The End of an Era

So it's not going to happen. Arsene Wenger will not end his managerial career by lifting the Europa Cup. sad, but fairly predictable, given the way things have gone this season. They actually didn't play too badly, pressed atletico into mistakes, created some fluent passing moves, and had more possession than the home team. But they didn't really penetrate, didn't take any of the half-chances that came their way, and they contrived to produce a defensive blunder that undermined all their good work. Again.

Watching Martin Keown analyse Arsena's defensive lapses has become a kind of regular penance, the price faithful Gooners must pay for following this elusive Grail.  Patiently he goes through what they did, what they should have done, and you wonder - why isn't he there at training, showing them how not to give goals away. Steve Bold is there, hads a similar defesnive background, but somehow the Wenger gospel of beautiful creation doesn't extend to keeping a clean sheet. So it's been an eventful ride, and excitingly successful in the early years, but - although Arsene clearly doesn't agree - it's definitely time for a change. 

Quality football

Nothing special about that, except that it's the England team I'm talking about, and that hasn't been true for a while. so much thoughtful stroking the ball about at the back, from side to side unless somebody approaches, when we send it back to the goalkeeper, who boots it upfield to the opposition...so now we have john Stones sliding through precision passes which get movement going; Harry Maguire not seeing an opening for a good pass, so advancing with an intelligent, threatening, controlled dribble...Not to mention Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who seems to have had a really good reason for leaving Arsenal to go to Liverpool. As an Arsenal fan it hurts to say this, but within months he's a different player.

So, yes, England are in the process of transfrmation. All credit to Gareth Southgate for having a plan, and for picking young players skilful and brave enough to carry it out. OK, so the Netherlands were pretty poor, and other teams will provide a tougher test, but this was still a more enjoyable England game to watch than any I can remember for quite a while. 

Grand Slam

So there it is. Simple as that. At the first time of asking, after years of close shaves and disappointments, the England Rugby team beats every other team in the competition. What's changed? Eddie Jones, that's what. if you want a powerful demonstration of the importance of management, then this season provides it. Many of the same players, but much better performances, and - when it matters - not doing silly stuff to throw it all away.

As it happens, England played worse than at any time in the tournament and France were streets better than they've been all tournament, but although England did have a wobble and did give way far too many penalties, they stopped France from scoring a try and saw the job through. Very impressive.  

Watching Arsenal

Oh my God, but don't they put us through it?! other Arsenal fans reading this will know what I mean. The Premiership is imploding, Chelsea have an atrocious start to the season, everybody else is subject to managerial uncertainty, so this must be the year for Arsenal - the new, shiny Arsenal, finally strengthened by serious spending, to make their move. Apparently not. Faced with a disorganised Manchester United, and a lowly Swansea, they proceed to lose both games tamely, and virtually give up the chase.

 

But today, with a derby game against Spurs, they finally hint at greatness. they survive a lot of early pressure, and then score a sumptuous breakaway goal. When half-time comes they're looking good, comfortable on the ball and far more threatening than Spurs. So - throw it away. Coquelin tries to make an absurd tackle and gets sent off, and Spurs score twice in five minutes.

Arsenal, down to ten men, already have three forwards on the pitch. so what do they do? They put on a fourth, play some fabulous football, get an equaliser and almost get a win. It's deeply moving but God, it's hard on the nerves.   

Wall to wall art

Now and again, we build up a file of newspaper reviews, and go down to London to visit galleries. It helps that my sister lives there, and is happy to be invaded for a weekend, while we vanish all day and then come home to be fed. So this time the programme goes SATURDAY Impressionists, Goya drawings, Maggi Hambling SUNDAY Greek sculpture, Australian artefacts and Los Carpinteros. Yeah, okay, They’re the odd ones out, in many senses. At the Parasol Unit, not the best known or most easily accessible venue in London, but well worth the long trek on foot we took to get there. Two Cuban artists, with a real political edge but not crude propaganda, who’ve stayed in Havana and made witty, provocative, powerful art. Look them up on Google and you’ll get a taste. This comes from their stunning video of a Cuban dance troupe samba-ing down a main street in Havana – backwards. Just amazing.

Falling short again

Being an England rugby fan is very like watching Arsenal, there’s some beautiful stuff along the way, and your hopes get painfully raised, but actually when it comes to the crunch they can’t quite manage to deliver. The England rugby team have improved massively under Stuart Lancaster. They’re calmer, more intelligent and less arrogant than they used to be, and this season they’ve played some really good rugby, but in a tight, tough battle with Ireland they weren’t quite good enough. They don’t fall apart like they used to in the old days, and the margins of error are tiny, but yet again they’ve lost when they might have won, and it’s very unlikely they’ll be champions.

Computer Dependency

Here we go again. Just as it’s all going smoothly, and I’m congratulating myself at getting with the technological programme, it all goes weird. Press the switch, the light goes on, wiggle the mouse and more lights go on, but actually nothing on the screen. I’ve just put a bookcase on Freegle, and for all I know thousands of eager applicants are queuing up to collect it, but all I can do is wait.

I wait. I end up with a lovely new monitor, 21″ wide (replacing the 16″ dinosaur that was the reason for my difficulties), and find that actually there’s only three people who wanted the bookcase, and none of them are now interested. So that’s OK. Restored to e-mail contact, i think maybe it’s time to gently nudge the people printing my forthcoming book (Writing for blockheads, launched on March 27th) that I sent the files two weeks ago so they should be just about ready….Reply comes back, almost immediately.”Not ready. Couldn’t open your files. Didn’t you get my e-mails?” Actually, no. Didn’t get them, can’t find them anywhere – inbox, junk, deleted, not a sign of any communication at all. Cold panic settles in, as I contemplate a triumphant launch at which copies of the book are not available. I am reassured that it won’t be that bad, but for a sickening number of minutes I think it might.

Life’s a bitch

What fools these mortals be. And so bloody vulnerable. I was feeling quite chirpy, busy, on top of stuff, managing to spin a few plates at a time, when I try to turn the computer on and nothing happens. Plugged in, lights on, but nothing on the screen. Turn off, turn on, try it with a different mouse. Zilch. Go downstairs to nip out, and my wife points out that one of the tyres is looking a bit flat. I don’t want to believe her, but it is. My carefully planned day is in pieces. I have stuff to print for a meeting tonight, and I’ve promised a friend a lift…

In an hour it’s sorted. A nice man at the garage pumps a bit of air in and the tyre stays up. having had a breather, my computer decides that it actually will work after all, so what was i worrying about? God knows, but it’s really exhausting.

Man City 0 Arsenal 2

At last. It’s been a rough ride for Arsenal fans, watching all this lovely intricate stuff, occasionally producing glorious moments and wonderful goals, but not consistently getting results. And there’s always the sinking fear that every time we meet a really good team, when it matters, we’ll be torn apart. Last season we were totally stuffed at Liverpool, Man City and Chelsea. But today, somehow, for once, we went to Man City and beat them, deservedly. Had a bit of luck, but worked for it, stuck together, didn’t collapse, and the mutual celebrations and congratulations the Arsenal players shared at the end spread out from the screen to envelope all us faithful fans out here. We’ve suffered long enough.

The tyranny of things

My dad was a very mild, reasonable bloke who hardly ever lost his temper with people. Things, though, were completely different – in his whimsical days he’d expound on “the malevolence of matter.”I’m exactly the same. I occasionally swear about people, but never at them. On the other hand screws, tools, fiddly little things that won’t go where they’re told or insist on dropping to the floor can easily reduce me to paroxyms of rage.

So, this Christmas, my granddaughter needs my wifi password so she can be connected. I mean, imagine the heartache – Christmas without wi-fi connection. It’s just too grim to contemplate. So I hand over my top secret, one-copy-only piece of card which contains all my e-mail passwords. I know. You’re not supposed to do that, but they keep changing the rules on what a password is supposed to look like, so there’s no other way of keeping track. Granddaughter gets connected, Christmas festivities proceed and I, like a total idiot, fail to immediately reclaim the card and put it back in its totally safe storage place. Family go home, bearing presents, and I can’t find the card. I spend ten days thinking about it, sorting through rubbish, going through other piles of paper into which it might possibly have slipped. Each night I get a brainwave about where it might be, leading to a morning search which is as fruitless as the rest. all the time, whatever I’m doing or trying to think about, there’s this nagging worry that it must be there somewhere, if only…Until today. My brainwave sends me under the dining-room table, which had been extended for Christmas dinner but is now back to its normal modest dimensions. and there, resting on a tray which has got shoved out of the way, is my card. Life is back to normal. I can breathe again, regard the world with an almost calm demeanour. But I really don’t want to go through all that again.

Jenny’s Farewell

Today was the funeral of Jenny Smith, my much-loved Tai Chi teacher. It was remarkable in the extent to which she went out on her own terms. She’d resisted medical treatment, managed her own move to the hospice, and while there had planned her memorial service in conjunction with the people who’d be involved. On her birrthday a number of her pupils performed a set on the Linden Fields. Despite grim weather and her worsening condition, Jenny had been able to see this, thanks to supportive friends and a wheelchair, and had been very grateful. Funerals are never much fun, but this one was tremendously uplifting, filled with her energy, enthusiasm and sense of humour. We all knew anywhere that we’d been lucky to know her, and she managed to go out in style.

Undercover Art

Just come back from a terrific weekend in London, grabbing as much art as we could see. So that’s Rembrandt, turner, Anselm Kiefer and Ming. But that’s not all. We went to two other exhibitions which were much more subsversive – Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery, and Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace. Perry’s is Who Are you?, reflections on identity based on the interviews shown in his TV series. He talks to people, selects from a wide range of past artistic models what he thinks will suit that particular subject, and then smuggles it in, alongside the conventional portraits of generals and queens. Weiwei’s is even more surprising, partly because it was done with the active support of the owner. Blenheim Palace is the Churchill stately home, ornate and stuffy, stacked with antique furniture and solemn portraits, but if you keep your eyes peeled as you wander round you find odd little details which don’t quite fit – ancient Chinese pots, repainted in bright colours, a video camera that looks as if it’s made of marble, a wheel made of wooden stools wedged together. This is art with a sense of humour, an affirmation that it’s fun to be alive.

England out

Ah well. We should be used to it by now. It’s always a relief when England get knocked out of football tournaments, because you don’t have to suffer the nauseating garbage served up by the commentators. Now we’re out (played three, lost two, drawn one) people seem to think this was especially dismal, but we actually played some good stuff. Twice we were down 1-0 against experienced teams, and equalised with quality goals in open play, fast skilful movement over the ground. Remembering earlier tournaments when we got further, is only to relive the deep embarrassment of being seriously outclassed – by Germany in South Africa, and then by Italy two years ago. So I’m not too depressed. You have to spare a thought for Steven Gerrard, though. A really good season, for which he’ll be remembered for (a) the stumble that derailed Liverpool’s title challenge and (b) the over-eager mistimed header which put his mate Suarez through for the goal that sent us home. Not that cushy a life, being a top player.

 

Orkneys

Just got back from a week’s holiday in the Orkneys. Just wonderful. Really good meals, 300 photographs and nine poems, so that can’t be bad. There’s just so much of interest in a short space, and going with Ramblers (again) means that somebody’s planning the itinerary so that you pack in almost everything that needs to be seen – four or five different sites, from a range of time zones. Plus, just over a year after acquiring two new knees, I’m going on eight-mile walks without pain and holding up the main party, although my performance on high stiles and descending uneven ground is still more tentative than I’d like. Finally, amazingly, we had really good weather. The locals could hardly believe it, so we were seriously blessed.

Arsenal 3 Hull City 2

At last. For Arsenal fans, it’s been a long and weary wait. The actual moment of triumph was hard work, too. I was in Guernsey, having an otherwise relaxed time in idyllic holiday sunshine, when I arranged to do the anti-social thing and slope off to a pub for a couple of hours. I was ten minutes late, by which time my team, in the climax to their season, were a jittery two goals down.

Gradually, with a lot of effort and some luck, they worked their way back. To those of us of a Highbury persuasion, there were four penalties they might have had, but “might have been” is a classic losers’ ploy, and we wanted to win. Eventually we did, with a really classy goal that shone out brightly from a fascinating but error-strewn match. the season where Arsenal briefly dreamt of being champions, and then looked as if they might end up empty-handed and “not even” in Europe, has actually turned out to be a success. And about time too.

Arsenal Collapse

It really isn’t fair. We have suffered enough. Arsenal fans spent the first half of the season hoping that “this might be the time…”, while seasoned pundits dismissed their chances with a smile. there’s ups and downs, and then Chelsea lose to Hull so it really is all to play for, and it’s Arsene Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. Surely this might be the moment it could change? Well, not quite. Chelsea 6 Arsenal 0. Mourinho is dominant yet again, irritating but a canny tactician, and we slink off to our familiar state of misery. and just because we’re the only Premier club left in the cup doesn’t mean that we’re bound to win that…

Six Nations climax

Wow. Now that was a tournament. Beautifully symmetrical, and only decided at the very last moment. England, Ireland and France had all lost once, and were all capable of ending up with the same number of points, so that points scored would decide it one way or the other. England knowing they were nearly fifty points behind, but that if they could beat Italy by fifty points…Dangerous stuff, but they were so close, until an interception try sets them back 7 points, and that settles it. But it’s not the end of the world. It’s been great to follow, and for once we don’t have to be embarrassed by watching the England rugby team make crass mistakes. The difference that clear, rational management can make is wondrous to behold. roll on the World Cup. We may not win it, but it should be well worth watching.

Beautiful Birmingham

Yup, that wasn’t a typo. I have just had the most amazing day. Parked the car in Wellington, took a train to Birmingham. Went to see the Grayson Perry tapestries in the Art Gallery, and the Saddam is Here exhibition at the Ikon (which is small, so I could look in on two other exhibitions while I was at it). Then i went to a lunchtime lecture at the Library of Birmingham, before looking in on their Library of Cultures exhibition, which shows some of the treasures they store all the time – relics of Victorian agitation, Audubon’s fabulous bird pictures, early black activists in parliament and trade unions….all sorts, and it was a bright, crisp day, ideal for taking photos. All of which cost me – £6.55 (rail fare – with Senior Railcard). Well, it costs me more than that, because they ask for donations, and they’re totally right to do so, and I can afford it, especially if it helps them to keep offering this amazing stuff to everyone. All the people I met in galleries, cafes, the library were helpful, cheerful, apparently glad to be doing this, which is great. Don’t tell George Osborne, but in some very important ways we are all in this together.

Did Arsenal Win?

Everyone my age knows the Bolam/Bewes episode where the two lads have recorded a key football match, but don’t want to be told the result until they’ve got time to sit down and watch the recording. This weekend I’ve been down in London, chasing round art galleries, so couldn’t watch Saturday night highlights of Arsenal v.  Everton in the last eight of the FA cup but I left the DVD recording it, so I could watch it by the time I got back, on Monday afternoon. Luckily my sister doesn’t get a Sunday paper, the news wasn’t on, and I got back to Much Wenlock in a state of breathless anticipation.

Such joy. 1-0 up, then pulled back to 1-1, and Everton looking dangerous. Get a penalty, score it, but it has to be retaken because an over eager Arsenal player ran into the area too soon. It is retaken, and Arteta scores again, and then they go and score two more (one of them a thing of total beauty) to get a 4-1 which was a travesty so far as the balance of the game was concerned. But then, I’d have been depressed because they were due to meet Manchester City in the next round, who thrashed them last time they met – except that Manchester City have been knocked out by Wigan…whisper it, but is this really the year when Arsenal might not only play beautiful stuff but actually win something?

Arsenal heartbreak

Football allegiance is a really strange phenomenon. As an older teenager, I used to go to Highbury, to watch Arsenal when they were dull and boring. I understand Fever Pitch completely. Now that I live miles from London, and haven’t seen a live football match for years, it’s still Arsenal I follow, even putting up with the inanity of Match of the Day to do it. This year, briefly, it seemed as though they might actually do it. Play good football, as they always have done under Wenger, but also win something. It was, we’d admit in our heart of hearts, a bit worrying that they could never beat the big teams in the bog games, but maybe this year…Not now. Losing to Stoke, abysmally, being outplayed for most of the game. That’s not how champions are made.