5-5, and they’ll still be talking about this one in 20 years’ time…

5-5.

As scores in football matches go, this is one that would have been common enough in games involving my under-11 team or games of Subbuteo table football I might have played with my mates as a 12 or 13-year old.  But hang on, this is the deadly serious, all-grown-up world of the Barclays Premier League – and, not only that, but this was the 1500th and final game overseen by United’s retiring Svengali of a manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.

For the record, it’s United’s first 5-5 since 1895 and the first ever 5-5 in the Premiership since it began in 1992.  And I was there…..and it was fairly insane…and people will still be talking about it in 20 years’ time.

United SubbuteoUnited take to the field at The Hawthorns…

12 months ago, I also attended West Bromwich Albion’s final league game of the season against Arsenal.  I did so partly because my good friend and long-time Albion fan Serge offered me a spare ticket and partly because I simply could not contemplate the tension of staying home and watching United’s final game at Sunderland whilst hanging on the result of the City-QPR game from the Council House.

Like yesterday, it was a beautifully sunny day, but my mood was very different.  I am now fairly sure that I cracked a bone in my foot getting off a bus in Birmingham City Centre and having limped my way to The Hawthorns to meet Serge, we went in to watch what I didn’t realise at the time was Robin van Persie’s final game as a Gooner before joining United.  Behind us an Albion-supporting but United-hating young lady kept us informed of affairs in the United and City games and after she gleefully announced news of Aguero’s 94th-minute winner for City, I left The Hawthorns in a fairly bleak mood, to the extent that I cannot even remember the score in the Albion-Arsenal game.

Things were rather different yesterday.  Though I now have two dodgy knees to replace my foot injury, I was  feeling relatively sprightly as I walked up Halfords Lane past the occasional Mancunian chancer wanting match tickets – there were rumours of them changing hands for £2000.

Anyway, since that rather grim day of the Arsenal game, RvP has become a United hero and the Premier League trophy has returned to rather more familiar pastures in the United trophy room.  Even so, this was Fergie’s last game after a 39-year management career going back to East Stirling in 1974 , where upon his arrival, as he recalled, the chairman informed him that he had 8 players and no goalkeeper.  Things have improved a little for him since then.

Inside the ground, the atmosphere was febrile even among the Albion fans.  The e-Bay mentality ensured that the match programme sold out in record time as people bought 3 and 4 copies; after all, this was history in the making.  Out on the sun-drenched pitch, the United players were warming up and I was delighted to see Paul Scholes among them.  Scholes has now retired for a second time after a career of great distinction, making 717  appearances for United in all competitions.  He has been my favourite United player of the modern era and has been one of the game’s truly great players, though his tackling remained awful to the end.  I knew Scholesy would not have made the journey down to the Black Country unless Fergie intended to bring him on at some point – and so it was to prove.

Schole Final Game

There was a double ‘Guard of Honour’ before this game – all these pre-match ceremonials make me long for the days when players just used to run out of the tunnel on to the pitch and simply start the game after a cursory warm-up.  Not these days; I suppose that we should be grateful that the Albion mascots didn’t form a mini-Guard for the United mascots.  What we did get was a G.o.H. for the United players by the Albion players, followed by a joint extended G.o.H. for Fergie by both sets of players.  Albion have had a good season themselves, achieving their best position (8th) since 1980-1 under Steve Clarke’s thoughtful guidance and their fans were in largely benevolent mood in the late Spring sunshine.  The United players got a mixed reception, but the applause for Fergie was generous and general.  He emerged from the ruck of players and apparatchiks to wave to the United fans who had occupied half of the Smethwick End away to my immediate left.

FBL-ENG-PR-WEST BROM-MAN UTD

After all this ceremonial nonsense, there was a surreal atmosphere once the game started.  Fergie’s final starting XI left most of his experienced players on the bench, with only Michael Carrick holding things together and wearing the captain’s armband.  And of course, as a footnote, it should be observed that there was no Wayne Rooney at all.  He had allegedly been given the day off as his wife is due to produce Rooney Junior # 2.  I think most United fans are of the view that – barring another ludicrous volte-face – he has probably played his last game for Manchester United and that this is perhaps the best solution to his problems.  For someone who was until quite recently perceived as United’s lynchpin, it’s surprising how little he has been missed of late.

Certainly United set off at a fair clip and eased into a 3-goal lead within the first half-hour.  Goals from Kagawa and Alex Büttner were split by a Jonas Olsson own goal and the atmosphere was more akin to a testimonial match or pre-season friendly.  However, James Morrison prodded home from six yards out on the stroke of half-time and you sensed that Albion had finally decided that they were simply not prepared to accept a role as cannon fodder for the Champions.

Crucially, Steve Clarke brought on Chelsea loanee Romelu Lukaku for the second half and he scored a great goal on 50 minutes and generally looked to be giving Jonny Evans and Phil Jones a far harder afternoon than they had bargained for.  The truth is that having wrapped up the Premiership a couple of weeks back, the United players have been in party mode ever since and for all the blithe talk of beating Chelsea’s points total and seeing off the departing manager in the right fashion, they have – mentally – been on the beach for a while now.

So, even though sharp finishes from RvP and Javier Hernandez took the score to 5-2, there was still plenty of time left and in an extraordinary last ten minutes, Albion scored three times with Lukaku running at will through our increasingly porous defence.  Not even the introduction of Scholes (who inevitably picked up a final yellow card for a woefully poor challenge on Mulumbu) , Giggs and Ferdinand could stem the flow and in the end, it would be churlish in the extreme to deny Albion a hard-fought point in a generally crazy game that will live long in the memories of all who witnessed it.

RvP GoalRobin van Persie scores United’s fourth goal at The Hawthorns

The departing, conquering hero emerged  with a slightly rueful smile from the ruck near the tunnel to acknowledge the noisy United away support and then he was gone – for (presumably) the last time as the United manager.  Interestingly, the United fans were already airing a new song about David Moyes, encouraging the incoming manager to adopt the style of the Fergie era.

Hopefully he will do so – and let’s hope he adds the substance of those years as well.

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1970: All things must pass

I’ve just finished reading David Browne’s ‘Fire and Rain’, a lengthy volume which attempts to explain many aspects of why the 1960’s Hippie Dream turned sour and does so by concentrating on one year – 1970 – and on 4 groups or artists for whom 1970 was a big year; Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Beatles and James Taylor.

All 4 released albums in 1970 – Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over troubled water‘,  CSNY’s ‘Déjà Vu ‘,  James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ and The Beatles’ ‘Let it be’.  Each of those albums were important inasmuch as they signified the end of the road for both The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel,  whilst Déjà Vu demonstrated how the addition of Neil Young to the mix completely destroyed the huge promise of the first ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash’ album from the previous year.  With hindsight,  only James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ can be seen in a positive light; after all, it was the template for Taylor’s hugely successful career which still endures to this day.

CrosbyStillsNashYoung 1970CSNY in 1970 – falling apart before they ever really got together

All of these albums – particularly ‘Bridge over troubled water’  – were highly successful in terms of sales but all except for the Taylor album are freighted with negative connotations.

Simon & Garfunkel’s final album was patchy.  The title track was a monster hit everywhere and became an instant ‘standard’ and there were other fine moments like the quirky ‘So long Frank Lloyd Wright’, but there were some patchy moments as well.  Overall,  the album lacked the homogeneity of 1968’s  ‘Bookends’ and, as Browne points out, many of the tracks featured either Garfunkel’s voice or Simon’s – there weren’t many moments where we were treated to the sweet joint harmonies of yesteryear.

‘Let  it be‘ was a ragbag mess of a record after the smooth fluidity of its predecessor, ‘Abbey Road’.  Few of the songs were of a quality that matched The Beatles’ achievements  at their ‘Revolver’/’Sgt Pepper‘ peak.  ‘Let it be’ revealed a band falling apart.  The only surprise is that it was released at all; few other bands would have got away with it.

Déjà Vuand the US concert tour that followed it turned Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young into the world’s biggest band by the summer of 1970.  Yet the record – like the band –  is deeply flawed, lacking the unity of mood, purpose and underlying philosophy which made the 1969 ‘Crosby, Stills & Nash‘ album one of the finest début albums of all time.  By contrast, ‘Déjà Vu’ sounds like the work of 4 solo artists, which as Browne’s book reveals was pretty much the case.  Only Crosby’s hippie potboiler ‘Almost cut my hair’ avoids this label as he insisted the whole band record it live in the studio.  Looking back, it’s clear that Young only joined the CSN collective in order to further his own solo career.  It’s of some significance that Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’, another 1970 release, leaves ‘Déjà Vu’ standing – and I say this as someone for whom Neil Young’s lengthy solo career is largely a monument to self-indulgence and tedium.  All in all, it has to be said that whilst  ‘Déjà Vu’ has its momentsStills’ ‘Carry On’ and Crosby’s title track maintain the quality of the first album –  the rest is pretty forgettable.

So, for Browne’s chosen artistes, we have two bands who disintegrated in 1970 plus one who were hardly together at all and all of this came in the wake of the Woodstock dream being soured by the events at the Altamont Speedway at the end of 1969.  Even  for Taylor, who was well on his way to becoming a major artist by the end of 1970,  success was curdled by lengthy episodes of drug abuse and flirtations with the mental instability that informed some of his lyrics.   All in all, it’s not a pretty picture, but the thing is, it’s also a distorted one, because in many other ways, 1970 was a time of harvest for many of the bands and performers who had been developing their music over the previous few years.

Even a perfunctory glance at a list of the albums that were released in 1970 show an extraordinary diversity and range of talent.  This was the year of Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’ , of  Santana’s ‘Abraxas’, of Pink Floyd’s  ‘Atom Heart Mother’, Traffic’s ‘John Barleycorn must die’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’.  How different, how much more positive could Browne’s story have been if he’d chosen these albums and artists instead of the ones already mentioned?

TrafficTraffic in 1970;  (L-R) Wood, Winwood & Capaldi

Well, of course, Browne chose the artists and albums he did because they illustrated the specific point he was trying to make about the death of 1960’s idealism and the encroachment of greed, ego and narcotics upon the hippie heartlands of yesteryear.  To be honest, his points are well-made, but I have to ask myself which of the artists he covered were on my personal ‘playlist’ in 1970.  Maybe Déjà Vu‘ – though I usually reverted to the first ‘CSN’
album by preference – and from time to time later on in the year, Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’ once it strayed across my radar.  The other two were not albums I listened to at all – I always felt that ‘Let it be‘ was rubbish aside from a couple of the tracks and I found ‘Bridge over troubled water‘ too syrupy and bland.  Some people found the title track magnificent; I just found it overblown.

I’ve already mentioned a few of the top albums released in 1970 – here’s a more comprehensive list:

Derek & the Dominos – ‘Layla and other assorted love songs’

The Mothers of Invention – ‘Burnt Weeny Sandwich’ / ‘Chunga’s Revenge’

Free – ‘Fire & Water’/’Highway’

George Harrison – ‘All things must pass’

Grateful Dead – ‘Workingman’s Dead’ / ‘American Beauty’

Jimmy Webb – ‘Words & Music’

Joni Mitchell – ‘Ladies of the Canyon’

IABD - Marrying Maiden

King Crimson – ‘In  the wake of Poseidon’ / ‘Lizard’

Led Zeppelin – ‘III’

Neil Young – ‘After the Goldrush’

Pink Floyd – ‘Atom Heart Mother’

Rod Stewart – ‘Gasoline Alley’

Ry Cooder – ‘Ry Cooder’

Santana – ‘Abraxas’

Soft Machine – ‘Third’

Supertramp – First Album (‘Supertramp’)

Allman Brothers Band – ‘Idlewild South’

The Band – ‘Stage Fright’

The Byrds – ‘Untitled’

The Doors – ‘Morrison Hotel’

The Rolling Stones – ‘Get yer ya-ya’s out’

Todd Rundgren – ‘Runt’

Mountain climbing

Traffic – ‘John Barleycorn must die’

Yes – ‘Time and a Word’

Family – A Song for Me’

Mountain – Climbing!

Egg – ‘Egg’

Miles Davis – ‘Bitches’ Brew’

The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘Burrito Deluxe’

Country Joe and the Fish – ‘C.J. Fish.’

Blodwyn Pig – ‘Getting to this’

IF

The Who – ‘Live at Leeds’

Ginger Baker’s Air Force – First Album

Dave Mason – ‘Alone Together’

Fotheringay – First Album (‘Fotheringay’)

Quicksilver Messenger Service – ‘Just for Love’ / ‘What about me?’

Nick Drake – ‘Bryter Later’

Tim Buckley – ‘Starsailor’

Quintessence 1970

Spirit – ‘The 12 Dreams of Dr Sardonicus’

Roy Harper – ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’

If – First Album & ‘If 2’

It’s a Beautiful Day – ‘Marrying Maiden’

John McLaughlin – ‘My Goal’s Beyond’

Quintessence – ‘Quintessence ‘ (Second album)

John & Beverley Martyn – ‘The Road to Ruin’

OK,  so here are close to 50 LP’s which also saw the light of day in 1970 and might paint a rather less negative picture than Browne offers in his book.  People often talk of 1967 as being the magical year for music  but for me, 1970 is the year that really counts.  You can make your own mind up about that.

After this, of course, there was Bowie and The Eagles and  Little Feat and  Steely Dan – overall,  something new.  Whilst the 60’s was a fading dream , the 70’s offered something different.  1970 was a year that marked the dividing line between the two decades and gave us a whole new set of possibilities.

Me and Fergie…..

Been quite a week at Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson announcing  his retirement, Wayne Rooney announcing his desire to escape from the club, Cristiano Ronaldo linked with a return to the club and Everton’s David Moyes unveiled as Ferguson’s replacement.   Unfortunately, I fear that Fergie’s retirement means that Ronnie won’t be coming back any time soon.  Pity, but there you go.

However, I think most United fans would be happy to see the back of Rooney.  This is twice in about the last 3 years that he has said that he wants to quit; few players say that once and get away with it at Manchester United and I suspect that if they can get a decent return on a player who has flattered to deceive for much of the season just ending, United will grab it.  Rooney has been at Old Trafford for 10 years now and whilst he clearly still has considerable talent, it is equally clear that he has fallen out of love with United, so a clean break for all parties may be the best strategy.

As for Ferguson, the world and his significant other have been queuing up to eulogise about ‘the Great Man’ and MUTV have been running blanket coverage of Fergie documentaries full of former Fergie players and even the likes of Tony Blair waxing lyrical about his achievements and his qualities .  Elsewhere Liverpool fans and some journalists have been staging street parties to celebrate his retirement.  The general line seems to be that no matter what you thought of the man, his curmudgeonly bile and hairdryer outbursts masked a fierce loyalty to those under his purview and were the outward signposts of an almost pathological will to win.  In short, you couldn’t have one without the other.  By general reckoning the late, great Sir Matt Busby was a much nicer man than Alex Ferguson and consequently a less successful manager in terms of trophies won. Hmmm, well maybe….

I once had the memorable experience of sitting in on a Fergie press conference at Old Trafford.  I was playing Sancho Panza to my mate Dominic’s Quixote and had squeezed into Old Trafford’s amazingly uncomfortable Press Box alongside Dom and his guest pundit on the radio that night – who may well have been Paddy Crerand.  As I recall,  the opposition were Charlton Athletic and following a tight game with a late Ole Gunnar Solskjær winner for United,  Dom was waiting to interview the principals, but to his chagrin both Fergie and Charlton boss Alan Curbishley showed up at more or less the same time.

Having cornered Curbishley, Dom thrust a minidisc recorder into my hands and told me to go into Fergie’s press conference and record it.  So, in I went, to find His Nibs sitting there about 2 yards away from me,  waiting for the latecomers like me to filter in.  Journalists were coming up and dumping their recorders on the desk  in front of Fergie, so I pressed record and did the same, then searched for somewhere to sit.  The media room at Old Trafford is like a small lecture theatre with raked banks of seats and the only place left for me to sit was – you guessed it – front and centre, right in Fergie’s line of sight.

Fergie press conf

“Who’s that bloke in the front row?”

It was a routine press conference.  He rambled on about the game for a minute or so then answered a few minutes-worth of perfunctory questions.  Was it just my paranoia that made me feel that his eyes kept drifting to me?  After all, he made it his business to know the Press Pack and I’m sure he pegged me for an unfamiliar face.  Every time that watery, blue-eyed glare came my way, my heart beat just a little quicker, but in the end I escaped with my recording and my identity intact.

Really, enough has been said elsewhere about the man and his astonishing trophy haul, so I will pass on that, stopping only to thank him for all that he has done for my club since 1986 and to observe that his replacement, Everton boss David Moyes, has got a hell of an act to follow.  Good luck to him.

Truths, half-truths & convenient fictions in Mitteleuropa……

After the social whirl of March’s Sri Lanka extravaganza, the end of April  saw me embarked on a solo outing to the place where the new Europe and the old one overlap – Berlin – with onward connections to Poland and the journey I have wanted to make for many, many years now, to Krakow, Auschwitz and Mitteleuropa’s particular ‘heart of darkness’.

Travelling alone is something I used to do a lot of back in the days when I used to work in the travel biz;  I would be tasked with checking out a particular area of (usually) Scandinavia and would meet with hoteliers,  transport companies and the like, whilst investigating potential attractions to be woven into a 7-, 10- or 14 day programme that could be incorporated into the following year’s brochures – ‘Finnish Panorama’, ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’ etc ; you get the general drift.

However, the thing is that although I travelled alone between destinations, I always had people to meet and appointments to keep once I got to wherever I was headed.  With this trip, the only schedule was the one I decided on and with flights, trains, hotels and suchlike all booked in advance, I simply had to show up and meander through my own self-devised itinerary, visiting the sights and hitting the hotspots that interested me.  Deciding where to  have dinner was sometimes the only real variable in my day and having always been comfortable in my own skin, the prospect of wandering round central Europe on my own didn’t bother me that much, but I suspect I underestimated the impact of a programme with such a minimal level of social contact built in.  Certainly, I  didn’t take into account the emotional  impact of some of what I would experience.

ESG Wall

One of the images from the East Side Gallery in Berlin

It wasn’t  even that this was a trip that I wanted to do alone and with the benefit of hindsight , I wish I’d worked a little harder to find a travelling companion or two.  It’s just a simple fact that most of my family and friends are caught up in a cocktail of work or financial or (even) grand-parenting issues that would have made it impossible for them to join me for one or more reasons.  However, the thing that really drove me out the door on this occasion was news of the imminent arrival of an Aussie friend of the Partner’s – let’s call her Matilda – whose mere presence is enough to inspire paroxysms of mild nausea and loathing in me – I have my reasons, believe me.  Matilda and her ex-husband were part of the social flotsam and jetsam with which the Partner chose to populate her life in her free & easy late 20’s.  Most of this lot have now thankfully disappeared into the mists of history, but not Matilda, who although she lives in Perth, waltzes into Europe  far too frequently for my liking.

When this happens, I take the view that it’s better and simpler for everyone if I just get out of Dodge.  Normally, I might visit mates in Shropshire or Derby, but on this occasion, I decided to make a virtue out of what I perceived to be a necessity and orchestrated a week-long trip to Berlin and Krakow.  This did not meet with universal approval; the Partner’s attitude combining anger at my ongoing disdain for her Aussie friend and irritation that I am able to just clear off for a week at the drop of a hat when she is still shackled to the workplace.

Predictably, all of this  domestic sturm und drang came floating to the surface like so much unwelcome scum the night before my departure, by  which point it was in any case far too late for me to do anything about it – even if I’d cared to.  Under the circumstances, I guess I can only take pride in my unwavering knack for consistently locating that ‘sour spot’ that exists somewhere between ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘completely wrong’.  Sad but true, folks;  I’m  reliably and regularly informed that I’m no angel and having been told this for well over 20 years, I guess it must be true.

And so to Berlin, where the sun was fighting to get through a grey blanket of cloud and I was soon fighting to get to grips with the highly-touted public transport system.  Airport Bus to some place the other side of Tiergarten, then U-Bahn (or was it S-Bahn – and what’s the difference anyway?) to Potsdamer Platz with its glass towers and forest of pink piping and a tedious walk down the road to my hotel; a clean functional Ibis with staff who were efficient and friendly in that impersonal corporate manner we are all supposed to applaud.

There was enough of the afternoon left for me to explore my immediate surroundings, which were, specifically, the area between Potsdamer Platz and Kreuzberg.  This is an area of no great architectural merit with only the remaining section of the  facade of the old Anhalter Banhof and the soaring white spires of the Tempodrom concert hall to enliven things.  In the end I wandered up to Potsdamer Platz to photograph the pink piping –   there to pump away ground water as Berlin apparently has a very high water table.IMG_1180

Pink pipes in Potsdamer Platz

Later, I walked down into Kreuzberg and had a pleasant dinner at a Nepalese/Tibetan restaurant called ‘Tibet Haus’, recommended to me by the Princess;  another of the sundry weirdnesses connected with this excursion was that all 3 members of this household have now visited Berlin within the last 2 years, but we have all done the trip independently of one another.  Did I hear somebody say ‘dysfunctional’?

I didn’t anticipate leading a wild nocturnal existence on this trip, but I did check out a few Berlin websites to see if there were any gigs or exhibitions I could go to during my stay.  It was a pleasure to find that promising young Norwegian nu-jazz trio, In the Country, were playing at a jazz club called A-Trane across to the west of the city in Charlottenburg, so after my Nepalese curry I cabbed over to A-Trane to see them play.  And what a delight that turned out to be!

In the Country

In the Country

Pianist Morten Qvenild has the highest profile due to his role as ‘the Magical Orchestra’ behind Susanna (Wallumrød), but In the Country have been active for 8 years now and  are touring around their fifth album, ‘Sunset Sunrise‘,  so-called because they recorded it at Los Angeles’ famous Sunset Sound last summer during a few days downtime whilst on tour in the States.  Qvenild has also been involved with other Norwegian nu-jazz bands like Shining and even an early incarnation of Jaga Jazzist.  He gets great support from drummer Pål Hausken and bassist Roger Arntzen and there’s never any suggestion that this is merely Qvenild’s band.  To some extent, they have taken ideas originally explored by the Esbjörn Svensson Trio;  notably the discreet usage of  synthesiser, electronics and  vocals to boost the basic trio sound – and they do it brilliantly.

They played 2 marvellous sets to a pretty packed club and I cabbed home some time after 1 am feeling happy with my first day.

For the next 3 days, I went into full tourist mode, wandering the city at some length and visiting sites that were obvious choices like Checkpoint Charlie,  the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag plus others that were recommended to me like the DDR and Jewish Museums.  The weather was pretty good and I got better at navigating my way around.  I found a great Malaysian/Filipino restaurant called Mabuhay, located in the most unpromising of back street car parks with a Lidl supermarket next door – the food was good, though.  I swiftly became very taken with Berlin’s quirky feel and tried to preserve enough energy to explore areas like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg.  On Bergmannstrasse, I ate the best wienerschnitzel I have ever had but had less positive experiences with the local wurst and kebab stalls.

If my experiences with the local cuisine were mixed, the same could definitely be said of the local history and politics, which gave me the same kind of unsettled feeling as that ill-chosen bratwurst I ate one lunchtime.

Even though the Wall is gone, its ghost dominates Berlin in so many ways and though Berlin’s location in the centre of Europe reveals  a city that might look just as readily to the west as to the east, you sense that the shadow in the east predominates.  The elegant avenues of Charlottenburg and the glitzy shops of Kurfürstendamm might wish to emulate Paris, but some of the grim concrete plazas around Alexanderplatz seem more representative of the city’s recent Stalinist past.  War, whether cold or hot,  is the dominant motif in the city’s geography and history – the further east you go the clearer that becomes.  It’s really quite difficult to understand how West Berlin survived as an island of capitalist excess in East Germany’s  grim backwaters, but it did for over 40 years and nowadays the U-bahn and S-bahn trains sweep through former ‘ghost stations’  like Bernauerstrasse with no indication of past problems.  Above ground it’s a different story and the city makes the most of what the Wall left behind.  Most notably, the East Side Gallery on Mühlenstrasse offers us 105 paintings along a 1.3 km long section of the Wall.  These were painted in 1990 when euphoria levels about German reunification were still high, but many of the images now look tired and have been besmirched with mindless graffiti by people who really ought to have a bit more respect.

IMG_1281

 Detail from a section of Wall at the East Side Gallery

Further north in Prenzlauer Berg, a section of the ‘Death Strip’ between the East & West Walls has been maintained in its original configuration.  Stretching between Nordbanhof and Bernauerstrasse stations, the site offers a memorial to those who died trying to get across as well as photographic records of how different the site looked at the height of the Cold War.  Further north still is the Mauerparken – a strip park built along the line of the Wall where a huge flea market takes place every Sunday.

I wandered round the flea market, finding  myself curiously unmoved by its bewildering variety of offerings, but other people were heading back along Bernauerstrasse with small cabinets, stuffed animals, metal tractor seats and the like.  I took the U-bahn from Bernauerstrasse station and a guy came and sat next to me nursing a huge framed print of the worst kind of 1970’s sub-Pink Floyd ‘space art’.  He looked very pleased with his purchase, but then again, hopefully he just wanted it for the frame .

Mauerpark

The Mauerparken

 The DDR Museum offered a wry thumbnail sketch of what life might have been like in the old East Germany but the Jewish Museum was a different matter altogether.  Daniel Liebeskind’s design is deliberately intended to produce a disorientating and emotional effect with its angled floors and voids, to say nothing of the actual content of the exhibits.  Let’s just say that with me it succeeded admirably.  I have in the past visited both of London’s Jewish Museums and never found either of them as troubling.  In the end, I became almost panic-stricken in trying to find a way out of the place. Here was all the evidence of a vibrant culture destroyed, here were the touchstones of a way of life that has been forever lost.  In a very direct way, Berlin’s Jewish Museum was signposting my way to Auschwitz.

Jewish Musem Berln

Inside Berlin’s Jewish Museum 

The last site I visited on my final day in Berlin was in many ways the most troubling of all.  To the south-east of the city centre, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park is both a mass grave for the 80,000 Red Army soldiers who died in 1945’s climactic Battle of Berlin and a memorial to their sacrifice.  The monument was built in 1949 and is rendered in the usual Soviet/Heroic fashion.  It’s a huge site with- as its centrepiece – a 12m high statue of a Soviet soldier holding a child in his arms whilst lording it over the broken swastika at his feet.

Whatever my feelings about the vanished world of Soviet Russia, there is no doubting the suffering that country underwent at the hands of the Nazi invaders during Operation Barbarossa and its successors.  The Nazis saw the Slavs as being an inferior race suitable only as slave labour and they despoiled the towns, cities and local populations of the lands they conquered in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.  As the Russians headed west in late 1944,  it was time for a little revenge and whilst Russian historians dispute this, there seems little doubt that the invading Red Army were responsible for massive reprisals against the German population as they drove westwards towards Berlin.  In particular, Soviet soldiers are said to have been responsible for as many as 2 million cases of rape in Germany, with victims ranging from 8 to 80 years old.  About 100,000 of these rapes were said to have occurred during the Battle for Berlin.  So much for the heroic Soviet Army, but it seems that French, American and British soldiers were also getting in on the act as they invaded from the West, so to point the finger at the Russians alone would be hypocritical indeed.

IMG_1310

The Soviet War Memorial at Treptower Park

I found this ‘credibility gap’ between the narrative of War as portrayed through its memorials and museums and the underlying stories of ordinary people whose suffering was on a different level altogether to be a recurring motif on this trip and the more I saw of it,  the more disturbing  I found it.    The ‘grand narratives’ of generals and statesmen and war heroes don’t seem to make any sense here – the Jews of Berlin were reviled, ostracised, then dispossessed and exterminated, the heroic Red Army were not the liberators of myth, but simply  an armed rabble who raped and pillaged their way through Poland and Eastern Germany until they met up with the Allies at the Elbe, the women of Berlin (many of them) paid a terrible price for Hitler’s racism. arrogance and deranged fascist ideologies…..what’s wrong with this picture?

Before this trip, I would have said that I knew quite a bit about all of this, having read a number of books about it and seen quite a few documentaries – certainly I felt that the blinkers were off as far as I was concerned, but I still found the growing gap between the official viewpoint and what ordinary people actually experienced somewhat alarming.  More to the point, it was not something I had been able to discover through books or films, but something I picked up simply from wandering round Berlin’s monuments and museums.  How much more of a shock would Poland prove to be?

I was soon to find out. The next morning I took a cab to Berlin’s magnificent glass and steel Hauptbanhof, opened in 2006 and one of my favourite modern structures.  Anyway you look at it, it’s a magnificent building and must make arriving in Berlin by train a truly uplifting experience.

Berlin Hauptbanhof

Berlin’s Hauptbanhof 

However, I was leaving, not arriving and I boarded the 9:37 train to Warsaw and found myself sharing a compartment with a Russo-German family of 4 and a German girl in her 20’s who bore a disconcerting resemblance to my next-door neighbour.  Ordinarily, I would have been able to travel directly to my final destination, Krakow,  rather then go via Warsaw, but the track between Berlin and Krakow is apparently being upgraded to take high-speed trains, so a detour through central Poland to Warsaw was the first stage of a 10-hour journey.  There was no small talk with my neighbours – the German girl was ploughing through a hefty John Irving novel and the Russo-German parents were busy with their infants.  I played my iPod to shut out some of the noise and concentrated on the unravelling view outside the window. It’s only 50 miles from Berlin to the River Oder which forms the international boundary with Poland and an awful lot of that territory is covered with pine forest – planted rather than natural, I assume.  Once across the river and into Poland, however, the landscape began to change to a gently undulating landscape of fields, copses and low hills.  With the first flush of springtime green on the land, it looked incredibly attractive in a kind of ‘Nymphs & Shepherds come away‘ fashion.  Given the ‘Volkish‘, back-to-nature ideologies of the Nazis, it’s easy to see the attraction of these bucolic landscapes with their gingerbread cottages and echoes of a simpler, nobler past, free from the corruption of the big cities with their Jewish predators waiting to pounce on simple Aryan country boys.

On the way to Warsaw, we passed through a number of provincial towns and one major city – Poznań –  none of which looked particularly noteworthy.  By 3 pm I had reached Warsaw Zachodnia station (formerly Warsaw West), a satellite station some miles from the centre of the city.  Quite why I needed to change there rather than in the centre of the city is something I couldn’t explain to you.  From the platforms at Zachodnia I had a good view of Warsaw’s central landmarks, notably the near-800 foot high Palace of Culture & Science, built between 1952 and 1955 and donated to the people of Poland by the people of the USSR.  Locally, it’s sometimes referred to as Stalin’s Syringe and can be seen just left of centre in the picture below.

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 After some 45 minutes or so, my train to Krakow duly appeared and once aboard I settled back for another unravelling panorama of Polish farmlands outside my window.  This express didn’t stop at all and after just over 3 hours we pulled into Krakow’s modern station.  One overpriced cab ride later and I was at the Globetroter (with just one ‘t’) Guesthouse in the Old Town.

It was the 29th April when I arrived in Krakow.  The most urgent question I had to answer was when to visit Auschwitz.  Should I go the following day or have an easier day in Krakow?  I was inclined to follow the latter course, but that would mean deferring my Auschwitz trip for a further day, which would mean trying to go there on 01 May, a well-established public holiday.  I knew that the Museum itself would be open on May Day, but would getting there be a problem?

The (unpronounceable) modern town of Oswiecim is (depending on the route you take) just over 40 miles west of Krakow and because of the logistics of visiting the Auschwitz sites,  an early start is essential if you wish to avoid the crowds and find your own way around the place.  Essentially, if you arrive after 10 am, you are compelled to join a guided tour around the museum and this was something I was keen to avoid for a variety of reasons.  For one thing, I am probably a bit too well-informed about the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’  and wouldn’t really need to hear all the ‘back-story’.  For another, I knew that this was likely to be my one and only visit to Auschwitz, so I wanted it to make sense for me and the only way that could happen would be for me to be in charge of my own itinerary, so to speak.

After popping out to a nearby restaurant, I returned to Globetroter to check out the weather forecast on BBC World.  The 30th was set fair, but the 1st promised rain for Western Poland, so my decision was made for me.

I was in bed by about 9:15 pm,  awake well before 6 the following morning and on my way to the Bus Station before 7.  Once there, I managed to find a place on the 7:50 minibus, along with a ragbag collection of half-asleep tourists and young Poles on their way to work at intermediate stops along the way.  The journey took about an hour and 20 minutes and we were eventually dropped off in a featureless suburban street on the outskirts of Oswiecim.  A sign saying ‘Museum’ which led off down a footpath towards a fenced enclosure was the only clue to our whereabouts.  Following this footpath, I soon found myself in the Museum’s main car park and was surprised to see how busy it was given that it was only about 9:15 am.

Entry to the Auschwitz site is free (as it should be) so I avoided a few groups that were gathering and simply walked through into the approach to the camp.  First impressions were how small, compact and neat it looked – and then you spot the ‘Arbeit macht frei’ sign…..  The word ‘iconic’ is overused these days, but there is no denying the power of that cynical piece of signage.

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The gate into the Auschwitz 1 camp as you first see it

And then….just a few steps for a man, as Neil Armstrong might have said and you are inside.  How easy it would have been for me to about face and walk out again and how many uncounted thousands would have liked to be able to do the same and yet could never do so? I don’t – as far as I know – have an iota of Jewish blood in me, but just stepping across that threshold made my WASP plasma run cold.

Auschwitz 1 is an unnerving place on numerous levels.  Yet again I found myself assailed by those feelings of dislocation between the evidence before my eyes and the reality of what went on in this dreadful place.  The original site was a way station or transit camp  for migratory farm workers who every year travelled the roads of  Bohemia, Moravia, Poland, Silesia and Germany in search of employment.  Similarly, landowners would travel to Auschwitz in order to recruit labourers.  If you look at a map, you will see that Auschwitz lies  at the crossroads of Europe and well before the railways were built, the high roads from Berlin to Prague and from Krakow to Vienna passed nearby.  Later it became  a Polish army barracks and then the Nazis took over.  The excellent communications links from Auschwitz to both east and west found favour with the architects of the ‘Final Solution’ and the proximity of the Silesian coalfields meant that big companies like I G Farben were prepared to open chemical factories there – resulting in Auschwitz 3 or Monowitz where Farben used inmates from the camps as workers.

Inside Auschwitz 1, the trees are showing new growth, the roads and walkways are tidy – the calm is eerie.  Only when you look up to the wire and the watchtowers do you get a true sense of what this place was really about.

Auschwitz 1

A number of the 20-odd barrack blocks have been converted – some for use as office space, others as homes for the site’s permanent exhibits and for individual national displays from Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and so on.  Knowing that a long and trying day lay ahead of me, I chose to focus on the permanent displays because it is really only here that the spick-and-span barracks are revealed as the houses of horror they really were.  The exhibits that reveal Auschwitz’s true nature are those that focus on daily life within the camps and the way in which the incoming millions were exploited and abused by their captors.

I have often remarked to people that there are some ‘sights’ – the Taj Mahal, the Manhattan skyline and the Eiffel Tower are 3 that spring to mind – that retain their power to impress,  even though you have inevitably  seen them hundreds of thousands of times on TV and in books.  For me, Auschwitz has a few of these and the first are the monstrous display cases full of human hair and suitcases and shoes in the barracks that deals with the Nazis ideas about ‘harvesting the dead’. Particularly grim is the case full of small shoes taken from the feet of innumerable dead children; the point is that all of this stuff is just a fraction of the total volume of such items generated during the life of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death camps.

Auschwitz 1 Childrens shoes

Children’s shoes in the museum at Auschwitz 1.

I concluded my visit to Auschwitz 1 by visiting the ‘Punishment Block’  in Block 11 and the adjoining yard where the Nazis put at least 20,000 people up against the so-called ‘Black Wall’ and shot them.  Inside  Cell Block 11 were the basement cells where prisoners were often left to starve to death or forced to crawl into miniscule 4-person ‘standing cells’, so small that there was no possibility of the inmates being able to sit, let alone lie down.  It was also in this basement in September of 1941 that the Nazis first trialled Zyklon B as a killing gas on 600 Soviet prisoners and 250 ill and injured prisoners in a makeshift gas chamber.  The ‘Black Wall’ has been reconstructed in the sealed yard between Cell Blocks 10 & 11  and the windows of Block 10 that faced on to the yard  shielded to prevent the inmates from seeing what was happening outside, though they could no doubt guess from the sound of gunfire.  In any case, they had troubles of their own as Block 10 was where the infamous Josef Mengele carried out his barbaric medical experiments on twins, pregnant women and the like.

To be honest, I was shocked by the impact of all this on me; after all I knew most of this stuff, but it’s one thing to read about it or watch an elegantly-constructed BBC documentary or even Claude Lanzmann’s nine-hour epic film ‘Shoah’, but to be there and see these things in person just floored me.

Something else that floored me were some of the exhibits that dealt specifically with the role of the local population in the affairs of Auschwitz.  We all know that Poland was over-run by both Soviet & Nazi armies during World War II and we know that the Nazis were responsible for the forced deportation of huge numbers of Poles to work as slave labour in the mines and factories of the Third Reich.  What we also know is that whilst the Poles as a race were disinclined to collaborate with the Nazis, they were also largely indifferent to the fate of the (nearly) 4 million Jews living in their country at the start of the War.  Despite all the fine talk of how few Poles actively collaborated with the Nazis, most Poles would probably argue that they had problems enough of their own without taking up the fight on behalf of the Jews.  For all this, the spectre of Polish anti-Semitism hangs over some of the exhibits at Auschwitz 1, particularly those ‘visiting’ exhibitions (usually Polish-sponsored) that deal with Resistance to the Nazis and the way in which the Poles found common cause with Jews, Roma and other oppressed minorities.  For me, a lot of this stuff just didn’t ring true.  Apparently, the current Chief Rabbi of Poland is pleased that the percentage of Poles who harbour anti-Semitic feelings is now down to 45%.  How high must it have been in the early 1940’s  – a time, where if you believe some of the stuff I saw at Auschwitz,  heroic Polish freedom fighters were finding common cause with their Jewish brothers to fight the shared Nazi enemy?  No, I don’t believe it either….yet again, I found myself teetering on the brink of a credibility gap between the revisionist history that will make us all feel comfortable with one another in the 21st Century EU and the evidence of my own eyes and ears….and brain.

Auschwitz 1 main gate

 All of the horror of what had been done here, allied to the half-truths and reassuring balm that the Polish-born, Polish-trained multilingual guides were no doubt feeding into the headphones worn by the incoming groups of impressionable but subdued teenagers from Sweden and Italy and America…well, it all just caught up with me, frankly.  45% of Poles still have anti-Semitic views, despite the largest genocide of all time happening right on their doorstep.  How bad would things have to have got before we could get that figure down to 25%?  How many more millions would have to have died in the gas chambers?

Like Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.   Roll over Pol Pot and tell Rwanda the news…..

Of course, visiting Auschwitz without going on to the second camp at Birkenau is to surely miss the point completely.  At Auschwitz 1, the victims were a mixture of Soviet Prisoners, Polish dissenters, Roma, homosexuals, political prisoners  and so on.  At Birkenau, it was really all about the Jews.  From the car park outside Auschwitz 1, a free shuttle-bus will take you to Auschwitz 2/Birkenau.  In geographical distance there is only a couple of miles between the camps, but conceptually, it’s a whole new ballgame.

The first thing that gets you is the sky, strangely enough – at Auschwitz 1 you are hemmed in by the red brick barracks and by trees – it’s all  pretty claustrophobic.  At Birkenau though, it’s a different story.  Apart from the (here’s that word again) ‘iconic’ gatehouse which Lanzmann uses as a visual cueing device throughout ‘Shoah’, everything at Birkenau is low to the ground.  Simply put, the site is huge, covering over 150 hectares (or 1.5 million square meters).

There were no existing buildings here so the Nazis threw up basic low barracks buildings – by 1945, there were 300 of them.  Stretching away into the misty distance you can see the fingers of the stove chimneys for each barracks, all that remains of most of the barracks, though some have been rebuilt to show how terrible living conditions were at Birkenau.  However, by the time Birkenau was up and running in 1942, the Nazis were much more concerned about dying conditions than living conditions.    They had  set themselves to exterminate the Jews of Europe and to do the job on an industrial scale.  Birkenau was one of the death camps they set up in Poland in order to carry out this task.

Birkenau gatehouse

The gatehouse at Birkenau  – it still gives me chills….

The railway line that leads into Birkenau is a spur that the Nazis built to increase the efficiency of their Birkenau Death Factory.  Jews could be unloaded directly on to the ‘Ramp’, divested of their possessions, split into male/female  groups and assessed for their ability to work before being marched down the ramp to the delousing showers and their eventual doom.

It’s a long way from the gatehouse to the wreckage of the crematoria at the other end of the site but it’s a journey that everyone takes.  I saw an extended family of Israelis, the children wrapped in Star of  David flags, most of the adults weeping openly.  They marched in line abreast back towards the gatehouse, towards freedom and a country that didn’t even exist when the Nazis set this place up in 1942.  I can only wonder at the complexity and depth of their feelings..

I took that walk as well, down to the anticlimactic ‘International Monument’ and the brick and concrete wreckage of the Crematoria.  Nearby on either side of the wreckage are small pools with gravestone-type memorials in front of them.  A young girl sat in silence next to the southernmost pool.  I wanted to say something to her but wouldn’t have known where to start.

Birkenau

The ‘undressing room’  at Crematorium II at Birkenau

By this point, I was shattered – both physically and emotionally.  I trudged back to the gatehouse and picked up a return shuttlebus to Auschwitz 1, then picked up a minibus back to Krakow.

In the evening, I ventured out into the streets of Krakow’s Old Town and found a bar overlooking the enormous Market Square.  I suppose I needed to talk to someone about all that I’d seen, but that was denied me.   No friendly faces appeared and I probably looked extremely grumpy anyway.   I had a beer and watched the world go by, then ate a perfunctory dinner before returning to the Globetroter to sleep.  It had been enough of a day.

The following day was my final full day in Poland and I wanted to see as many of Krakow’s sights as I could.  Based on what my guidebook was telling me I immediately set off for Wawel – a huge rock on a bend in the River Vistula to the immediate south of the Old Town where the original settlement of Krakow was set up.  These days Wawel is dominated by Krakow’s cathedral and castle and I was keen to see both.  I had suffered enough doom and gloom the previous day so I was hoping to experience something that would lift my spirits.  It would have been great, but it just didn’t happen and again the disparity between what is and what people would like to believe in just came back to bite me in the ass.

One of the main problems I had with Krakow is that for all that the Old Town has some spectacular sights – especially the Market Square and the Church of the Virgin Mary – the architecture is overwhelmingly Italianate in character.  In some ways, it’s like being in Lucca or Pisa or Rome – or even Budapest.   Architecturally, there is little in the Old Town that makes you want to shout ‘Wow! That’s pretty damned Polish!’ – and the buildings on the Wawel rock are very much of the same style.  The cathedral has  green copper spires that reminded me of Copenhagen and  fairly minimalistic golden domes that were like parts of Helsinki’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral.  Inside, the cathedral was dim,  poky and with a multitude of side chapels, all filled with groups of Poles for whom Wawel has become a touchstone of the new Polish nationalism which has come along in the wake of joining the EU and co-hosting last year’s European Football Championships.  For the first time since the early 1920’s or maybe even earlier, Poland is under the thrall of neither the Russians to the east or the Germans to the west and they are eyeing the future with renewed confidence.

Well, good for them, I guess, but I’m afraid that the buildings on Wawel did nothing for me really.  A ragbag of architectural styles and a castle of which little of the original structure remains.  Sorry Poland…..

I moved on into the Kazimierz district, just the other side of the Wawel rock and the home of the original Jewish ghetto in Krakow.  Like a restaurant with no food, Kazimierz seems to be doing reasonably well considering that there are minimal numbers of Jews living there.  The area gained some status due to the fact that Steven Spielberg filmed much of ‘Schindler’s List’ there in 1993 and there have been festivals and the reopening of synagogues and cultural centres designed to renew Kazimierz’s Jewish heritage.  It’s a scruffy area with narrow car-choked streets and a good deal of ‘yuppie-fication’  going on; signs advertising the sale of apartments in both Polish &  English – in 10 years you won’t recognise the place.  Even so, ‘Fascist Krakow’ stickers adorn some of the lamp-posts and anti-Jewish graffiti has been inadequately painted over at the rear of one of the synagogues.  No wonder most of the survivors opted to go elsewhere at the end of the War.

It was time to go home.  A cab ride through prosperous-looking suburbs took me out to the airport the following lunchtime.  Krakow Airport is unequal to dealing with more than a handful of flights every day – the queues for the EasyJet check in were ridiculous because we were all in the queue for the Belfast flight, unable – due to poor ergonomics and design – to see that the lane for the Bristol flight was completely empty.

I dozed my way across Germany and the North Sea coastline, vaguely considering that I would soon be home and able to discuss what I had seen with someone at least.  On the whole, Berlin had been great, Krakow a bit of a disappointment  and Auschwitz completely overwhelming.  I wish that I’d had some company but things don’t always work out the way you’d hoped.

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#20

For Manchester United, it was very much a case of ‘Paradise Regained’ last night at Old Trafford.  A comfortable 3-0 victory over struggling Aston Villa saw United through to their 20th League Title, though in truth, the really significant result had come at White Hart Lane the previous afternoon when an erratic Spurs team struggled against City for 80 minutes before exploding into life and scoring 3 goals in 7 minutes.

It’s actually less than a year now since that 20th title was snatched from our hands by Sergio Aguero’s 94th minute goal against QPR at the Council House.  In that time, it’s pretty much been all downhill for the Berties;  a mixed bag of summer signings with Nastasic the only real success, an indifferent Champions League campaign in an admittedly tough group, too many under-performing players and a lack of the intensity that took them to their first title since 1657 or whenever.  City should finish 2nd in the table but that will be scant consolation for the Etihad crew, who, you feel, will not rest until their corporate colours are all over the Champions League trophy.

By contrast, Fergie’s team talks for this entire season were probably done for him before the United players trailed despondently off the pitch at the Stadium of Light with the jeers of the Sunderland fans still ringing in their ears.  In the aftermath, most United fans were unanimous in the view that we were in desperate need of some  midfield reinforcements.  We got one, though I doubt that many Reds would have cherry-picked Shinji Kagawa from a grab-bag of Europe’s finest midfielders.  In the end, his season finished pretty well, but we have to be honest and say that the best is yet to come from him.  Fergie may be right when he says that Kagawa will do better next year and by then,  hopefully,  he  and Michael Carrick will have some high-quality company, given that Giggs is really restricted to cameos these days,  Scholes (and maybe Darren Fletcher) will probably retire and the likes of Cleverley and Anderson are no more of an answer now than they were a year ago.  Maybe the time has come to promote the seriously promising Ryan Tunnicliffe and Jesse Lingard to the first team.  They probably deserve their chance.

Most talk of United’s 20th title win has obviously revolved around Robin van Persie,  last summer’s  high price, high-profile  recruit from Arsenal.  Whilst there is no doubt that the Dutchman came at a premium price,  it is equally certain  that he has justified the outlay.  His Premiership goals may have come at £1 million each, but for most United fans, they have been crucial in turning back the tide of opinion that said that United’s time was over and the future belonged to City.  History suggests that United’s time of dominance will eventually come to an end, but not, one suspects, on Ferguson’s watch.  With Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez,  Owen  and Berbatov on the books and some promising youngsters coming through , I suspect that few United fans would have seen another striker as a priority. Yet therein lies Ferguson’s special gift; an ability to see what someone like van Persie could add to the mix.  Exit the sadly under-appreciated Berbatov and the injury-prone Owen and in came our new # 20 to boost us to Championship # 20.

RvP Goal 2 v Villa

Robin van Persie volleys home his second goal against Villa

From the very beginning, it was clear that RvP, mercenary or not, was likely to follow in the footsteps of Teddy Sheringham and earn his first title as a United player – to the despair of most Arsenal fans.    However, it is equally clear that he had some key accomplices.

David de Gea probably began the season on a par with Anders Lindegaard, but over the season has gone on to establish himself as top dog in the goalkeeping stakes.  I feel for the genial Lindegaard, but the brutal fact is that United paid the best part of £20 million for De Gea, so it was always likely that they would persist with him unless he really screwed up.  He has had some dodgy moments, but then,  so has  Lindegaard and De Gea is finishing the season looking a far better goalkeeper than the one who began it so hesitantly.

Rafael da Silva has had a great season and established himself as United’s first-choice right back whilst Patrice Evra has bounced back after a wobbly season last year and also discovered a scoring touch that few of us suspected he had.

The centre of defence has resembled A&E at times with Vidic and Ferdinand having to be nursed through the season and Smalling, Evans and Jones all picking up injuries along the way – none of which has made life any easier for De Gea and Lindegaard as the line-up ahead of them has changed from week to week.  General view would be that all parties have done OK most of the time, but that Rio Ferdinand and Phil Jones are the ones to emerge from the season with the most credit.

Rio Carrick 2013

Two of our mainstays – Rio and Michael Carrick – celebrate # 20

Our wide players have been hugely disappointing on the whole – here I am talking specifically about Tony Valencia, Ashley Young and Nani rather than players like Giggs or Welbeck who played out wide from time to time.  Ironically, Valencia seems to be recovering his form of last season just as this season is coming to a close.  Both Young and Nani could be out the door this summer if the price is right.

Central midfield remains a minefield with only Michael Carrick really enhancing his reputation.  Shinji Kagawa began by looking very lightweight, then got injured but has come back strongly in recent weeks.  Still not totally convinced by him though.  Ryan Giggs has had a good season on the whole, but Paul Scholes‘  final furlongs have been dogged by injury and he will surely retire (again) at the end of the season.  Elsewhere both Tom Cleverley and Andes Ron (Anderson) have done little to enhance their claims for regular first-team football and Anderson will surely be offloaded – finally – in the summer.

Of the front players, only Robin van Persie has really had a top season.  For Wayne Rooney, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, there have been problems of one kind or another along the way.  Rooney is starting to look more convincing as a midfielder than he does up front, Welbeck just doesn’t score enough goals and Hernandez  increasingly seems to be used as an impact substitute.  Mind you, at least none of them try to eat the opposition…

Pat & Arm

A friendly Stretford End-er offers Patrice a bite to eat…

With our interest in all other competitions at an end, it’s really just a case of waiting to see who Fergie brings in during the summer – my vote would still be for strengthening the midfield and maybe replacing Young/Nani with a better wide option.  We shall see……

Dancing on the graves of the dead…

“Hatred needs scorn. Scorn is hatred’s nectar!”                                                                    

– Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly -‘The Crimson Curtain’

I don’t really do genuine hatred; it’s just not in my nature.  I also find it hard to engage with the idea of hating something abstract like ‘Poverty’ or ‘Fascism’ and have always taken the view that people, not ideas, are evil.  Having said that, I can only think of two people in my life who I have genuinely hated.   In both cases my hatred stemmed from a sense of helplessness – these two individuals had slithered their way  into positions where they were able to exercise  a perniciously negative influence over my life and at the time, there appeared to be little or nothing  that I could do about it.

My relationship with the recently-deceased Margaret Hilda Thatcher, the Grocer’s Daughter whose legacy is such a hideous stain on the recent history of this country was a distant one, but she succeeded where years of well-intentioned left-wing friends and left-wing politicians had failed.  Her success was in making me consider the nature and substance  of her rhetoric and, thereafter, in making me shift my political allegiances substantially leftwards.  Not that I ever became a  joined up apparatchik of Foot or Kinnock or Smith’s left, let alone a Blairite (soft) centrist.  But Thatcher, so we were told,  was a ‘conviction’ politician and it soon became my conviction that this dreadful harridan with her hectoring, booming, bullying foghorn of a voice was without empathy or compassion or very many positive human qualities.  She clearly had no understanding of any class except her own, so if you were Gay or Black or Northern or a Europhile, let alone a Leftist, you were going to get short shrift from her and the posse of Tory worms that hid behind her and applauded whilst she decimated large tracts of British life.

Margaret Thatcher drove a double-decker bus through the polite conventions  that govern British political life.  After what she did,  one of Tony Blair’s biggest errors was surely in not pushing us towards the written constitution that we need to keep the likes of Thatcher in check.  After the Falklands War, when she was basically in a position to do anything she wanted, she had essentially unlimited power.  Once the Miner’s Strike began, she basically perverted the laws of this country and used the police as storm-troopers to defeat Arthur Scargill and his supporters.

Battle of Orgreave

Orgreave 1984

These were long and miserable years.  At the beginning I was working in record retailing in Manchester, in the middle years,  I lived in Newcastle as the Falklands War & the Miner’s Strike unravelled and by the bitter pyrrhic end, I was here in Birmingham.  Throughout that period,  Thatcher’s malign matriarchalism was like a cloud of toxic fumes that never seemed to disperse.

And, yes, I certainly hated her.  She divided communities, destroyed the lives and health of tens of thousands of ordinary British people, twisted the law of the land to suit her own purposes, played footsie with fools like Reagan and war criminals like Pinochet and tried to impose her hausfrau values on the rest of us.

She was loathsome and thoroughly evil and whilst I didn’t commemorate her passing by getting thoroughly hammered.  I would certainly spit or dance on her grave if I ever happened to be in its vicinity and would feel no need to apologise for such behaviour.   She deserves nothing else, frankly.

Demolition

“It is surely evil to destroy whole communities so that profit can be made for the few. It is surely evil to support and harbour war criminals, it was surely evil to order the attack on the ‘Belgrano’, it was surely evil to give cops a free reign to batter and bruise ordinary people who were just trying to save their jobs and their communities. Her policies have led us directly into the current climate of fear, greed and a lack of community spirit.

 She destroyed hope for several generations and her ideology of wealth = good, poor = bad has left the environment in a terribly precarious state. She supported the Apartheid regime in South Africa; she allowed hunger strikers to starve to death in Ireland and went to war so she could win an election. Do we really need to ask whether she was evil or not?”

Craig Murphy, quoted on ‘The Guardian’s‘ website

Three vignettes:  firstly, I am in Newcastle on the night Thatcher announces the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands and the imminent departure of a military ‘task force’ to kick them out.  Local news later covers a story about the wholesale ransacking of a Spanish restaurant in nearby Sunderland.  That’s a Spanish restaurant……so much for bringing harmony instead of discord – and so much for the Mackems.

Secondly, I am travelling south by car from Newcastle to London during the 1984 Miners’ Strike.  Somewhere in Nottinghamshire on the A1, we are diverted off the road and aggressively grilled about where we were headed by heavily-armoured police at the top of the slip-road.   I have no doubt that had we challenged them, we would have been ‘pulled over’ and detained for several hours until someone could be found to demonstrate for our benefit that their behaviour was totally above-board and legal.  We kept quiet and the stormtroopers finally allowed us to continue southwards.

Thirdly, on the Firth of Clyde just outside Wemyss Bay, there was a power station at Inverkip, though most of it has now been demolished for new housing.  The station was built in 1970 and became  Scotland’s only oil-fired power station.  Inverkip was hardly used because of the hike in oil prices during the mid 1970’s and was effectively mothballed due to the prohibitive cost of running the place.  I wonder if any of you clever people out there can guess the only period during which Inverkip operated at full capacity?

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Inverkip Power Station – full blast during the 1984 Miners’ Strike

The second person I hate – though the first in chronological terms – was actually one of my teachers.  His name was Douglas Young and I feel that I can name him partly because he is long dead and partly because he deserves to have his name and misdeeds out in the open.  Young spent most of his adult life teaching Maths and Religious Instruction to the boys of Northampton Grammar School – largely in the Lower School.    He was also a  pervert and a groper of little boys and everyone at the school knew it.

When I went to the school in 1964, he was well-established as the paterfamilias of the Lower School.  On our first morning he ‘welcomed’ the entire ‘first year’ intake before sending us off to our individual form teachers.  My first misfortune was to be in his class.  His classroom was across the road from the main school buildings in the ‘School House’ – the Headmaster’s  ‘Pied-à-terre’ –  where he lived and where a couple of the surplus rooms had been co-opted to house Young’s first years and also a sixth-form class.  Nice and quiet if your tastes ran to a little adolescent buttock-fondling.

Young taught me Maths as well as Religious Instruction.  I recall him as a small, rotund, grey-haired man in squeaky, highly-polished black shoes and a dark double-breasted suit.  His vocal delivery was slightly wheezy in an asthmatic kind of way and he had a habit of hurling wooden board-rubbers at anyone he suspected of not giving him their full attention.  Once he had the class working, he would call individuals out to the front where we would have to stand at his side whilst he went through our work – and our trousers.  Boys in the First Year were expected to wear a school cap and grey flannel shorts.   The latter provided quietly questing hands with easy access to thighs and buttocks.  All we could do was to stand there and pray that he would soon be done with us and move on to the next victim.

Doug Young with new batch of victims

A wolf in the henhouse. Doug Young (on the left) with a new batch of victims at Northampton Grammar in 1954. 

Maths was never my strong suit and on one occasion I made a royal mess of some homework and was informed by Young that I would have to stay back after school and do the work over again.  He left me to get on with it and disappeared, returning to the now-deserted classroom about 20 minutes later.   The stupid thing is that I knew why I was there and also that my presence had nothing to do with any Maths homework.  He called me to the front, and without much preamble, bent me forward across the front row of desks and slippered me with an old tennis shoe.  He never even looked at the re-done homework.

 Walking home, I felt cheated, violated and angry.  This fucker had used his position of authority to pursue his own squalid desires at my expense and even at the age of 11, I knew that anything I said to my parents or anyone else would be treated with amused disbelief.  In any case, what could I say?   My Dad – himself a teacher – actually knew Young through professional circles.  Also, the fact was that in 1964,  any polite vocabulary of perversion was not uppermost in the minds of 11-year olds.  The words I knew for what Young intended would not have gone down too well with my elders and betters.  I said nothing and – generally – considered myself fortunate to get through the rest of the year without ‘falling foul’ of his wheezy attentions again – though there were many others in my class who were not so lucky.

Through the next 5 years I progressed through the school without having much to do with Young.  Then, in my first year in the Sixth Form, the school – for some reason – decided that us strapping 17 year-olds needed some more Religious Instruction and I was allocated to a class where we were subjected to his flesh-crawling attentions once a week.  Having said that, he knew better than to try it on with us now that we were all pushing 6 feet tall and wearing long trousers.  Even so, his oily personality was a factor you couldn’t ignore and we were all heartily glad to get our weekly dose of Creepy Religion out of the way.

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Frontage, Northampton Grammar School

I lived quite near the school and during the Easter Holiday of that school year, I was walking into town with 2 mates along the main arterial road that leads from Northampton Town Centre out to the school.  My mate Andy was in the middle of a particularly racy story about a group of Swedish nuns in their vegetable garden and as he came to the punchline, Young drove past as we all exploded in laughter.

You have probably figured out what comes next.  Later that day, my Dad told me he wanted a word.  He informed me that Young had been on the phone to him and had said that I had “hurled foul-mouthed abuse” at him as he drove past and that unless a letter of apology was forthcoming in short order, he would have no option but to refer this sorry affair to the Headmaster once school resumed.  You can perhaps imagine my sentiments but I felt much, much worse once I realised that my parents were going to back Young and not their only beloved son.  In the end, I wrote the letter but my relationship with (in particular) my Dad took the best part of 10 years to recover and I never really forgave him for believing a depraved paedophile instead of me.

So, in some respects, I hate Young far more than I hate Thatcher, if only because his corruption and his evil was small and furtive and based on his misuse of his position of authority.  Hers was a malignancy on a far larger scale , but in relative terms,  I only perceived it at a distance.  Which was the lesser of the two evils, I wonder?

One thing is for sure, the world is a better place without both of them…..

Loach Thatcher

Burning down the house….

It would seem that living in this part of Birmingham is rapidly becoming a hazardous business.  Going way back, the old Indoor Market in Kings Heath burned down under suspicious circumstances and only a year or so back, the old Kingsway cinema went up, yet again under similarly dodgy circumstances.

Now, a landmark of the Birmingham music scene, the former Ritz Ballroom in York Road;  most recently a branch of grasping pawnshop chain Cash Converters has also pretty much burned to the ground under – you guessed it –  the proverbial ‘suspicious circumstances’.

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You say ‘Hello’, I say ‘Goodbye’ – the Ritz goes up in flames

So is Kings Heath now ‘Arson Central’?  Should we go to bed with a bucket of water and a fire blanket?  Just what is going on?  As far as I am aware, neither the Indoor Market fire or the Kingsway fire were ever adequately explained and though the local Fire Department are talking of ‘suspicious circumstances’ no-one seems quite sure what they mean.

Did they find an empty firelighters box and a trail of spent matches in the vicinity?  Perhaps some shellsuited denizen of the  wretched Stalinist banlieues further out of the city loudly and publicly threatened to rain down doom and disaster on Cash Converters because they would only give him £3 for his extensive collection of PS3 games or maybe it was just some dodgy wiring in an old building which, I suspect, was never terribly well-maintained.

Whatever the case, the BBC were quick to dig up some rentamouth Brummy social historian – though not Carl Chinn for once – who deplored the city’s lack of care & attention where its musical heritage was concerned.  This bloke suggested that both Manchester & Liverpool have been much more adept at preserving their musical heritage.  Hmmm, well I’m not sure about Liverpool and that whole ersatz Beatles thing in Mathew Street, but I do know that Manchester has been equally careless with the Electric Circus, the original Factory/Russell Club and the Haçienda all now demolished.

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Hooky at the site of The Haçienda; from yacht showroom to iconic venue to a block of yuppie flats……is nothing sacred?

Ho hum, sic transit gloria swanson, but there is a certain irony in the fact that the people behind the (ahem) ‘Kings Heath Walk of Fame’ – first to be honoured, Toyah Willcox, next up (apparently) The Move’s Trevor Burton – had staged an event in Fletcher’s bar opposite The Ritz in February to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles playing The Ritz.

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The Ritz as it was back in the day. Note bizarre multi-coloured plastic checkerboard tiled frontage.  Groovy!

The Ritz was one of 4 ‘ballrooms’ owned and run by the Regan family in this area.  In addition, there were 2 Plazas – one in Handsworth and one in Old Hill plus the notorious Garryowen club in Small Heath.  I can recall visiting the ‘Garry’  a few times back in the 80’s and it was pretty wild.  As far as I know,  it, too. was either demolished or burned down a while back .  Hmm, bit of a pattern developing here……

According to  ic Birmingham back in 2005:  “The Small Heath club, a cornerstone of Birmingham’s Irish community since 1946, was labelled by police as a hot-spot of crime, disorder, alcohol abuse and anti-social behaviour….Insp David McCrone  said there had been 223 call-outs to the club in two years, even though it was only open two nights a week, and closing time deadlines were flouted.”  That sounds about right…my strategy in the Garry was keep drinking and keep your head down.  How bad things got in there generally depended on the respective results for the Blues (Birmingham City) and the Villa (Aston Villa) on any given Saturday.  A win for Villa and a defeat for the Blues meant maximum aggravation and you might be wiser to spend your evening in an alternative cocktail bar unless you were ‘in’ with the central core of drinkers.

Anyway, the Regans are gone, the ‘Garry’ is gone and now so is The Ritz.  As I stood at the corner of York Road yesterday surveying the still-smouldering remains, an old dear next to me said ” I met my husband in there ; we used to go dancing there nearly every weekend”

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The Fab Four – allegedly taken out the back of The Ritz in 1962

There is a sense of loss locally; after all it wasn’t just The Beatles who played at The Ritz – the place also played host to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Rolling Stones and even Pink Floyd.  However, I think it’s dubious to start moaning and groaning about how poor this city is at preserving its musical heritage – apart from Manchester, a quick look around will show that the Rainbow (née Finsbury Park Astoria) became a Happy-Clappy Church in the 1980’s and now seems to be closed/derelict.

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The former Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park

Maybe the USA does this kind of thing better;  Harlem’s  ‘Apollo’ is still open for business whilst there is a ‘ Fillmore Club’ on the site of the old Carousel / Fillmore in San Francisco.  However,  CBGB in The Bowery is now a clothes shop and whilst long-standing  jazz clubs like  Birdland and the Village Vanguard are still around,  none of them are in the same premises where they began.  Seen from this point of view, the whole thing just becomes a kind of franchise and authenticity becomes a question of branding rather than geographical  location.

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The original Carousel Ballroom / Fillmore West in 1970…

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…and the same intersection today

When I lived in Copenhagen in the late 1970’s, I can recall witnessing a plethora of top-flight jazz gigs at the Montmartre Jazz Club, a venue known – by reputation at least – to all European jazz fans.  In just a couple of years I saw some fantastic gigs featuring the likes of the nascent Pat Metheny Group, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Dollar Brand, Gil Evans and perhaps best of all, the 1977  McCoy Tyner Sextet.  However, I knew well and good that the club on Nørregade was by no means the original Montmartre location.  Earlier in the 70’s I had been to Montmartre on Store Regnegade to see Ben Webster, but even that wasn’t the club’s original location.

So, what does it really matter?  I guess we only really miss these places when they are gone.  After its heyday, the Regans turned The Ritz into a bingo hall and it then stood derelict for quite a while before it was tarted up by Cash Converters.  Can’t say as I noticed the doyens and doyennes of Birmingham’s music scene trying to reclaim it for posterity at any time during this period.  The Ritz now joins the long and honourable roll-call of venues we have loved and lost.  And maybe they are best preserved in our memories rather than being regurgitated via places like the formulaic Hard Rock Cafés and their ilk.

Ironically, Montmartre closed down in 1995, but has now reopened back in the same Store Regnegade location it occupied for nearly 15 years.  Wonder if they have revived the red-check tablecloths that were the club’s trademark?  Doesn’t seem very likely…..

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Dexter Gordon, Lars Gullin and Sahib Shihab plus rhythm section  filmed at Montmartre in 1962