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Now and Then, and then again…

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Lockdown Therapy

I know that everyone has been affected differently by the various lockdowns imposed on the UK over the last 15 months, but I can only tell my own story, and how I have worked my way through to the Prime Minister’s ‘irreversible’ ‘freedom day’ in July 2021.

In the UK, the first COVID-19 lockdown commenced in March 2020, when it was announced that people would only be allowed (lest we forget) to leave their homes for limited reasons, including food shopping, exercise once per day, medical need and travelling for work when absolutely necessary. All shops selling non-essential goods are told to close, and gatherings of more than two people in public are banned.

This meant a complete change of lifestyle for literally everyone in the country – young, old, married, living alone, working or not. As an individual living with one other and not working, how would this affect me? By nature, I’m not dependent upon gratification from others, and enjoy my own skin – both of which I knew would help me through whatever lockdown had in store. I have my friends but I’m not reliant upon groups or societies to justify my being.

I am lucky, I have the room to spread out in a large old house, and I have access to areas of natural beauty for my daily exercise, whether walking or cycling. I was always surprised to see how few others seemed to take up the opportunity, otherwise not easily open to them, to take daily exercise. I rarely met many others out and about even when we had all that sunny weather in spring and early summer 2020. It even made me wonder if I was abiding by the spirit of lockdown rules – but I was.

So, what to do and how to fill the waking hours. It never ended up being an issue, whilst, not having to home educate or work from home, it became a simple matter of choice as to how best to spend my time, and keeping myself engaged physically and mentally. It never seemed a hardship, and we never went without what was needed to sustain ourselves, and acquire goods, whether online or in the limited range of shops which were left open.

DECORATING

I never had a great love affair with decorating – and certainly not with wallpapering – but, much in the same way with gardening, I did it because it was there to be done, and it was a diversion from normal day-to-day activities. The non-living areas of our 3 storey house were in need of some TLC, so I started at the top and worked my way down from the top landing to the front door – a long journey, and I managed every high place without resorting to scaffolding, with judicious use of ladders and brush/roller extensions. It’s naturally a dark house, so needed a good lightening up. Parchment was chosen as the single emulsion paint shade. It’s a warm off-white and suits admirably, and worked well with the Oxford Blue gloss for the dado rails and Brilliant White for the skirtings. It took a few weeks, with some walls needing multiple coats – and the weather outside was good, so I made sure I breathed fresh air as well as paint fumes. I ordered from Wickes online and collected from my nearest store without fuss.

JIGSAWS

Prior to this, I can’t remember when I last did one. I found a space which would take the size of picture with all pieces surrounding it. I found that 500 pieces was the optimum for me. I tried larger ones (1000+ pieces) but it was too much for my brain to take in happily. Some I bought from online catalogues, and some I had made from favourite photographs. I rattled off 24 such puzzles in short shrift. Some have since been donated to charity, but at least I took a photo of each one.

PAINTING

(The artistic type). Having rollered my way to decorating success, I felt something a little more delicate was required. But I’m not a natural artist, so thought I’d have a go at Painting By Numbers – rightly popular across the world. Some would say that it’s cheating and not real painting. It’s no more cheating than knitting from a pattern, or doing anything from a set of instructions, and at least with PBN, it’s only a guide, and you can change the template to better effect, colours or drama – which I found that I could do with confidence on numerous occasions. I have completed 14 so far – I’ve left this for the time being but will undoubtedly return to it at some point. As mentioned in a previous post, I have dabbled with abstract art but haven’t yet found the set of circumstances which fit the required mindset.

BLOG

I started this series of short vignettes from my life experience just prior to lockdown #1, and this post is the 40th in the series. It’s classic lockdown therapy, with the bonus of giving me the chance to reflect.

I have always written – gaining school successes at A level in English and Use of English (an ‘O/A’, I think this was) – and at work continuously, writing business proposals, strategy documents etc. There’s a real delight in testing my mind to find exactly the right words, and, in my case, generally keeping it light and interesting for my dear readers. AND, when that day comes when I am here no longer, my words, paintings and my music album The Other End of the Wheel will help serve as a permanent reminder of who I was, and what made me tick.

I’ve also been lucky to share lockdowns with Sue, who has helped immeasurably in giving me space and keeping us rolling along in the right direction over the months. It seems to have been quite easy in so many ways, as we don’t set high targets for ourselves, and we have tried to treat what life has thrown at us recently, as a long, slightly hilly bike ride, with a welcoming pub somewhere down the lane ahead.

Painting – ‘Keeping Lookout

JIGSAW – from photograph of Reko Rennie’s original painting as seen in Adelaide, ‘a statement that we as Aboriginal people have always been here and always will be’.

The Heat

I live one mile from the cooling North Sea, as the gulls – currently bringing up their young between my uppermost chimney pots – fly. My part of the North East is not prone to the absurdly high temperatures suffered by some of the rest of the UK, and southern England in particular. What a blessing!

Rarely does the thermometer reach 80F, but on Saturday 17 July 2021, the mercury rose to 83F outside our back door. Not ridiculously high, but unusually so for this coastal corner of the country.

Over the years, I have spent hours in the cricket outfield in such heat, and even cycling through the midsummer of Southern France at the height of the day (when all French people are cloistered behind their shuttered windows for a long lunch and une sieste), with nothing more than a good sweat on, and, in fact, actually enjoying a warm and happy glow, with distant memories of sleet blowing off the North Sea to help me smile.

On this Saturday I found that it was too hot for me to be outside. My head and body were going into a personal lockdown. This is unheard of. I rechecked the temperature and yes, it was a few degrees over 80F. So what? Have I suddenly become less tolerant of heat? Has my 71 year old metabolism taken umbrage at being subjected to an excess of heat? I feel fine in every way, not unduly tired or lethargic, and today, as I write this 6 days after the event, I have completed a 14 miles’ circular cycle ride in the mid 70sF, with no ill effects other than an instant craving to neck a 0% alcohol beer upon returning home. I did….

It is unlikely that we will see the mercury rise above 80 again this summer, but I shall be watching and waiting to see if I experience any bodily reaction to this. I’m interested to see if any readers of my age have suddenly found a similar situation in respect of their own tolerance levels.

We have family in Malaysia whom we have been unable to visit due to the Covid situation, and, as they live a constantly air-conditioned life as a result of the outside temperature rarely dropping below 80F, I look forward with some trepidation to a potential visit, as I don’t want to fly all that way only to end up sitting in their apartment for a fortnight.

Mine’s a pint of something cool….

Old Friends (2021 style)

(Or should it be Still Crazy After All These Years – following Paul Simon’s song titles?)

To be fair to everyone mentioned, some are still walking up to the door marked 70, and others have let themselves in already, so old by some conventions. But I mean old as in long-time, and, more importantly, not one of these people could remotely be regarded as old as in ‘lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset’*, in terms of demeanour, outlook, or attitude; quite an achievement in itself. They’re all feisty, opinionated and great fun to be with.

People aged around 70 in 2021 seem different from those Paul Simon wrote about at the end of the 1960s – ‘Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70…’* That sounds more like those over 80 nowadays.

Those who have followed this series of essays will know that my generation of our family left its Sheffield area roots behind at the end of the 1980s, to move even further north, and by so doing, estranged ourselves from a regular social group which has been strong since post-school days. This is The Sheffield Group (SG).

I spent much of my teenage years at school in Worcestershire. My parents invested in this on the basis that it could give me a better chance in life, than going to a local school. They may also have wanted me out of the way during my years of teenage angst, but it’s too late to ask them now. Anyway, the experience didn’t scar me, and many friendships ensued whilst away from home. One result of these is The Malvern Group (MG)

In the cases of both Groups, ‘we talked about some old times and drank ourselves some beers’** and to the huge delight of all ‘we seem to lean on old familiar ways’** – and most recently with SG in the sunny Peak District in June 2021 (see pic below).

There are basic differences between the two groups.

SG comprises 4 couples who knew each other in the early 1970s, all having been married (as was the tradition) at that time whilst in their early 20s, all of whom now have children (11 between us), and grandchildren (24!). All are still married to the same partners, and have stayed in the Sheffield area, with the exception of Sue and I. We visit the area for holidays from time to time, and put out an all-points message for a get-together.

Historically this has taken place at the Miners Arms in Eyam, the scene of much alcohol-fuelled revelry back in the day, when every Friday night was a lock-in, before we got back in our cars for ‘over the limit’ drives back into Sheffield. How no-one ever crashed remains a mystery to this day. This year’s was at the Scotman’s Pack in Hathersage, a convenient 100 yard crawl away from our holiday cottage.

Only 1 of the 8 went to University straight from school, although 2 went to Polytechnic, and 1 has gained an OU qualification later in life. The group all come from the ‘right side’ of the city, one via ‘white’ Africa, and some went to private school – yet the pull of University wasn’t strong. To a man (and woman) all have succeeded in life, being no different in these areas than those in MG.

MG‘s roots reach as far back as 1963, when the members were all eager 13 year olds living and learning with each other for 5 school years. We all went our separate ways at the end of the 1960s until about 20 years ago, when Graham found me via the Friends Reunited website. This resulted in some very social meetings in London. By 2009, the core members had increased to 4 (see pic below), and we had the first face-to-face, men-only reunion in 2009, and we’ve had more since. Conversation and drink flows, and we would have met again more recently had it not been for lockdowns.

This is where ZOOM came in, and now we have regular on-screen meetings, albeit for only 40 minutes at a time, and with only minimal alcohol at our fingertips. The group has now increased to a hardcore of 5, with an additional ‘brother’ logging in from Cape Town when he can. Truly international, and we have a boys’ night away planned for December for all who can.

All of MG bar one (me!) went to University, and have had glittering careers on the back of it. Whether their lives have turned out any ‘better’ than SG is not up for debate. But what is undeniable, is that everyone has arrived at the same point in their later lives with smiles on their faces, and much experience and bonhomie to share.

I love the vibe and synergy of both groups, and if anyone hasn’t tried this with their own ‘old’ friends, I recommend it as one of life’s great diversions, coming full circle as it does on life-long relationships and friendships.

But, most importantly from my perspective, both these groups of lovely people help me make sense of my life cycle, being a strand that runs through. They provide continuity by having been there when I was younger and gauche and making mistakes, and being there again when I may even have grown up a little. But no-one judges anyone, no-one scores points, and everyone takes everyone else for exactly who they are, and everyone will remember why we were friends all those years ago – and still are. The river runs deep even though it flows quickly.


*Lyrics from the song Old Friends by Paul Simon – 1968
**Lyrics from the song Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon – 1975

SG – Gerald, Stephen, Sue, John, Val, Anne, Rob, (Fi snapping)
MG – Rob, Hugh, Will, and Graham (Nick and Simon to follow)




Where Are They Now?

Where Are They Now? written by Ray Davies and performed by the Kinks, is from Preservation Act 1, one element of a ‘rock musical’ comprising Acts 1 and 2, released in 1973/4 on the RCA label.

The stage version of this, performed by the Kinks + other cast members, was well received at the time. This song was sung by the Tramp, reminiscing about life just a few years before and soon forgotten, but ‘rock and roll still lives on’.

As you listen, what can you remember about:-

Swinging Londoners – London was at the centre of the Swinging Sixties, the cultural revolution driven by the young people of the time, embracing art, music, fashion – and the complete antithesis of the austerity of the 50s, and post-war Britain in general.  It was a time of sexual liberation and experimentation (for some reason sex was only invented in the ’60s).  Two of the fashion industry’s leading lights of the time were…..

Ossie Clark and Mary Quant – Mary famous for the invention of the mini skirt and the high hemline, together with her trademark page-boy short hairstyle.

Christine Keeler – whose main ‘claim to fame’ as a dancer/showgirl, was involvement in sexual liaisons with John Profumo and other prominent men of the time, which nearly toppled Harold Macmillan’s Tory Government in 1963.  The ‘social circle’ in which she moved with Profumo included a Soviet naval attaché, and there were serious concerns about spying and selling secrets as this was at the height of the Cold War with the USSR. 

John Stephen – aka ‘The King of Carnaby Street’ due the number of shops he owned there, created the mass menswear clothing market. Alvaro was another fashion design mainstay of the ‘60s.

Mr Fish – full name Michael Fish (and not the weatherman) was another ’60s designer, famous for designing the kipper tie, and Mr Chow was Michael Chow, founder of the Mr Chow restaurant chain, opened in Knightsbridge.  Famous for attracting celebs and being pricey – but it was the place to be seen if you wanted to be seen.

Teddy Boys – named after their love of Edwardian style clothing, were predominantly disaffected working class youths, synonymous with spivs and flick-knives, and violence.  Their music style was early rock and roll of the ’50s and ’60s, and many singers – Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde etc emulated their style.  They sported a greased quiff at the front (Brylcreem boys) and a DA (duck’s arse) cut at the back. Drainpipes (trousers) and blue suedes (shoes) were part of the standard dress code.

Beatniks – the non-conformist pseudo-intellectual youth culture started in N America, synonymous with coffee bar culture of the time, whose favoured dress included horn-rimmed glasses and long, black turtleneck pullovers.  This Beat generation morphed into the Hippie culture of the late ’60s, and thus from being arty to being more overtly political.

Ban the Bomb – the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and its Ban the Bomb slogan was a non-political movement to ban the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.  There was an annual march in the ’60s from Aldermaston to Trafalgar Square in London to publicise its activities.

Arthur Seaton – played in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Albert Finney, who works his way through various affairs of the heart

Charlie Bubbles – another part played in the eponymous film by Albert Finney in 1968, about a successful writer returning to his roots in Manchester. Finney also directed this film.

Jimmy Porter – played by Richard Burton in the film Look Back in Anger, he was the ‘angry young man’, written by John Osborne

Joe Lampton – the hero of John Braine’s novel Room At The Top, about a working class boy trying to make it to the top

Angry Young Men – a group of British playwrights whose works railed against the establishment.  They included:

Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), Keith Waterhouse (Billy Liar) and Alan Sillitoe (Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner)

Protest songs – in the ’60s songs typically by Bob Dylan (Blowin’ In The Wind), Donovan (The War Drags On), Barry Maguire (Eve of Destruction), and a long list by other entertainers both black and white, railing against social/racial injustice and war.

Rockers and the Mods – two conflicting youth sub-cultures of the ’60s – mods on scooters wearing parkas loving ’60s music like the Small Faces and the Who, rockers on motor bikes in leather loving their ’50s music from Gene Vincent, Billy Fury etc.  Many fights ensued, particularly in southern English seaside resorts

Some of these I remember, some I’d forgotten. Only Mary Quant and Michael Fish are still alive as at May 2021.

Maybe if Ray Davies was composing this in 2021, he might have included a verse something like:

Where have all the Brexiteers gone?

Where have all the Brexiteers gone?

Francois and Cleverley, Rees-Mogg and Duncan Smith

Where on earth have they all gone?

Slipping back under their stones,

Yeh, where have all the Brexiteers gone?

That’s my input, as I’m unable to resist the parallel and the temptation.

Where Are They Now? is a great song anyway, and enjoy it for what it is…

Stuff

I don’t regard myself as an acquisitive person – I tend to buy things as I need them, rather because of any compulsion to have the latest, or ‘be seen to be having’ something. Being a Yorkshireman, I see these options as roads to penury, and in any case, when did you ever see a happy compulsive purchaser? The more you go up the scale, and feel you have to have – for example – the latest model of German SUV, it’s a very slippery slope, as there’s always someone close by who will trump you. Yes, I know that one member of my family has a German SUV, but I know he will have this in another 5 years. Really.

That said, we live in a large old three storey house with big rooms, and a double garage to boot – and there’s an awful lot that can be stashed inside without ever feeling cramped. It’s only when we spend a week away in someone else’s holiday cottage that we realise how little is actually needed to live a perfectly happy life. Barring taking the family photographs, art and Sue’s medal collection, and of course my guitars, ukuleles and favourite vinyl records and books, we have all that we need with us. So what is filling all corners of every part of the house, and why is it there – and most importantly why don’t/can’t we get rid?

Decluttering has been on Mrs Barnes’s resolution list for more years than I care to remember, with the implied connotation that this applies equally to me. So, not bringing Mrs Barnes into this as she has her own challenges on this front, I’ve made a start – this is what an excessively rainy May can do.

I’ve started at the top of the house, but the first difficulty I find there is that as we don’t use these rooms that often – apart from for ironing, a home for my guitars and ukes, and Sue’s exercise bike (a turbo, it’s called) – and they’ve defaulted into a storage area for elder son and family whilst they are in Malaysia, and also for younger daughter’s things whilst she is between houses. Actually, she is no longer between houses but persuading her to take all that’s hers is somewhat fraught with difficulty. I must insist!!

So, I can’t effect any significant change to the top floor’s asset register, but I come down a flight to the bedrooms/office hoping for better luck. The main bedroom is ripe for filling black bags, after all, how many clothes do I need? Yes, I fill a bag with clothes/shoes that are well past their good-looks date – and decide that they are probably good enough to go to ‘charity’. I’ve sent a lot of good stuff to charity over the years, but I never see anyone riding an old bike or wearing one of my unworn pairs of jeans, bought optimistically, and which I couldn’t be bothered to take back. I guess that they’re all out there somewhere, in someone else’s wardrobe.

I swiftly come to the conclusion that I must need 20 pairs of socks, 12 pairs of trousers and 16 shirts, and equally convince myself that certain socks suit certain shoes/boots due to colour or thickness. Yes, I seem to have a lot of shoes and boots as well. And as for two and three-piece suits, I have to confess that they aren’t worn often but I need lighter ones for weddings and darker ones for funerals – if ever I am invited to either, which is fortunately not often.

As for the chest of drawers and the bottom of the wardrobe, apart from additional but necessary daily clothing, they have sheaves of papers such as lyrics which don’t have music, and music without lyrics. I shall have to join these two piles up at some point. Also my Punch magazine collection, and the shelved progress of a marketing effort to persuade the great and good to contribute to a series of cassettes (that tells you how old it is) by reading a humorous story. I sent one to Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street, and had a reply on his behalf from one Andrew Marre (before he dropped the final e) when he was PPS to the PM, before sliding conveniently into a media career at the BBC. Blair said ‘No’. But it’s all personal stuff that I’m not inclined to ditch at this point (even though it won’t mean a fig to those who do the sorting after my demise).

So, degrees of success in the main bedroom (and the overflow wardrobes in two other rooms – ouch!).

The smallest bedroom is also the ‘office’. My filing system is there – the important documents which people will be needed by those who follow on. I have done a reasonably good job keeping these up-to-date and tidy over the years, yet I still find utilities bills from 2015 (as just one example) sitting in the folders. Why? Of course they should have been ditched, but it’s an ongoing process.

At least I have a clear conscience in the bathroom, as there’s only so much shampoo and shaving foam I can use at any one time – with the shampoo having an almost uncanny ability to last indefinitely. Did you know that they don’t sell Aussie shampoo down under? They don’t even have a reciprocal one called Pom. I searched high and low in large chemists in Adelaide, so am reasonably sure that I’m right.

The rest of the middle floor, apart from a guest bedroom complete with groaning wardrobes, is filled with Sue’s stuff, and it’s not my place to comment on the quantity or value of all that.

Downstairs my vinyl album and CD collections are housed in one room. Neither pile is vast, and I feel I could go without the CDs if push came to shove, but the vinyl has to stay. It’s not that I play them that often, but they’re a part of me over the best part of 60 years (and some are quite rare, such as the original Tyrannosaurus Rex album on the EMI label – before the duo became T Rex – with its iconic words on the reverse from DJ John Peel, reproduced here. Pure 1968…).

Tyrannosaurus Rex rose out of the sad and scattered leaves of an older summer. During the hard, grey winter they were tended and strengthened by those who love them. They blossomed with the coming of Spring, children rejoiced and the Earth sang with them. It will be a long and ecstatic summer. – John Peel

My DVD collection is small but iconic, with some great music and fine French films. Yes, I’m sure that they’re on YouTube, but you don’t get the extras and behind-the-scenes stuff there. I have a book collection which fills a couple of shelves – the entire printed works of David Gemmell and Garrison Keillor taking pride of place, alongside the 20 hardback volumes of the best of Punch 1900-1930, which was such a rich source for my Songs and Stories of the Great War production at Sage Gateshead in November 2018.

Moving outside to the garage, the space is filled with cars, bikes, garden furniture, ladders, bins, bike racks, and shelves full of man stuff, like tools and equipment, J cloths, dirty flower pots, old emulsion paint cans – all of which are extremely valuable to me, and stand little chance of being removed. Yes, I know that I forgot to mark which rooms the various tints of white paint were used in, but that’s hardly the point…..

I’ve probably gone about as far as I’m comfortable with in terms of shedding stuff, and filling the Council Tip and/or charity shops, but I have made a start, and I keep reviewing my efforts and thinking about doing some more. I still admire the holiday cottages though, but minimalism only goes so far.

And I haven’t mentioned the loft, but there’s only so much of this you can take. Just use your imagination 😳

Battle of the Bands

Growing up in the late ’50s/early ’60s, popular music as presented on the BBC Light programme was pleasant – Perry Como, Rosemary Clooney, Michael Holliday, Matt Monro and many others of their ilk.

Then, sitting in my Dad’s Zodiac outside Warburton the grocers in Wilmslow in 1962, listening to Jack Jackson’s record programme, my ears were pinned back by firstly Nut Rocker by Bee Bumble and the Stingers, and the Love Me Do by a new Liverpool group called the Beatles. What an awakening!!

Wow – real music which grabbed the attention, and so life moved on…

When starting senior school at 13 and a half, I found all my classmates (bar one) was into pop music, and they all had their favourites, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones being top of most people’s lists. I liked the Beatles (who didn’t), but the Stones never did it for me – middle-class lads trying to be cool and their music had a strangely weedy sound to me (although in time a couple of their singles were quite good, and I even bought their Aftermath album in 1966). But I was persevering, trying to find my sound, until….

In late summer ’64, the Kinks released You Really Got Me – ground-breaking and super cool – I was hooked. I bought each single and album as they were released. Yes, the Kinks were my group, and I was loud and proud about it – and one of only a few at school who went in that direction, which made them even cooler. And when the Kinks’ Ray Davies started his social comment phase – Sunny Afternoon, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, Plastic Man, Village Green etc – my joy was complete.

But I wasn’t immune to the delights of other ’60s stars – and they’ve all stayed with me ever since – Paul Simon, the Zombies, Procol Harum, The Beach Boys to name a few – and I’ve kept the original vinyl albums as well as supplementing these with digital versions.

As the years have gone by, it’s been great to hear how they’ve all been able to keep producing new music intermittently, in their own inimitable styles, and on occasion, I’ve been able to catch ‘live’ performances with up-to-date stage sound techniques to support them – albeit Ray Davies solo, and the other groups with inevitable changes of personnel. I’ll come down on the side of the Zombies as currently being the best of the bunch ‘live’ as at 2021, with Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone still fronting, and I’m looking forward to their worldwide ‘live’ concert this September direct from Abbey Road studios, where their timeless Odyssey and Oracle album was recorded in 1968.

I could go on and on about popular music over the last 60 years, and maybe I shall in a post to come…

Parking

This is not about my own, or anyone else’s, ability to place a car in a space tidily, but the other sort of parking – the ability to stop doing something you have done for a time, without feeling any need to go back to it, and without regrets.

My life has been full of parking! I would say that I am relatively unusual in this trait of character, if only for the sheer volume of parking which I have done in the last 50+ years – i.e. my adult life.

EMPLOYMENT

I can count 8 specific occasions where I have volunteered myself out of a paid position, and sought something different. Why would I do this, as a company director or senior manager in most cases? And these happened in the days before LinkedIn, when ‘contacts’ were usually past mates in the industry, or, at most sophisticated, a recruitment consultancy.

Some jobs naturally run their course, with a major element of repeating the same thing year after year. No challenge there! Yes, I need a challenge…

Sometimes, I have been ‘sold a pup’ – or perhaps didn’t ask the right questions at the right time, only finding out the reality of a position once in place. That’s always disappointing – best to get out quickly in that case.

Sometimes something tangibly better came along, and there was no reason not to change.

Only once was the decision taken for me – a ‘realignment of resources’ – and once it was a mutual parting of the ways.

I have largely been master of my own destiny, with no regrets on that score at all – I have had many wonderful and life-enhancing experiences along the way. I may have given my wife and family a few nervous moments, but they always supported me – and it all turned out well in the end.

SOCIAL

There is a long list here, as well – but all on the same basis that things can just run their natural course, and a new challenge is required. I know others feel they must hang in there regardless, and would never think of leaving (say) a choir, due to the many friendships which have ensued and a love of singing. But I have equally seen many personal difficulties arise as a result of hanging your hat on a single social peg, especially over the last 18 months, as normal, regular social activity has had to cease. People get very personal about their choir, or their parkrun, and life is diminished if this constancy disappears.

Yes, I have joined and left two excellent choirs in my home area, and even taken the occasional sabattical along the way. Again, I had my reasons for stopping at the time, with the last one due to a lack of strength in the voice, and an increasing tendency not to be able to coordinate the dots on the page with my brain and what comes out of my mouth. Probably an age thing. BUT, I still socialise with those whom I developed strong friendships with whilst singing – this transcending the actual singing.

I presented 150 2 hours’ long radio programmes between 2012 and 2015. That was quite enough. I couldn’t have enjoyed it more, but I knew when to stop.

In early lockdown I solved 24 x 500 piece jigsaw puzzles, one after the other. I’ve never been tempted to do another since #24.

I have also completed 13 paintings one after the other, in the period around Christmas 2020, but now done, I am not getting any internal nudges to carry on (yet). I actually thought that I’d have a go at abstract painting, bought a very good book on the subject, but have yet to start anything. I don’t seem to be able to get my mind in the right place to go ‘freeform’ in my thought-processes to put something down on canvas. Maybe this will change.

So, what does all this say about me – especially as I have been consistent in so many other areas, such as cycling and walking, of which I never tire? Character trait/imperfection? Ever higher expectations? Luxury of choice? I may even get a suggestion or two by email following publication of this.

The Sheffield Football Crisis – 2021

The city of Sheffield has now had both professional clubs relegated in the same season – the seemingly impossible, and in the cradle of professional football.  So what’s up in the Steel City?  

For those who know the name well but not what lies behind it, Sheffield is up there as one of the very largest British cities, built on and around its seven hills, with all the characteristics of a set of interlinked villages, and largely minding its own business.  60% of the city is green space, it’s home to the largest community of artists and designers outside London, has a huge University community and it’s full of self-deprecating, friendly locals with their dry and quirky sense of humour – quite unlike other big cities in the North, brash Leeds, self-confident Manchester, and vibrant Liverpool.  Sheffield folk don’t want to be known as too loud or too cocky.  So is it too nice a place to compete in the big wide world, tucked away as it is in the southwest corner of Yorkshire? 

The journey for United and Wednesday this season has been all-too-familiar for those who have followed either club over the years – good reasons for optimism soon dashed by the inevitable reality of the unforgiving world of football.  But why Sheffield, and why does the city seem to breed perennially underachieving football teams?

After a long tradition as a centre for steel and cutlery manufacture, it has had to reinvent itself over the last decades since the ‘Thatcher effect’ and the pricing of Far East suppliers forced factory closures by the score.  Many people only associate the city now with the World Snooker championship played at the Crucible Theatre.  Not a resounding affirmation of years of toil and creativity.

In line with other big cities, you might expect continuing success at the highest levels on the football field – after all, the city is steeped in football tradition with the oldest club in the world (Sheffield FC – and still going strong in the Northern Premier League), and the third oldest professional club (originally The Wednesday Football Club), with both United and Wednesday proving that they’re able to sustain a near 30,000 home gate with a moderately successful team.  

United’s demise could be rated as something of a surprise after their 9th place in the Premier League in season 2019/20.  But an unforgiveable lack of investment in quality players in the close season quickly rendered them non-competitive, with a lack of necessary class and alternative strategies to that which worked for them the previous season.  2020/21 has seen a freefall descent to relegation, a situation which must have galled their energetic and proven manager Chris Wilder so much, that he ended up waving goodbye to the club he supported, played for, and managed after a ‘breakdown in his relationship with the club’s owner’.  There’s only ever one winner in that situation, but they never saw any value in hanging on to their greatest asset.

I have lived with this situation for many years, being Sheffield-born and a supporter of Wednesday – and a past admirer (but never a supporter) of United. 

United’s current problems seem straightforward, as the investment-focused Premier League takes no prisoners and waits for no man.  

As regards Wednesday, I posed the ‘Why Sheffield?’ question on the excellent fan forum Owlstalk and received a welter of genuinely useful (and printable) suggestions and comments, and I’m grateful to all those who showed interest – undoubtedly hoping to unearth the golden nugget, and help put the club and city on a fast-forward track to some consistent success.

Owlstalk seems to mirror traditional British football support, as, in a very recent census of its membership, 90+% were white, middle-age males, with the majority living in the local area.  But these are the ones inevitably best placed to pronounce verdicts on what has and hasn’t happened over the years.

Sheffield United’s recent experiences mirror those of Wednesday in so many ways that it’s easy to bracket the two together, and as one set of statistics for the last 50 years show, both clubs have spent 26 years in the 2nd tier, Wednesday have been in the top tier a little more than United, and a little less in the 3rd tier – very much a  B- exam result. 

There have been scattered flashes of tantalising success, such as 2nd tier Wednesday winning the Rumbelows Cup in 1991 against Man U, two Cup Finals against Arsenal (losing them both), and 3rd place in the last season of Division 1 in ’92.  United can justifiably point to the success of Chris Wilder’s management with their dizzy rise from the middle of the 3rdtier in 2017, to 9th place in the Premier League last season.  

Supporters of both clubs must have thought at the time ‘at last we’ve got it right and we here to stay at the top table’, but it wasn’t to be.  So, why?  How can clubs like Burnley, Brighton and Crystal Palace crack the code, and why can’t a Sheffield club do a Liverpool, or a Manchester?

United’s issue of a lack of investment seems to be a straightforward one, but there is still much commonality in the issues affecting both clubs.

Wednesday were always going to have an uphill struggle starting this season on -12 points due to accounting irregularities (later reduced on appeal to -6 points).  Interestingly the blame for failure isn’t directed primarily at the players.  I’ve seen them many times this season, and never did I think they didn’t care, or weren’t fit enough, or lacked basic skills.  They have been inconsistent to a fault and prone to individual errors at vital moments, but is that due to too much tinkering by the four managers they have had in charge of them this last season?  I would question why the managers have largely set them up to defend rather than attack.  Never likely to win friends or matches, this certainly didn’t play to the strengths of those selected to represent the club on the field.  So why in 2020/21 season, has the team on the field lost 27 points from winning positions, and (just let this fact sink in), won only one single point in a game where they have fallen behind (the last match vs. Derby).  Those two facts are staggering in their own right and would justify much finger pointing at the team, but they indicate much deeper club-wide issues.

Leadership

People usually buy football clubs to turn a profit in the future. They think they’re good enough to do that.  Some do, some don’t.  Anyone from outside this country who buys outright or has a major share in a club and who is not aware of the club’s history, culture and customs, may well be on a hiding to nothing.  Dejphon Chansiri (SWFC owner) seemed to know nothing about SWFC when he bought the club from Milan Mandaric in 2015, but had the money due his family’s track record in the Thai fishing industry – hardly a guarantee success on the football field.

Credit to him for the new playing surface, appointing the charismatic Carlos Carvalhal as manager, and pitching in with a wad of cash to buy some name players, albeit some who were sliding down from the top of their game and some who spent more time sliding onto the treatment table.  His first two seasons at the helm brought a play-off final vs Hull (lost 1-0), and the playoffs the following season (lost to Huddersfield).  At that point the good times, such as they were, stopped rolling, and Wednesday now find themselves spending the 2021/22 season in Division 1.  Mr Chansiri’s investment has not worked out – and he laid himself open to criticism with his choice of ‘advisors’, when all he had to do upon arriving was to listen to those who understand Sheffield football, and appoint former manager and Wednesday all-round legend Howard Wilkinson – a man thoroughly versed in the club and city culture – as his right hand.  If he had, most are certain that there would have been a different story to tell.  His own choice of ‘advisors’ seemed bizarre at best, with one of them, Erik Alonso, going on to buy Derby County, Wednesday’s opponents in the final match, andf with whom we vie for a relgation spot.

United’s owner is Prince Abdullah bin Mosa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and like Chansiri, not a local lad, but one who might sniff a return on his investment in due course.  There has been friction around the club both before and after his arrival, coming to a head in the High Court.  His son-in-law, Prince Musaad, has recently resigned from his role as Chairman.  But the true test is how he has invested in his acquisition.  The investments he has overseen on the playing field, have been very poor, resulting in swift relegation back to the Championship, but with the benefit of parachute payments to soften the blow.  They should have enough about them to ensure no further drop from there.

With the current situation, this is the real test of their leadership and those whom they entrust with the day-to-day running of the clubs.  It should not be a money-centric view either – it’s a root and branch exercise for both of them this time.

The City

What makes for a successful city these days?  Certainly being in the centre of things helps – again, think London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle with their ‘names’, geographical location and easy transport links.  Sheffield is a border city, tucked away in a corner, and put at an economic disadvantage.  The M1 passes it by, the main river isn’t navigable, it’s on a branch line of the main railway network, but, with a degree of foresight not common in these parts, and with all those hills to contend with, Sheffield did at least build its own airport from scratch and opened it in 1997.  It had a London City Airport length of runway, too short to ensure success matched the ambition.  It closed in 2008 and the site was sold for £1.  It says a lot about Sheffield and its city fathers.

The City authorities seem to regard local football with distrust and even hostility, and relations with the local police has been distinctly icy since the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.  There’s no forward plan to include football as part of any ‘Invest in Sheffield’ PR campaign.  It has been cursed with the ‘sleeping giant’ tag for longer than I can remember.  Both clubs can rely on good attendances when times are good, enough to fund a decent club with decent investment levels, and attract the money men.  Why would one want to buy Bournemouth with a ground capacity of just over 11,000? – but that’s another story…

So, Sheffield is a fine place to live and work but not a wealthy city with its own industry or reputation in leading-edge finance, sports or media, and also in a relative backwater.  Should that influence sustained success on the pitch?

Fate

All supporters say that their clubs are victims of the whims of the footballing gods.  Sheffield Wednesday can lay justifiable claim to having angered the gods as much as any club, since the 1950s.  Here are just a few fascinating examples of fate lending a hand along the way:

  • Derek Dooley, the most prolific scorer of the early ‘50s and Wednesday legend, suffered a freak accident on the pitch, having to undergo a leg amputation
  • 3 players found guilty of match-fixing in ’64, and banned for life
  • Managers like Harry Catterick and Howard Wilkinson were allowed to leave – both going on to success with Everton and Leeds respectively
  • The Hillsborough Disaster in 1989
  • Bringing Eric Cantona to England in the first place, only to say that he wasn’t what we needed, after a trial
  • Relegated from the top flight just before the big money and parachute payments came in
  • Securing the services of the proven Steve Bruce in 2019, only to have him walk out 6 months later to become manager of his boyhood club, Newcastle United
  • Latest manager Darren Moore has been off work COVID infection and complications for the last and most important matches of the season

Wednesday have made some good decisions as well, such as buying Chris Waddle when at the peak of his powers, but these seem to be overwhelmed by the indifferent ones, affecting all parts of the club, with the final nail in the coffin being the points deduction for this season, leaving them tantalisingly short of the number of points necessary to stay up. 

So, is the Sheffield Football Crisis down to the teams, club leadership, the city or fate?  Take your pick.  Optimism will be in short supply next season, but, with some well-thought out strategic decisions taken, Sheffield football could surprise us all by being truly competitive.  We supporters live in hope of a bright future – but we aren’t holding our breath.

Anniversary #1 – Pop Goes The Weasel

It’s exactly one year since I published my first WordPress blog entry, so it’s back to childhood for this short post. Pop goes the Weasel is one of those peculiarly English expressions, which, on the face of it, is hard to comprehend*. It is a nursery rhyme from the days of yore, and it’s one which I seem to have known for ever.

Only a couple of days ago, I heard the words, and, even though it must be the best part of 50 years since I heard the song, I was singing the words to Anthony Newley’s 1961 hit of the same name – word for word. If you don’t know the singer’s name, he was an actor, singer and songwriter whose heyday was in the 1960s – a very clever man with an easily distinguishable London-accented style.

This ‘singalong’ ability of mine isn’t restricted to this Anthony Newley song – many, many other songs from the ’60s easily come back to mind word-for-word even if I’ve barely heard them over the years. They must have stuck there as they were in my formative 13-18 years – and of course I remember much else from that period – I even remember the ‘summer of love’ in 1967, when it’s said that if you remember it, you weren’t there…..

At nearly 71, I feel I am lucky to have retained my memory function seemingly intact, whereas many have either lost recall or are losing it. It always seems to be ‘I remember what happened 50 years ago, but not 50 seconds ago’. A common problem linked to the Alzheimer’s brain disease, which I can only hope never comes my way.

It may be pre-written into my genetic makeup that I get it or not, but I just make a point of stretching myself mentally as much as possible – stretch not stress – and I’ll keep up with this for the rest of my days, if I’m spared.

*’Pop Goes the Weasel’ meaning (according to the lyrics in Anthony Newley’s version).

Pop goes the weasel refers to
The habit of London hatters long ago
Popping or pawning their weasels
Or accessories on Saturday night
To buy liquor, isn’t that interesting
….

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