraser....
You poor sausage, Ed Sheeran MBE. You're all of 26 years old.... and though you had to make quite a few independently produced EPs before you got a record deal (the first when he was 14 and one of which was a minor hit and won a silver disc) it wasn't that slow and long a trajectory to fame aged 20! Most buskers aren't expecting that big breakthrough to come easily, nor do most stars find the trappings of fame tiresome so quickly. But I do think this is a good song, nevertheless. After all there are plenty of risible Joe Strummer lyrics I like to sing along to.

It took me a long time to get Sheeran. My boss told me about him and suggested I might like his stuff. As she's a big Led Zep fan she has taste so I took a listen. Now Sheeran is officially genre-d (a verb I probably just invented) as pop, acoustic and contemporary folk. Well, he clearly isn't folk, but as my favourite man with just an acoustic guitar, Roy Harper, isn't either, I thought he might be promising. This was very early in Ed's career - his first album might just have come out. I checked him out on youtube and was nonplussed. I saw him on several TV shows, including Graham Norton. I remember saying to my other half "I feel I ought to like this guy but I just don't warm to him". I gave him more chances than there are in a monopoly card deck. The song that finally did it for me, perhaps predictably, was 2016 Grammy winning Thinking Out Loud from his second album, Multiply, which I then went out and bought. And I quite liked some of it; though the grime/rap stuff didn't seem to me to fit with the rest of the tracks. Though to be fair, Sheeran has always been as much grime as folk - some of his independently produced teenage EPs were grime collaborations. And it didn't stop me buying the latest album, Divide, because I thought I should and I liked more than its predecessor (though when I go back and listen to X now I think I prefer it). Glastonbury is the first time I've seen a live Sheeran set and I loved it. It's not the first time I've had to see a live performance to really get an artist. I guess this is partly because what you don't see when he does one song on a TV show is the energy he puts in to his set.

But now I really do like him, rather than thinking that I ought to like him. I just had to give him far more chances than I've ever given any artist previously. Mind, I still don't like singing along to rap: I just can't remember that many words that quickly!

*I typed these lyric extracts direct from the official CD inlay, not some dodgy website
**I find this lyric remarkably self aggrandising. On a pedantic point of detail, you can't play to 240 thousand people at Wembley. Well not all at once. The official stadium capacity is 90,000 but it's generally lower for concerts and was about 80,000 a night for Ed Sheeran's "X" tour. The official figure (well, on Wikipedia anyway) for the tour was 229,725 over 4 nights, but that wouldn't have rhymed. They can get more in by using a 360 degree layout, the maximum so far being 92,000 for U2, but for Adele in a few days' time they are going to get 98,000 in. Over 4 nights that will be 392 thou, a new record for Wembley. Eat your hear out Ed, or just use your pain eraser. P.S. Oops, Adele damaged her vocal chords after two of the Wembley gigs....

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The biggest ever endorsement wedge in sport

Which sportsman has earned the most dosh from endorsements in a single year? Not golf's Tiger Woods. Not basketball's Michael Jordan. And certainly not football's David Beckham.

The answer is George Forman. Just about everyone will remember the George Foreman lean, mean grilling machine, a counter-top grill designed to drain out the fat, which rode the early healthy eating wave. Foreman having retired once from boxing, been a preacher and gone back to pugilism, was invited to a trade fair in Las Vegas in 1995. There he met a man who had been trying to market the grill, but with little success. That man saw for himself how popular and personable Foreman was - and also a big carnivore. But he didn't have the cash to do the normal up front endorsement fee. So he offered George a cut of future profits. The men hit it off and Foreman, perhaps surprisingly, agreed to the deal. Rebranded under George's name and face it became a huge success. Foreman, on 45% of the profits, hoped he might gross a million dollars in total out of the deal. After a slow burn start (sorry) they soon couldn't make them quickly enough to meet demand and Foreman's monthly cheques, initially modest, were approaching $4 million by 1999. That year he sold out his stake for a lump sum of $137.5 million, the most any athlete has made from endorsements in a single year. Well that's what I read but not long afterwards CNN reckoned* it was over five years and might have be exceeded by Jordan's unpublicised deal with Nike, though a more recent book** pooh poohs that. But it's a great story and, either way, it's more than George's lifetime earnings from boxing. One can only say "gorgeous", Foreman's nickname.

Even stranger, while Foreman sold the rights to use his name in perpetuity (which generally means 80 years - a commercial manager I know has a saying "irrevocable isn't never, perpetual isn't for ever") he felt he'd been sacked and, while he had some ongoing obligations, willingly continued to promote the product and go to the factory. The story appears in huge detail on CNN's website (see below).

Not that I know of anyone who ever owned one. Oh, maybe one; we remember it being on someone we know's wedding gift list.

* CNN Money, June 1 2003. Gorgeous George - the George Foreman lean mean fat-reducing grilling machine....is a phenomenon
**Bouts of Mania, Richard Hoffer, Aurum. The book covers the 6 famous fights featuring combinations of Frazier, Ali and Foreman between 1971 and 1975, including the Foreman-Ali 'Rumble in the Jungle' which Ali won against all expectations, using his 'rope-a-dope' tactic to weather the Foreman storm before knocking him out.