I’ve had an almost entirely Facebook free week in the sunshine, but thankfully BBC and ITV kept me up-to-date with the important events back home... and away from the terrible floods that have devastated parts of Cumbria, the words of two men have grabbed many of the headlines.
I will consider Tyson Fury’s provocative comments another day, but firstly I just wanted to type a few words in response to Donald Trump’s desire to impose a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, and his assertion that Britain is hiding a “massive Muslim problem”.
Such comments are always going to create a the widest possible divide in public opinion, thereby guaranteeing Trump’s place at the top of news bulletins right around the world... and being so blatantly controversial is undeniably the ideal “shit or bust” tactic for a political hopeful.
He may well have a deeply-held conviction in his views, and may also believe he can back up his claims, but frankly the words of anyone who wears the remains of a once cute and furry animal on his head should never be taken seriously....
Unfortunately his comments are serious... they are inflammatory, accusatory... and as far as Britain is concerned, they totally undermine a country that isn’t even Trump’s home.
But Britain is my home. And equally it is home to many thousands of Muslims.
There are people out there far better informed and able to argue the rights and wrongs of conflicts around the globe purportedly raging in the name of religion; it is my simplistic belief (and I apologise for a generalisation of my own) that there are good and bad people of any and every (or even no) faith. The fact is that I share the world/country/town in which I live with a wonderfully diverse group of fellow human beings, so many possessing proud heritages and customs, rich cultures, and... whisper it softly... their own particular God in whom they entrust their spiritual wellbeing.
I am not a Muslim. I do not fully understand what it means to be a Muslim... to follow the Islamic faith, but rather than simply forming a judgement based on the oft-quoted media stereotype, this is what I did....
I made friends within the Muslim community. I observed Ramadan and celebrated Iftar (and yes, I still hate dates), and I even went to Friday prayers at a Mosque. I might have been the only white man (and non-Muslim) in a room of well over one hundred, but that didn’t stop me being welcomed, embraced and respected simply for having an open mind.
Of course, it doesn’t follow that because those members of the Muslim community that I am proud to call friends are inherently good and kind people that the same can be said of all Muslims, but as I mentioned earlier, you can apply the same logic to any faith group. And the reverse must therefore hold true... which is why Donald Trump’s comments are (in my albeit insignificant opinion) fundamentally flawed; and if the friends I have made are symptomatic of this country’s “massive problem”, then I’d settle for Britain as it is today over Donald Trump’s vision of America every time.
Next stop Tyson Fury....
Every time I attempt to write about a subject that is even remotely political or religious, I start with the caveat that I am more often than not way out of my depth when it comes to subject knowledge—and today is no exception.
Given the apparent political vacuum caused by civil war, the situation in Syria appears (to me at least) to be incredibly complicated, and I would never underestimate the difficulty in working towards any resolution that would bring stability to the area—if indeed such a solution exists. At times, I find it hard enough to get my head around who we’re supposed to be fighting, because the threat goes by so many different names: IS, ISIS, ISIL, and now… apparently Daesh. In a sense the idea of using a term that does not include the word “Islamic” is a positive step; there is absolutely no connection at all between those involved in acts of terror and the members of the local Muslim community I am proud to call friends.
I am sure that I’m not alone in being unable to fully comprehend the vile acts and atrocities perpetrated by IS/Daesh (call them what you will…); they seem to hold the lives of their “own people” in precious little regard, so clearly the threat they pose to the West is very real… the events on the streets of Paris last month providing brutal evidence of a total lack of compassion for innocent life.
There are so many crucial questions that combine to form a full debate around possible airstrikes, but I have whittled them down to the three of most personal importance. Firstly, would more innocent Syrian lives be lost if Britain dropped its bombs? Would the decision (irrespective of what that decision was) place Britain under any greater threat of terrorist attacks? And finally, given that other countries are already involved in bombing Syria, what difference would Britain actually make?
You may have a wider variety questions. I respect that, but in my fairly simplistic world, the safety of the innocent is what concerns me most. (And I also respect the fact that those in parliament and government are charged with making these incredibly difficult choices… decisions which have consequences that could seriously test the individual conscience, and eventual outcomes on which they will collectively (for we are a democracy) be judged.)
The answer to the first question is a definite yes. However good the missile technology, civilians will die.
Secondly, based on the fact that Britain is already on a heightened terror alert after Paris, presumably we’d still be on high alert even if we did nothing? Certainly I’m struggling to see how the current situation would be “improved” by carrying out airstrikes; although I suppose they could make it worse.
And as for the third question, we may have the laser-guided Brimstone weapon, but if IS does indeed access to “impenetrable” tunnels, or the option of simply mingling with the masses (as happened in Iraq), you could argue that Britain’s involvement may well have minimal impact… oh, apart from drawing a bit more attention towards our island nation.
David Cameron seemed determined to involve our country in bombing Syria—and he has got his wish; although he may find a potentially massive public backlash harder to ignore than the dozen or so requests from inside the sanctuary of the House of Commons calling on him to apologise for describing opponents of the airstrikes as “terrorist sympathisers”. It was a unbelievably crass remark from a man on a mission, but as far as the decision to launch air assaults is concerned, Cameron’s words need to be ignored. There are strong opinions on both sides, and people should be influenced or convinced by the quality of rhetoric and argument, not swayed by petty point-scoring.
To listen to the facts, weigh-up the arguments and make an informed decision has to be the right thing to do; whether you are a Member of Parliament or that “man on the Clapham omnibus”. If you do all that, and believe that bombing Syria is the best solution towards the ultimate goal of defeating IS, then criticism cannot really be justified—the fact is that on balance I simply don’t agree.
I have no idea how many innocent lives have been lost in the conflicts that have been fought all over this planet during the past century… one is too many, but I’m guessing the number is in the millions. Do we need really need to be directly responsible for more?
Whether or not this has been the greatest ever rugby union World Cup is a debate I will leave to the experts, but the quality of yesterday’s final is surely beyond any doubt.
It was a fitting climax to a tournament that witnessed one of the sport’s biggest ever shocks (courtesy of Japan’s victory over South Africa) as well a game that ended in controversy and recrimination as Scotland’s courageous effort against Australia resulted in heartbreaking defeat. The competition wasn’t affected by the early demise of the hosts, and despite the sterling efforts of the other home nations, all northern hemisphere involvement had ended by the semi-final stage.
Notwithstanding the manner of the Wallabies’ win against Scotland, I think the best two teams contested the final, and the New Zealand All Blacks produced a performance befitting the biggest match the sport has to offer, and were rightfully crowned world champions for an unprecedented third time.
The eighty minutes were every bit as physical and brutal as would have been expected, but there was also plenty of sublime skill on offer, as well as some passages of play that were open enough to stand out in amongst all the defensive discipline on show.
The picture shows three of the sport’s true legends with the trophy: Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ma’a Nonu, and it was Nonu’s superbly-taken try that appeared to put the All Blacks out of sight at 21-3 early in the second half. The opportunity was created by a magnificent offload by Sonny Bill Williams, but the talismanic dual international’s most memorable contribution to the day’s proceedings was arguably still to come....
It takes two teams to make a great game and Australia produced a stunning ten minutes of rugby to score twice whilst holding a man advantage and reduce the gap to just four points. The destiny of the Webb Ellis Cup suddenly looked far from certain, but Carter’s nerveless left boot added a forty-metre drop goal and long-range penalty to ease New Zealand back into a two-score lead, before Beauden Barrett’s brilliant opportunist try offered the All Black fly half the chance to end his international career with a relatively straightforward kick, which he duly converted... right-footed.
As with any final, there is a stark contrast in emotion between the victors and the vanquished, but the genuine respect between the players of both sides was obvious to all those watching. New Zealand undoubtedly deserved their victory and the trophy was raised aloft by Richie McCaw, one of the finest (if not the finest) players the game has ever seen.
The celebrations included a haka, and a brilliant moment when a young fan ran onto the pitch to hug the aforementioned Sonny Bill. The kid was unceremoniously flattened by a security guard, but Williams took over the situation, embraced the youngster, posed for pictures then led the lad back to the stand... at which point he took off his medal and put it over the boy’s head.
Pure class from Sonny Bill Williams and a wonderful way to end a very special day.
I’ve never been one to let a bandwagon rumble past without clambering aboard, so today’s blog concerns Scotland’s epic Rugby World Cup quarter final with Australia.
Plenty has already been said and written about the decision made by referee Craig Joubert to award a penalty in the game’s closing moments, which Bernard Foley coolly converted to secure a one-point victory for the Wallabies.
By now I think it’s pretty much accepted that it was the wrong call, and the timing and importance of the blunder has only increased the media focus on the South African, who certainly didn’t help his cause by haring for the exit as soon as he had whistled for full time.
Perhaps he had realised (courtesy of the big screen) what the Scots already knew; the ball had touched an Australian arm in between being knocked forward and collected. Without Nick Phipps’ intervention, the penalty would have been the correct decision... clearly there is now a big “but”....
All the talk around referring the incident to the television match official (TMO) is moot because the rules don’t allow for such situations to be reviewed; the mistake had been made and Joubert should have showed more dignity, respect for the Scots and for the game by staying on the field and shaking both sets of players by the hand.
The moment is likely to define Joubert’s career which, in some respects, is a shame because you don’t get to take charge of a World Cup Final (which he did in 2011) by being incompetent. In fact, earlier in the game Joubert picked up the smallest of knock-ons by Will Genia in the lead up to a subsequently disallowed “try” by Adam Ashley-Cooper. It was a great spot, but one which only makes the later miss that much harder to accept.
To a degree, the events of those closing two minutes have distracted from what looked a harsh yellow card shown to Sean Maitland for a “deliberate” knock-on that was always going to look worse in slow motion. And then there was a non-referral to the TMO for a late hit on Stuart Hogg which would have inevitably have led to a Scottish penalty... and from there, who knows?
Whilst on the subject of “what ifs”, I’m sure that given another line-out towards the end of such a massive game, with rain pouring from the heavens, the ball would have been thrown short... cue a second big “but”....
The bare facts are that Australia have advanced to the semi-final and Scotland have bowed out of the tournament. The final pages of the story of the World Cup are still to be written, but whoever lifts the trophy on 31 October, the competition will hopefully also be remembered not for a refereeing howler, but for a performance of remarkable and inspiring courage from the proud men of Scotland.
It is to my eternal shame that until this past weekend, I had never been to a theatre to see a musical.
In actual fact, visits to a theatre to see any kind of performance have been few and far between. My excuse is that there isn’t much leg room in some of these old venues, and trying to watch a live show when you’ve got cramp is no fun at all—I’ve tried massaging some life back into my legs, whilst keeping tight hold of my bag of Revels, and trying not to disturb the people sitting near me… and I’m sorry, but it’s just not possible.
Obviously the real reason has more to do with an enduring lack of culture than lower limb length, but my musical duck was well and truly broken on Saturday with a trip to Sunderland to watch the matinée performance of Jersey Boys.
The day had started well with Elaine managing to find a prime parking space just a short walk from the Empire Theatre, although the walk took slightly longer than expected after we strolled off in entirely the wrong direction.
We weren’t too sure what to do for lunch, and eventually decided to “play safe” with a well-known establishment that may have a reasonable reputation for its coffee, but sadly the same can’t be said for its hot food. The sausages in Elaine’s sandwich resembled the thin wizened fingers of an elderly woman… with arthritis; and my “Croque Monsieur” was, for want of a better French word, “merde”.
We arrived at the Empire about forty minutes before the scheduled start of the performance. Time for a quick drink… schoolboy error no.2: two lime and lemonades cost £6.60. You can get a coffee and a shit sandwich for less…
I had actually been to the Sunderland Empire once before—probably sometime in the late 1980s—to see a pantomime. I think it might have been Jack and the Beanstalk, but I’m absolutely certain that it “starred” The Krankies, the comedy equivalent of the sandwich I’d just half eaten.
Back in 2015, we found our seats… right at the end of the third row from the front, with nothing but carpet in front of seat no.C1. Marvellous!
So what of Jersey Boys…?
I have to say it was superb.
The cast was relatively small (in number as opposed to size), and several played multiple parts, but the whole production—costume and scenery changes included—ran like a well-oiled machine. Obviously the show is built around the story and the music of the original Four Seasons, and the four men who played Messrs Valli, DeVito, Gaudio and Massi were fantastic. Each took their turn in narrating the story and the script contained a good amount of well-delivered humour, but their singing…
Their singing was just outstanding.
I really enjoyed the rich bass vocals of Lewis Griffiths (Massi), but Michael Pickering, who portrayed Valli has a remarkable voice… great range, and real power in his falsetto. What really surprised me was that Michael was the “alternate” Valli… only appearing in certain performances… the other bloke must be something really special!
Pickering hails from Sunderland, so presumably it must have been a thrill to appear on stage in his home city. Maybe he had family and friends in the audience, but whatever the case, the ovation he received for one particular song (and apologies I can’t remember which one it was) seemed like it was never going to end, and for a moment the young man looked genuinely moved by the crowd’s reaction.
For me, the best songs were from the early part of the group’s career: “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man” and my personal favouritel “Rag Doll”. The harmonies that complemented Valli’s (Pickering’s) falsetto lead were note perfect and created an overall sound that was actually quite moving at times.
The second part included some songs I knew, but hadn’t realised they were by The Four Seasons, and I really liked the way that each character addressed the audience after the group had been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and there was an unexpected tinge of sadness when it was revealed that Nick Massi had died in 2000 (for the record the remaining three members of the original line-up are all still alive; their ages ranging from 72 (Gaudio) to 87 (DeVito)).
At the end of the performance, the standing ovation was as predictable as it was thoroughly deserved and thanks to being cramp-free, I was able to get to my feet and join in. It really was a memorable afternoon, and something I know I’ll remember for a long time… thankfully for considerably longer than the mustard from that Croque bloody Monsieur repeated on me!
Elaine gave Jersey Boys 10/10… I initially felt compelled to deduct half a point for the price of the lime and lemonade, but as that was hardly the fault of the performers, it’s full marks from me too. Would I go and see another musical? Possibly. Would I go and see Jersey Boys again? Absolutely….