I wrote a thing about Scotland (and England)

I’m writing this from the south coast of England.  According to Google I could be in Germany more quickly than I could be in Scotland (it’d take 6 hours to drive to Duisburg, 6.5 to get to Gretna Green without stopping). The country I am writing this in – let’s call it England again – is in two unions.  It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and it is in the European Union.  On Friday morning it may wake up to discover that one of those unions has just been cleft in twain.

I used to live much nearer to Scotland.  One of the many places I called home was about a twenty minute drive from the border.  I used to watch Queen of the South in the flesh and BBC Scotland from the sofa.  I liked that Scotland was very recognisably the same country as England and yet also very recognisably not the same country.  The similarities don’t need repeating really but those differences from dialect to ‘Not Proven’ seemed on occasion to be greater than the differences between New Hampshire and New Mexico.  The first flight I took after getting married was to Aberdeen and we then spent our honeymoon on the Northern Isles of Shetland and Orkney.  As one old bloke put it to us, “Edinburgh’s as remote as London, really.  We just get on with it.”

Scotland by then had a devolved parliament and, at some point, acquired that god ugly parliament building to go with it.  Its politics, at least measured by representation if not necessarily by public opinion or actual votes, drifted more towards the left than England’s and its nationalism changed from something that seemed content to be different within a union to something that would be satisfied only with independence.  Even then, though, only a quarter of the eligible population voted SNP at the Holyrood election – the overall disaffection with the political class reflected in the fact that 45% didn’t vote at all.

And yet, somehow, here we are. That political class seems to have completely misjudged the contempt in which its held by virtually everyone not actually a part of it.  I include within that class pretty much every journalist and commentator in the English media as they all seem to emerge from the same pool.  What should have been an easy victory for the union is now too close to call – although it seems that a the union is the slight favourite.  Every shout from the ‘No’ lobby, so much of it either English accented or from those Scots who do well out of sounding a bit English, seems almost calculated to have enthused the independence supporters.

Salmond, the SNP leader, hasn’t even had to play a particularly smart campaign.  The man who overrides local wishes to make sure Donald Trump gets a golf course, manges to play the same role that teflon-coated Nigel Farage does for Ukip.  And the argument is much the same: under independence Scotland will be led by Scots who know Scotland’s unique circumstances and who will thus act for the good of Scotland.  Don’t trust politicians, says this politician, but vote to give more power to your local politicians.

I call bullshit – but I’d probably still vote for independence.  The United Kingdom is sick and its body politic is perverse.  Its most deprived areas receive the least.  London, the richest area, receives the most public subsidy in all aspects of its life, and has a devolved government to lobby for more public and private investment.  The rest of England gets shat on and fights, without any power, for scraps.  Wales and Scotland are devolved to confusingly different degrees and have used that devolution to create client states.  The least said about a Northern Ireland assembly the better but at least by and large they’re not shooting each other.

And this has all been done because the political class do not trust the people.  We are a union of four nations and countless communities but we are ruled as if we are one giant constituency.  Except for the bits where we’re not which have not been integrated into the whole.  Federalism, which would ensure at least some pretence of democratic representation, is rejected because its fiddly and, worse, European.  So we end up with these bizarre situations where to make the union stronger it is necessary to give bits of it more and more whilst hoping the others don’t get too bitter about it.  And all the while the numbers voting fall because there becomes less and less point.  The UK as it is set up now is unmanageable.

One would have hoped that somebody would have grasped this. That somebody, not the nationalists tied to their flags and whimsical notions of destiny, might have twigged that sorting things out for everyone within a union within a bigger union might have been a better option than umm and ahhing at the sidelines.  But better to shake fists at Brussels or get angry that Aberdeen doesn’t seem very grateful or that that London is a right bastard.

So were I Scottish in Scotland, I’d vote yes.  I’d do so reluctantly.  I’d think about the promises and realise that none of them could be kept in the form they’d been made.  I’d think over the number of times the Scottish (and devolved London) leaders seem to find themselves shaking the hands of disagreeable people.  I’d think that the future would lie in being fit for business and I’d be aware that that will screw over a lot of people.  I’d know all that and I’d still vote yes.  Because, frankly, at the end of the day I’d rather have some semblance of democratic control than none at all.

So, on Friday, morning I may wake up on the south coast to find myself in something called rUK and switch on the news to find people cheering iScotland.  I don’t think I will.  And I don’t think it will matter for us down here.  Our politicians will still not grasp what needs to be done – they will cover up cracks and hope nobody notices.  They may give more powers to Scotland and throw some crumbs Wales’s way.  And come the general election they will care more about drowning out Ukip than on untangling the mess.  And half the country won’t vote, and the sneering columnists will wonder why, some may even tweet a photo of a Pankhurst to make a point.

But the point, after all this waffle is this: whatever Scotland votes the issues that affect the majority in this country called England run a lot deeper than whether I’ll need a passport after my 6.5 hour drive to Gretna Green – and whether Scotland is attached or not the political set-up in the United Kingdom is in no state to meet those issues.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the car.  I hear Duisburg calling.


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Footballers’ lives (in the 80s)

What a splendid idea from the Guardian: home shots of some of the 1980s more famous players surrounded by friends, family, trophies and, in Adrian Heath’s case, washing up.

Trevor Brooking shows that he leads the way in fashion by taking a selfie – is it a collective amnesia that pretends that people didn’t self-portrait with their arms out before camera phones? – Graeme Souness looks like a cross between a Bond villain and the Man from Del Monte, and more crimes are committed against taste, decency and knitwear than seems possible in such a small selection.

The overarching theme though is how comparatively humble they look.  Obviously better than most people could afford at the time but just bigger houses on the same estates (mostly).  These days the same people would be living a very different life.  That’s neither good nor bad, just different.

The whole set is here.

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At the match: Boulogne v Avranches

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014Some time in the past, let’s call it twenty years ago because that’s probably how long ago it was, two people were on a day trip to the French coastal town of Boulogne-sur-mer.  They found themselves, as people are want to do, drifting upwards from the ramparts of the old town to some floodlights on a hill.  A sports stadium.  Goalposts.  A sign advertising something called US Boulogne.  A football club.  

One of the two people, actually a father to a son (the other one), was made to investigate.  From a local tabac a fixture list was located.  Plans were made.  But, as the summer sun went down, reality set in.  Twenty years, let’s call it twenty years, drifted past.  Union Sportive Boulogne-sur-mer Cote d’Opale continued but unwatched by the two people until …  plans were made and kept.  And so, some time after that some time in the past, two people drove to those old town ramparts, parked their vehicle and made their way, via a splendid bar because that’s what you have to do, to the Stade de la Liberation to see the rouges et noir do battle with Avranches.

Like ‘Boulogne’, ‘Avranches’ go by a much longer name.  They are Union Sportive Avranches Mont-Saint-Michel.  Which is ridiculous.  Even the scoreboard at the Stade de la Liberation which calls Boulogne ‘USBCO’ just went with Avranches.  They wore blue to the hosts’ red and black.  Fresh from their promotion from tier four of the French system they have settled nicely into life in the Championnat National (effectively a division 3 sandwiched between the professional Ligues 1 and 2 and the amateur set-ups below).  This was a match between two sides separated on goal difference and it was as keenly fought as that implies.  But let’s return to that in a moment.

The sights, the sounds.  This is what makes sport.  The setting.  The other people.  The journey.  All these things are why we’re here.  We’re not beasts.  Travelling from Hastings to Boulogne via the Eurotunnel is surprisingly straightforward even if the best the terminal can offer is a dull WH Smith and a tired old Starbucks. In Boulogne, we had a Croque Monsieur and a Pelforth in a bar where dogs roamed free and only half an eye was kept on the ‘only smoke outside’ rule.  When a man started distributing a large bag of frozen prawns across the counter it fitted entirely.

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014

To the ground, an hour early.  We thought we’d be the only ones there.  We were wrong.  We had to queue to get tickets.  And we were behind two sweet old English ladies.  Not just their first Boulogne match but their first ever football match.  I doubt people with World Cup final tickets looked more delighted.  And then, having parted with our €10 each, into the ground.  Except not quite.  Diverted via back streets to find the far entrance to the Depreux stand.  But rude not to partake of the mammoth portion of frites on offer once through the gate.  Another beer was declined though: some of us have to drive after the match.

The crowd builds.  Two men on a microphone perform a routine which consists entirely of in-jokes. By which I mean, they seemed to be enjoying themselves but it was in French.  The crowd, growing steadily, mostly ignore them too.  But all around us now hands are being shaken, animated discussions underway, flags waved and kids belting back and forth. By the time the one of the microphone wielders gets the crowd clapping along to a Boulogne song to the tune of She’ll be coming round the mountain, those two people are already having a marvellous time.

The match is not a disappointment.  That it stays 0-0 until 94 minutes have been played is one of those strange quirks of the universe.  Boulogne get the ball into attacking positions with ease and then somehow the ball does not go in.  Avranches, tougher and more considered than their somewhat technically minded opponents, create on the counter effectively and, again have enough chances to build a sizeable score.  But nothing goes in.  Every good passage of play is applauded by the crowd, every lovely bit of skill admired, every decision the referee makes open to immediate challenge.  Vanishing spray is employed and mocked.

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014

Into that final minute of the match.  Boulogne, again, get the ball into the six yard box, but this time there is no defender to block, the goalkeeper has not had time to get into position and the forward cannot miss.  He does not miss. The crowd goes wild.  You would think they had just beaten Paris St Germain to the title. There is still time for Avranches to head over a sitter but it is done.  The match is finished. The record books will show that Union Sportive Boulogne-sur-mer Cote d’Opale beat Union Sportive Avranches Mont Saint Michel 1-0.

The record books will not show that on 5 September 2014 a simple twenty-year-old idea was made good.  They won’t show the sheer joy of sport.  Of the pleasures of the sights, the sounds, the journey.  They won’t, because how could they, explain that two men who really should know a lot better found themselves unable to speak because they had cheered so loudly.  And that it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as they couldn’t have been heard above the crowd.

As the two people were leaving, readying for the final leg back to Calais and under the channel, a local who’d heard them talking en Anglais turned to enquire, “Did you enjoy that?”  There didn’t seem to be a reply that could properly cover all that we could say, “Yes,” we said – and plotted for when we’d be back.

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014

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At the match: Eastbourne United AFC 2-3 Hastings United

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reserved

The FA Cup doesn’t even begin with the Qualifying Rounds.  Nor does it begin with a Preliminary Round.  It began two weeks ago with the Extra Preliminary Round and Eastbourne United AFC won their match then to set up this tie with near-neighbours and East Sussex big boys Hastings United.  Hastings have flashed the cash, relatively speaking, in a bid to escape the Ryman Isthmian Division 1 South but have started pretty poorly whereas Eastbourne sit atop the Sussex First Division unbeaten.  It was set up nicely and a crowd of 258 showed up to watch what turned out to be a pretty decent cup tie.

The home side were 2-0 up inside the first 25 minutes.  They had soaked up a fair bit of pressure already so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that Hastings found a way back – scoring twice to level the match before the break and fluffing a couple of decent chances to go ahead themselves.  That theme continued in the second half as the claret and blue guests created several opportunities and missed more open nets than seemed reasonable.  Thankfully they did get a go-ahead goal from a scramble and then held out in the face of some thoughtful Eastbourne attacks.  What made this entertaining was that here were two non league sides going toe to toe and yet at no point did anyone just hit and hope.  A draw might have been the neutrals’ wish but a win for Hastings was ultimately fair.

I was back at The Oval with my younger.  He was properly annoyed that ‘his’ team lost – and even more annoyed that Five Live wanted to talk about ‘stupid Chelsea’ rather than this game.  I also had a camera with me and took some photos.  They are here.

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Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album (Book)

The four hundred or so photographs that form ‘The Lost Album’ were exhibited by Hopper in Texas in 1970 after which they were packed away and forgotten – only being discovered after the actor, director, artist had died.  The exhibition at the RA is apparently wonderful but I can’t make it so I have contented myself with the catalogue.  And a brilliant document it is too.

Hopper took these photos between 1961 and 1967.  There are many of actors, directors and their hangers-on, but there are also many of waifs, strays, hippies, civil rights activists and people who just look interesting.  Ed Ruscha is here and there are also photos of gas stations of the kind Ruscha could have taken.  The style is hardcore grainy black and white – even static people can find themselves in a blur.  It’s almost like Robert Frank came back to do a sequel to The Americans in a slightly less formal style.

In some ways there’s too much here.  You’re overwhelmed the first time you look through – perhaps picking out faces you recognise, or nods to stylistic traits that Hopper brought to his later cultural career.  You need to go back, zone in on an image or two, and develop your reaction a little more.  Multiple viewings are required.

The book is cleverly put together.  The photos have not been smartened.  They are copies of those prints that had been packed away, frayed edges and all.  It’s like listening to Spotify when they haven’t taken the magical LP hiss away.

Hopper stopped taking photographs in 1967 having pointed his camera remorselessly in the years before then.  It’s almost annoying that his images are so good given how much he achieved in every other artistic field.  But envy is an ugly emotion and these are fantastic images fully deserving of their triumphant rediscovery.

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The world of the rules

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reserved

This photo is of the beach in Boulogne-sur-mer.  Using the international language of bizarre pictograms it appears to be warning anyone who might be thinking of doing anything at all ever to just not do it.  

Although it has to be said that the punishments should anyone attempt to walk their dog with a propeller whilst diving into the sea and driving a car/bike were not made clear.  And there wasn’t anybody around who looked like they wanted to enforce any of these rules either.

Mostly people just ate ice cream and chilled their Sunday afternoon anyway.  Thankfully, people don’t need signs to tell them how to do that.

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Diana in Paris

(C) Jon Smalldon 2014 - All rights reservedHow would you explain it now?  That for a week after the crash there was literally nothing else on the TV, on the radio, in the papers?  That crowds gathered at random spots associated with the life of a woman they could never have met and threw flowers.  That, on the day of Diana’s funeral, millions of people lined the funeral route and howled in hysterical despair?  That it seemed like the world could never be the same again but that, actually, nothing really changed at all.

I like to be aloof and say I rose above it all.  I did have an excuse: I was trapped in a summer job at a steel-pressing warehouse.  I even worked on the day of the funeral: me and a few others struggled out at lunchtime and found only one place open and serving.  The woman who gave us our fish and chips handed them to us with the unsaid accusation that we weren’t grieving enough.

And, in Paris, here is the people’s memorial to the people’s princess.  It doesn’t seem like it draws much attention now.  A lot of the scribbles and comments date from a few years ago; many of the photos are fading.  We came across it by accident and were the only ones there.  Maybe there are other places for the faithful to go or maybe the flame of that burning hysteria is now flickering, soon to be extinguished.

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