Monday, August 29, 2005

Fourth Test: England won by three wickets



And so the magnificent series goes on, and once again I am reduced to sitting on the sofa, staring at the screen with my fists and jaw clenched, making Mrs Wildebeest close the door on me to keep her (and Baby Gnu) isolated from the overpowering atmosphere of tension.

Let's first establish the wonderful position England are now in. Ever since 1989, they have been losing Ashes series. Eight in a row, in fact. None of these series have been so much as drawn - Australia have hammered us every time. The false dawn was in 1997, when we won the first Test and drew the second, only to see them win the next three comfortably.

Now, for the first time since 1987, we are ahead in the series, and it's a series we cannot lose. It's worth repeating that: we cannot lose. The irony is that we can still lose (or, more accurately, fail to regain) the Ashes. In order to win them, we must win or draw the last match which begins at the Oval on 8 September.

England have a good history at the Oval. They have lost only 21% of all the Test matches they have played there. Against Australia, the figure is only 18%. Of the last six Ashes matches played there, England have won three to Australia's one. This should all be qualified, however, by two observations: in recent times, the series has usually be won by the time the Oval Test has come around, which means the Australians have tended to take their feet off the pedal; and the last Ashes match played there ended in an innings victory for Australia.

The pace at which the matches have been played means that the next match is unlikely to end in a draw, unless the weather intervenes (and the Oval is in one of the driest parts of the country). Therefore, England realistically speaking need to win the match to win the Ashes.

The Oval has a reputation as a good batting pitch, which takes a good amount of spin. In other words, it is probable that whoever wins the toss will win the match (the side batting first have won each game in the series so far). It is a pity that a series so important could be won on the flick of a coin, but that's sport for you. In any case, a team can defy losing the toss if they play well. And both teams know that they must play to the absolute maximum of their ability if they are to keep, or win back, the Ashes.

Anyway, let's look at the last Test. It's hard to say who the match-winner was for England, although Andrew Flintoff obviously deserved his Man of the Match award. When he came to the crease, England were not in trouble, but they were not doing as well as they would have hoped, on a track suited to batting. Flintoff, who seems to know no fear at all, came in and settled English nerves with a 177-run partnership with Geraint Jones (who continually saves his place in the side by making up for his glaring errors behind the stumps with decent performances in front of them). Even so, England's total of 477 would not have been impenetrable for an Australian team playing at its best.

Luckily for England, they have a bowling line-up which when fully fit intimidates the best players in the world. More than one observer (and current Australian batsman) has compared England's four-man pace attack with the highly threatening West Indian line-ups of the seventies and eighties. The great strength of England's bowling is that, far from merely banging it down the track in an attempt to frighten the batsman, the bowlers each contribute in different ways: Hoggard is a traditional seam-and-swing it type, who takes key wickets at key moments (as he did in this match, making a bigger contribution with the ball than in any of the previous three); Harmison gets great bounce from his speed and height, and is the nearest to the Curtly Ambrose "scare 'em" type that England have in their line-up; Simon Jones has mastered the new art of reverse swing, which continues to puzzle the Australians (Ian Chappell has been quoted as saying he believes it doesn't exist); and Flintoff seems capable of anything, not least the once seemingly impossible task of subduing Adam Gilchrist. Jones, who took five Australian wickets in the first innings, is now injured and looks doubtful for the Oval - the fact that his replacement is not obvious shows the paucity of quality bowling in England.

Anyway, it was this line-up that reduced Australia to 218 all out, notwithstanding some cameo slogging from Brett Lee, who will probably be the side's most valuable man once McGrath and Warne have retired. The tourists were made to follow on, the first time this has happened since 1988 when their fortunes were at their lowest ebb. The psychological advantage this gave England outweighed any more detailed tactical considerations about facing the bowling on the last day (or so it seemed at the time).

It was not surprising that Australia performed better in the second innings, especially once Simon Jones had disappeared with an ankle injury. To their minds, they must have been in an impossible situation, and that can relieve the pressure in a strange sort of way. That they set England a target of over 100 must be partly accountable to the absence of Jones, and partly the resilience of Michael Clarke and Simon Katich (and Shane Warne, whose ability with the bat has been one of the revelations of the series).

It has been a long tradition of English cricket that, when your opponent is down you do not kick him - you give him a hand up, tie one hand behind your own back and invite him to take a couple of free punches. This match was to be no exception. Had the target been something like thirty or forty, we would have won easily. Had it been over 200, bizarrely, it would probably also have been easy, since we would have treated it like a normal innings and been cautious but confident. However, the required target of 129 sat awkwardly between those two stools. A figure like that looks easy, but you still have to put in a fair amount of work to reach it. For a while it looked like the only work England were doing was putting the garnish on the dog's evening meal.

This is not to take away from the brilliance of Australia's bowling. Without McGrath, they must have felt the match was lost. But Warne never plays as though the situation is hopeless, and his famously wicked spin which has made him the greatest bowler in the game's history, coupled with the nervousness of the English batsmen, almost saw Australian revenge for the humiliation of Headingley in 1981. As English bats prodded tentatively forward, the ball hit the rough, spun at weird angles, clipped the outside edge and went into safe Australian hands. Again and again.

Surely, spectators must have been thinking, someone must come to the rescue? Surely we can't all lie down and let our moment of glory disappear over the horizon, like a Brett Lee six? So it proved, in the unlikely form first of England's two most wild and (at least until recently) undisciplined batsmen, Flintoff and Pietersen, who put on 46 for the fifth wicket; second, once those two had fallen to brilliant pace bowling from Lee, to possibly the most unsung heroes in the England side - Matthew Hoggard (once the world's worst Test batsman) and Ashley Giles. The four which Hoggard hit off Lee, perhaps the least typical shot he has ever played, pretty much ensured the game was up for Australia - and only those who were uncharitable enough to think back to Edgbaston only a few weeks earlier did not rate our chances as better than good.

The win, agonisingly close as it was, puts the fire back into English hearts. The players must take this into the last match. They know they deserve the Ashes. They know their record at the Oval is good. They know the pressure is on Australia (whatever imbecility their captain comes out with about the pressure "being on England"). They know they have been the superior team for the last three matches. But they should also remember that it's not over until the last wicket falls and the last run is scored. Complacency has so often been our enemy. Let's kill it off for good.

FURTHER READING: Norm on cricket pundits; Corridor of Uncertainty on cricket versus football; and Geraldine finds herself converted to cricket.


Saturday, August 27, 2005

Today's Sudoku puzzle

Here you are, wankers.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Only Muslims are terrorist fascists


We all know that white, Protestant folk don't commit acts of outrage and murder, don't we?

Well, if you believe that, don't tell anyone about this guy (thanks to John B. Again).

[EDIT: Worth reading John B's post with all the comments, if you want to enjoy a good, old-fashioned stream of bigoted, Coulter-like bile from someone with fixed ideas who pretends she can't hear any opposing arguments that actually stand up to scrutiny.]


Have you been touched by the Noodly Appendage?


I am indebted to my friends at Pirates for directing me to this open letter to the Kansas School Board, following its discussion of whether to teach Intelligent Design alongside the Theory of Evolution.

Read it, and weep (with laughter).

[EDIT: More on Intelligent Design from The Onion.]


My God, I agree with Nicholas Ridley


This has never happened before. I actually find myself agreeing with the late Nicholas Ridley, former Transport (and sometime Environment and later Trade) Secretary under Thatcher, and notorious right-winger (and right whinger). He was one of the token hate-figures of the Left in the eighties and was famous for his trenchantly anti-European views.

However, documents have come to light which reveal a stance taken by Ridley which I actually would have applauded, had I known about it at the time. The Guardian reports that Greenpeace have had documents released to them under the Freedom of Information Act relating to the blowing up of the Rainbow Warrior*. For those too young to remember, the ship was blown up by French secret agents in 1985 to prevent Greenpeace protesting against nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific. The ship was moored in Auckland and one of the crew, Fernando Pereira (a Dutchman of Portuguese origin**), was killed. The French government actually admitted carrying out the explosion.

Ridley was outraged, as was John Prescott (who was less of a bath-tub in those days). Prescott, an opposition MP back then, wrote to Ridley demanding that the British government condemn the action and hold an inquiry. Ridley instructed his civil servants to "take a robust attitude". He wanted the government to condemn the action and seek compensation for Pereira's family. A letter to Prescott was duly drafted (click here and scroll to bottom to see the draft). It reads:
This was an outrageous act of terrorism against a British vessel with tragic loss of life, which the Government utterly condemn. Given that this was clearly an act of sabotage rather than a casualty with marine causes, and occurred in a New Zealand port, it is appropriate that the New Zealand authorities should be investigating it. Criminal proceedings are already pending in New Zealand. [You will know that] we [have provided] [are providing] British diving expertise to help the New Zealand authorities with the investigations [...] Clearly there is the question of compensation for the family of the murdered man [...] and for Greenpeace in respect of the loss of the vessel [...] I can assure you that if appropriate the Government will seek through diplomatic channels to secure compensation for British interests.

The draft letter was seen by Geoffrey Howe, who was then Foreign Secretary. He wrote to the Department of Transport, suggesting that the reply to Prescott be toned down. It seems from the documents that the French government was already under some pressure from the French press over the incident, and the British decided they did not want to "rub salt into the French wounds" (Howe's words). A watered-down reply was sent to Prescott: "This was a lamentable event. The government deeply regret the death of a member of the crew. We hope the culprits can be brought to justice."

The full set of documents can be read here.

Five questions come to my mind:
1. Was Ridley outraged because he was genuinely shocked at the murder of an innocent man, or because he saw a great chance to bash the French?
2. Will Prescott now demand the holding of an inquiry?
3. If this was "an outrageous act of terrorism", will Blair be calling for military action against France, as part of The War Against Terror?
4. Does Geoffrey (now Lord) Howe feel any differently now from how he did then?
5. What the fucking hell does it take for the British government to introduce an element of ethics into its foreign policy, as so famously put forward by the late Robin Cook eight years ago? Protesting to Zimbabwe is an easy option. Taking action against the French (even in the form of a diplomatic protest) would, belatedly, show that someone actually cared about criminal activity taken against British interests, even when such activity has not been carried out by Arabs or Pakistanis.

* Is it not interesting that the media (and the GBP) tend to refer to the 'sinking' of the Rainbow Warrior (and the Belgrano, come to that)? 'Sinking' sounds somehow less murderous and criminal than 'blowing up' or 'illegal destruction'. The power of words...

** You really take your life in your hands when you have a Portuguese name, don't you? Tsch.


Monday, August 22, 2005

Sinister forces are online


Someone arrived on this site by Googling (actually, I think they used MSN Search) "fuck off Muslims".

That's a bit worrying - first, that someone would search for this and second that they would end up here.

I can only hope it was some eight-year-old whose vocabulary is only exceeded by his puerile partisanship, and not some affiliate of Combat 18.

Oh, well, at least there's nothing on here to feed his (or her) fevered little brain...


Racist Butcher XI


It's rare that a news event occurs to combine two of my great loves: cricket and international politics. However, such a luxury has arrived in the form of the British government's call for Zimbabwe to be banned from international cricket. Jack Straw and Tessa Jowell have written to the ICC (International Cricket Council) calling for a ban on international fixtures, as a response to Mugabe's slum clearance programme.

This isn't a new issue, of course. England toured Zimbabwe last winter, as a warm-up to their (successful, if we don't count the one-day matches) tour of South Africa. England didn't want to tour - at least two players (notably Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison) refused to join the party. Darren Gough, who did go, said he wouldn't shake Mugabe's hand if the opportunity were presented (it was not). Oddly enough, Mugabe's hand has been shaken by Jack Straw, on a UN trip last September. Straw even said, "nice to meet you". He forgot to add, "you bloody murdering, corrupt, evil bigoted pig", but I'm sure those words must have been on the tip of his tongue.

One has to feel sorry for the Zimbabwean national team, which certainly contains some talented players like Tatenda Taibu, Heath Streak and Andy Blignaut. They must be burning to carry on playing international cricket, to continue on some very good starts (Streak already has 210 Test wickets and is ranked the 18th best bowler in the world) and be taken seriously as world-ranking players. But they're up against a situation not in their control. They're unfortunate enough to have been born in a country currently ruled by one of the world's most corrupt dictators (let's not pretend the 'elections' in Zimbabwe make it anything approaching a democracy).

A lot of people say sport and politics shouldn't mix. This is bullshit. Professional sport is an activity in which money is involved, and money is always political. In any case, why should we leave our morality at the changing-room door when we step onto the playing field? Mugabe has rigged elections; arrested and tortured political opponents; demolished homes in Harare and dumped the victims in rural villages, where there is already insufficient food; introduced draconian Public Order laws; famously stolen land from white farmers in an openly racist policy of land reform; imported millions of tonnes of maize because of his country's food shortage, yet denied that a problem exists; and withdrawn Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth. Playing cricket in his country merely legitimises his regime, gives it a modicum of kudos on the world stage, sends signs to his opponents that they remain unsupported by the international community, and lends Mugabe ammunition to increase his air of self-importance.

But the above facts are well known, and have been for some years. Why didn't the British government act sooner? Why did they let the last tour go ahead, against the wishes of the England players and much public opinion both in Zimbabwe and in Britain? Straw claims that the British government would have been sued by Zimbabwe, had it banned the tour, and that the cost of fighting this action would have fallen on the British taxpayer. Well, I wish they'd asked us first, because I think that's one bill a lot of UK taxpayers would have been happy to foot (even assuming Mugabe had gone ahead and issued a writ*, which is by no means certain, although he would probably have enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a set-to with his long-standing colonial opponents - there are a lot of African leaders who would still support him on that one, and he knows it).

Anyway, the fact remains that the British government would rather flex its feeble spine by persuading the ICC to ban Zimbabwe, rather than going it alone and banning English tours itself. Actually, more accurately, the ICC is being asked to waive fines against countries who refuse to play Zimbabwe. However, the ICC has always defaulted to the "keep politics out of sport" mentality, so there seems little prospect of action when it meets in Dubai next week. Moreover, the ICC is keen to develop cricket in African countries (especially given Kenya's good showing the last World Cup**), so it may decide it does not want to send a message that it's suddenly going to start taking moral issues into account at this stage.

It seems likely that, with a governing council that is deaf to the ethical dimension of the sport, a British government more concerned with diplomatic niceties than human rights, and a Zimbabwean government ruled by a lunatic, we will be back in the same position whenever England are next invited to tour this poor, battered country.

* In fact, it would probably have been the ICC who would have issued the writ, or just fined England rather a lot of money. So Mugabe would have had limited opportunity to strut.

** Mind you, Kenyan cricket is having its own problems at the moment.

[UPDATE, 10 October 2005: England captain Michael Vaughan has told the Daily Mail that if the team had been asked to meet Mugabe, they would have pulled out of the tour.]


Friday, August 19, 2005

Mo Mowlam (1949-2005)


Oh, bloody hell. First Cookie, now Mo. Political figures on the Left whom I admire (and there ain't many of them, these days) are dropping like flies*. It'll be Benn, next (Tony, not Hilary, although I have a soft spot for Hilary, having known him personally).

The Guardian obituary is here but sadly neither it nor the BBC's 'In Pictures' tribute shows a photo of her I once saw of her in her youth. Christ, she was an absolute corker. Best legs in the Commons, someone had once said of her (not, presumably, Alan Clark who was too busy drooling over Thatcher's ankles - for which reason alone he should have been sectioned). Alas, even a Google search has failed to throw up said photo - all the ones I can find show her looking old and ill, way beyond her years.

Her looks wouldn't have been the only reason to be attracted to her, though. She was one of that extremely rare breed - people who genuinely speak their minds and to hell with the consequences. This isn't to say that she wasn't capable of dissembling - she was a politician, after all - but she refused to play the 'on-message' game, even though she was one of the architects of New Labour (a project which sorely disappointed her in the years before her death). I always thought her tremendous; and it's a testament to her strength of mind that, even when dumped in a job for which she had no appetite (Northern Ireland Secretary), she was determined to take it on and make the best of it. The outcome was positive, even if it was short-lived. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in the negotiations between the Unionists and Republicans which she chaired.

Anyway, she once told Ian Paisley to fuck off, and that's qualification for Paradise on its own, in my opinion.

* I'm not the only person who thinks this way: see also dearkitty, Backword Dave and John B. Oh, and some clever soul on b3ta has noted the awkward imminence of another funeral for Blair (thanks to Tim again). And, while you're at it, it's worth reading Mo's election time colums in the Independent (here and here, courtesy of Paul Davies).


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Two-faced bath-tub double-speak


It's easy to make fun of New Labour-speak. So, let's do it.

John Prescott visited the Millennium Groan yesterday. He said it was "never a white elephant". I suppose it takes a white elephant to know one. (Prescott was, incidentally, described by a correspondent to BBC London as a "two-faced bath-tub".)

Prescott went on to say: "It [the Dome] did not cost the public money. It came from the Lottery." Hmm, smart work, John. Where did the Lottery money come from? Did you find it under a bush? (No pun intended, sorry.)

Apparently the building is to be renamed 'The O2'. Which is short and catchy, and much easier to remember than 'The BT Cellnet'. Reports that Earl's Court Exhibition Centre is to be renamed 'The Orange' have not been confirmed.

"We have decontaminated the land," announced Prescott. Presumably just after he had left the site.


Oil be damned


I have received a chain email from a friend, which contains the following message:
Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations have conditioned us to think that the cost of a litre is CHEAP, we need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the market place not sellers. With the price of petrol going up more each day, we consumers need to take action. The only way we are going to see the price of petrol come down is if we hit someone in the pocket by not purchasing their petrol! And we can do that WITHOUT hurting ourselves. Here's the idea:

For the rest of this year, DON'T purchase ANY petrol from the two biggest oil companies (which now are one), ESSO and BP. If they are not selling any petrol, they will be inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit. But to have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of Esso and BP petrol buyers. It's really simple to do!! Now, don't whimp
[sic] out on me at this point... keep reading and I'll explain how simple it is to reach millions of people!!

[The message then goes into standard chain email mode, ie "send this to ten of your friends, and if they send it to ten of their friends, etc, etc"] PLEASE HOLD OUT UNTIL THEY LOWER THEIR PRICES TO THE 69p a LITRE RANGE. It's easy to make this happen. Just forward this email, and buy your petrol at Shell, Asda, Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons, Jet etc. i.e. boycott BP and Esso.

Now, assuming that this is a genuine campaign and not just yet another tedious virus-in-all-but-name waste of time, it's all very well and good. Wasted on me, since I neither drive nor own a car, but nevertheless. However, I'm afraid there are much better reasons to boycott BP and Esso than a selfish, kneejerk, you-hurt-my-wallet consumer reaction. For example:

  • Esso gave more money to Bush's campaign in 2004 (and 2000) than any other oil company.

  • Esso ran campaigns in the US against the Kyoto Protocol, and has funded 'think-tanks' whose sole purpose is to discredit the evidence for the consequences of climate change.

  • Esso (unlike BP, funnily enough) puts no money into renewable energy sources.

  • Esso is expanding its oil and gas production, and lobbying to exploit natural resources in Alaska (BP is also doing the latter).

  • BP is an investor in PetroChina, which is attempting to increase its exploitation of resources in Tibet. These means moving thousands of ethnic Chinese into Tibetan areas.

  • BP have colluded with paramilitary groups in Colombia and forced Colombian peasants off their land (BP is the biggest foreign investor in Colombia). A similar 'militarised corridor' is planned for the new pipeline running through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey.

  • BP tried to sue Greenpeace for £1.4m of retributive damages in 1997, which would have put the campaign group out of action.

More on Esso here and on BP here and here and also here.

And (for balance) for info on why everything in that email is talking out of its arse, go here.

(Footnote: Further research reveals that this is indeed just another viral email, and not a genuine campaign at all. I knew all along, of course...)

[UPDATE: Tim Worstall has received the same email, but his reasons for criticising it are briefer than mine.]


Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Quiet round here, isn't it?


Now that cricket is dominating the headlines, there seems to be no other news. Bloggers are going on holiday, moving home, or having their balls cut off.

This is a good time of year for government to slip out things they'd rather we didn't see, or give a big push to unpopular legislation, so that when we come back from holiday we can all say, "you mean you weren't joking?" (hat tip to Tim for that link about ID cards). Incidentally, am I the only person who feels uncomfortable about the fact that the government's info page about ID cards is included in a section entitled "Community & Race"?

Anyway, I've remembered that NoseMonkey did a fantastically well-argued piece about why we shouldn't elect the House of Lords. I spotted it while I was up in Manchester for the cricket, staying with my mum and using her computer. I promised I would link to it, so here you are. (I missed Lord's Reform Day. Serves me right for concentrating on the cricket.) Also worth reading Phil Edwards on the same topic.

Here are some other things I've missed: Ken at Militant Moderate on why we shouldn't take Omar Bakri seriously (thinking about it, wasn't Bakri the man who famously condemned the 'Spicy Girls' [sic]?). Thanks to Tim Worstall's BritBlog round-up for that one.

If you have time on your hands, there's a lengthy and not entirely serious article about gay and lesbian moments in Doctor Who (courtesy of Nick Barlow).

The Moai draws our attention to how eminently sensible the Monster Raving Loony Party's manifesto sounds. Pushing at an open door, that post, if you ask me. I believe Lord Sutch was one of the first (apart from Napoleon, obviously) to suggest building a tunnel between Britain and France. (On checking, I see he also proposed extending it to Switzerland in order to go and get all the money there. It would certainly save me and my family time flying over to see the in-laws in Zürich...)

And in the midst of all this, Michael Buerk goes and makes some very silly comments about women. Buerk has form in this area, though. According to Private Eye (this was some years ago, so I can't quote verbatim) Buerk was once approached by some BBC staff who were petitioning the corporation because a much-loved tealady in her fifties was being made redundant from the canteen. Buerk refused to sign the petition, claiming that he would far rather be served his tea by "a sixteen-year-old with big tits." Kind of puts that wink he used to sign off with into context, doesn't it?

Oh, and I'm going to start learning Chinese, before it's too late.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Bloody important news from the news


The truth about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes is leaking out slowly. Lenin's Tomb reports that ITN have obtained police documents showing that the CCTV at Stockwell was working (the police had claimed it wasn't). The documents confirm what we know: de Menezes was not wearing a padded jacket, he did not jump the ticket barrier, he only ran when he heard a train arriving.

Lots more info has come out, but go to Lenin's place so he can get full credit. Or (it sticks in my throat, saying this) watch ITN News tonight.

[EDIT: So, now we all know the truth - or, at least, another version of it. Blogging reaction has been fulsome, but Chris at Optimus in Omnis is an excellent place to start (via that ol' Tim Worstall again).]


Third Test: Match drawn



Those of you who don't understand cricket, or who find it boring, look away now. Be thankful that there isn't another Test match until 25 August. Actually, those who find it boring are now in a minority, it seems (especially those who think football is more interesting than cricket - more on that here - apparently cricket shirts are outselling football shirts). This series has not merely set the cricket-loving world alight - you'd expect it to - but has been so exciting that it has converted an entire nation overnight. Most of them will be fairweather fans, of course, but it says something when the opening of the Premiership generates less media coverage than this incredible Test match at Old Trafford.

On a personal level, it meant something special to me, too, since this was the first time I have ever attended an Ashes Test match. On day one, I took my mother as part of her sixtieth birthday present. Owing to incapacity, it is unlikely she will ever attend another Ashes match, but at least she'll be able to say she was there and saw the England captain make a century. Click 'More' for more...

Stripped of all sense
Our visit was spiced up by our proximity to some lads who were of a kind unique, I think, to Britain. Let's get some context first: we were sitting in seats priced at £45, normally out of the reach of all but the richest or most diehard fans. There are many cheaper seats at Old Trafford, and these are where the more boisterous spectators tend to sit. Somehow the allocation of seats contrives to put all these individuals together in a block. I don't know if there's an option on the booking form reading 'TICK HERE IF YOU WISH TO SIT WITH THE BARMY ARMY', but they always seem to end up together. Anyway, in the row in front of me were four lads from Wigan who were true Barmy Army types (those who need enlightening as to the Barmy Army's character should click here). Two of them were reasonably quiet, bespectacled types who wanted nothing more than to drink beer and watch England perform, but their two mates were of a slightly different breed. They wanted to do the same, yes, but drinking beer clearly held the focus for them. As it happened, one of them (name of Eddie) was obviously out of practice in the raising of the wrist. Stripped to the waste, in the baking Manchester sun (no, I'm not kidding; more about the weather later), and probably unballasted by breakfast, it wasn't long before Eddie was swaying in the breeze. En route to his seat from the bar, he emptied half his pint over the elderly gentleman sitting right in front of us. He stopped to apologise in that over-compensating way that marks out a man as drunk beyond his capacity, while his victim implored him to stop blocking his view of the game.

It wasn't much longer before Eddie had disappeared from his seat. His boisterous friend was calling to him, and the beer-scented old man was beseeching him not to return. The next thing we knew, Eddie was on the field. As the crowd in front of me stood up, I was forced to my feet simply to understand what was going on. Eddie's white buttocks greeted me from a distance. From the opposite end of the ground (where the stewards had been posted, presumably not suspecting that trouble would emerge from our block), red-faced security men ran at Radcliffe pace and bundled Eddie away. My mother, accustomed to the blokeish environment of South Wales rugby clubs from an early age, was shrieking with laughter. But the fun wasn't over. Eddie had dropped his mobile phone onto the field of play, right behind where Jason Gillespie was fielding. Eddie's friend spotted it and was dialling the number within moments. Gillespie ignored it like a true professional. Thwarted, Eddie's friend started ringing round all his friends to inform them of this spectacular moment. His circle of friends turned out to be much wider than his vocabulary, since his means of spreading the news consisted of the phrases "I don't believe it!", "Eddie just streaked!" and "He's a legend!" over and over again. Pretty soon, we were reciting his speech for him. He could have put the speakerphone on and let us talk to his mates. Much of the humour of this situation will be lost on those who weren't there. Out of context it looks puerile, and invading the pitch is always to be discouraged. But, at the time, it was terribly funny.

What about the match, Oscar?
Oh, yes, there was some pretty good cricket, too. Basically, this match has marked a real turnaround for the England team - almost. And it's that 'almost' that has kept the series alive and prevented me from making any wild claims on behalf of the country I am forced to support (there is no Welsh national cricket team, we are subsumed into England). This is the first time in as long as many of us can remember that England have dominated Australia all the way through a five-day game.

It helped that Vaughan finally won the toss, something he has not got a good track record on (and it might be worth reflecting on how much better England's excellent recent record would be if we'd won the toss a few more times - but that's for another post). Despite the gloomy North-West weather, he had no hesitation in batting. It briefly looked like a bad decision, as Brett Lee fooled Andrew Strauss with a cunning slow yorker (which I certainly didn't pick, even though I was right behind the bowler's arm). Strauss departed, his iffy summer continuing. Then another equally out of form batsman came to the crease - the England captain.

What followed was a treat of batting. Vaughan and Trescothick used to open the batting for England, and it was just like the old days, as they ploughed their way through an ineffective Australian attack. We couldn't believe it, at the start of play, when we heard Glenn McGrath had returned from his horrific ankle injury a full two weeks earlier than we had expected. Yet if Australia were hoping to use the fear factor to steal a march on us, they were to be disappointed. It's not that McGrath holds no fear for England - he is still one of their two really effective bowlers - it's just that we are beginning to get the measure of him. Bowling slower than he used to, he is still dynamite on a favourable pitch. But this was not a favourable pitch and, as the day wore on, he began to look tired and even ill. Vaughan and Tresco piled on the runs - 137 of them, in fact, until Tresco attempted to sweep and just nicked the ball on the way round into the keeper's gloves. The bowler was Shane Warne, the wicket his 600th in Test cricket. Already a world record holder, this marked new territory for bowling. It is possible that, when he retires, his record will never be broken. The crowd stood in warm applause. Warne held the ball aloft. Old Trafford has been good to him, but he is never coming back (not in Test or One-Day International cricket, anyway).

England played out the rest of the day pretty well, only a last-ball dismissal of the nightwatchman spoiling the party. Ian Bell had put his demons behind him (ah, how easily the clichés trot out) to score his first fifty of the series and begin to look like the accomplished, smooth cricketer he has always looked like being. His best days are ahead of him. Day One, Warne's wicket notwithstanding, had definitely gone to England, as they finished on 341-5.

Days Two to Four
On the second day, I found myself in the more civilised 'Family Section' right at the opposite end of the ground. One shower aside, it was a clear and fine day. We watched with excitement as Flintoff and Jones smacked an 87-run partnership, pushing England well over 400. If it was disappointing that we lost our last few wickets cheaply, there was a belief going round the ground that someone had seen the weather forecast and instructed the batsmen to get on with it. Anyway, it was our best score of the series so far, so we weren't too sorry if it fell short of 450.

Of course, anything we do to them they can do to us - this has been my mantra throughout the series to stop myself getting too carried away with excitement. This is Australia, a team which has lost only one series in the last nineteen it has played prior to this one. There's a reason for that. They don't often have their backs to the wall and, even when they do, they find a way to get to a match-winning position. I was full of nerves when they came out to bat.

What ensued was the demolition of the Australian line-up by two bowlers, Ashley Giles and Simon Jones, who were not thought to be spearheads of the England attack. The ball with which Giles bowled Damien Martyn was Warne-like in its turn and deception, while Jones got the ball to move in the air and off the seam in directions it shouldn't have gone. Only that man, Shane Warne, saved face for his side, poking (and occasionally smashing) his way to 90. He lasted through Day Two, the whole of the washed-out Day Three (Australia's Twelfth Man was the weather, which has so often pulled England out of trouble in the past) and early into Day Four before holing out to deep square leg. His heroics with the bat had helped add 101 runs for the last three wickets, and put his colleagues earlier up the order to shame.

Needing to hurry things along in the now-improved weather, England set about carving up the Australian attack at almost five runs an over - yet another thing unthinkable in the past. Strauss at last showed that he, like Bell, was no longer prepared to be pushed around, with a brave innings of 106 - all the more brave for having been struck twice on the head in the match. I doubt many could believe it when Vaughan postponed his declaration well after Australia had been set 400 to win. Although it robbed us of time in the evening session and allowed the Australian openers to bed in when the light was too poor to bowl anyone but the spinners, I believe it was the right decision. It gave Geraint Jones a chance to come on and take McGrath's bowling apart, boosting his confidence (which must surely have contributed to his much-improved keeping on the last day), and set the target beyond the world record, and beyond what must have been tempting for the Aussies.

It was clear, as we set about trying to take ten Australian wickets in a day, that we (and the pitch) were not up to the task, though there were times when one did wonder whether the impossible might, once again, as it seems to have so often in this magnificent series, occur. Ponting's resilience as his colleagues fell uselessly around him, should be an example to them all. Only Clarke and Warne seemed to match him, however.

Still, the drama couldn't fizzle out on Day Five. Clarke's stubborn resistance was ended with a cunning piece of deception by Jones, swinging the ball the wrong way to take out his off stump. Warne's dismissal came at such a time of high emotion that I don't even remember it. And Ponting became the latest Aussie to have to fend off a rising one from Harmison only to see the ball land in the wicket keeper's hands. As he saw the finger go up, tears were clearly forming in his eyes. He admitted later that he was certain the match was lost.

But he'd forgotten the evidence of Edgbaston that shows England have a real problem when it comes to bowling tail-enders out. Our line was too wayward, our length too short or too full. Harmison's last over was born out of desperation. It is much harder to bowl out tail-enders when they know they have nothing to lose (as opposed to a one-day match, when they know they have runs to score). Continually trying for the glorious yorker isn't going to do the trick, because it's the one thing they're expecting. It's not that Harmison is a bad bowler - far from it - but he needs to be less eager at times like this. Not, I would suggest, the kind of pressurised death bowler you need to wrap a game up.

Looking onwards
Vaughan's reaction at the end was a testament to his inspiring captaincy and the strength of his character. He gathered his team-mates into a huddle and reminded them that they had achieved more than any England team in the past 18 years - they had put Australia on the rack and kept them there. But for the weather, this would have been another England victory and the Ashes would have been all but regained.

Where does it go from here? Trent Bridge is two weeks away, on the 25th. History there favours Australia, but the pitch is known to be good for batting. Sadly, much will depend on the toss. England could find the Ashes taken away from them on the flick of a coin. But, even if they do, they can be a proud team. For the last two matches, they have appeared the superior side. They know they can dismiss expert Australian batsmen cheaply. They know they can hit McGrath and Warne for six - not once, but again and again. They know the Australians are getting tired and jaded, for all that this draw may feel like a victory for the Aussies. They have seen the fumbled catches, the on-field disagreements, the loss of imagination from the Australian captain. They know they have an equal right to be the victors in this series. History leans towards another Ashes victory for Australia. But history hasn't been writing the script this series. There are eleven brave and clever men in the England team. I can't wait.

EDIT: Over in a parallel universe, Nick Barlow explains why England are suddenly doing so well against Australia.

ADDENDUM: Oh, yes, that reminds me. Apparently someone on ITN news had the gall, after the second Test, to proclaim "has cricket finally become interesting?" Which is a bit like saying, "has ITV finally become shite?"


Is the watch still up his arse?


My attention has been drawn to the splendid news that Christopher Walken intends to stand for US President in 2008.

Celebrity candidacies are not new (Frank Zappa and Warren Beatty have both toyed with the idea, and we all know about Schwarzenegger) and tend to fizzle out early on. I do hope this isn't a joke, but you never know with Walken. Anyway, if he's serious, I'd vote for him if only I could.


Monday, August 15, 2005

Apologies, but we seem to have lost the signal

I haven't posted for absolutely ages, but I have been up in Manchester at the Test Match, and although I'm back in London the cricket is far too exciting for me to tear myself away from it.

Normal service will be resumed. Fear not, dear readers. Do go and read some of the blogs on the left, they're terribly good.


Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Shizzle my nizzle, bredren


I am indebted to Jez of that blog, first for linking to me, but more importantly for directing me to this report, which says that the youth of my fine city are now speaking in an accent and language which is no longer even related to Cockney, but more to Jamaican patois.

I feel like one of those grown-ups who has just discovered that young people enjoy smoking cannabis now and again and may even, shock horror, go into pubs and drink alcohol when they are under age!

I feel terribly old.


Robin Cook (1946-2005)


I can scarcely believe I have let so many days pass without publicly commemorating the death of my near-neighbour, Robin Cook MP. He collapsed and died while walking in the Scottish Highlands on Saturday. He was 59, younger than my father.

I had seen him a number of times around Chiswick - in the pet shop, on The Avenue (and credit to the person who saw a long avenue stretching up from north Chiswick to Acton and, casting aside all conventions of nomenclature, decided not to name it after Churchill or something connected with him - the roads around The Avenue are called Blenheim Road and Malborough Crescent, to take just two examples - but simply 'The Avenue'), jogging along Acton High Street (and looking jolly uncomfortable doing so). Having a famous neighbour is no big deal in Chiswick. But I do wish that I had taken the trouble to go up to him and tell him how much respect I had for him, how much I felt he was one of the few parliamentarians who combined intellect with conscience and had not, too much anyway, allowed the trappings of power to cloud his judgement. As Stephen Tall writes:
I have tried, and failed, to think of a single other Labour politician for whom I have such utter respect. Respect cuts two ways: one cannot help but respect Tony Blair for his acute stage management of political theatre, or the brio with which he practises his impresario art. But for Mr Cook I felt a respect borne of shared values, and admiration not merely for his coruscating intellect, but for the clear-sighted acuity with which he communicated his passionately held views.

There is no doubt that, for a public bored by politicians, Robin Cook was an easy figure of fun. His murmured delivery, coupled with his accent, meant impressionists could make him seem like an incomprehensible buffoon. He himself admitted that he was "too ugly to be Prime Minister". But these cosmetic considerations masked an extraordinary intellect. He surely must have been one of the single most intelligent men to have sat in parliament.

Writing in the Guardian, David Clark debunks a myth about Cook which actually leaves one more impressed by him:
The widely held belief that he read the Scott report in two hours cemented his reputation, but it also obscured the real source of his effectiveness as a politician. The reason he was able to master its contents so quickly was that he had familiarised himself with the inquiry's proceedings in such detail that he was able to anticipate which sections would contain the most damning conclusions. In this, the truth is scarcely less impressive than the fiction.

And I passed this man in the street! I doubt my words would have done much more than flatter (and maybe slightly embarrass) him. On principle, I leave public figures alone when I see them in 'real life' on the grounds that they probably feel they get too much attention already. I wish I had made an exception for him, though, to tell him that he was not alone in his beliefs, to remind him that there were many people who shared many of his views (I agreed with him not only about the Iraq War but also about electoral reform, two disparate issues on which he had strong views which went beyond simple tribalism).

Every time I saw him, he was alone, apparently deep in thought. That seems to have been his way. Too few of our politicians seem to think any more - look at the present Cabinet... hell, no, look at any MP. How many of them seem to think before they speak? How many of them seem to have arrived at their views through analysis of the facts, rather than from a quick glance at the leader columns or their own private polling? How many of them sleep easily at night, I wonder? If Cook's dreams were troubled, it would have been because he saw how much there was still to do, not because he was toeing a party line that he would have condemned as a private citizen.

It's a cliché to say that we have lost a great man. On this occasion, the cliché holds true.


Sunday, August 07, 2005

Second Test: England won by 2 runs



What an incredible cricket match. Those who say the game is boring should have watched the magnificent ebb and flow of these past three and a half days.

This is a placeholder for lengthier comment to follow, as I have to work (on a Sunday!).

UPDATE: Right, I'm back, and I've had a couple of days to digest the result.

I watched very little of this match, as I have been away in Suffolk on a family holiday. There was a TV in the hotel room, but the room itself was boiling hot all the time, so not conducive to staying in. In any case, we were far too busy sightseeing in Cambridge (going back to my old haunts) and Bury St Edmunds, and I don't think Mrs Wildebeest - who is not a cricket obsessive like myself - would have appreciated it if I'd had earphones in place all the time. So I stayed in touch with proceedings via the radio in the car, and text messages from friends, plus occasional glimpses of the TV at the end of the day (which meant I got to see that ball from Harmison, which will stay in my mind for a very long time).

We deserved to win this one, although it would be equally fair to say that Australia deserved to win it. In any case, this was the one (and only) Test that I had predicted England would win, so I was anxious to keep my prediction intact. With McGrath on the floor with his ankle ligaments in tatters, and an insane decision by Ponting to field first, it was an opportunity we could hardly dare to squander (Ponting's captaincy isn't impressing me, to be honest - he seems to think his team's reputation will bulldoze the opposition by itself, regardless of his input. His immediate predecessors, Waugh and Taylor, were thinkers as well as talented players, who got under the opposition's skin. Confronted with an enemy which refuses to lie down and capitulate any longer, his imagination seems to have panicked. I'm sure those words will come back to haunt me - but, if Australia win the series (if?), it will be despite him, not because of him).

Click 'More' for further comment and analysis.

What made the difference in this match at first was the fact that Trescothick and Strauss took the fight to the Australian attack. No doubt the absence of McGrath helped them to relax and feel more confident, but to put on 112 for the first wicket and hammer Lee and even Warne round the field showed a new England, an England prepared to put Lord's behind it. Trescothick, at last, is batting as if he were afraid of nobody. When he is in this kind of mood he is one of the greatest openers in the world. South Africa have several times been on the receiving end of a belligerent Tresco, and Australia felt his power in the one-day match at Headingley this year. Strauss showed more application and comfort than in recent times, but I still get an enduring impression that he is no longer as happy at the crease as he was in his golden year of 2004. Something is troubling him, and it's not just balls from Shane Warne which spin at an angle that no ball has a right to spin at (there has been suggestion that he should have seen it coming in the second innings, but this seems harsh).

It was that opening partnership that should have set England up to make 500, but Michael Vaughan seems as useless with the bat as he currently does with the coin. The irony of his position is that he would have been dropped by now if he weren't the captain. His captaincy is what is winning us matches, not his batting. Few captains would have shown the degree of outward calm he displayed in the last few overs of the match on Sunday morning, and few captains are prepared to defy orthodoxy in their field positions and bowling changes as much as he does. Nevertheless, it doesn't help your side if you have effectively lost your second wicket as soon as you have lost your first. In this series, he has scored 3, 4, 24 and 1. We need him in the side, of course, but that is pathetic even by a tailender's standards.

Ian Bell - well, we still expect great things from him. He has already shown he has immense talent, technique and application, but he is looking like a young rabbit staring at an approaching vehicle and wondering what that rumbling sound is. He was unlucky with the umpiring at Edgbaston (many players were, it seems). If he doesn't score heavily at Old Trafford, however, he may find himself struggling to hold his place against a rather rotund Kentish man (who doesn't really deserve to be in the side more than Bell, but at least has a better record).

If the opening partnership set up the England victory, it was the coming together of two English batting gods that should have sealed it. I was listening to the partnership between Pietersen and Flintoff on the radio in the car, cursing my luck that I was zooming up the M11 and not sitting in front of a TV screen. It must have been a thing of beauty to watch six after six being struck off Australian bowling (in fact, Pietersen hit only one six but it must have felt like more). The partnership was only 103, but it felt like so much more.

When GoJo was out with the score on 293, I'm sure many spectators felt that the 450 England deserved was now beyond them, But the English tail has learned to wag with surprising regularity now, such that it is an example to the rest of the world (except maybe South Africa, who have a lot of previous form in this area). I listened with increasing optimism as the score ticked round towards - and eventually, miraculously, past - 400. Is Simon Jones the world's best No. 11? He hasn't always produced the goods with the bat, but he has a gutsy determination to occupy the crease and frustrate the opposition, and that seems to be worth a good 20-30 runs by itself. He was the silent hero in both England's innings, staying put and notching up the singles (with the odd risky six thrown in to frighten the enemy) so that our totals were respectable and kept us very much in the game.

By this stage, Edgbaston was looking like a good pitch to bat on. "If we can do it to them, they can do it to us," has been my mantra all the way through this series, and has prevented me from undue optimism throughout. Learning that Australia had lost Hayden to his first ball gave me a filip, naturally, but as Langer and Ponting started to pile on the runs, my heart sank and I focused my attention on showing Mrs Wildebeest the fine sights of Cambridge. Then I learned that Ponting was out, and that Martyn had succumbed to a brilliant run-out by Vaughan (all right, I suppose we need him for his fielding, too - occasionally). My mobile was bleeping regularly as Freddie and Jones smashed their way through the tail, and we had a lead of 99 runs. Surely, I thought, that's it, that's enough to guarantee victory. But against Australia nothing can ever be taken for granted, not until all twenty of their wickets are down.

England's second innings ensued and, once again, my mobile buzzed like a mad wasp stuck in my pocket. Mrs Wildebeest did not need to ask what was happening. As my son played happily in a playground in the ruins of St Edmund's Abbey Gardens, my jaw became set, my teeth clenched and my expression grim. 29-3, 31-4, 72-5, 75-6... this wasn't in the script. And then my friend texted to say that Flintoff had dislocated his shoulder. I almost smashed my phone in disgust.

I had underestimated the Lancashire colossus. From somewhere he found the courage and physical strength to hit four more sixes, beating Botham's Ashes record (Freddie has now hit 59 sixes in his Test career, which puts him eleventh in the all-time list - another 29, and he will surpass Chris Cairns's record, although Gilchrist may have already done so by then). With the irrepressible Simon Jones as his partner, he added 51 for the last wicket, and gave us a respectable total.

Still, 282 may be a lot to ask for a fourth-innings total, but this is Australia who have little respect for records. As the wickets started to tumble again (Freddie taking Langer and Ponting in the same over, the Aussie captain lasting only five balls), I began to relax. Returning to the hotel, I switched on the TV in time to watch Harmison bowl the last over of the (extended) day. Australia were seven wickets down, but Michael Clarke (who has found his form just at the right time) was still at the crease and would have been just the person to steer them to victory. Harmy bowled a few short ones at him, which he fended off or allowed to swoop narrowly past his off stump. Then he ran in and bowled a ball so perfect in its precision that I am moved to think about it, even now. 'Poetry in Motion' is a horrible cliché, but this is the closest real life gets to it. I dislike football intensely, but I am reminded of Beckham's free kick against Greece in similarly last-chance circumstances - a ball that glides in the air, bends as it glides and finally hits the one spot it must. Think Luke Skywalker firing the one-in-a-million shot that destroys the Death Star. Pick any naff comparison you like - that ball was pure genius. If Clarke had hit it, I wouldn't be writing with such enthusiasm right now. But he played over the top of it, and it destroyed his stumps.

I went to bed happy. Game over. We'll just wrap this up in the morning. Lee and Kasprowicz can't bat. Over a hundred runs needed. We can't lose from here.

But, as I've said before, this is Australia, and you can never relax.

As the tail chipped away at the lead the next morning, and my mind went back to the ICC Champions Trophy final last year when England were robbed of victory by two West Indian tailenders with no previous record of batting prowess, my expression again darkened, my body stiffened and my silence told Mrs Wildebeest that this might not be the best time to ask me what else we might do with what remained of the weekend. When we arrived back in London, I unpacked the car, my earphones still plugged firmly in. Fifteen runs needed, and Simon Jones dropped the catch which would have won us the match. I banged the boot of the car in frustration. Only the presence of a neighbour prevented me from screaming in the street: "This is Michael Kasprowicz, for fuck's sake! He can't fucking bat!!"

Well, we all know what happened. They gave us a scare. Harmison took an illegal wicket (although I'm sure everyone thought at the time that it definitely was out). By this point, I had the TV on, my knuckles whitening around the remote control. I watched as Geraint Jones stretched out for the ball that had flown off some part of Kasprowicz (it looked like the bat handle at the time). He dived. The ball landed in his gloves. Contrary to the pattern of his Test career, it did not immediately pop out again onto the ground. Geraint held it aloft, yelling in celebration. I took a deep breath - was this it? Had we been saved at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour (oh, you know what I mean)? The camera switched to Billy Bowden. He seemed to be deep in thought with that vacant look of disinterest which characterises his attitude at the stumps, when he's not turning cartwheels to indicate a six. His right arm twitched. The finger went up.

I'm glad I couldn't watch myself at that moment, or I would have found my reaction immensely embarrassing. I have a vague memory of beating my hands on the carpet, of lying on my back kicking my legs in the air, of jumping up and down as if on a pogo stick. To be fair, most of the England team were doing the same; apart from Flintoff who, in an act of incredible sportsmanship which shows the depth and strength of his character, walked over to the distraught Brett Lee, patted him on the shoulder, and appeared to say something like, "well played, mate, bad luck".

So the Ashes are all square. This is the first time since 1997 that England have won a 'live' Ashes match (and that proved to be a false dawn, as the Australians suddenly found the form they'd been missing and steamrollered the rest of the series, allowing us a consolation victory at the Oval once they'd retained the Ashes). The difference between now and 1997 is that we have a team which believes in itself, a team which really works together as a unit, a team with talent which can compete on equal terms with the rest of the world, a team which contains at least three individuals who would walk into the Australian side, a team no longer prepared to lie back and take a hammering but to stand up proudly, look the Aussies in the eye and say "that's enough - it's our turn". I still don't think we'll do it. But with two of their fast bowlers in hospital, at the time of writing, and the psychological impetus of the last match heading our way, I am prepared to believe, for the first time, that we might really be in with a chance.

Tomorrow, I head for Manchester. I'll be at Old Trafford for the first two days. I will probably see Shane Warne take his 600th Test Match wicket. With luck, I'll see Freddie bat at his home ground. I may even see the first century of the series being scored (my money's on Langer). This is one of the most exciting series I have ever watched, between any two opponents - and I saw 'Botham's Ashes'.

I'll be back at the weekend, and will I have some tales to tell? On the strength of this last match - you bet.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Happy birthday and happy holidays - what a treat!

Today is my birthday (yes, you can just leave the presents on the table, thank you) and tomorrow the family and I are off to Suffolk for a few days, so I won't be blogging any more until I'm back, unless the hotel has an internet facility.

Please enjoy the good weather while it lasts, and hope that England show what they're made of at Edgbaston (they probably will - sigh...)


Just say YES (or whatever)


My attention has just been brought to the fact that film director Sally Potter has been keeping a blog about her new film, YES.

YES stars Joan Allen (who has already won Best Actress at the Seattle International Film Festival) as a woman who has an extra-marital affair with a Muslim Lebanese man (Simon Abkarian). The film is interesting, not just because of its relevant to current events, but also because it's entirely written in iambic pentameter...

In an open letter to Shooting People, the UK film-makers' network of whom she has just become the latest patron, Potter writes:
What is it that is so different about writing a blog, compared to other kinds of writing? It is a kind of improvisation where the search for precision and perfection is less important than raw immediacy, and where the moment is more important than the traces one might leave for posterity. As an experience it is closer to being an improvising musician and performance artist (which is how I spent most of my twenties) than the process of screenwriting with its endless rewrites.

I hadn't thought about it that way, but I see that she's right. I've been aiming always to produce blog posts which could (topicality aside) stand up as enduring writing, but I can understand that there is a more appropriate philosophy. As Judith in Life of Brian shouts: "Something's happening, Reg! Something's actually happening!"

That's what blogging is about, isn't it? Saying that something's happening. Here and now. Real-time comment. It seems very Zen, in a way.

So, fellow bloggers, just say 'YES'. Or whatever you feel like saying at this particular moment.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

A demonstration of impotence


In the end, I'm half-glad, half-sorry I couldn't go to the demonstration against the government's new protest exclusion zone around Parliament.

Half-glad, not only because it meant I wouldn't be arrested (which can't be pleasant, no matter how much of a martyr you may wish to be), but also because the whole event was a bit of a damp squib. I say this partly because I saw the feeble media coverage, and partly because nothing very much happened except a bit of point-scoring by both sides.

First, the media coverage. There was no report of the demonstration on the BBC Ten O'Clock News. There was a (very) brief report on BBC London, straight after the main news. The report made it look as if the 'usual suspects' (disaffected lefties and trouble-makers) had turned up for a meaningless protest. The cameras made sure they were pointed at the core group of protesters, so that there appeared to be only about thirty people there (the actual number between seventy and three hundred, depending on which source you read). They also made sure they filmed a verbal altercation between the campaigners and some upper-middle-class buffoon who just happened to be passing by and decided to castigate the demonstrators for diverting police attention away from fighting terrorism. Finally, the cameras made sure they concentrated on the placards reading everything from "Justice for Palestine" to "Bring the Troops Home". Which begs the question - if you're going to have a protest against limiting the right to demonstrate, why the hell mix up all the other (perfectly reasonable, but irrelevant) left-wing causes in the same protest? It doesn't reinforce the message, it dilutes it. The viewing public, watching the report, would have come away with no idea of what the protest was about, and the impression that "it's that bunch of leftie loonies again".

All right, this is not the fault of the demonstrators - they can't control what the media chooses to report, and how those reports are edited. But they, like all of us, live in a media-savvy age and they must have been aware of how the media would try to control the message. Targeting the protest more efficiently might have ensured the real message got through better, instead of being written off as 'same old same old'. Now you're going to ask me how I would have done that. Read on.

Second, the protest itself doesn't seem to have been up to much. I'm not just judging this on the basis of the BBC's coverage. Bringing out a few hundred people in such an important cause looks like a fairly pathetic (and apathetic) response. According to Blurred Clarity's report all was going well until the police handed out a dispersal order. Read that again: no baton charges (there were cameras there, the police aren't stupid) - just handing out a dispersal order. The response was clever but, again, irrelevant: Tim pointed out that the dispersal order breached copyright. Tim, I have huge amounts of respect for you, as you know, but did you really think that this kind of response was going to be greeted with anything other than indifference and contempt by the police? And do you think BTex, who own the copyright on the map used, are really going to sue the police or the Home Office? You may be technically in the right, but this sort of intellectual point-scoring merely looks childish.

Anyway, as Tim points out in his report, there were no arrests of high-profile people like Lauren Booth, just little old ladies and a Palestinian. The police successfully kept the event low-key and low-hysteria. They know how to 'manage the message'.

As I said above, though, I'm half-sorry I couldn't go, because this law is perverse and I would have liked to have made some kind of public statement about it (there's no point in writing to my MP because, as I have reported previously, he is a lobotomised Blairite). There is no doubt in my mind that the present government wishes to restrict the right to protest as much as it can get away with. It had a bad shock when the anti-war protest brought over a million people onto the streets of London in February 2003. It doesn't want that to happen again. Armed with the handy excuse of a terrorist threat, it can now restrict democratic freedoms with relative impunity, comfortable in the knowledge that laws are rarely repealed, the majority of the population can be 'messaged' into compliance and the government ministers will all have retired by the time any of this comes back to haunt their successors. The right to protest should be a fundamental right of any civilised society. At the moment it is being eroded.

Nobody comes out of this with much credit. The protesters were in trouble the moment they called the protest: first, because the law came into effect on a Monday - and good luck with getting any mass movement together on a Monday afternoon, especially in the holiday season - and second, because the whole thing was managed by the Stop the War Coalition. The StWC was a breath of fresh air in 2003, but it has now fallen back to being yet another predictable pressure group, like CND. Whatever the rightness of its cause (and I agree with much of it in principle), it has suffered from a mixture of success and failure: the million-person protest meant it peaked right at the start, but the protest did not succeed in altering government policy, so the StWC suffered the double whammy of raised expectations and total lack of result (England cricket team, anyone?). No wonder support fell away, and they were left with only the most dedicated and fanatical.

The government looks stupid, too. This law was (off the record) brought in to remove the embarrassment of Brian Haw, who has carried out a one-man protest against the Iraq War in Parliament Square since 2001. He won his court case - the law does not (currently) apply to him. So they are left with the legacy of a law introduced to silence one individual, which has ended up applying to everyone in the country except that individual. You couldn't make it up.

And the police have to put up with having their reources diverted from terrorist duties to policing a peaceful group of protestors. They have to put up with new forms being filled in by people wanting to stage demonstrations, so yet more admin. And they have to be shown in the national media arresting the elderly and non-white.

A protest isn't going to have any impact until it hits critical mass. Marching against the Iraq War was easy. People could understand the issue. They could understand why it was wrong, and they felt it would make this country less safe (they were right, there). A new pressure group caught the public imagination. The march was on a Saturday, outside the holiday season. The decision had not yet been taken by government. There was everything to hope for, every reason to feel optimistic. Even the police were on our side.

Compare that with yesterday. An obscure law is passed, and it doesn't even fulfil its purpose. No one is really aware (apart from the protestors and, presumably, the government) what the law means. It doesn't affect the security of the average Briton - it only affects those who have something to protest about, and Britons don't usually do much more than grumble down the pub. The protest is held on a Monday afternoon. It's fronted by the Sort of People Who Usually Complain About This Sort of Thing, whose track record on changing government policy is non-existent. It's held at a time when people's focus is on whether or not they're going to get blown up on their way to work. In short, it's easy to write off.

How would I have done it differently? I'd have let this one go. On reflection, the protest may have been morally right, but tactically it was useless. It could never achieve the kind of critical mass that ended the Poll Tax. Morality one, effectiveness nil. Perhaps it's good that I couldn't go, or I might be sitting here fuming, feeling even more powerless than I usually do.

Anyway, you can read the "I was there" reports here, here, here, and here (I particularly recommend the last one, for its sense of perspective).


Monday, August 01, 2005

A panic delivery system


I have ignored Curious Hamster for too long. He has come up with a nicely-worded piece about terrorism and the media:
If there really was a national emergency, the government would take a far firmer line on the media coverage of the terrorist activities. This gives us a useful guide so we'll be able to tell if things actually do start to get very dangerous. If the media starts to minimise the fear factor instead of boosting it, we'll know that the squeeze has been put on and the government is seriously worried. As things are, with the government quite content for the media to speculate hysterically on the terrorist threat, we can be pretty confident that it isn't a real danger to national security. When the Times starts saying it might not be as bad as it looks, that's when it's time to buy a bomb shelter.


Blogging will drive you insane in the end


It's already happened to this chap (thanks to Harry for the link - be warned, slow download because of all the pics).


Shoot to thrill


I did enjoy this comment from 'Katie' on NoseMonkey's piece about trigger-happy police:

"If I were a terrorist I reckon I'd join the police. Spread fear and panic AND get a free holiday for killing unbelievers. Magic."


That's N-ICE


I'm delighted to see that Bloggerheads' riff on my ICE number idea has made it into Tim Worstall's esteemed BritBlog round-up, where you can also find this fascinating account of 19th century suicide bombing in London from Liberal England, a thought-provoking article on politicians and the media from Paul Davies at Make My Vote Count, and Harry Hutton's advice on courtship (I think you can guess where he's going to go from the first paragraph). As well as all the right-wing stuff that Tim W. usually enjoys.

My thanks to both Tims - Ireland and Worstall - for increasing beyond measure the traffic to my humble site.

Now I must finish the post about terrorism before I look stupid.