In Praise of Referees

Ever since my knees got worse and I stopped venturing out of the house to go for a walk, I’ve watched a lot more sport. Soon after my double knee replacement I signed up to BT sport, and have never regretted it. I get the European football, regular premiership rugby, and this weekend the quarter-finals of the rugby European Cup. and look, the nice kind people at BT sport arrange the matches so that they don’t clash - if I want to, and this weekend I do, I can sit and watch all four. They’ve been rivetting, but with true dramatic skill they made sure that they saved the best for last. Toulouse had their fly-half sent off for a high tackle after twenty minutes, but still hung on to beat Racing 92 by a single point, after some breathtaking rugby and thousands of twists and turns which might easily have gone the other way.

and at the heart of all this was Luke Pearce, who likes like a well-behaved sixth former, but is consistently clear, appolite and apparently lacking in ego - he just wants to get the decisions right. and he does. He makes good use of the TMO, he isn’t stampeded into rash decisions which might please a volatile and partisan crowd, and in the opinion of people who know (Brian O’Driscoll, Lawrence Dallaglio) he gets them all right. He talks to his touch judges in English, but to the French plays in French, and all in all is just a brilliant example of how to be English abroad. Politicians please note.

The Cleaners

Not sure if there’s anything on TV? Just go to BBC iplayer, look up Storyville, and then watch anything they’ve got. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff on there over the last year, and really can’t remember watching anything of theirs that I regretted. This was deeply topical - a look at The Cleaners, the people who police social media, to decide which posts and images should stay up, and which should be taken down. Not exactly ideal working conditions. They sit in a booth, flicking through images, saying “ignore…ignore…delete….ignore…delete…” with a target of 25,000 images a day. some of them have high ideals, about the need for the work they do and the social service they’re performing, but over the course of the documentary it’s very clear that there’s a huge cost - just watching this stuff - the pornography, the violent images of terrorism - is really depressing, quite apart from the pressure of having to make thousands of decisions against the clock. and these are not relaxed intellectuals sitting in California laying down the rules. They’re shift workers in Manila; if they weren’t doing this they’d be sifting rubbish from the piles of garbage that litter the outskirts of town, and the documentary makes clear that these alternative occupations are nothing like as different as we might like to think. not pleasant, not simple, but necessary viewing.

Man U Miracle

I’m not a fan of Manchester United. Their slogan “We’re not arrogant. Just better” is a neat summary of why they’re hard to love, but just now and again they blow your mind. I remember performing a poem about their last-minute European cup win back in the late nineties, and then last night they did it again.

They’re playing PSG, who deservedly beat them 2-0 at home in the first leg. Journalists handily provide the evidence that this has happened on 106 occasions, without the losing team ever overcoming that disadvantage. So Man U, of course, go and do it. They don’t have much possession, they don’t play good football or produce creative moves, but they do win.

and you can see the solskjaer brain, actually at work. Start off with two strikers, pressing defenders, pressuring them into mistakes - and getting two goals as a result. Then sit back and defend that, 5-4-1 with very little positive going on. Last ten minutes, all out attack, throw on a third striker, and some squeak a highly dubious penalty out of VAR. It’s genius.

Shamima Begum

When Shamima Begum and her friends left the country to join Isis I wrote a sonnet about her, focussing on the press conference where her family appeared holding her teddy bear, saying “she’s our baby, and we want her back.” It seemed like a bad idea at the time, when whatever else she was she clearly wasn’t a baby, and was planning on doing some pretty drastic growing up.

And she has. she’s lost her husband and her children, and wants to come back home with her new baby. enter Sajid Javid, high class chancer, very skilled at watching the tabloids to see which way he ought to jump. Maybe sound hawkish, and say she can’t come back? Threaten to cancel her citizenship - “just like that”? But he’s not an incompetent TV magician. He’s a government minister and he’s supposed to apply the law. where does it say he can rub out someone’s nationality, just because he doesn’t like their political choices? She may be a contradiction, and she may have committed crimes - though she’s innocent until proved guilty. But she is British, and she’s allowed to come back home.

Can-kicking, Olympic style

The rest of Europe looks on in disbelief. When you look at how much time has been squandered on meaningless posturing. it’s incredible that we approach the deadline for the UK leaving Europe watching Theresa May regullarly postponing votps she fear she might lose. the only thing she’s worried about is trying to win tory and DUP votes. Other parties, the country, business confidence - who cares? none of it seems to be taken seriously, if only she can create the illusion that something will change on the backstop. the EU are desperate to try to get us to be serious, but there’s no chance, really. We are heading for the dark, and our electoral system offers no rescue of any kind.

Universal Credit

Universal Credit, you will not be surprised to hear, is a disaster. It’s been looking that way since at least 2014, and as it’s “rolled out” (wonderful phrase) so the faults keep appearing in brighter, bolder colours. You’ve got to communicate with the office, but not by going in - by ringing up. Often, the lines are jammed. If they are, you’ll get stultifying music, for hours on end - so much kinder just to have total silence. You’ve got to go online, even if you don’t have a computer. You’ve got to look for jobs, even if there aren’t any (and in this particular part of Hartlepool, that’s largely true. And if you’re totally illiterate some fool at the DWP is likely to suggest that you become an IT consultant. Presenting the most vulnerable people on TV is a tough, elusive art, but this programme - Skint Britain - managed it better than most, with warmth and a sense of humour (like The Mighty Recar) but also a gathering rage about the clumsiness of the plans that have been devised to support these people - though ‘support’ is’t the right word. “Make them realise how worthless they are” perhaps? and all in the service of Ian Duncan smith’s nineteenth century view of “Work good, benefits bad.”

Surely we can do better than this?

Marie Colvin

Wonderful Storyville documentary about Marie Colvin - “Under the Wire”, on BBC4. Most of its about colvin in Homs, particualrly in the days leading up to her killing, and her sidekick/buddy/cameraman Paul Conroy is compulsive viewing. She wasn’t, often, particularly nice - there’s a vivd scene when new reporters arrive on her patch, and she’s rude to and about them (Eurotrash!). Her friend Lindsey Hilsum is cleaerly different - rational, tough, determined, but also aware of the risks - “I asked about her exit strategy. She didn’t have one.” There’s absolutely no doubting Colvin’s commimtent to the civilians of Homs, and her determined spelling out of the aggression of the Assad forces towards their own population - which is probably what got her killed. So she’s a fascinating character rather than a role model, but documentaries like this are as close as you can get to giving us cushy spectators the feel of what it must be like to be in a war zone without putting ourselves at risk in any way. So, thanks, guys.

Sorting Venezuela

there’s absolutely no doubt that Venezuela’s in a mess. It goes back a while, and the are complex reasons, and some excellent TV documentaries have spelt out why that’s horrendous for huge numbers of people who live there. But none of that’s an excuse for the crude intervention proposed by Trump - and echoed by large parts of Europe. you’d have thought we might have learnt - vietname, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. Intervening ion other countries isn’t a simple matter of saying they got it wrong so the boss man has to go. You need something a lot more sustained, intelligent and long-term if what follows is going to be any better than what went before. But because nobody wants to tell Trump that there are things he doesn’t understand, they troop obediently along, likely to make things worse rather than better.

She Did It!

That’s how the tabloids greeted Mrs. May’s achievement in turning her 230-vote defeat last time into a narrow victory - for what? For going back to Brussels who say there’s nothing to talk about, And then coming back to the Brexit rebels who don;’t like what she’s offering, and reserve the right to rebel again. The woman must be stupid…

Or quite clever, and determined. What if she doesn’t want to solve the problem? What if she wants to wind the clock down, so that it’s her deal or no deal? What if she not only f doesn’t want to solve the problem, but wants to stop anyone else solving it either? We should have had a vote in December. Postponed - two weeks wasted. It will take five minutes to find out how much room there is for negotiation on the backstop, but she’s given herself two weeks. Time is just slipping away…and maybe that’s all part of the plan.

Is anyone going to try to stop, and suggest that this problem need solving?

What next?

So there goes Theresa May’s deal - not with a whimper but with a massive bang. Lost by 230 votes; you can’t get more decisive than that. When she postponed the original vote everyone knew it was only a case of putting off the inevitable, and it would be great to hear exactly what she thinks she gained. But in the meantime, there’s more important stuff to be done. She talks about involving a wider ranger of voices in search of agreement, but in terms of personal skills neither she nor Corbyn is equipped for that. He’s locked in some fantasy where he wins a general election and then persuades the EU to give him what he wants - but he can’t even organise his own cabinet, let alone an international deal. So our fate for the moment is in the hands of Tory and Labour MPs, and for that to have any positive substance, that means collaboration between them. Quite exciting, in a way…even if the history of the last three years doesn’t seem to support much optimism. Maybe the grisly threat of what awaits us if they don’t manage it will actually help to concentrate their minds…let’s hope so.

Poetic Choices

All through 2018 friends kept telling me about a competition (deadline December 31) asking for poems about Brexit - just your sort of thing, they said. And they’re right, of course, except that entry was free, but each entrant was only allowed to submit one poem, so it’s likely to be a very popular lottery. I knew early on which poem I’d be sending it - a lively account of the journey of the big red Brexit bus. I had a version of this from the summer, but it kept changing to take account of the disastrous nature of the negotiations, and the increasing sense that the bus was heading over the cliff.

So, how to end the poem? Often when i performed it around the circuit I ended up with total gloom, and a sharp defiant question:

“ It’s hell on wheels, it’s rock and roll
So tell me - who took back control?”

It’s a tough, angry conclusion, very much of the moment, but for a published anthology that might sound bleak and cynical - and it might also not be accurate about the story that was unfolding. In November there were rumours of MPs getting together across party lines, to try to rule out both a hard Brexit and the prospect of no deal. Grieve’s amendment was passed, and I scribbled my jaunty conclusion, in which the MPs at the back of the bus eat chips and raise two fingers to the whips, because they have finally taken back control. Then I sent off the poem and waited.

The news got grimmer and grimmer. May delayed a vote she knew she would lose. Detailed preparations for no deal were put in place. Grayling dispatched lorries around the south-east, as a rehearsal for the chaos to come. Maybe I was kidding myself. But then, today, news that the rumours are true. A cross-party group, led again by Dominic Grieve, has put together a motion refusing financial support for no-deal preparations, and the speaker has allowed this amendment to be put, and a majority of MPs have voted it through. Maybe somewhere a poetry judge is looking at my poem, wondering “How on earth did he know this would happen?” We can but hope.

The Stansted Fifteen

Just got an offer I’ve had to refuse, and it breaks my heart. There’s a protest in Wiolverhampton on Tuesday night, against the trial of the Stansted Fifteen, and they’re asking for interested poets. Yes, a poet of sorts. Yes, very interested - but sadly committed elsewhere. But I have sent them a poem, because this is a cause very close to my heart.

Migrants being forcibly deported, dragged on a plan and dumped in various parts of Africa. Some of them have been trafficked, some of them have appeals pending, but none of that makes any difference to the specialists in Hostile Environment. So I’m delighted that protestors have immobilised this plane - specially chartered by the Home Office, and prevented the removal of these people. They’re tried under an anti-terrorist law, passed in response to Lockerbie - some time back. In the interim, the only person charged u nder it was the pilot of a helicopter who tried to crash it into a control tower. On the spectrum of serious risk, this protest falls a long way short of that, but the powers that be are going out of their way to ensure that these naughty children are to be taught a lesson. And the judge clearly got the message, instructing the jury to ignore any stuff about human rights, and just focus on whether or not they affected the business of the airport.

So there’s two big things to be noisy about here - the forced deportations, and the right to protest. I shan’t be there on Tuesday, but I’ll be cheering them on.. And you can find th poem I sent them elsewhere on this website, in Poems from the News.

Piss-up in a Brewery

Oh dear. It just keeps getting worse. No, says May, the vote will definitely go ahead. Her loyal cabinet trawl the airwaves, insisting she won’t back down. At the very last minute, she backs down. the blood-curdling masses of the ERG challenger her leadership, demand a vote. They lose, by 117-200. Rees-Mogg insists that if that’s the margin of victory, she should go to the queen and hand in her notice. If he’d won by 200-117, is that what he’d have done? Not a chance. short-term egotists the lot of them, with not a glimmer of how they look to us, or - even more embarassing - the world as a whole. And it would be wonderful to pretend that Labour were any more united, imaginative, or aware. Sadly, I can’t do it…

Taking back control?

for once, a sniff of good news. Well, good news for me, and remainers. For passionate Brexiteers, not so much. three commons defeats for May, and - I think - the most crucial is Grieve’s, giving Parliament the decisive voice about no deal. so if there’s no parliamentary majority for a hard Brexit, and there is a Parliamentary majority against no deal, what we’ll get is either something Norway-ish, or a second referendum. Right? You just don’t know these days, but this does feel like progress. Yes, it’s a shambles, and the continuing uncertainty is a pain for anyone conducting serious business, but nobody conducting serious business can be cheered by these negotiations, or the deal that’s come out of them. I can see the rage that will follow - “So what were we voting for?” - but the phrasing of the question was so inept, the nature of the campaign so negative and divisive, that it’s hard to call anything “the will of the people” - especially with the bacjground mutters of illegal approaches and demographic change. It was a mess, and if MPs are finally resolved not to mortgage our future for a mess, I for one am mildly relieved.

Beware of Politics

Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on poverty, has looked at how the UK operates and says that it’s a disgrace, callous and mean-spirited. Amber Rudd, restored to the cabinet and in charge of DWP, is eager to demonstrate her loyalty and brands Alston’s report “political”. Maybe she means “moral” - because that’s the main basis for his disapproval. than again, Rudd could be right. Because the really deadly thing Alston did was to listen, very carefully, to people at the sharp end. You can see snatches of news reports where he’s doing it. He’s not grandstanding or interrupting, he’s encouraging people to talk. What was their experience? How had they been treated? He puts that together with the figures, and comes up with a pretty damning picture. Rudd insists that she’s not dogmatic, is perfectly willing o listen to expert critics who phrase their criticisms in a way she approves - but what she won’t do is pay serious attention to the people on the receiving end. that’s the beauty and the power of Alston;’s approach, which is why this government sees it as such a threat.

Money Can't Buy You Love

Today’s Guardian reports that the Saudis have paid the Natural History Museum £23,700 to host an event, days after the Khasoggi killing. Phrased like that, it sounds brutal and calculating, but it probably is. There was another instance earlier, when a member of the Saudi court expressed dismay at the disloyalty of the Turkish government in releasing details of the killing. “We’d given them a lot of money”, he said, as though that really was the only hing that mattered. It clearly is to Trump, but that’s one of the reasons many of us find him repulsive. Killing off a journalist because what he’s writing is embarrassing isn’t OK, no matter who you are or how much money you’ve got. So all we need are some politicians who grasp that, and are prepared to act on it. Don’t hold your breath.

So Near and Yet So Far

Phew! We got within a point of beating the world champions. Closer than that, we scored a brilliant try which was disallowed after the TMO overruled the ref, but the TMO’s not supposed to do that unless there’s a clear…blah blah blah. On the other hand, if you have a 15-0 lead against the All Blacks and you let it slip, maybe you don’t deserve to win. and we did get a one-point win against the Springboks, on the basis of a very flukey TMO decision, so maybe that’s quits. We had chances, we made mistakes, the line-out was a shambles, and the All Blacks are very resilient. and maybe if the weather had been dry and more conducive to really good rugby, they’d have thrashed us. but it was exciting, and much more cheering than the slough into which the vaunted England team has slipped over the last year. so maybe a bit of the Eddie Jones magic still survives. It was certainly worth watching.

Unity and Peace

Oh dear. It would be almost funny if it wasn’t serious. Donald Trump is slowing the pace right down, looking even more self-important than usual, and asking his citizens to come together. Yeah, right. If you say that someone who bodyslams a report is “My kind of guy”, then it’ not totally surprising that another of your supporters thinks it’s a good idea to post a pipe-bomb to CNN. Which makes it slightly tricky if you then want to do the wise leadership thing of asking your countrymen and women to join together in unity and peace.

Making connections, planning consequences, is not something he’s ever had to do, because he’s bought his way out of it, or pretended that the messy results don’t matter. But the running the country stuff really is quite complicated, and you need to think about what you do and say in advance. There may still be enough intelligent adults left in the administration who know this, and could explain it, but somehow I don’t think they’ll get the chance. Trump doesn’t want to listen to anyone except his chanting fan base, and to them he’s bragging about how well he’s behaving, because he and they know this is just a short charade before he goes on the rant again. But we all hold our breath,wondering if the mid-term elections will make any kind of a difference. Experience warns that we shouldn’t be too hopeful. There are, it seems, plenty of Americans who really think this is the best they can manage.

House of Assad

A series of three documentaries, about the recent history of Syria. But with a strong emphasios, and for good reason, on Basher’s family. He’s not meant to be running the country; older brother is being groomed for that, but older brother dies in a car crach. Basher, the shy eye surgeon with the liberated, modern wife, suddenly has to fit in the mould that’s waiting for him - heir to the hawkish, defiant Dad. Ruthless suppressor of criticism or dissent, which actually means he will end up opposed to all the things that he and his wife originally intended to support. Through a series of crises and accidents he blunders his way into destroying large parts of his country, killing his subjects, driving them out of their homes - and all thetime he sounds like an amateur actor who hasn’t learnt the script. There were moments when it could have been different, when advisors with more vision offered him alternatives, but no. He chose to keep his mum happy, to fit into the mould, to make the lying speeches claiming he was defending the country from terrorism, while driving it relentlessly towards oblivion. Heartbreaking, but also fascinating in a morbid kind of way.

Bad Boys of Brexit

That’s the title of Arron Banks account of the campaign, and it catches his self-image perfectly - the cheeky rebel who sticks it to the posh guys who think they know more than he does. It has its down sides. People who work for and with him are frequently exasperated, but he cheerily waves that aside as one of the perks of the job - theirs, presumably.

There is, though, interesting stuff on the details. There’s a mass killing in Orlando, by a Muslim fanatic. Banks and Co surge into gear, offering this as a warning against uncontrolled immigration - though the guy responsible was born and bred American. Farage produced his Breaking Point poster, but has reservations - Banks says it’s fine. It just states the facts. (Really?) Jo Cox is shot. Banks tells Farage he needs to go on radio and apologise for the poster - which has been misinterpreted.

It’s all ruthlessly calculated. don’t say what’s true, say what will get the topic on the agenda. People being horrified is great - it extends the coverage. Banks insists he’s personally charming, not a racist bone in his body, Russian wife etc etc but the impact of what he does and what he spends is massively divisive.