Smiling in Heaven

Although few outside the family would have guessed, my fatherwas a lifelong fan of Liverpool. While his two sons chose to support Leeds United and Arsenal, he was resolute in his support. He would recite, like a rosary, the names of the great Liverpool sides of the times. Bill Shankly’s battle hardened team – Ray Clemence, Alec Lindsay, Tommy Smith, Chris Lawler, Larry Lloyd, Ian Callaghan, Emlyn Hughes, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan. Gritty football based on work rate and Bill Shankly’s insistence that the team would play from whistle to whistle. As other teams flagged, the Liverpool strikers pounced. So often the scoreline would read Keegan (85), Toshack (87) or Heighway (89). Scoring in the last five minutes was the hallmark of Bill Shankly’s teams.

But these values were ingrained into the Liverpool ethos over generations. In those days management was about continuity. As Shankly went, Bob Paisley took over and built success upon success. New names to conjure with – Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson, Graeme Souness, Ian Rush, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Robbie Fowler and so on.

Opposition sides were intimidated before they even reached the pitch. Above the final steps from changing room to field was the famous sign “This is Anfield”. And for perhaps 20 years, those words let opposition players know they were in for a game. And the Kop was merciless. Every opposition error was greeted with a mix of pantomime cheers and jeers in that confection of twinkle eyed disrespect that marks the Scouser apart from his fellow man.

Gradually the red tide ceased. The trophies dried up and the talk was of great games in the past rather than the prospects for the forthcoming Saturday. Nostalgia replaced promise. “This is Anfield” became a limp reminder of the home team’s identity rather than the full throated voice of threat.

Two years without a trophy became five. Five became ten and, unthinkably, ten became twenty. Until Wednesday this week Liverpool had gone thirty years without winning the title. For a fan base that did not so much expect success as demand it, the frustration must have been unthinkable. Managers came and went, each confidently promising success but ultimately failing to deliver the big one. Flattering to deceive. Other minor (and major) cups still found their way into the trophy cabinet at Anfield, even, most amazing of all, two champions league trophies. But, as any football fan will tell you, knockout competitions rely on good fortune as well as skill. Upsets occur. But to win the league, good fortune is not enough. You need a team that is as strong and resolute in February’s rain and mud as on the green baize and bright sunlight of early September. You’re not a real team until you have won the league.

And in an instant on Wednesday evening, Liverpool erased thirty years of frustration and disappointment. Thirty years when they had been bridesmaids but never the bride. Thirty years in which they were forced to watch helplessly as arch rivals Manchester United racked up title after title. Thirty years in which “The Reds” became synonymous with United rather than, as any Scouser will tell you, Liverpool.

But “the Reds” are once again Liverpool. In a season full of records, and disrupted in ways unpredictable and unimaginable, Liverpool have taken the premiership title, with seven games remaining. A breathtaking achievement. Unless they relax and play some of the juniors during the remaining fixtures (and why wouldn’t they), they will have rewritten the records books by the time we finally call it a day on the 2019 season. One brilliant German coach – Juergen Klopp – and probably the most talented Liverpool team ever to take the field. Only the most grudging and mean-spirited football partisan could fail to acknowledge the quality of the football played. Once again “This is Anfield” means something.

And as I watched Juergen Klopp, tired and emotional, I thought of my father and how much this would have meant to him. I think back to all the games we watched together, father and son. European cup finals and so on. Happy days.

I just hope they have a television in heaven. Because I can see him smiling.

They think it’s all over

As summer sweeps in and sport returns there is a tendency to feel that all is right with the world. The pandemic is apparently over or at least not occupying every single inch of the front page of every newspaper. It’s easy to relax. In beautiful sunshine it’s hard to imagine people dying. People are bored of that. Not least the government which has today announced the lifting of several restrictions. Or more accurately announced that it will be making an announcement. The end of lockdown is touted as a liberation of the people, VE (Virus Eradication) Day and a fillip to the country’s tattered finances. An awakening of our comatose economy if you will. All is good. The pandemic was a bad dream. You can shake hands, hug, kiss and make up, kiss and make out. Whatever you want seems to be the order of the day, while Boris attempts to put the paddles to the chest of the Treasury.

I’ve noticed one common thread in pretty much all government policy relating to the pandemic. Governmental decisions consistently seem to precede acts of open disobedience by a few days or, in some more extreme cases, by a matter of hours. For the terminally naive, this creates the illusion of a government in touch with its people, reading the Zeitgeist and at the same time powered by strong scientific argument. And of course that’s exactly what it is meant to look like.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Far from leading, the government is shadowing the people, responding with populist legislation to placate imminent insurrection. The spectacle of beaches brimming over with lobster bodies basting in suncream was enough to evoke a modest lifting of restrictions prior to bank holidays and so on. Understandable. Otherwise the government just looks foolish. What do you mean it does anyway.

So before we all reach for our bikinis (not me personally you understand) let me try to instil a note of caution. Let me pour cold water on some of this inappropriate optimism.

The lifting of lockdown restrictions does not mean the pandemic is over. All it means is that currently there is room in ICU for you. Obviously as the second spike/wave begins, that may no longer apply. And lifting restrictions is of course a good way of doing just that.

2 m or not 2 m? That is the question. Well actually it is. The government now says 1 m will do. On the other hand the scientists calculate that halving the social distance will increase the likelihood of infection between twice and tenfold. Needless to say their views are not being widely reported in government briefings for the press. The hospitality industry is of course, cock-a-hoop. The 1 m spacing means something like three times as many places in a restaurant and thus three times as much revenue. Well at least to begin with. Obviously it will drop off as the clientele start to fall ill again.

These are not visionary ideas from a government populated by intellectual colossi and brimming over with inspirational legislation. Quite the reverse. These are knee-jerk policies from a largely decerebrate cabinet of browbeaten Boris lackeys. And we have the worst death rate in Europe as a result.

Perhaps the signature moment of the whole sorry business was Boris appealing to British common sense. The last time we did that we ended up with Brexit and Boris. Perhaps the saddest double act in all politics.

They think it’s all over? It’s hardly even begun.

Campari and tonic

“Campari and tonic please. One part Campari to three parts chilled tonic. No ice, no slice”.

This was the nurse’s preferred aperitif throughout most of her adult life, a habit acquired whilst in the Navy nursing service, stationed in Bighi, and ordered with that slow precise yet confident diction we British reserve for use when talking to foreigners. The perfect summer evening drink to enjoy on the terrace below the officers mess, watching the low evening light turn Valleta from pale sandstone to rich coral or salmon. Tiny fishing boats bobbed along on the swell, the painted eyes on their bow guiding them home. The smell of frying lampuki wafting up from the harbour cafes, while feral cats picked out scraps of fish carelessly tossed from the kitchens.

It was a long way from Wigan, that’s for sure. You would struggle to find anyone who had heard of Campari. Or anyone who could spell it. But these were before the days of globalisation. International brands simply didn’t exist. You drank gluhweein in Germany, sangria in Spain and, God help you, ouzo in Greece. But don’t expect to find them back in Blighty. This after all was the 1950s. Rationing was not long gone and we were only gradually emerging like colourful butterflies from khaki gabardine cocoons. Who wouldn’t want that vibrant pink drink, bitter with wormwood, sparkling in the sunset to wipe away those evenings in the Dog and Basket on Station Road, nursing a half of mild while nicotine fingered old men bickered over dominoes.

“Hello” he said. She looked up, screwing her eyes against the sunlight. It was the naval surgeon from the landing ship anchored in the harbour.

“Hello” she replied awkwardly.

He looked away for a moment, collecting his thoughts, sorting his words.

“That looks interesting. Can I get you another”, he said gesturing to her drink.

She hesitated.

“Thank you” she said “Campari and tonic please”.

He repeated the words silently to himself.

“I’m John” he said.

“Pat”.

“Pleased to meet you, Pat”.

It was 1956 and even in those drab post-war years there was still such a thing as love at first sight. They were engaged within two months, wed within four.

And until the day she died, some fifty years later, she drank the same aperitif. They played a little game. As the sun settled over the yard arm, she would say “Campari”. He would reply “and tonic”. And they would alternate the remaining words as though struggling to remember them.

I once asked my mother, many years later, why she always drank the same evening aperitif.

“Because every time I take that first sip, it’s sunset and I’m back on the terrace at the naval hospital”.

With God on whose side?

I don’t normally write blogs on two consecutive days unless I have to, driven by a change in circumstances or unforeseen events. I wrote yesterday of my misgivings about President Tweet and of the moral vacuum at his heart. I wrote of his intellectual inadequacy. Like Colonel Kurtz, this is truly a heart of darkness. He has brought shame to the office of President, embarrassment to his country and disbelief from the rest of the world.

I thought we had reached absolute rock bottom with him, that he could sink no lower. After all, as an ethical and moral cesspit, there comes a point when you can sink no lower.

Or so I thought.

Last night on the news, we were treated to the sight of armed police using rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a peaceful demonstration outside the White House to allow President Tweet to walk to church, Messiah like, Bible held aloft.

“Is that your Bible?” asked one voice.

“It’s a Bible” was the response.

Leaving aside the shocking symbolism and fanning the flames of a religious war, this was the most cynical photo shoot ever. Did the president go to church that day? Does the president normally attend church there? Does he attend church in the Washington dioceses? The answer is no to each of those questions. As Bishop Marianne said, he’s not a church attendee.

That in itself is not an issue. The issue is claiming to be something you are not, wrapping yourself in the flag of your country or with the trappings of religious faith. In one moment, against the backdrop of tear gas and guns, President Tweet redefined the word hypocrisy for the world to see.

Matthew 6:5.

“When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men”.

Dear President Tweet

Dear President Tweet,

The news from America seems to get worse daily. Protests and looting in several major cities, while you cower in the White House bunker, blurting out scattergun thoughts and ad hoc policies like a five-year-old with the TV remote. One minute you tell us China is wonderfully transparent, the next you are practically lining up coordinates for the missiles. Your amnesia is breathtaking – coronavirus has gone from something that will miraculously disappear to the cause of death for more than a hundred thousand in the US. And in the parallel reality that you, President Tweet, seem to occupy, this is somehow portrayed as validating evidence of your vision and foresight, rather than, in what others call reality, the terminal indictment of a man whose response was that of a rabbit in the headlights. On the other hand, how can you be held responsible for your actions when there were none. Your ratings mattered more to you than the death toll from this very obviously not disappearing virus.

But pandemics don’t magically disappear. Nor is it the case that “nobody knew that”. Actually the CDC and the pandemic planning office did know that. And you would have known that if you had not abolished the office shortly after becoming president. “The cupboard was bare”, you whine endlessly. If it was, then you should have done something about it. You have been the president for more than three years. That’s what presidents do. Well, real presidents I mean. The buck stops with you.

So what is your response to this? How do you make sure that America is best prepared for the pandemic. Unbelievably, you withdraw support from the World Health Organisation, an action that beggars belief in the middle of a pandemic. It is hard to believe, at a time when the world is sharing its experiences of dealing coronavirus through the WHO, that the US should deny itself access to that information through an act of presidential petulance.

And yet, while America burns, you threaten protesters with big dogs and sharp teeth. Or sometimes just bullets. These are the reactions of school yard bullies not leaders of the free world. You are oblivious to the issues and consequently have no hand to play, being unable to comprehend that.

Still, your performances in press sessions are positively Shakespearean in their combination of the tragic, comic and pitiful. Rambling and incoherent, the words tumble out, like Kerouac on amphetamines. Nothing is connected to anything else, each response the sound of an engine revving in neutral. And when a reporter penetrates the outer reaches of what passes for reality in your mind, you plead that it is a ‘nasty question’. Well mummy is not listening. You have to do this one all by yourself. You are the president, remember.

Not everything is “fake news”. Pandemics are real. Looting is real. The fires are real. The injustices are real. While you fan the flames of civil disobedience with one inflammatory tweet after another, understand that this is not fake news. This is reality. You are the fake, Mr President. You are a stain on the office you hold.