Monday, 6 December 2010

The World Cup: Robbery or Triumph?

The reaction of the British media and a fair section of the public to FIFA's decisions to select Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has for me been embarrassing.

On one web site that I frequent a football fan responded to charges of arrogance by saying that England was entitled to be arrogant - we have won every war except one in 500 years and virtually every modern sport originated here! What a great sales pitch that would have been. Given that almost super human record it is hard to explain how we lost the Empire and perform so badly in most international competitions!

I have to say that I found the involvement of the grandson of the Queen particularly embarrassing. His joking reference in his sales pitch to the forthcoming royal wedding and the accompanying slide of a festive Buckingham Palace seemed to fall flat, and deservedly so. Of course we know that the UK is second to none in putting on an impressive show, but to its credit FIFA is looking for more than that: it seems to have its eye on the future rather than the past.

Personally I was impressed by the Qatar bid - particularly its promise to dismantle most of the stadiums after the world cup and to rebuild them in poorer countries. I am all for spreading the oil wealth around.

To combat the extreme heat which is a feature of Qatar and also most of the world's poorer countries, the planned stadiums will have revolving roofs, air conditioning and, most importantly, will be powered by solar energy.

To my complete surprise I find that the pilot 500 seater stadium which was built in less than four months and obviously impressed FIFA was designed by a British Company, Arup Associates. Now that seems to me to be a real cause for celebration and an achievement in which we can take some pride. Unfortunately it does not sell newspapers.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Founded on Fear: The Sad Story of Peter Tyrrell

I would never have read this book had the author not shared the same surname as me. It is a harrowing tale.

Peter Tyrrel was born on a small farm in Ireland in 1916 to a feckless father who would do anything for his neighbours but nothing for his family - "God is good" was his stock answer when funds got low.

Along with a number of his brothers Peter was taken from the family and sent to the Letterfrack Industrial School when he was only eight years old.

In the book he describes the endless beatings by the Christian Brothers, and evokes the horror of an institutionalised childhood which marked him and many others for life. As far as I can gather he did not once see his parents during the eight years he remained at Letterfrack.

On leaving he worked for a time as a tailor, but like many young Irish before and since he left for London, and in 1935 joined the British army. He served in Malta, Palestine and India, and in the latter stages of the war was fighting on the continent when he was captured by the Germans and spent time in a prison of war camp, where he felt he was treated better than at Letterfrack.

After the war he moved around a number of English cities looking for work. Keen to expose the horrors of the industrial school system and to seek justice for those whose lives like his had been ruined by it, he came into contact with Senator Owen Sheehy Skeffington, who was fighting an almost single handed campaign against the widespread use of corporal punishment in Irish schools. He sent Senator Skeffington a number of envelopes containing his story. These documents were fairly recently discovered among Senator Skeffington's papers in the Irish archives, and in 2006 were published.

Peter burned himself to death on Hampstead Heath on 26th April 1967. It took a year before his body was identified. But for the fragments of a postcard bearing the words "Skeffington" and "Dublin" it is probable that his body would never have been identified.

A dreadful story, and unfortunately not an unusual one. Whilst reading this, and without taking anything away from the systemic horrors that have been exposed in Ireland, I could not help reflecting on other horrific examples of offically sanctioned child abuse and ruined lives that have come to light in recent years in countries that have a more liberal reputation than Ireland: the shameful treatment of the Norwegian children who had been fathered by German soldiers during the second world war; the forced emigration of thousands of orphaned British children to Australia, Canada and elsewehere.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Scandinavian Women

From the age of 11 until I reached 21 I was educated at male only institutions. Although I have lived most of my life with women since then, and indeed have two daughters, I have to admit that the fairer sex remains something of a mystery to me. But I obviously like Scandinavian women, or one at least.

They tell me that Scandinavian women are the most beautiful in the world, said the late great George Melly when I asked him to sign a record for my wife.
I am sure of it I foolishly replied.
I'm not! said George.
That was the end of that conversation. I haven't seen him since.

Anyway my wife was amused by the following which I found on the web. Norwegian Women

What are Norwegian Women Like? asked Gary from the U.S.
I have thought about getting a bride from Norway. I am so tired of American women. I guess Norwegian women and Scandinavian women are more traditional, just like Russian women. I think Norwegian women look more beautiful than American women. I have heard that they are better at cooking, more submissive, dress better, are more innocent, don't drink as much, don't smoke as much etc. Is it true? I have also heard they are not wearing pants, due to their viking culture. Do they dress like that everyday?
I really want to discover Norway. Where could I go look for a Norwegian woman? Are Norwegian parents very strict? How do they react on their daughter marrying an American man? Should I go to Oslo the capital or should I go to some more far-away place? Where do I find the traditional norwegian vikingladies?
And is Norway cheap? Do they have bank automats? And are there good standards?

Compared to Gary I think I may be Einstein.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Lady From The Sea

One of the many delights of living in Manchester is being able to visit the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Over the years I have seen some tremendous performances - one that sticks in my memory is the world premiere of Ronald Harwood's "The Dresser", with Tom Courtenay in the leading role.

There have been many more, as well as a few not so memorable ones. This year I have been fortunate enough to see "1984" and Marlowe's "Dr Faustus".

I have never seen a production of Ibsen that I have not enjoyed, and "The Lady from the Sea" was no exception.

Full of humour, which we tend not to associate with Ibsen, it is nevertheless a powerful play which still resonates in our time. Ibsen's comments reproduced in the programme will stay with me: The Norwegians are under the domination of the sea and fjords make philosophers of us all.

He was a remarkable playwright, writing of course at a time of exceptional creativity in Norwegian history.

The Royal Exchange has a tendency to produce over elaborate and expensive sets which though technically admirable do not seem to me to be necessary or perhaps even appropriate for theatre in the round. Happily the set for this play was minimal: light was used to depict water. The last time it was played here I believe that the stage was flooded.

Last time also the lead role was played by Vanessa Redgrave - a hard act to follow. I liked Neve McIntosh's rendition of Ellida. Not all reviewers did. I agreed with the comment from one that her soft Scottish accent and celtic appearance help to give her that aura of an uncomfortable outsider.

Apart from performances at the theatre, the building alone is always worth a visit.

A board high up on the west side still displays the closing prices in Liverpool and New York, and is a reminder of its previous role as a cotton exchange which came to an end in the 1960's.

There have been a number of buildings on the site since 1729. The largest, built in the early twentieth century, was destroyed in the second world war. Its successor, built soon after after the war, was itself seriously damaged by the IRA bomb that exploded just outside in 1996. On this site Engels used to work as a trader in his father's business, smiling on bad days in anticipation of the demise of the capitalist system.

Set in the floor are small metal plaques that supporters of the theatre have purchased to commemorate deceased relatives. The most notable name is that of John Thaw, better known perhaps as Inspector Morse. Often I walk over one commemorating a lady with whom I shared an office when I first came to Manchester many years ago.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Gauguin at the Tate Modern

We have just made a very rare trip to London, and whilst there made our first visit to the Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition.

It is incredibly crowded, and deservedly so.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I would happily go around again. There is perhaps too much to take in on a single visit.

My impression is that many of the exhibits come from the US and Russia, and relatively few from France, so it is a once in a life time opportunity to see such an important collection.

What a strange life Gauguin led - from exile as a child to Peru and the early death of his father, in the aftermath of the 1848 Revolution, to his final days in his "House of Pleasure" on Hiva Oa island.

Along the way there was a period at sea, a short career as a Stockbroker, an even shorter period digging the Panama Canal, and a wife and five children left behind in Copenhagen.

Apart from the conventional pictures associated with Gaugin, the objects whose images will stay with me are the carved doorway to his "House of Pleasure",

so named apparently to annoy the local Catholics,

and an unexpected ceramic self portrait.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Manchester Ship Canal

Manchester probably seems an unlikely place for a cruise, but one of its many hidden delights is a cruise along the now almost forgotten Manchester Ship Canal.

Completed in 1894, and officially opened by Queen Victoria, it was designed by the merchants of Manchester to halt the decline of the city, and to avoid the payment of harbour dues to Liverpool.

What an amazing piece of engineering it was: 36 miles long, dropping 60 feet to the sea through 5 locks.

It was created from the river Irwell which flows through the centre of Manchester. Along the way it intersects the Mersey and the Weaver.

The Millenium Bridge

Among its great engineering feats is the Barton aqueduct which swings a section of the Bridgewater Canal away to allow ships to pass underneath.

Barton Swing Aqueduct

Although no longer a major waterway it still handles around 6 million tons of freight a year.

It joins the Mersey estuary at Eastham Locks, on the Birkenhead side, opposite the port of Liverpool.

Eastham Lock

Arriving at Eastham Lock on the Mersey Estuary, in the distance you can see the city of Liverpool. You can just make out the shape of the imposing Anglican cathedral.

The whole trip from Salford Qays, opposite Old Trafford, Manchester United's "Theatre of Dreams", to the Liver Building in Liverpool takes some 6 hours. What a fascinating experience it is. It runs only in the summer, and you have to pre-book. We would love to do it again.

Information about these cruises can be found on the Mersey Ferries web pages.

Friday, 10 September 2010

The Letter Z: Thoughts on the Wrong End of the Alphabet

As a boy at Public School I soon became aware that those whose surnames began with the later letters of the alphabet were inferior to those whose names began with 'A' 'B' 'C' and so on.

I had almost forgotten this important lesson until I was forced to wait a couple of hours or so on board the R.M.S. St Helena in Cape Town, whilst the A's B's and C's were allowed to disembark!

On reading Winston Churchill's My Early Life I was surprised to find that he had had the same problem. His full surname was unfortunately Spencer Churchill, and so as a new boy at Harrow he had the indignity of being the last to parade before the school steps when the register was called. To compound this humiliation, visitors apparently used to comment aloud on the fact that the son of the famous or maybe infamous politician was the last to be called!

In my particular case it meant an extra term waiting on more senior boys at table. I was at the time very upset at the arbitrariness and injustice of it all. Now I am inclined to think that the ability to carry two heavily laden plates in each hand is one of the most useful things I learned. The acquisition of this skill was undoubtedly aided by very real threats of a beating if you spilt any food down the necks of the older boys!

Anyway because of this I have chosen to select a word beginning with Z ("zed" as we say, or "zee" as the Americans will have it) as the title of this blog.