29 September 2006


Why are so many of my fellow countrymen cynical and apologetic about our nation? That sneering, carping, mud-slinging attitude is most offensive and unjustifiable. Standing here on my soap-box, I wish to declare my undying pride and affection for the country which most fortuitously was the land of my birth - Merry Olde England.
It's so easy to knock. So easy to poke fun and it can appear so chic, so daringly dismissive to argue against our country's might, character, achievements and history. I detest that clever-dick nonsense. One of the reasons I am an Americophile is because most Americans genuinely love their country and are not afraid to give voice to their patriotism. They fly the flag both literally and metaphorically.
Here are ten reasons why I'm proud of England, proud to be English and why I love my country:-
1. It's so beautiful here. Green fields and mountains. Rivers and beaches. Paths that weave by ancient drystone walls to little villages where church bells ring and cities which contain fantastic parks and Victorian structures alongside innovative modern architecture.
2. Music. In the annals of popular music, England's contribution is way out of synch with its size. We gave the world The Beatles and we continue to produce exciting, ground-breaking bands and composers.
3. Our language. The English language is the biggest and best language the world has ever known. Its doors are always open to change and in English you can say things more clearly, more accurately, more expressively, more poetically than in any other language. Shakespeare was of course English.
4. Sport. We gave the world football and rugby, cricket, snooker, tennis and squash. Our current Premier League is the best club league in the world and we attract the best players, playing the quickest and most passionate football you are ever likely to see. Plus of course England is the homeland of the great Hull City A.F.C.!


5. Pubs. No other country in the world can compare! Our pubs are social and they're fun. They provide a home from home and they're mostly different. They welcome you and they serve proper beer not international lagers that are the same the world over - "Rolling Rock" = "Cobra" = "San Miguel" = "Fosters" ( all the same). And our pubs have great names like "The Foaming Quart" or "The Hanged Man", "The Closed Shop" or "Nelly's".
6. History. England's great history is imprinted on the landscape - crumbling castles and huge medieval churches, maritime museums and stately homes, industrial footprints and writers' birthplaces. It's all out there.

7. Multiculturalism. We have opened our hearts to people from other lands and allowed them to stitch new patches into the fabric of our land - Indians and Pakistanis, Africans and Poles, West Indians, Irish, Kurds and Chinese have all helped to enrich our country and in return they have mainly found tolerance, patience and acceptance.
8. Climate. Our temperate climate is never harsh. It's a great climate to work in and its changeability always adds an element of surprise to our daily living - rain or shine. The climate is so important to our greenery and to our wonderful gardens.
9. Innovation. The English have always been pioneers - in industry, invention, medicine, transport and science. Our universities are quite excellent and it is here that steel was invented, the idea of railways was hatched and, with significant input from Scottish cousins, TV and telephones were first conceived. We remain innovators in fashion, software, architecture, health care. The list is endless
10. Character. The English are good at laughing at themselves. They tend to be unassuming and they despise hypocrisy and injustice. They give very generously to charities. They are neighbourly and when put on the spot very kind and good-natured. They queue without complaint and they write letters to newspapers about matters that may appear at first sight to be quite trivial. They care and they're fair.
So that's it. Okay sure, I could easily list ten negatives too but that stuff has had way too much airtime already. I don't believe that patriotism is a dirty word. For overseas visitors, please note that Yorkshire is not a separate country but an ancient county in the jigsaw pattern of England - albeit by far the finest county of all.

24 September 2006


Well, a few days have gone by since I last posted. I have just got back from pints of foaming bitter at the pub on a Saturday night. We got a letter this week and it seemed like a marker. Can it really be twenty five years since me and Shirley signed on the dotted line for our first house? Well it is. And next month we'll have been married for twenty five years too. That first house - 40 Leamington Street - it was a typical Yorkshire terrace. We had a cellar and an attic. The views from the top were sometimes breathtaking - right over the bowl of the city's centre. During occasional winter temperature inversions, we'd see buildings sticking up out of the mist.
The building society and Scottish Provident Assurance tell us the financial punishment is about to stop. In some ways, it feels like the end of a jail sentence. Twenty five years paying interest on the loan and £20 for three hundred months to the assurance company. When we first signed, it seemed as though we were signing up forever. The end was so far away it might as well have been in Antarctica. Now it's almost over. The house we are living in is ours and they're even going to send us the official deeds. Life is so short.
Our daughter, Frances, is eighteen next week. She went to Birmingham on Saturday. She's keen to apply to Birmingham University to do a degree in American and Canadian Studies. She's bright and quite industrious but the grades they are asking for could be a bridge too far. I'm afraid I cannot subscribe to the bullshit


philosophy that says if you really want something badly enough you've just got to go for it. There are so many successful idiots around who imagine that just because they "made it" everyone else can too. It's crap.
Our son, Ian, came back from Barcelona this week. He'd been there with two mates. I was their travel agent. I booked their flights, researched the city and guided them to some great, cheap accommodation. They had a fantastic time. They visited Gaudi's cathedral and the Nou Camp Stadium, drank and ate well and absorbed the city. Brilliant!
To celebrate our twenty five years of marriage, I'm taking Shirley to Venice next month. I'm checking out hotels and getting to know Venice so well through the net that going there may be something of an anticlimax. Twenty five years? How come I feel so young? How come it feels like yesterday that I carried her over the threshold of that house? Life really is so short. Before you know it, I'll be six feet under with so many things I wanted to do left undone. Blame this rambling on the pints I supped before this keyboard called me over. Hic! Night everyone!

19 September 2006


Out there on the roads, one can vent internal rages - a kind of mobile psychotherapy. Getting from A to B is not simply a tarmacadam journey, for the distance will also be marked by the mileposts of our emotional engagement in the travelling process.
On habitual journeys around this city of Sheffield with its 500,000 souls, I come to particular crossroads, streets or junctions where my mind is on red alert. My mission is to avoid collision at all costs. I look up and down, my pulse rate rising. An idiot in front pulls out causing a startled driver to brake and then a horn blows. I check the mirror and go, always relieved to have made it unscathed.
There's etiquette here on our hilly streets or terraced roads lined with parked cars on both sides. You wave or flash your lights when people wait up for you and the unwritten rule is that drivers coming uphill have priority. Sometimes two cars meet halfway and they are like rutting dinosaurs in an urban stand-off. I have been in that situation several times and my solution is simple - reverse! It may sound cowardly but I can foresee no profit in angry street encounters with enraged drivers you have never met before. For the sake of a minute of your life, it's wisest to just back off. After all, aggressive idiots always meet their Waterloo in the end.


On the roads, I'm a mobile (cell) phone spotter. I see them everywhere - careless drivers talking into phones - they may be turning corners, driving huge cement wagons, waiting at traffic lights or taking kids to school. If my eyes could be transformed into powerful laser beams I'd be zapping twenty of these idiots every day. I fail to see what is the significant difference between driving under the influence of alcohol or driving while on a mobile phone. We should be equally enraged because both behaviours have caused and will cause death.
Another bad habit that appalls me is tailgating on motorways. You know, you're doing seventy five, you pull out into the fast lane to overtake a slower vehicle and a fast car comes surging up behind you, sitting on your tail in an intimidatory fashion until you have pulled back in to the centre. Again my view is it is just not worth trying to make a point - just pull back into the centre, indicating as always and let the ignorant pigman play out his Formula One fantasies.
Most drivers on the roads of northern England are courteous and safety conscious. You don't notice this sensible majority. Taxi drivers are not included. They often fail to indicate, make dangerous U-turns, park up at very inconvenient spots - often double-parking and they try to butt in from side roads. I would never voluntarily let a taxi in to a main road and the same applies to any cars that have personalised number plates - they can just wait - "FU 1" mate!

16 September 2006


So there we were at the local pub on a Friday night - me and Shirley and a hundred Sheffield Wednesday supporters. Historically, Hull City are dwarves, minnows, nobodies compared with the legendary Sheffield Wednesday - The Owls. Oh jeez - toowhit-toowhoo! After three minutes they had a penalty - taken by Deon Burton who was the very player who had just handled the ball when he rose with our new defender - Danny Mills in the penalty area. It was as clear as crystal on the TV.
Oh no! But then within fourteen minutes we were ahead with two excellent opportunist goals from The Beast - Jon Parkin. Oh the second one! When he swerved and cracked it in across their nancy-boy keeper, it was better than a torrid night with Ulrika Johnson. All of this was on live television which had previously only witnessed Hull City defeats.
Funny how the corners of my mouth kept arching upwards afterwards. I was as happy as a sandboy. As Gary left the pub, I called to him - "It's not the winning that's important, it's the taking part!" And our battleaxe landlady - Janet Turner - a staunch Wednesday supporter agreed that Hull City had deserved their victory.
Oh sweet! That's the right way to begin a weekend! We were in the pub for four solid hours and after several pints I'm back here at this keyboard sharing my delight with you! Up The Tigers! And by the way Steve - "Occupied Country" - Danny Mills really enjoyed himself and made a manly contribution to the evening's events.

11 September 2006


New York is such a fantastic city. It belongs to America but in some ways it belongs to the rest of the world too. It looks out towards Europe from where so many immigrants came with their ragged bundles and their stories. And in the Twin Towers that fateful morn, there weren't just American workers, there were people from all over the world including many from the UK. It was after all The WORLD Trade Centre, not the American Trade Centre. And there were Muslims and Jews and blacks and Hispanics, believers and non-believers. The inhuman fools who made their cruel assault on the Twin Towers were attacking all who believe in decency, kindness, goodness and a brighter tomorrow. There can be no justification for what they did. This wasn't Islam it was pure, unbridled evil. If there were a God we might ask him to allow the 2793 who died that day to rest in peace and bring comfort to their loved ones - still grieving five years on. Three years ago I walked by Ground Zero and noticed some graffiti on the security fence - "Hey Pat! We miss ya! Let me know if they got beer in heaven!" I'm afraid I wept.

10 September 2006


Burglars? Muggers? Car thieves? Fraudsters? Not Devon and Cornwall Police. Apparently they'd rather hassle citizens who have solar-illuminating gnome policemen in their gardens. Okay, between the lines there's obviously been some neighbourly disagreement/animosity but I don't think that gives the cops a right to abuse their authority in order to back up a colleague who has an axe to grind. What I'd now like to see in that garden is a whole army of solar policemen!


(BBC News Website Sept 10th 2006)

Police have taken a dim view of a man's glowing garden gnome and threatened him with arrest unless he removes it.
The solar-powered policeman figure stands sentinel in the garden of Gordon MacKillop's home in Treovis, near Liskeard.
His neighbour, former policeman John McLean, says the gnome is annoying and upsets buyers viewing his home.
Now police have served Mr MacKillop with a notice for "placing a garden gnome with intent to cause harassment".
Mr MacKillop, 46, was woken in the night by two officers who warned him that the gnome was offensive to his neighbours.
The notice, under the Protection From Harassment Act 1997, also accuses Mr MacKillop of intimidating potential buyers of Mr McLean's £209,000 cottage.
Mr McLean has told officers that the garden gnome, which comes complete with police dog and solar light, was in an "annoying position".
Mr MacKillop denied having harassed house-hunters viewing his neighbour's property.
Mr MacKillop, a marine surveyor at Devonport Dockyard, said: "When you hear a knock at the door at quarter to midnight you don't expect to be served with that.
"I was absolutely fuming. I thought there had been an accident in the family."
Mr MacKillop said he bought the gnome to deter criminals, after his motorcycle was stolen from his drive.
"It just happened that it had a police uniform on," he said.
"I'm not having the police telling me what type of garden gnome I can have in my garden.
"This is a standard gnome I bought from a retail store. If they are considered to be harassing they should be withdrawn from sale."
A Devon and Cornwall Police spokeswoman said: "This isn't just a petty issue. This has been ongoing for two or three years."
Mr McLean was unavailable for comment.

5 September 2006


And then there was Berlin itself - a spacious city which is still re-inventing itself. There's so much construction there. Where once there was a barren no-man's land beyond the Brandenburg Gate, now there are glassy banks, the French Embassy and a spanking new American Embassy being put up right next to the famous gate which overlooks the Tiergarten - a vast inner city park with leafy bowers and gargling streams, sweet meadows and paths that wind towards the cooing of turtle doves.
It seems that most of the old eighteenth/nineteenth century centre of Berlin used to lie behind the wall in "The East". My hotel, the Ansbach, was in "The West" near to the Zoo and the vast Ka De We department store. My room overlooked the Mercedes Building which was crowned with a slowly spinning Mercedes symbol - illuminated at night - somehow reminding me of other symbols that had shone over this city in the middle of the last century.


Perhaps visitors should really be looking forward but some of the time I was of course looking back - at the bullet holes and war scars on badly restored municipal columns and at the car park that sits over the hidden ruins of Hitler's bunker - where he died with his new bride as Russian troops rampaged through the city. Not far from this unremarkable site, I wandered through Berlin's latest monument to the Holocaust - designed by Peter Eisenman - hundreds of concrete blocks of varying heights - arranged in a symmetrical maze without commentary. They leave you asking "Why?" and they remind you of gravestones. You're drawn into them till you don't know where you are and the blocks are dwarfing you.
I found Berlin's train service confusing with its U-Bahn and S-Bahn lines. I never was sure I'd bought the right ticket though nobody ever checked. I visited the Pergamon Museum with its many architectural artefacts ripped off from the ancient world - mostly in the nineteenth century. What were those people thinking? Perhaps in an age when travelling abroad was most uncommon, this was the only way they could think of to enlighten stay-at-home people about what was out there in the wider world. More enjoyable for me was the modern art gallery in the old Hamburger Station with several key works by Andy Warhol.
Apparently, JFK's famous line "Ich bin ein Berliner" was famously grammatically incorrect. Rather than it meaning the intended "I am a citizen of Berlin", a better translation would be "I am a jelly doughnut"... I kid you not!

2 September 2006


Back from Berlin, I suspect that the memory that will endure when all the others have been washed away, is my trip to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp some twenty five miles north of the city near the town of Oranienburg. There was so much to learn, so much to read, so many pictures to study and testaments to listen to as well as imbuing the atmosphere of such a vast historical site.


Camp gate - "Work makes you free"

Before the summer of 1933, the area was just pine forest but as the National Socialists identified their perceived enemies, they needed somewhere to put them out of sight and out of mind. And so Sachsenhausen was conceived. At first it gathered in fellow Germans - socialists, communists, dissenters, criminals and these unfortunate men worked under duress to build the vast concentration camp with its many barrack huts, its concrete walls, drains, laundry, infirmary, industrial site, officers' houses, kitchens.

The thing snowballed as the Nazi machine rolled on. The camp became an invaluable training centre for the SS. In 1937, foreign visitors saw the gardens and some clean-shaven orderly prisoners but they didn't see the beatings or the shootings, the hunger, squalor or the unadulterated injustice of the place. Hangings, shootings, kickings increased to a point where ovens were required to reduce hundreds then thousands of human bodies to ash.
Gipsies were exterminated here, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, religious dissenters, trade unionists, academics and then of course the Jews who were often rolled straight on in to the camp, unloaded and killed with few of the longterm prisoners realising what was going on. Some of the ashes of these poor people were used as road building material. Prisoners with tattoos would often meet death prematurely so that their skin could be used for amusement - sometimes in lampshades.
I saw the mortuary and the evil autopsy slabs near the site of the brothel where specially drafted-in female prisoners were nourished, sometimes sun-lamped, dressed in finery and then systematically abused in a corridor of cell-like rooms. At least one was murdered for becoming pregnant. The most trusted senior prisoners could earn coupons to visit the brothel - it was seen as a way of making them more co-operative and productive.


The decaying remains of the SS officers' wooden mess

In the "New Museum" I saw a photograph from the camp commandant's special collection of an emaciated but very tall prisoner and a dwarf prisoner. For the commandant's amusement, these two men were instructed that they must always be together - at ablutions, on the parade ground, in the barrack room, everywhere, No one knows what happened to these men or indeed who they were or where they were from. They wore numbers like the rest.
In 1961, the East German government held a huge memorial service on the site and a vast column and statue were erected in memory of the 100,00+ who had perished at Sachsenhausen. The site does make the point very firmly that after the second world war, it continued to be a concentration camp run by the Soviet army. They rounded up Nazis, suspected Nazis and sympathisers and for a couple of years things seemed little different from how they had been during the Third Reich. Many died.


The monument erected by the DDR in 1961.

It makes you feel so humble, so grateful, so ashamed, so quiet, so small to visit a place like Sachsenhausen. The evil is still amongst us. It never went away. There under leaden skies which mercifully didn't spill their rain, I may have felt the spirit both of the frightened skeletal men and their jackbooted captors with their warped philosophies and their ice-cold hearts. There is so much else to be said about this grim place but to the hundred thousand gone I say - may you rest in peace and may your deathbells ring out through the centuries ahead as a warning to those who would again take civilisation into darkness.


The outer section where "special" prisoners were housed.

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