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Hartlepool Cheer

You may remember me posting about Hartlepool United’s FA Cup loss to non-league Blyth Spartans back in December. Even then their plight looked pretty desperate but in early March it was worse. The club looked doomed to be relegated to the Conference. Rooted to the bottom of the English League Two table for what had felt like months they were ten or so points behind the second bottom side. Since then the turn round – no doubt inspired by new manager Ronnie Moore – has been remarkable.

As I write today, even yet Hartlepool have won only twelve league games all season – out of a total of forty-five. Five of these though were in the last eight. A run of four successive wins on the 14th, 17th, 21th and 28th of the month and a draw in the first game in April took them from dead last to third bottom. Football can be amazing at times. And Saturday’s 2-1 win over Exeter City combined with losses for both Cheltenham and Tranmere Rovers confirmed that the club would stay in the Football League for at least another season. Was there dancing in the streets of Hartlepool do you think?

I feel a bit sad for Tranmere Rovers who have been members of the Football League for over 90 years but Hartlepool hold a greater place in my affections. Cheltenham are more Johnny-come-lately in this respect.

I hope this relief isn’t short-lived and a measure of success (rather than avoiding failure) awaits next season but given the history outlined in my December post I wouldn’t discount another struggle against relegation. The heady days of vying for promotion to, and competitivenes in, League One seem long ago now.

Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman

Pushkin Press 2013, 592 p. Translated from the Spanish El viajero del siglo by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García.

 Traveller of the Century cover

Traveller of the Century is the first novel by Argentinian born though long time Spanish resident Andrés Neuman to be translated into English.

Its protagonist, Hans, arrives by coach in the city of Wandernburg, somewhere on the borders of Prussia and Saxony, fully intending not to stay long. The city is strange, though. Apart from the constant changing between which of the two countries it belongs to (the setting is post-Napoleonic, there is a lot of moaning by the characters about the baleful influence of Metternich) its streets and buildings seem to realign themselves every night. So once again I find myself reading about a weird city (The City and the City, Pfitz) or altered borders (Europe in Autumn.) Neuman does not overplay this aspect of his novel however. The shifting topography is mere background, the city as it is. Hans finds himself lingering in Wandernburg (it is a difficult city to shake off) and becomes drawn into the lives of its characters; especially the literary salon held every Friday by Sophie Gottlieb and her father. The best friend he makes in the city is a lowly organ-grinder (who sadly does not have a monkey but rather a dog) living in a cave two miles outside the city. And there is a masked man who is attacking women at night.

Barring one two-line exchange on page 569 the dialogue isn’t marked out from the rest of the text in any way – neither by quotation marks nor by dashes – but rather is embedded within it (characters talking across or interrupting each other is rendered in parentheses, as are any actions of the speaker.) This idiosyncrasy does take some getting used to and, coupled with the lengthy discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, the merits or otherwise of Walter Scott’s novels, poetry etc in the scenes taking place in the salon, is one of the reasons it took me a while to settle to the book. Once in its stride however, the thrust of the story won me over. The love affair which we always know is inevitable between Hans and Sophie – despite her engagement to the wealthy Rudi von Wilderhaus – has a slow build up but gives Neuman ample scope to deal with two of the eternal literary concerns, love and sex. Sophie is a determined woman, opinionated in the salon, standing up to both father and fiancé in the matter of assisting Hans in his works of translation (a great excuse for the two to meet in Hans’s room at the inn,) and, a fact naturally kept concealed from father and fiancé but of course impossible to hide from Hans, sexually experienced to boot, an attribute which Hans rather appreciates.

There is a hint of mystery to Hans beyond his status as a traveller. He has books that look old but bear recent publication dates. It is only one of the many intriguing aspects of the book that his origins remain an enigma to the end.

In the salon we hear of Adam Smith that his “theories are capable of enriching a state and impoverishing its workers,” a fact proved many times over in the past two centuries, also – in a comment emblematic of the author’s referential approach – “These Argentinians are very restless, they are everywhere at the moment. They have a penchant for Europe and seem to speak several languages. They talk incessantly about their own country but never stay there.” Of Hans and his friend Álvaro we are told, “They spoke in a manner two men rarely succeeded in doing – without interrupting or competing with one another.” The novel might have been designed to test the statement that, “There are two types of people. Those who always leave and those who always stay put,” while Hans says to Sophie, “I feel as if time has stopped, but at the same time I’m aware of how fast it is going. Is that what being in love is?”

Not that it’s all serious stuff. We encounter a pair of semi-comical police officers, Lieutenants Gluck and Gluck (father and son,) tasked with finding the attacker. And what are we to make of the names thrown in as if at random of those incidental characters, Rummenigge, Klinsman and Voeller? I doubt it is laziness on Neumann’s part, as if he has only a limited knowledge of German names and merely utilised those he had heard elsewhere. Is it a subtly sardonic allusion, a joke at the expense of any highbrow readers, who will eagerly latch on to the salon discussions but perhaps miss this reference to German former footballers – and strikers at that?

Whatever my misgivings to begin with, Traveller of the Century is a novel not frightened of demanding effort from its readers but worth that effort just the same, one of those works that will stay with me for a long time.

Pleasingly, the translation seemed to be into British English but there were still a few entrants to Pedant’s Corner:- “And, yes, be able” (to be able,) there’s no need be so formal, the only thing he kept up all evening were…. (was,) neither of us like to waste time (likes,) from her there to her navel (from there to her navel,) laid for lay, do you take me for fool (a fool,) medieval, running towards to them, knelt down next to straw pallet.
I looked up Braille and water closet in case of anachronism. The first just about fits; however the second term wasn’t used in English till 1870. But the book is set in Germany and written in Spanish, perhaps the description was in earlier use in those two languages.

Surviving the Shipwreck by William McIlvanney

Mainstream Publishing, 1991, 253 p.

Surviving the Shipwreck cover

This is one I read for completeness. (And it counts for the Read Scotland 2014 challenge.) McIlvanney is one of the most prominent Scottish writers of the second half of the twentieth century, with a string of highly regarded novels to his name, all of which I have read with immense pleasure and admiration. Despite his output being mostly outwith genre (unless the Scottish novel is a genre) he is credited as being the “onlie begetter” of Tartan Noir – not an accolade he sought or even necessarily agrees with – but many Scottish writers of crime fiction speak of him as an inspiration. (And not only writers of crime fiction.) Surviving the Shipwreck is a collection of his journalistic work from the 1970s and 80s.

It starts with an preface setting out the thread of the pieces within – the shipwreck of the book’s title is the loss of social idealism, of belief in our ability to reconstruct society more fairly, of that strand of left-leaning thinking that isn’t Marxist (McIlvanney says the Scots always found Marxism/Communism to be wrong-headed) but had been submerged by the prevailing political climate and, despite the banking crash of 2008, still is.

The first piece was written in the run-up to the first referendum – the one that was won in 1979 but was also lost due to the requirement for more than a majority to bring a Scottish Parliament about. (In effect dead people voted no.) In it he lays out the hopes and fears that Scots had about the prospect, many of which were repeated in the referendum of 2014. In a particularly brilliant phrase he describes the displacement of what might have been political energy into other areas, the most recent example being “the B picture remake of the Darien Scheme that was Scotland’s World Cup sortie into Argentina.” He also predicted the eventual (typically Scottish in its lack of resolution of the problem) result. What struck me on reading this in 2014 is the change that actually having an extant Parliament in Edinburgh has made to the Scottish psyche. There is much less anti-English feeling, much less fear of being too wee and too poor, much more confidence in Scots’ ability to do things for themselves. The displacement of energy into football too is much less pronounced (but that may have been due to the fact that Scots came to realise that by and large our footballers are – at least at present – mediocre at best.)

Then there is a piece on the city of Edinburgh’s manifold dualities, which made me reflect on how perfect that then makes it as a capital for a nation of so many divisions; another on the corrosive effects of poverty and how the benefits system traps people in it; the mysteries of disco and its differences from the dancin’; the experience of the dog track; the delights and miseries of following the Scottish football team, “The train standing at Platform One is the Wembley Football Special. This train has an Inferiority Complex Car where light traumas will be served throughout the journey. This train goes by way of Paranoia, calling at Little Dependency, National Neurosis and Ultima Thule,” not least to Argentina in 1978, when McIlvanney, along with five companions, undertook one of those epic trips through the Americas and remembers most of all the kindnesses received everywhere, but especially in Argentina; the dispiriting experience that is Las Vegas; the reduction of life to personal economics; the accepting nature of old fashioned pubs; the necessity of highlighting the plight of those left behind in the wake of materialism; the mutual incomprehension of men and women; the resorts people will turn to to alleviate their lack of funds; the haunted nature of living in North America, the lack of inter-community feeling; the more humane socialism of Scotland compared to Eastern Europe; the necessity for teachers and pupils to reach a meeting place; the challenge both to the cosy detective novel and also to the dismissal of a fiction if it can be labelled genre that his novel Laidlaw represented; the defining characteristic of the Glaswegian (humane irreverence); cultural elitism in T S Eliot’s poetry criticism, and more generally; the manifold losses – not just of jobs and worthwhile lives – that monetarism inflicted on Scotland; the genesis of his novel Docherty in the lack of presence of working people in literature.

In Gulliver’s Last Voyage McIlvanney essays a Swiftian look at Scotland’s attitude to its history, a series of forgettings and inventions underlain by the fact that, at some time in the past, the country was sold against the will of its people.

Notable insights were:-
(We have) “a society where the government is dedicated to ignoring the damage its policies inflict on ordinary lives.”
“Everybody can understand selfishness and greed, and Thatcherism has constructed what passes for its political philosophy out of these two brute instincts. The dignity of just complaint must never be lost. Without it, we accept what we shouldn’t accept.”
“The greater radicalism that has at least nominally persisted in Scotland may be partly attributable to the fact that the country (was) virtually powerless. It is easier to have noble ideals when you are not obliged to live according to their terms day by day. But that greater radicalism is also partly attributable to a tradition of taking ideas seriously. We must not lose that. Taken seriously, ideas are dangerous but not as dangerous as the absence of taking them seriously.”
“The policies of this government resolve themselves into one basic premise: they are a licence issued to the wealthy to exploit the poor… Margaret Thatcher is a cultural vandal. She takes the axe of her own simplicity to the complexities of Scottish life. She has no understanding of the hard-earned traditions she is destroying. And if we allow her to continue she will remove from the word “Scottish” any meaning other than geographical. (There will be) incalculable damage to the future – the loss of belief in society, the anti-social tendencies encouraged, the lesson branded on thousands of minds that you are alone and your society doesn’t care.”

These criticisms are still relevant I fear.

Pedant’s corner:- they didn’t use to be there (the phrase is “used to be”) and that bad (badly)

Hartlepool United 1-2 Blyth Spartans

FA Cup Second Round, Victoria Park, 5/12/14.

Normally in a situation like this my sympathies would be with the underdog, in this case Blyth. However, long ago in my youth I conceived a liking for Hartlepool United, adopting then as my wee English team. (Not that I have a big English team.) This may have been because Pools were continually crap for much of my childhood several times having to be re-elected to the Football League. (In those days the Conference did not exist and there was no relegation from the League.) Under Brian Clough as manager – his first such job – their fortunes improved and they gained promotion just after he left. Immediate relegation was followed by two re-election close shaves. They had another such brush with loss of league status in the year before automatic relagtion came in and only just missed that the next season.

When Cyril Knowles took over as manager (yes, Nice One Cyril himself) things got better. Despite his tragic death they won promotion in 1992 but were relegated again two years later.

In the very early years of this century they endured promotion play-off defeats three years in a row before finally achieving elevation again in 2003, competed well in the higher division for a while but dropped back down in 2013.

This game was my first glimpse – courtesy of the BBC – both of Pools and of Victoria Park, which looks a tidy ground. At its start Pools were rock bottom of the Football League once more.

You couldn’t have told that from the first half, they played well, knocked the ball about, created chances which only desperate defending and an inspired goalkeeping save prevented and scored a beautifully crafted goal. But if you don’t put your opponents away when you’re on top football can punish you. A silly free-kick concession gave Blyth the opportunity to score – with a dead ball strike from a former Pools player – and the sucker punch came in the last minute of normal time, a defensive error allowing Blyth their one and only chance from open play, which they took.

In the first half I couldn’t understand how Pools were in the league position they are; they looked way better than Exeter whom I had caught sight of in Round One of this season’s FA Cup. In the second they just faded away. The Conference looms.

Arthur Montford

To Scottish football followers of a certain age (that’ll be me for starters) the name of Arthur Montford is shrouded in misty memory. Well, given that one of his trademarks was the checked jacket and in black and white TV days that caused all sorts of weird effects on the domestic TV screen that should be strobed in misty memory.

The news that he has died is sad. One of the last links to the golden age of sport (for which read football, mainly) on television – golden because there was so little of it it was all precious.

Arthur was a stalwart of STV’s Scotsport programme for many years when it was in its pomp.

No-one who heard one of his commentaries could ever forget it. Liberally sprinkled with the phrase “what a stramash” he also rarely missed the opportunity to say “up go the heads” when two or more players contested a ball in the air.

He never hid his allegiance when commentating on Scotland games, “Mind your legs, Billy” when a scything tackle came in on Billy Bremner. This perhaps reached its peak in the crucial qualifier for the 1974 World Cup at Hampden versus Czechoslovakia with his cry of “Disaster for Scotland” when the Czechs scored first. His euphoria when the game was turned round is there for all to hear.

Nevertheless he seemed a gentleman and his background knowledge of the game always shone through.

Today’s presenters have big footsteps to follow.

Arthur Montford, 1929-2014. So it goes.

Three Dutch Football Grounds

On our first day in the Netherlands we went for a walk with my brother-in-law, his wife and their dog.

We stopped at a car park in Bakkeveen and I noticed this insignia on the building at the end of the road.

KNVB logo

It is of course the logo of the Netherlands Football Association.

The sign said KNVB Voetbaldegen Bakkeveeen 2010. I couldn’t see inside the ground because the trees/shrubs around it were in full leaf. See here for a Google Maps view with barer trees.

The club seems to play in the Derde Klaas League; Subdivision Sunday North. (Judging by the results listed on this website they don’t appear to be very good.)

Apparently there are two local leagues in the Netherlands, a Saturday one and a Sunday one – and they don’t talk to each other.

On the way up Holland from the ferry we had passed a stylish looking stadium. The good lady snapped it from the car window on the way back down. This is Den Haag’s home ground, the Kyocera Stadion.

On the way to Maarssen I had seen Heerenveen’s floodlights from the motorway. Their ground looked modern and stylish from that distance.

On the Saturday we strolled to the nearest village to where we were staying, Opende, and I spotted this football game going on at the premises of MFC De Veste, the sports club there.

That’s a tidy wee ground.

Scottish Referendum Reflections

In the end I suppose confidence and hope lost out to fear and timidity (or caution if a less harsh word is required.)

I didn’t watch the results coming in as nothing was going to happen for hours. I woke up to the news on the radio.

My first thought was one of relief that none of the apocalyptic things predicted of a yes vote – flight of capital, businesses and jobs, the loss of the BBC to us forever (not that that organisation cares much for Scotland) etc etc – would now be happening, my second that Westminster could now safely go back to ignoring that part of the UK where I was born and live.

My third was a profound sadness that the country I had always suspected I lived in was not the one I had hoped I lived in.

Given, for the first time (the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 was carried out over the heads of the populace at large,) the opportunity to affirm that Scotland was a nation rather than an idea, the Scottish people had declined to do so.

I found myself thinking of Alan Warner’s views on the Scottish literature project – see my earlier post – and changing my mind.

In the light of the result Warner may have a point. If the majority of Scotland’s people see no utility in an institutional reflection of Scottishness on the world stage why should there be a Scottish literature at all? What is the point of reflecting Scottishness when, philosophically – the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” was a philosophical one – the place doesn’t exist.

I also mused on the fact that there is now an argument that, the people having rejected independence, sporting teams representing Scotland become even more of an absurdity, and that, for example, the Scottish FA and SPFL should be dissolved and merged into their southern counterparts. (Whisper this to UEFA or FIFA, though.)

As to the no campaign’s promises of further powers to the Scottish Parliament I’ll believe in promises of Devo Max when further devolution happens, not before. (See the Alan Warner link above.) In this regard please note that I am entirely in favour of devolution of powers from the Westminster Parliament to all other areas of the UK which wish for that.

I spoke to one of my sons yesterday, who I suspect voted no, and he was of the opinion that there is now a momentum, that independence will come inside 25 years.

Perhaps. Perhaps if Scottish sporting teams were absorbed into a GB framework the process would be accelerated. I had long said that the only way Scots would vote for independence was if the Scotland football team was no longer allowed to play against anyone. Since Scotland ceased to qualify for tournament finals, since we became more or less rubbish, even that might not be enough.

MH 17 and Russia 2018

The shooting down of airliner MH17 over Ukrainian airspace was a tragedy – but more likely arising from the cock-up rather than the conspiracy wing of history. Surely no-one seriously thinks that the powers behind either side in the Ukraine fighting intended their minions to shoot down a passenger aircraft? It was clearly done by a trigger-happy clown not subject to much in the way of discipline or command and control as in a regular army. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens in civil conflicts.

The consensus that it was “Russian” rebels who did it is probably correct. That they ought not to have had the weapons to allow them to do it is also a given. But I suspect that Vladimir Putin is raging that it has put him – as the overwhelmingly likely ultimate source of the arms involved – in the wrong. One more reason for the US and EU to portray him as a villain and to increase sanctions.

Yet, unless it blows up into something bigger – in the hundredth anniversary year of the devastating fall-out of an assassination in the Balkans that prospect cannot be overlooked – in four year’s time will most people, apart from the families of the deceased for whom it will linger forever, remember it? Very few gave a toss about the contretemps Russia had had with Georgia in 2008 during the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year.

Yet we have our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for the World Cup due to be hosted by Russia in 2018 to be stripped from that country. I wish him luck with that. The site of World Cups is in the purview of FIFA and that organisation doesn’t take kindly to outside interference.

What makes his remarks even more counter-productive in terms of his stated objective is that Clegg has said that England might host the tournament instead. Anyone who had any knowledge of FIFA at all would know that is a non-starter.

Twonk.

Germanic Hegemony Looms

Over the past eight years Spain dominated the international football tournaments in which they took part – though they had a premonitory blip in last year’s Confederations Cup (and what a misleading pointer that final turned out to be.)

After the win by Germany in Rio on Sunday we could be in for a longer period of domination than the Spanish enjoyed as the German players are quite young and will only have gained in confidence from their achievement. I don’t know if I can stand that thought, though.

Still, at least it gives Scotland an early opportunity to claim their scalp as the two countries meet on Sep 7th in the first qualifying game for the 2016 European Championships.

The late World Cup has unified the FIFA and Unofficial Football World Championships. Going into it Uruguay were the holders of the unofficial title but swiftly lost it to Costa Rica.

For historical reasons Scotland is actually at the top of the unofficial football championship rankings. The September game will give Scotland a chance to reclaim the actual title – if Argentina don’t beat the Germans in their friendly a few days before.

Sólo otro club

In one of the least unpredictable transfers of this summer Liverpool’s troubled (and troubling – the guy clearly needs help) star striker Luis Suarez has moved to Barcelona, no doubt to the benefit of his bank balance. The only question was over his destination. As he made no secret he wished to play in Spain the other option would have been Real Madrid.

Barcelona’s motto, emblazoned on the seats in their stadium, the Camp Nou, is “més que un club” (more than a club.) Such a claim to moral high ground is somewhat undermined by their acquisition of a serial perpetrator of assaults; assaults which if carried out in any other walk of life might have seen their author up before a magistrate.

Suarez’s gifts as a footballer clearly outweigh any consideration of propriety (or indeed of the player’s inner well-being: he is not going to change his behaviour when it is rewarded like this.)

It seems Barcelona is sólo otro club (just another club) after all.

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