Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Lightning

The English summer has arrived with a heatwave, the traditional English batting collapses in Test Matches and a furious thunderstorm that woke up Mrs. Commuter and myself at 2:00 am. Although a centimetre of rain fell (lit by intense electrical discharges that made our darkened bedroom resemble a photographer's studio) today has been hotter still and will probably be the warmest of the year. Once upon a time it would have been my melancholy lot to spend all day in a hot airless office, at the end of the day to trudge up the baking canyons of the London office blocks to a station and wonder if my stifling and sweaty train would arrive on schedule and, when it finally did arrive, whether it would make it all the way or be diverted (due to an "incident" twenty miles away).  But not any more. Today your correspondent was sprawled out at home watching the Tour de France (and reading e-books during the interminable ad breaks). So I am unable to report what it was like at the front line of commuting today. I could easily make invent a few lurid details, I suppose, but you only have to browse through some of the back issues of this column and you could do just as well by yourselves.

Written a little later from the above, at 18:30.
You really couldn't make it up.  Here is the TFL service status for right now.
Yup.  On the very route on which I used to travel each day (until that great day in 2006 when my office moved to Waterloo) there is currently no service. Just think, I would have left my office say at 18:10, reached Barons Court and found a seat, with luck, on an Rayners Lane bound service at, say, 18:25 and just after we pulled out of Hammersmith (last chance to switch to another line) our train would have been diverted to Northfields. And there I would be, sweltering and abandoned at Acton and not knowing whether to go back into Central London or hang around on the platform. Happy days, what?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Scenes of terrible devastation in Brazil

In the aftermath of Germany's historic victory over Brazil in the World Cup semi-final (7-1, for the benefit of readers from the distant future who can't be bothered to look it up on the GalactiNet), there have been floods of stories showing heartbroken fans, [Brazilian fans, right? I don't follow sport much: Ed] numb with grief or gripped by tears and much pondering on how this will leave great scars in the national consciousness and perhaps have political consequences for the Presidential election later this year.

But you may have missed the story that surely encapsulates the agony of a football-loving people and which lays open the catastrophe that will forever define a lost generation.  Courtesy of The Guardian's Jonathan Watts  writing from Rio de Janiero, we learn of the sickening consequences in the favela of Rocinha:
 One of their neighbours, Vinicius Patricinio, 14, was so frustrated he ripped up his Panini World Cup sticker album and refused to go to school.
My knees knocked, my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth and the room seemed to grow dim and swim about me as I read that fateful sentence. Fortunately, I managed to conceal this from Mrs. Commuter who was across me at the breakfast table for she is a sensitive lady and might have suffered a fit of the vapours had I revealed but one tenth of the ghastliness unmasked by the intrepid reporter. A boy ripped his sticker book. Surely, oh Great God, surely such things cannot be. The minds of mortal men are not sufficient to encompass such horrors. And missed school as well. Even though it was double Physics with Sr. de Gama, his favourite subject, and there would be pink blancmange for lunch. Even though Augusto Plebius had faithfully sworn to pay back the 2 reals he had borrowed last week to buy iced buns at the tuck shop.  This plucky boy, wise beyond his years, had dared to do what no grown man would do. Hold your heads in shame, Oscar and Fred, Hulk and Julio Cesar. [er, these are real names, aren't they? You're not making them up?: Ed] For it has come to this. Too late to say "If only we had known". The voice of youth has spoken and it has condemned.

Will England learn the lessons of Rocinha (or is that the lessons missed in Rocinha?). For there can be no going back. It is time to take a stand. The next time England lose a game, I vow, following the inspirational example of our leader Vinny (Well, I don't know how to pronounce 'Vinicius' ) to refuse to eat my greens, to stamp my feet when asked to tidy up my room and to be extremely cross. Rooney & Co, you have been warned.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Le Tour visits Epping

All quiet before the Sprint tears up here
The Tour de France completed its third, triumphant, day in England today with the Cambridge to London stage. As the route was to pass through Epping, at the very end of that self-same Central Line that also serves beautiful Ruislip, what could be better than a day in the sun watching the world's largest annual sporting event coupled with a jaunt on the Tube into deepest Essex?

Mrs. Commuter was up for it so we packed lunch, folding chairs and our hopes for good weather and set off.

It was quicker and more comfortable to take the Met to Liverpool Street than to walk three quarters of a mile to the nearest Central Line station. Both lines were on form. You could spot the spectators easily - loads of them with casual clothes and an air of being on holiday contrasting nicely with the few workers going in to town rather late in the morning, but most seemed to leave at Baker Street bound for the finishing sections along the Embankment and the Mall, and the Central Line train was surprisingly quiet. Actually this was an illusion. Our carriage was half full but there were plenty further up the train and a fair number emerged into the bright sunshine at Epping to march up the hill and find a place to watch the race.

In the past two days the stages in Yorkshire have brought out huge crowds, even in the most obscure of villages and we had no idea how far we might have to walk to find a decent spot. The friendly helper with the "Tour Maker" T-shirt who was strolling up with us mentioned that no sooner had the area by the sprint finish (bang in the centre of the town) opened that morning than it was filled up. This seemed a bit ominous even though we were there before 11:30 and the race was not due until 2:30 or later. But the High Street is long and wide and there was plenty of room. We took a prime pitch on the road itself (behind a barrier), well shaded by the huge oaks that line the whole street, and settled down to wait. Gradually the crowd thickened until there was a wall of people as far as one could see in both directions.

When we arrived the local bell-ringers were having a fine time banging away with great gusto but when they concluded, rather bafflingly with two single chimes at exactly 11:41, the only entertainment was cheering the parade of vehicles that preceded the race. Some blared their horns. The British police motor-cyclists waved and, as they roared past, extended gauntleted hands to be slapped by people leaning over the barriers. The French Gendarmarie were grim-faced and stared straight ahead. One or two official cars played what must have been important announcements but as they were in French and as the cars were driving past at high speed, so that we only heard a few distorted words anyway, who knows what they were trying to communicate?

Every cyclists's dream - chips
Around 1pm the official publicity caravan began pouring through. A bewildering succession of cars and floats, some with young ladies prancing around, others tossing the odd freebie into the crowd (We nearly scored a small pack of Tetley's Tea and had a carton of fruit juice sail overhead whilst a red sunhat was scooped up by a lady within arms length) and some giving us a blast of pointlessly loud "music". The photo shows the approach of the McCain Oven Chips platoon. And no, they weren't chucking heavy packs of frozen chips at 40mph into the spectators.

After the caravan we had no real idea how long the racers would take. Someone heard that the race was running late. The clouds gathered, the day cooled and a few drops of rain fell but fortunately nothing more serious. More cars and motorbikes came by, the police continuing to be the noisiest contributors. Things seemed to pick up when a few vans stopped nearby and what have must been a hand-picked team of specialists emerged to spend some time stacking up some traffic cones before driving away to applause.  Everyone was cheered at this stage, the team cars, the official cars and the mysterious interlopers from French institutions. There was a lull. A red official car, the first such, came by. This suggested the race was pretty close. Suddenly there were press motorbikes hurtling by, the helicopter was clattering above and with a burst of cheering from further down the high street two real competitors flashed into view and were gone. A louder cheer and the peleton were with us in a blur of black, green and blue. A long tail of team cars each bearing a rack of spare bikes. More cheers for a couple of stragglers. A few more official cars and a van bearing the legend "Fin de Course".  And that was that.

Now for the journey home. A mob of tired but satisfied spectators trudged back down the hill to the station, found the main entrance cordonened off and had to walk a bit further to go round the back, to be greeted by a waiting, empty train. Everyone was able to get a seat and it left a moment later, with another alongside ready for the next contingent. We had been apprehensive about this bit, fearing a long wait even to gain entry to the station, never mind boarding a train, but the Underground did well today. To arrive at Liverpool Street and wait approximately 30 seconds for an empty Uxbridge that took us home was the icing on the cake.

Congratulations to the organisers, the huge number of smiling volunteers and our good-humoured fellow spectators. Social historians might care to note that nobody was smoking - how's that for a massive change in customs in the space of a generation?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Those England Predictions - Why I Was Right All Along

It has been suggested in some quarters that my detailed forecasts of the results, and certain incidents, in Group D (for Dire) at the World Cup, as exclusively revealed through this column, may have been less than entirely accurate in all respects. [I didn't write all the bits attributed to me, for a start: Ed]

Let us examine the cold facts without emotion or prejudice. We predicted England would fail to qualify from the group and this was indeed the case. We were not totally accurate in predicting the fate of the other members of the group but we did predict, entirely accurately, that the two qualifiers would not include England amongst their number, and who can possibly want more?  It was in any case much hotter / more humid / wetter / windier / balmier / colder / than anyone had a right to expect, the grass doesn't make the ball bounce in the way that we are used to in Europe (according to a Mr. R Podgeson, apparently the manager of one of the sides) and England with all of their physios, nutritionists and psychologists omitted to bring two obvious essentials in the form of a dentist and a lawyer, thus putting themselves at an enormous disadvantage when facing the Uruguyan Chomper.

Yes, I admit that Costa Rica, far from losing all three games, won two and drew the other but you can't expect Johnny Foreigner to play by the rules. England showed how this game should really be played with plenty of back-passes, nice big gaps in the defence and a desire, when going forward, to find the man surrounded by the opposing centre-backs rather than the man running into space. Oh, as as many shots wide or over the bar as possible. I mean, we're English after all. We don't do accurate shooting. We don't want to inconvenience their goalie. We always let the other chaps score first, as a rule, then go for a gentlemanly draw with no hard feelings. It's really jolly beastly of them when they score again and win the match.

So, in conclusion, this column stands proud and unashamed [er, this may need rewording for the oh-so-sensitive American market: Ed]  and to prove it, here is our exclusive you-saw-it-here-first predictions for  the European Championships 2016.
England to do jolly well, up to a point, and then not to.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Exclusive: All you need to know about England's World Cup campaign

Bored with football? Had enough of the World Cup even before the tedious opening ceremony gets under way? Then relax, pour yourself a refreshing cup of tea and settle down with the ground-breaking article that follows - all you need to know in one easy-to-digest Blogger feature.

  • All the scores from England's Group (Group D, for Death, naturally)
  • Match analysis from our guest expert (the Editor)
  • What The Sun headline will be the day after
Match 1 in Manaus: England v Italy.
Result: 0-0. Rooney sent off after twenty minutes for biting the assistant referee.
Our expert says: [In the blistering sun-scorched arena of death that was the Manaus Piranha Stadium, the teams played out a cautious draw, both afraid to commit to anything that might be in any way interesting in the way of scoring. I enjoyed the parrot pies and the local beer "the genuine taste of the rain forest with extra rain": Ed]

Other group match: Uruguay 3 Costa Rica 1

The Sun headline - No-brayne Rooney

Match 2 in Sao Paulo : England v Uruguay
Result: 2-2. Sterling sent off for making a "comment" to the referee
Our expert says: [In the scorching cauldron of emotion that was the Sao Paolo AwfulottaCoffeeinBrazil stadium, both teams committed to kicking the ball a bit and somehow a couple of shots at each end went in. I sampled a "macho honcho" beef sandwich, mainly a chunk of raw meat inside two other chunks of meat served in a meat wrap and missed most of the second half: Ed]

Other group match: Italy 4 Costa Rica 0

The Sun headline (with a picture of the England coach tucking into a sausage roll) - Roy Podgeson


Match 3 in Belo Horizonte: England v Costa Rica
Result: 2-0: Hart sent off for reckless challenge on a ball-boy
Our expert says [In the torrid volcanic maelstrom that was the seething cauldron of dreams in the stadium of destiny that was Belo Horizonte's Station Road Stadium, England won the game they had to win but oh, the bitter cup of victory was theirs to drain for on a night when they were all heroes, the result counted for nothing but the black void of ultimate despair. On the plus side I greatly enjoyed the steak and kidney pie, until they told me where the kidneys came from: Ed]

Other group match: Italy 1 Uruguay1

Final group table

Italy qualify on goal difference. Uruguay go through ahead of England, although with equal goal difference, through having scored more goals.

The Sun headline (with a picture of Ronnie Biggs) - Another bunch of criminals return home to face justice

Monday, June 02, 2014

Winter's hangover

The torrential rain and consequential flooding that blighted the start of 2014 may be fading into memory (at least for those of us who did not undergo the trauma of finding their properties under water) but there are still ample reminders in the countryside. Yesterday I walked a near-circular tour through the Ruislip woods and on to the canal at Harefield before terminating at Uxbridge, nearly 10 miles, and time and again was forced to detour from the main paths or face sinking into ankle deep mud. The day was beautifully sunny and warm but we've had a fair bit of rain in recent days; enough to make parts of this walk quite unpleasant. Part of it is the official "Hillingdon Trail" but woe betide any casual walker who blithely follows the waymarked route. On the parts that are also bridlepaths the horses have chewed up the ground leaving huge ruts and puddles. And one section, where the trail links Mad Bess Wood to Bayhurst Wood was so muddy and wet that I had to plunge through the woodland around it and stamp out my own path up to the road. I have never seen the paths in such a bad state. It's a shame that at this wonderful time of the year, with the woods now dense with greenery and alive with birdsong, one's eyes are always on the ground, finding the safest path between the squelchy and treacherous mudpools. And I had to feel sorry for some of the families that I strode past, with their flip-flops and buggies, struggling on in the hope that just round the next corner the paths would be smooth and dry. I knew that the last part of my walk, along the canal, would be just that (and flat into the bargain) but it was a lot of hard work to get there. Anyway, I reckon that's as least as much effort as going up and down the escalators and platforms of the Tube for a week so I can put my feet up now.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 4 - The futility of the "cash benefit" debate

The Scottish referendum on independence is now just four months away.  Somewhat overshadowed by the European and local council elections last week, the debate has hotted up with some conflicting claims about the monetary benefits of going it alone, or not.  Some say the Scots will all be worse by off some ludicrous figure - say £2,000 a head; others argue that independence will put an equivalent amount into each sporran.

To reduce the question of independence to a supposed monetary value is stupid. It is an insult to the intelligence of Scots voters, regardless of which way they intend to vote. If a nation truly believes that it is being suppressed or victimised by another and that independence will bring about redemption then the cost (or benefit) is irrelevant. The early settlers of Israel in the 1920s and 30s did not ask how much money they might get if they gave up their relatively settled lives in Europe to live on a kibbutz. I doubt if the Slovakians gave a second thought to breaking up the confederation with the Czechs, nor did the Bosnians and Croats and Slovenes pause to count their potential bank balances when fighting against a perceived dominance by Serbia. They may all be worse off than they would have been had things been difference; they may be doing much better. Who can tell? Who, looking back, could care less?

In any case all such calculations are futile. Economics is a "science" riddled by the need to make untested, and often untestable, assumptions about human behaviour. I should know - I have a degree in the blasted subject from one of the premier universities of this country. Economists may produce wonderfully elegant theories but they rarely produce useful predictions.

There are legitimate subjects for argument - Scotland's place in the European Union, the viability of a sterling currency union, the impact on future investment - but it is pointless to pretend that they can be given monetary values. Far more important is whether the UK can generate a safer and sounder environment for all of its citizens if Scotland remains in than if Scotland leaves. I believe it can, and that to lose the Scottish voice from the UK's privileged seat at the UN and other key institutions such as NATO and the G8 would weaken both parties to the Union. I think British ideas of justice, tolerance and fair play have been of enormous significance in the development of global culture and the Scots have made a massive contribution. And equally that contribution might have counted for little had it not been delivered as a part of the UK.

In the end if the Scots want independence because, well, they just really really want it, then none of the arguments will count for anything. It would just be a shame and a diminution of both parties.