Sunday, 17 May 2015

"Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik"

What's this about? What's with the German title?
Well, these words have been in my mind over another wonderfully successful meet-up of the three  twin towns, Kirkham, Ancenis and Bad Brückenau over last weekend, May 15th - 17th. "Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik" is the title of a short story by the  18th/19th century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. I studied his work as part of my degree at university many years ago. It's a weird and disturbing tale: I can't remember much detail, but the title refers to St Cecilia, traditionally the patron saint of music and "the power of music", and it's that idea that is my blog post theme.
It's not a remotely original idea, but music is a truly powerful thing. This has been vibrantly apparent over this past weekend in Ancenis, as I have had the pleasure of  being present at the meet-up between the bands of our French and German twin towns. Each of these towns, small provincial communities of around 8000 inhabitants like Kirkham, has a municipal band consisting of ordinary people, who share a love of making music. The two bands are both what we would call "concert bands" - brass, woodwind, and percussion  - and crucially, their members are a mix of genders, ages and social classes. Both bands are directed by young men, and both sets of players give every indication that they simply love making music. When these two bands come together (and like their towns, they are  formally "twinned"), it illustrates very powerfully that music is a common language with the power to transcend boundaries of language and culture. Their repertoire is in both cases mixed, but very much drawn from international common culture, notably from popular classics and anglo-american light music. The two bands clearly enjoy and appreciate each others' work, and frequently play joint concerts, led by one or other conductor, and to witness their work at such times is truly life-enhancing. The common language of music means that they have so much more in common than what divides them.
There is, however, a sad side to this: the lack of an English equivalent. Kirkham has no town band and is frankly unlikely to have one in the foreseeable future. Why is it that a country with our love of music, our artistic talent and creativity, does not foster a culture of music-making in our communities? I don't know the answer, but I have to wonder whether it is a consequence of our education system, which does so much to encourage and value the arts and other extracurricular activities as a big part of how we educate our children. Every British school, primary or secondary, state or private, prides itself on the breadth and quality of what it offers its pupils - look at the website of any school and you will see as much about sport, music and drama as you will about the academic curriculum and exam results. French and German schools pay lip service to the arts and sport, but do not boast anything like the provision that even a poorly resourced school in the UK can demonstrate, and this means, I suspect, that it is outside of school that young people in those countries pursue such activities. Difficult to say which way is better, but I would point out that a crucial disadvantage of the UK model is that it limits severely what people can do after leaving school, and just perhaps fosters an attitude that music, drama and sport is something that kids do at school, watched and admired by their parents, but then "outgrow" as they move on to do more adult things.
I feel really bad saying that, because I work in school which has a wonderful tradition of  sporting, dramatic and musical excellence, and I cannot imagine my school without these excellent activities, but I do wonder whether we in Britain are too dependent on our schools to foster artistic and sporting talent. Like so much else in life, I guess there must be a happy medium, because everything I see and hear about schools in France and Germany makes me value and cherish the "educating the whole person" culture which is so central to the British system. I remember a French national whose son was at my school praising the "polyvalent" nature of the English system which had given his son the chance to sing a Haydn mass, play rugby and act Shakespeare all in one year at the age of 12. Perhaps we in the UK should look at how we encourage  our young people to move on from what they do at school. And especially in music, maybe we should encourage parents and other adults to play with and alongside their children, rather than just standing and watching.

Speech at 2015 twin towns gathering in Ancenis

This is the text of the speech I gave to  the gathering of people from our three twinned towns on Saturday 16th May 2015. It speaks of the precious thing that is friendship across borders.

"Mr Mayor of Ancenis, Madam Mayor of Bad Brückenau, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great pleasure and pride that I speak for the first time as President of the Kirkham Twinning Association at a visit to one of our twin towns. I also have the pleasure of bringing greetings from the Mayor of Kirkham and the Town Council: you will be aware that we in Britain are in the midst of our electoral process at both local and national level, and so our council representatives are unable to be present here in Ancenis on this occasion. We are delighted to have with us Mrs Sheila Hardy, whose husband Councillor Peter Hardy has just been elected as Mayor of Fylde Borough, our municipality. It is a great honour for Kirkham that one of our Councillors has been elected to this role, and Peter will be formally installed as Mayor at a civic ceremony on this coming Wednesday. It is particularly pleasing for those gathered here today to know that Peter is a loyal and enthusiastic member of the Kirkham Twinning Association. May I ask the people of our three twin towns to join me in wishing Peter a successful year as Mayor of Fylde Borough Council.

We meet here in Ancenis at a time of poignant anniversaries: a hundred years since the First World War and 70 years since the end of the Second World War. All of us gathered here now are too young to remember those two conflicts between European neighbours, but the legacy and memories of those dark times for our continent are still very much with us, not least as we mark these anniversaries.

Let us therefore rejoice in the fact that we meet every year in one of our towns as friends and partners. I have recently been editing my grandfather’s autobiography, and reading with sadness how almost exactly a hundred years ago, he travelled to France as a young man to fight in that futile conflict. He survived, where thousands of English, French and German young men did not, but he, like so many of his generation, was saddened to find Europe at war again just twenty years later.

How lucky we are, and how precious it is, that in our generation, the peoples of our three towns meet not to fight, but to share fellowship, food, drink and culture. How sad it is that there are those in our three countries who seek to undermine the European project, but we must not let those voices prevail.

So it is with great pride, passion and enthusiasm that I say “Long Live Twinning!”

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Nothing's gonna stop me #DBlogWeek

Just wanted to add my own quick post for #DBlogWeek. I haven't got much time to write at length or in a considered manner, but I just wanted to add my bit to this week and an obvious title is "Nothing's gonna stop me"

Not a very original title, in fact partly plagiarised from the title of an 80's power ballad classic by Jefferson Starship: Nothing's Gonna Stop us Now. Now there's an uplifting, mood-enhancing song. I defy anyone not to feel a bit better after hearing that!

But why that title now? Well, this time tomorrow (it's now Tuesday 12th May) I will be on board a ferry to St Malo, France, having driven down from Lancashire to Portsmouth. I am headed for Ancenis, the French twin town  of my home town.  As President of the Kirkham Twinning Association, I am leading a delegation from Kirkham attending a meet-up for Ascension Day weekend (a public holiday in France) together with our friends from Bad Bruckenau, the German town which is the third partner in our unusual three-way twinning arrangement.

Twinning is the subject for another blog, but for today, I just think it's a good moment to point out that Type One diabetes hasn't stopped me doing what I want to do in life - like driving to the Loire Valley in France and back as leader of a twin town delegation.

Of course, it's much more hassle travelling with diabetes. Packing and preparation for this or any journey involves planning and checking, since to forget insulin or blood testing equipment would be pretty disastrous.

But beyond that, it's perfectly possible. Over the coming three days, I will be attending events involving food and drink, possibly unpredictable and irregular, as well as helping translate and liaise between the peoples of these three towns. I will even be making a speech which I have had to write in three languages.

Plenty of opportunities there for diabetes to trip me up, but with sensible planning, good supplies of jelly babies and biscuits, as well as all the necessary medical stuff, I should be fine. I will also be accompanied by my faithful travelling companion for such trips, my (adult) daughter Rosie.

In other words, nothing's gonna stop me. Twitter followers will probably see some highlights of the weekend on my Twitter or a new one I've set up for the Kirkham Twinning Association 

So, for now, "Goodbye, Au Revoir, Auf Wiedersehen"

Saturday, 2 May 2015

That was then, but this is now...

On May 15th 2005, I was among 27000 supporters at the Reebok Stadium as Bolton Wanderers signed off a successful season with a 3-2 defeat of Everton, qualification for Europe and a 6th place finish in the Premier League, English football's top tier.

Today, ten years later on May 2nd  2015, I was among 18000 supporters at the same venue, now the Macron Stadium, as Bolton Wanderers signed off an unsuccessful season with a 1-0 defeat to Birmingham City, and an unexciting 18th place finish in the Championship, English football's second tier. 

At the end of both games, the players and their families did a lap of honour, as is now traditional in football, with fans given the opportunity to show their appreciation of the players whose wages they help to pay. 

There, the similarity ends. 

Bolton v Everton, May 15th 2005
May 15th 2005 was one of those glorious end-of-season days, with shirt-sleeved fans lapping up the Spring sunshine, and looking forward to the prospect of the club's first ever European campaign. The players being applauded round the pitch on that sunny afternoon included Spanish icon Fernando Hierro, the late great Gary Speed, Greece's Euro 2004 winner Stelios Giannakopoulos, the talented but temperamental talisman El Hadji Diouf and the outrageously gifted Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha, as well as English workhorses Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies. Glitter cannons showered blue and white confetti all over the pitch as the PA system blasted out the Bolton fans' song of the year, "Is This the Way to Amarillo?", made famous that year by local comedian Peter Kay's Comic Relief version. It was truly an exhilarating time to be a Wanderers fan: "We're all going on a European Tour" was gleefully sung to the tune of "Yellow Submarine", and sure enough, the following year, fans of unfashionable Bolton Wanderers were following their heroes to Bulgaria, Turkey, Portugal and France. I myself, with my son, travelled to the iconic Stade Vélodrome in Marseille as Wanderers exited Europe at the first knock-out stage the following February. Two years later, in a second European campaign, Wanderers famously held the mighty Bayern Munich to a 2-2 draw at the Allianz Arena. We perhaps didn't fully realise at the time how lucky we were.

Bolton v Birmingham City, May2nd 2015
May 2nd 2015 was, by contrast, a cold, wet day. A patched up Wanderers team, including academy graduates so unfamiliar to even regular fans that we were scouring our programmes to find out who they are, battled gamely in a meaningless end-of-season fixture, losing without ever looking outclassed, but without ever looking anything like good enough to win. At the end of the game, with only a small proportion of the crowd bothering to remain behind, the players and their families took a brief and somewhat sheepish lap of honour, to applause which was, if anything, sympathetic in tone. Instead of superstars of the world game, they were a mixture of fresh-faced academy graduates, promoted to the First Team to fill in for injured regulars, and loan signings from clubs where they were surplus to requirements. The two most recognisable faces were burly veterans Emile Heskey and club legend Eidur Gudjohnsen, both possibly playing their final games for the club having been drafted in by manager Neil Lennon to bolster a threadbare squad.

The contrast between these two days was stark, and glaringly illustrates the roller-coaster fortunes of any football club outside the Premier League's true élite. That 2005 match was played in a packed and raucous stadium, with the game featured that night on "Match of the Day", its result and significance prominent in the next day's newspapers. The pre-match buzz in those days saw crowds of fans gathered around the Stadium's front entrance, invariably catching a glimpse of famous faces - former players, pundits, celebrity fans and the like. Today, the pre-match atmosphere around the ground was good natured enough, but bleak and subdued. The Birmingham fans, present in good numbers and excellent voice, provided a touch of noise, fun and humour with their traditional end-of-season fancy dress (I saw, amongst others, a duck, four Teletubbies, a carrot, a surgeon in a blood-stained operating gown and Jesus), but the feeling among Wanderers fans was one of "let's get this over with", after such a poor season.

It is clear to even a casual observer that our popular and respected new manager Neil Lennon has a huge job on his hands over the summer, rebuilding a team with some sense of pattern and stability on a very tight budget. There is much promise, both in the spirit and manner of play that we have seen at times under Lennon, and in the performances of some players: It is blindingly obvious that Adam Bogdan in goal and Mark Davies in midfield are the sole survivors of our Premier League days, so keeping them would be a good start. American Tim Ream, player of the year for the second year in succession, is also a class act. Striker Adam LeFondre also looks worth making efforts to sign permanently. Almost every other player in the squad has some sort of question mark over them, yet youngsters like Max Clayton, Josh Vela, Zach Clough and Tom Walker look to have a future. There are also injured absentees to remember, notably Darren Pratley, who was playing his best football since joining us when he got injured. 

But my overwhelming sense today was of nostalgia for a golden era under Sam Allardyce. In our eleven years in the Premier League, we saw most of the modern game's superstars at the Reebok, and quite often sent them home with tails between legs. The oft-repeated sight of an angry and frustrated Arsène Wenger on our touchline as his Arsenal were outfought (and more often than he would care to admit, outclassed) at the Reebok, is etched in the minds of all Wanderers fans from that era. And let us not forget that it was the much-maligned Gary Megson who gave us our only modern-era home win over Man United, as well as bringing to the club and nurturing  some wonderful talents such as Gary Cahill, Stuart Holden, Mark Davies and Chung-Yuong Lee.

Perhaps above all, today reminds me and other Wanderers loyalists that football is a metaphor without parallel for life itself, especially if you support a team outside the Premier League's  permanent élite. I hope that fans of the likes of Burnley, Southampton, Stoke City, West Brom, Swansea, QPR, Leicester, Hull, and now Bournemouth, Watford and whoever else goes up remember to drink it all in, because for many of them, their moments in the sun, like Bolton's in 2005, will be fleeting.

Having said that, I also genuinely believe in the psychologically therapeutic value of following a football team, especially a less successful one. Football provides an ultimately harmless mirror of life's ups and downs, and as such can serve as a useful and safe outlet for our emotions, be they good or bad. Having followed Bolton Wanderers through thick and thin for around fifty years, I can honestly say that they have given me a chance harmlessly to rehearse every emotion life can throw at me. And in so doing, I feel that maybe, just maybe, I can cope better with life's real ups and downs. 

Supporters of Bournemouth take note - enjoy it while it lasts. Not long ago, you were at the foot of football's 4th tier, and for all we know, you may all-too-soon go the way of Blackpool and Wigan, whose recent glory days must already seem a very long time ago. And as for me, yes, I didn't return home today full of the joys of Spring as I did back on May 15th, 2005. But I am looking forward to better times ahead. I'm just not sure how far ahead they are....

“A Little bit More” - it's all about the Bolus

It’s been a while since I posted anything about diabetes; there’s been a veritable pandemic of words and opinions throughout the Coronavi...