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.

Family Christmas

For some, that’s the dream. every possible blood relation, squeezed into one space, stuffed with food and each other’s company, for ever. More of a Scrooge, me. But it is great to see both our kids, and their partners/children, so we’ve had a quiet time most of the time, with short little excursions into sociability. And that’s fine.

Otherwise, quiet life, a bit more food and a bit more drink than usual, but nothing gluttonous. rubbish telly, but who cares? I’ve finally caught up with the final series of Breaking Bad, and watching eight episodes over two successive nights just seemed the logical way to do it. Darker and darker all the time, but yup, that seems to fit.You don’t know what’s coming, but when it comes, it feels right.

Inspiration at Christmas

Just come back from a trip to Birmingham, where I attended the Amnesty/Freedom from Torture Christmas concert. Some good music, but also a great talk from Dr. Sobia Khan, who works with torture victims. She warned us there would be peaks and troughs, and there were. What’s happened to her patients is horrific, and the poisonous atmosphere in which our media discuss refugees doesn’t help. So this work, of countering torture, defending human rights, will continue long after we’re gone. But she keeps chirpy because she’s inspired by the resilience of the people with whom she deals. We have to stay sane, keep healthy, look after ourselves, because they need trustworthy advocates, not victims of depression or violent rage. A surprising message, but so rational, and oddly inspiring.

Knees must

It’s now five months since I had both knees replaced. For the first two months progress was terrific. I was released by the hospital after three days, signed off by the physios after a month, and everyone seemed happy. Except me. I could walk around, and do odd jobs, but all the time there seemed to be muscles pulling, particularly across my right knee. Had something gone wrong? Was there someone I needed to see? and now all is explained. In a routine check=-up back at the hospital they said (a) this is very common (b) I could sort it myself. I’ve been doing exercises myself, but over the weeks of physio I’ve acquired a range of them, some for extension (pushing the leg out) some for flexion (pulling it back, under the knee). What I need to do is concentrate on right leg flexion, and eventually the muscle tension will go away. So simple, but it makes a huge difference for me to get my head around it.

Family wedding

My daughter Hilary got married today, and it was a total delight. In the bad old days parents gave their children away, and spent a fortune showing the neighbours how well off they were. So much better now. The bride and groom also made all the arrangements – booking venues, taxis, B and Bs, and making sure that we all had a good time. all including friends from Edinburgh, mates from New Zealand and Nicaragua, young couples with young children, aging relatives and all the other factors which threaten to make weddings tedious or embarrassing. Even the weather – despite a hostile forecast – conspired to make this a really special weekend, relaxed and friendly, which we all enjoyed. Once again I’m so glad to have the photos – it will be very easy to revisit this, on cold winter nights if I’m feeling low.

Reinforcing his point

Saatchi, already in a hole, just keeps digging. He’s been photographed throttling his wife. He’s accepted a caution, because he didn’t want the fuss to go on. He’s been waiting for his wife to make a public statement, declaring that he abhors all violence. She’s failed to do so, so he’s divorcing her. She still maintains her silence, which is impressive, in a way.

Teaching for exams

When I was teaching, I subscribed to the Times Educational Supplement, and was regularly engaged in all kinds of polemical correspondence. When I retired I withdrew from all that, cancelled the subscription, and stopped following educational stories at all. But now I can’t stay away, have to get involved again, for one, unavoidable reason. Yup. Michael Gove.

I had a letter published in today’s Guardian, one of many attacking his proposals for exams. He has this ideal diagram, where coursework is shoddy, unreliable and vague; only exams are keen, precise and intellectually respectable. So “rigour” requires no more coursework, only exams.

Back in the 1960s, I remember “only exams.” It means that I have to practise exam technique, teach kids how to prepare, to read exam questions, to write under timed conditions. There are some bright pupils who enjoy that process, and whose results benefit from it. (There are other bright pupils who find it incredibly dull.)

But for a large number, who won’t be successful in any exam, it’s a huge turnoff; repetitive, and leading to inevitable failure. In fact, it’s a good reason to skive. That’s where we’re heading, and he either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.

Scottish trip

Later this month I go in for a double knee replacement, which is going to make a big difference to my mobility and to the workload at home. So we both need a treat, and Linda’s fixed for us to go to New Lanark for three nights. She’s studying the Owen mill as a part of her OU course, and our daughter Hilary lives in Edinburgh, so if we can endure the four hour plus drive to get there we’ll have a good time. The real bonus is that we’re staying in a self-catering flat which is part of the old mill complex, beautifully and lovingly restored. We can look out of our window, and watch the Clyde rush by. And although we don’t arrive till after 9.00 pm  (courtesy of the reliably congested M6), Hilary is there to welcome us, ready with our meal.

Country Diary

I have raved before about the incidental pleasures of The Guardian, but here we go again. There’s always a Country Diary, and I usually don’t read it, but often on a Wednesday I cut it out and stick it in a growing archive. This is because (a) it’s written about Wenlock Edge, where I live, and (b) it’s written by Paul Evans, a neighbour and friend. I know nothing of the names of plants or habits of creatures, so I’m grateful for his energetic expertise, his detailed enthusiasm. So I get an occasional vicarious taste of what it’s like to know that much, as a single six-inch column shows me a tiny bit of what I’ve missed.

Alex Ferguson

Finally, Alex Ferguson decides it’s time to go. It is, of course, an impressive achievement, and the flexibility with which he’s adapted to changing times is very impressive. To get rid of star players, bring in new talent, adapt to changing financial regimes, fine-tune the tactics but keep on winning is no mean feat, and you can’t quarrel with the statistics. But I shan’t be sad to see him go. There’s always been a ruthlessness there which is very unattractive – the needling of other managers, the systematic bullying of referees. The Old Trafford banner which says “We’re not arrogant – just better” is nothing like as simple as it thinks it is. How did Man U win the title this year? Not by playing the best football, but by getting Van Persie. If he’d chosen to go to City, they might well have won the title. It still comes down to Ferguson, because presumably it’s him that guided Van Persie’s choice, but I’ll look forward to a different atmosphere next season.

Snowed In

It’s all supposed to be happening this weekend. On Saturday, Linda has a rehearsal with one choir in the morning, and a concert with another, way up in Whitchurch. I’m supposed to be reading at an Amnesty concert in Broseley, but I can’t because I’ve promised to babysit the grandkids in Birmingham, it being the first weekend of my son’s Flatpack Film Festival.  And if either of us happened to be free that evening, a friend has a birthday party here in Much Wenlock, in the village hall I used to help run.

As it happens, the only one of those things to happen is the Amnesty concert, and it happens without me. I cried off the babysitting, and everything else, because I was nursing a head full of cold. Linda’s concert was cancelled because of snow, which also stopped her getting to her rehearsal. For the first time ever we’ve had a snow plough come down our cul-de-sac, and then onto our drive (which is a continuation of the road.) So the drive is immaculate. But one result of that process is that it’s built up a wall of snow between our drive and our carport, in which our car is marooned. When the weather getts better and my state improves, I might do something about that, but for now I’m staying put, in the warm.

Bruce Reynolds’s funeral

Amazing story in today’s Guardian, covering Bruce Reynold’s funeral. Start off with the headline, which goes “The great train robbery was his Sistine Chapel.” Mmm. Could be a poem there. Then there’s the picture, like a still from a film, a frozen panorama of grim faced-gangsters and their molls, all in black, seeing Bruce off on his final ride. Finally, there’s the revelation that he used to contribute to Amnesty International. Now there’s a dilemma. As a long-time member and chair of the local group, am I delighted to see an altruistic spark in the heart of a villain, or do I agonise that our work is being funded by the proceeds of armed robbery?


You can say that again. Malvern Amnesty Group are a busy, well-oiled operation that runs big meetings. Three of us went to a very thorough teach-in on the Arms Trade last year, and now they have Ian Cobain, author of Cruel Britannia, talking about torture. Nobody else in the Telford Group can go but that’s OK, I’m an independent retired gent well equipped with background music – I’ll go there on my own. I research the route, print out maps, and aim to leave in good time. But then I can’t find the maps, and my wife is telling me I’m better off dodging Worcester by using the M5 but on the RAC route it said that way took nearly an hour and a half, so I stick to my plan and drive off.

Everything’s fine until Worcester. Even in the evening it’s slow and clogged, and on top of that there’s two sets of roadworks. By the time I reach Malvern I’m cutting it fine. I know I have to turn off left on the B4211, and then there’s a right turn, where it gets a bit tricky and I really need the map I printed but left at home. I’m driving through Malvern, waiting for the B road sign, and it doesn’t come. There’s traffic on my tail, it’s a wet misty night, and suddenly I’m going along a narrow road, cluttered with road works and offering no chance of turning round. I know I’m miles past it, but I need to go to the loo and even if I find the B4211 I’m not at all confident I can find the site of the talk. I end up hurling the car into a layby, relieving myself in the bushes, and turning round to go home. This time I try the M5. Yes, it’s much quicker. An hour and a half going out; an hour coming home. I never got to the talk, but I’m so much wiser, and it’s only taken two and a half hours, plus gallons of petrol.


My New Year resolution. I shall write a blog. Who writes a blog? Well, people who are …famous? talented?…full of themselves?

This is why I’m doing it. I’ve got a wide range of interests, and I’ve been writing for fifty years. I’ve been a teacher, and I like working with other people, to understand what’s happening. I think power and money matter, and that people who possess them should know what effect they have on others.  To me, culture and politics and education are all connected, and one of the jobs of writing is to make that clear. But there’s more to life than abstract nouns, and I read books, watch films and TV, and enjoy sharing those with other people, to see what they think. So they’re part of it, too.