Thursday, November 08, 2018


A strange thought popped into my head a few days ago - I wish I had started cycling 10 years earlier.
It's not that I think that extra ten years would have helped me to become a better/faster/stronger cyclist, although it probably would. It's just that when you find something you enjoy at my age, there's a mental date at which you can already see when you won't be able to do it any more. I'm mourning something that hopefully is a long way off yet - that's a bit mad isn't it?
This pessimism has been exacerbated no doubt by a recurrence of a knee problem that seems to flair up every now and then. It's a swelling that prevents my leg from having its full range of flexibility, strength or stability.
Particularly galling this time is the fact that it has just popped up with no apparent reason. In the past, it has been traced to overdoing exercise, or doing exercise badly, or a twist of some sort. This time, I could feel a slight swelling and knew it was coming on, but couldn't think what the cause was.
For the past week this has resulted in me hobbling about in various states of discomfort and pain just wishing it would go away. It has trashed my bike riding plans, including one off road event last Sunday that I was really looking forward to.
At roughly the same time, I've developed an ache in my right arm which makes it feel weaker when called on to lift something. At this age, we tend to joke all the time about 'falling to bits', but it's starting to feel like that to me.
But should it?
At the weekend, I bumped into an old neighbour who I haven't seen for a couple of years since he moved from our street. During the usual exchange of pleasantries, I mentioned my leg and he spoke about problems he had before going on to reveal that he was in remission from cancer. He actually looked very well, and was incredibly positive about things, telling me he was planning a walk across Scotland as a fundraiser and celebration of his health.
Another friend has been beset with health problems recently, yet seems to take things in his stride. He is remarkably upbeat about his various ailments and impending procedures. Why can't I be more like that, rather that being so catastrophic about things?
When I was younger and dafter, I used to make declarative statements about how I would give a year of my life to be able to play guitar like folk-rock guitar hero Richard Thompson. (Obviously, if I was that bothered, I could have practised harder, got some lessons, or applied myself a bit more. However, that wouldn't have had the same grandstanding effect for my attention-seeking younger self.)
That seems fairly asinine now (In my 20s, I also used to claim that by the time I was 30 I'd have stopped drinking. I'll let you guess how well that's going.) If I was prepared to give up any portion of my life now - and I'd rather not thanks - then it would be for a slightly nobler, although in some ways, equally selfish end, such as for my family, especially my children.
Of course, even in these troubled times we live in a reasonably safe and stable society where we're not required to make heroic sacrifices. We're better placed to help those we love by doing the dull and predictable - bringing home the bacon, helping children with their homework, teaching them to be decent human beings.
That's the more important stuff, and something that my growing array of minor inconveniences hopefully won't stop me from achieving. I hope to be around for a while yet, even if it's in a less functional capacity. I'm off to the physio this afternoon.
A better bike would definitely help though.

Friday, June 15, 2018

'78 and all that

With World Cup 2018 underway, thoughts of Scots turn to other years ending in 8. France 1998 was the last time we qualified for a major tournament, and 1978 was the year of the Argentina tournament.
Champions: it could have happened!
BBC has just broadcast a documentary, Scotland 78: A Love Story, looking back at the year Scotland was the sole team to qualify from the British Isles, and when the whole country became convinced that we were all set to win the tournament. The past is indeed a different country.
As a nostalgic, you'd expect me to be delighted to return to that interesting time in our history. However, like many Scots, I still bear the scars, and I was only 11 at the time. I've been putting off watching it, until the first day of the World Cup when I cracked.
The story goes that the Scottish team came under the spell of a charismatic manager Ally MacLeod, who led the team to qualification, and then seemed to preside over a period of national hysteria where expectation built to such an extent that many were convinced that Scotland simply had to turn up in Buenos Aires on 25 June 1978 to collect the trophy.
King Kenny: celebrates scoring in 1977
Maybe I'm trying to exculpate myself from that delusion, but I can't remember being so convinced that it would be so simple. My first memory of Scotland playing was the 5-1 drubbing by England in the Home Nations championships in 1975. The elders in my village thought that would be 'Easy!' too. These were the same guys who would save their money to make the bi-annual pilgrimage to Wembley for the match against England, to routinely swamp the stadium with Lions Rampant, Saltires and tartan to the extent that we used to call it Spot the Englishman.
Practically every village in Western Scotland used to send a bus down, terrifying the locals with their numbers, their incomprehensible language and drunken antics. They'd return a few days after the game finished, skint and ruddy faced, already planning the next trip.
These jolly boys outings were obviously only partly about the football. They were largely about getting away from the everyday with your mates and getting pished... in England.
Fan-tastic: even Rod got in on the Wembley mischief
So maybe the idea of going to Argentina didn't seem as daft as it was presented in the documentary. Yes, it was over the other side of the world, but Scottish fans were used to travelling overseas - Lisbon in 1967, and the rioting Rangers fans in Barcelona in 1972 to name just two examples of Scottish cultural exchange.
One idea that wasn't really explored in the documentary was how the Scots led themselves to be hypnotised by MacLeod, because that's the narrative. I suspect that his cardinal sin was to tell people what they wanted to hear. Scots bought into that storyline wholeheartedly, as did the whole of Britain actually. There didn't seem to be a lot of critical thinking.
Of course, money was a big part of it. Although the endorsement ads look cheesy now, it was early days for that sort of thing, and both the FA and the players were probably filling their boots to an unexpected degree. Who would want to rain on the parade and say "Of course, we might not win."
I had a piece of merchandise that my dad got for me. It was a pint jug - the perfect gift for a Scottish 11 year old - which had the team badge and the signatures of all of the players on it. I was so naive that for ages I thought they had actually signed it, not realising the wonders of promotional printing.
And what a team that was. In some ways Ally MacLeod did have reason to have a level of confidence - Buchan, McQueen, Rioch. Dalglish, Jordan, Souness, Macari, Rough, Hartford, Gemmill... That wasn't a bad selection.
I watched the first match against Peru at a Scout camp in Hamilton. The leaders had set up a telly in a marquee. It must have be tiny - there were no projection screens in those days. Truth be told I can't remember much about the game apart from the overwhelming level of disappointment at the 3-1 result. Did I watch the Iran game? I doubt it.
Ditto the Holland match, although we all remember Gemmill's wonder goal, which, in convincing the most one-eyed fans that we could have won the tournament, is up there with the 1967 'real world champions' myth of Scottish football.
Super Gemmill: lest we forget (chance!)
One particularly unedifying aspect of the tournament was the treatment of Willie Johnston, who was sent home for failing a drugs test. In these days of TUEs and the number of top athletes who seem to be asthmatic, his expulsion for an over the counter hay fever remedy seems harsh, but not as harsh as the way the blazers of the FA threw him under the bus. It seems crazy that the team doctors didn't know what players were taking or have processes in place, but was in line with the general amateur nature of the overall affair - not so much different from my village's bus trips to Wembley in truth.
Scotland '78 makes the point that the whole affair, with its echoes of the Darien expedition, dented the national psyche to such an extent that the country didn't vote in sufficient numbers for independence in 1979. The fact is that there was a majority who voted yes, but the government of the day dictated that it was such an important vote that there should be a threshold - something that sticks in the craw of nationalists to this day.
Would but there have been such a threshold for Brexit - an equally important vote.
As it is Argentina in 1978 probably gave Scots a sharp lesson in the dangers of national exceptionalism - something that England has still to learn given Brexit. Scotland was changing fast, as the pictures of dreary, graffitied tenements indicate. Twelve years later, Glasgow was the Smiles Better European City of Culture. I remember visiting it around that time, years after I'd last been as a child, on one of the occasional trips to the Barras, when the tenements were being pulled down and the sight of poor people selling their belongings on the pavement made it seem like another world to an impressionable child. At this later date, the cleaned up sandstone buildings seemed magnificent, the museums were engaging and exciting, and people had a swagger.
By the Nineties Scottish pride and confidence was based on things other than our football team: history, art, architecture, the landscape, the education system, and the people. And it wasn't an unquestioning pride, as the most recent independence referendum result shows. I'd venture that people realise that as a small nation, Scotland's place in the world will be tied to other larger entities. They just can't decide which they will be.
Beside the online sledging, the level of debate about the country's future was genuinely soul searching because of that. People realised that there are no easy solutions and choices have consequences, something that again seems lost on the Brexiteers.
Maybe that's something we should thank Ally McLeod for.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Snow days

Sledging: traditional British winter activity
It's day three in the ice bound house. The snow started on Tuesday and schools across Essex, and the country, were closed the following morning. It's been like that since then. There have been the usual moans that we're a country that falls apart at the first sign of a bit of snow, and why can't we be more like Switzerland/Norway/Germany... anywhere but here.
To be fair to the school first of all, this is the first time in more than six years that bad weather has closed it. I'm sure things will be back to normal on Monday - we're expecting a bit of a thaw from tomorrow. Then this little break will be filed under cultural enrichment.
So, what have we been up to?

What we've done

Tattie soup: with sprouts
  • Went sledging, obviously. That's twice in one winter my £10 purchase has been used - more than we've managed in the past five years, and we're heading out again today I hope.
  • Made cakes and biscuits.
  • Composed a space opera. Number one son took the opportunity to work out a rather dystopian sounding piece on his keyboard. The weather made it seem even more ominous.
  • Made potato heads for World Book Day. Sadly these haven't been taken to school - don't know if Harry Potato-er and Dumbledore will make it through the weekend.
  • Fed the birds.
  • Made soup.
  • Cleared snow from my the neighbour's steps (polishing my halo as we speak).
  • Rearranged the office slightly - CDs now in the next room.
  • Read books.
  • Worried about global warming, but less about Trump.
  • Got new cyclocross wheels on my new (to me) cross bike.

Snow tree: actually from earlier in 2018
What we haven't done

  • Ridden our bikes.
  • Panic bought anything.
  • Made a snow man - it's the wrong kind of snow. Too powdery.
  • Seen many people.
  • Driven the car?
  • Thought as much about Brexit.
  • I haven't done much work, as I haven't had any, so I should probably add 'Worried about lack of work' to the first list.
  • Been proactive.

What we could have done

  • Been proactive.
  • More craft activities.
  • Played board games - not sure why we haven't done more of this. The kids have actually been very good at entertaining themselves (that's my get out clause anyway). Their games tend to be mind-bogglingly complex, especially if the eldest is in charge (i.e. all the time), and being a bear of little brain, it's probably best that I excuse myself.
  • The 1,000-piece Minion jigsaw puzzle that the younger one won in a story writing competition last year (I'll just drop that humblebrag in there as a bit of catch up on what's been happening of late).
  • Demanded that school reopens, or started up some home schooling activities :)
  • We could have been out more. I gladly cleared the neighbour's steps yesterday as I was getting cabin fever.

Winterval: Abbey Fields Colchester
What have we learned

  • Snow days pass very slowly.
  • Being freelancers, we're lucky we didn't have to go anywhere.
  • After initial mad forays into the snow, the kids are quite apathetic about it. Yesterday they didn't get out of their pyjamas.
  • Not all snow is equal. The powdery stuff won't even hold a snowball. It is very beautiful however.
  • That it doesn't really matter. This little three-day event will soon be a memory - hopefully a pleasant one.
  • Local Budgens doesn't sell logs beyond about late February. We could have done with some of late - there's nothing like a real fire when it's cold outside.
  • The house is a lot warmer than the first couple of winters we were in here, thanks to better insulation. Back then we were wearing hats in bed and waking up with cold noses.
Are we really rubbish at doing winter? Were we better at it in the past? I don't know really. Generally we have better cars, better clothing and better communications. People are by and large kind and help each other out at times like this. We sort of know what we should do, although we don't always do it - much like life generally. 
It's starting to melt.

Tracks: cat I think