Category Archives: Culture/Arts

Leeds United Book Review: Heidi Haigh’s “Follow Me and Leeds United” – by Rob Atkinson

ImageThe first thing to make clear to anybody reading “Follow Me & Leeds United” is this: adjust your expectations relative to what you might expect from just about any other football book you’ve ever picked up.  This is a departure, something new.  It’s certainly not another in the long, long list of formulaic football fan reminiscences, with accounts of great games thrown in here and there, and a basically linear narrative taking you from the first game the fan ever attended right up to recent times. With that sort of fan memoir, there’s usually an attendant sense of growing disillusion as the “good old days” recede ever further into the past and the author writes tragically of past heroes and present ticket prices. Those books have a place – but it’s refreshing to read something different, as – for instance – Gary Edwards’ books were in the past couple of years.

Heidi’s book is even more different still, in style, perspective and tone. Once you have adjusted to these – because they really are quite unique – you find yourself drawn in and engrossed as you are put into a seat on the coach taking a young Heidi to Arsenal or Middlesbrough – or any of the many and varied other old-style grounds full of old school fans.   The descriptions of what these away days were like are gritty and real, and the sense is very strong of them having been plucked virtually “as is” from the pages of the author’s diary.  This gives an “instant” feel to the book – an impression of being in the moment, as a brick comes through the coach window, or as a lass that basically isn’t at all keen on violence witnesses it time and time again.  These were naughty times – unenlightened and often offensively sexist times.  Women who go to football matches today would do well to read this book for a vivid idea of exactly what it was like in those far-off days when, if the girls were spoken to at all, it was all about the size of their boobs or what a nice bum they’d got, usually with an accompanying nip or pinch.  This behaviour would send today’s female fan screaming to the nearest officer of the law, and quite right too.  Back then, it was simply part of the scene – and the lass either stuck up for herself and administered her own justice with a sharp kick or two, or she had to grimace and bear it.

Don’t expect either a book with a distinct beginning, middle and end.   This is a work of random recollections, dotting about in time to give it the feeling of being a little like Tom Hanks’ box of chocolates in “Forrest Gump” – you simply never know what you’re going to get.  What you do know is that it will be the sharp and impactful recollections of someone who was there, someone the players – legendary figures from the glory days of Leeds United – knew and acknowledged as she passed by, sometimes putting her in peril on hostile territory.  The violence and the difficulty of being female in an overwhelmingly male environment are both ever-present factors. Most of the recollections and anecdotes are flavoured by these two central themes, and less attention is paid to the scores and action of the games – which, let’s face it, we can get from the internet any old time – than to this sense of what it was like to be there, back in those days, when attitudes and behaviour were so very different to the way things are today.

As a fan’s retrospective it’s so unlike anything else I’ve ever read that really it demands attention.  For the women who accompanied Heidi back then, it will strike familiar chords aplenty.  The women who attend football today will raise their eyebrows and wonder how she stood all the unwanted attention, all the scary situations when she so often ended up “shaking like a leaf”.  And men reading this book are afforded an insight into the female perspective – the horror that violence can arouse, and yet how sometimes fellow Leeds fans were spurred on to “get” and “knack” opposing fans, because that was the way things were.

You’re reminded a little sometimes of scenes in the famous movie “Quadrophenia” when so many scenes of violence were witnessed by girls, who hated it and yet were caught up in the moment, half scared, half fascinated, totally immersed in the experience.  We’ve all heard how football lads get a “buzz” off the fights and the confrontations; this book tells us how the experiences of women are subtly different and yet not totally un-related.  As much as the physical violence, harsh words could hurt, tears could flow because of name-calling at away trips when strangers would recognise a girl who had attracted media attention because of the curiosity that she was; a female who attended football matches every bit as fanatically and faithfully as the lads.  Some of these lads worshipped her as an icon with her distinctive blonde hair and her beret.  Others saw her as an easy target for spite and cruelty, born out of hollow bravado and a sense of inadequacy – because she was well-known by fans and players alike, which was uncomfortable to certain resentful males who were stuck with their humdrum anonymity.  Throughout it all, you’re aware of a feeling of what it must have been like, because the memories recorded here are so raw and so real.

I have a very individual reason for recommending this book, but wider ones too.  My own particular reason first; I took to this book simply because of Heidi Haigh’s heart-warming (to me) convention of refusing to give the dignity of capital letters to the despised man utd.  All the way through the book, whenever she has to mention them, it’s man utd. That alone makes this title worth a place on my shelves – but there are other recommendations too.

If you were a fan in the seventies, read it.  You’ll recognise the times, you’ll be reminded of long-forgotten scenes.  If you’re a woman who watches football today, read this.  You’ll see how things have come on and how, though there’s still a long way to go, you can expect to be treated these days as other than a freak or a second-class citizen.  Both of those treatments were almost the norm in the seventies, when football was the working man’s sport and the working man relaxed and let his loutish side show – probably a reaction to a TV diet of “Love Thy Neighbour” and “The Sweeney“. And if you’re a bloke – read this.  It’ll teach you things about football support, and especially football support back in the day, that you never knew.  It’ll give you some perspective.

It’s a good read, it’s punchy and honest, it’s by one of our own, and it puts you right back to when Leeds United were simply the best. It doesn’t set out to be “War and Peace“, but it has its own appeal for those who want to know what those days were like. Do yourselves a favour and read it.  Or buy it for the Leeds fans in your life for Christmas. They won’t be disappointed.

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Heidi & friends – the Daily Express girls

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Leeds United’s “Life of Brian” – by Rob Atkinson

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LIFE OF BRIAN

In honour of our frustrated Manager, may I proudly present:

Leeds United’s “Life of Brian”

The “What Have the Bahrainis Ever Done For Us?” Scene, for those conspiracy theorists who maintain that the GFH regime is just more of the same old Bates crap. (With sincere apologies to the Pythons.)

ImageThe interior of COOPER’S house. A darkened room with a very conspiratorial atmosphere. BILLY and BIG JACK are seated at a table at one end of the room. EDDIE, dressed in Activist gear — white robes and a blue & yellow sash around his head — is standing by a plan (of a palatial residence in Bahrain) on the wall. He is addressing an audience of about eight MASKED ACTIVISTS including unsuspected double agent LASH. Their faces are partially hidden.

Eddie: We get in through the underground heating system here… up through to the main audience chamber here… and Haigh’s bedroom is here. Having grabbed him, we inform GFH that he is in our custody and forthwith issue our demands. Any questions?

Lash: What exactly are the demands?

Billy: We’re giving them two days to dismantle the entire apparatus of GFH Capital’s management structure of Leeds United and all related offshore companies, and if they don’t agree immediately we execute him.

Cooper: Cut his head off?

Eddie: Cut all his bits off, send ’em back every hour on the hour… show them we’re not to be trifled with.

Billy: Also, we’re demanding a ten foot mahogany statue of Brian Mawhinney with his cock hanging out.

Big Jack: What? They’ll never agree to that, Billy.

Billy: That’s just a bargaining counter. And of course, we point out that they bear full responsibility when we chop him up, and… that we shall not submit to blackmail.

All: (Applause) No blackmail!

Billy: They’ve bled us Whites white, the bastards. They’ve taken everything we had, not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers’ fathers.

Big Jack: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers.

Billy: Yes.

Big Jack: And from our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers.

Billy: All right, Jack. Don’t labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?

Lash: Luke Murphy?

Billy: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That’s true.

Masked Activist: And got rid of Bates!

Big Jack: Oh yes… Bates, Billy, you remember what he used to be like.

Billy: All right, I’ll grant you that buying Luke Murphy and getting rid of Bates are two things GFH have done…

Cooper: And Scott Wootton.

Billy: (sharply) Well yes obviously Scott Wootton … Scott Wootton goes without saying. But apart from Luke Murphy and getting rid of Bates and Scott Wootton…

Another Masked Activist: Ticket prices…

Other Masked Voices: Closing Bates FM… cheaper season Tickets… Fan re-engagement…

Billy: Yes… all right, fair enough…

Activist Near Front: And bringing back Radio Leeds…

All: Oh yes! True!

Eddie: Yeah. That’s something we’d really miss if GFH left, Billy.

Masked Activist at Back: Social media – a Facebook and Twitter presence for LUFC!

Big Jack: And it’s nice and quiet sitting in the North Stand now.

Eddie: Yes, they certainly know how to keep order… (general nodding)… let’s face it, they’re the only ones who could in a place like this.

(rueful grins and more general murmurs of agreement)

Billy: All right… all right… but apart from Luke Murphy and getting rid of Bates and Scott Wootton and closing Bates FM and re-engaging with the fans and bringing back Radio Leeds and social media and stewards shutting everyone up and Stadium Security making us sit down or chucking us out…. what have GFH Capital done for us?

Lash: Student tickets!?

Billy: (very angry, he’s not having a good meeting at all) What!? Student tickets?? Oh… (scornfully) Student tickets, yes… shut up!!

Thatcher Day? No Thanks – Let’s Have a “Heroes Day” Late August Bank Holiday We Can ALL Support

British Heroes Day

British Heroes Day

Britain woke up on Wimbledon Men’s Semi-Final day to one of the dafter ideas of the year – the proposed re-naming of the late August bank holiday as “Margaret Thatcher Day” – shook its collective head incredulously and gaped in frank disbelief that anyone could suggest anything quite so stupidly divisive. Then it sighed with relief as it realised this was just another attention-seeking ploy by one Peter Bone – simply another of those tiresome so-called politicians who define their function by just how best they can publicise their tragically unremarkable careers – and fell instead to wondering whether to have toast or cornflakes for breakfast.

There was never anything to get really upset about, or to take too seriously.  Peter Bone MP has form for this sort of thing, after all.  His record reads a bit like a litany of gibbering lunacy and reactionary stances on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty and conscription. He clearly subscribes to the maxim of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, and sallies forth on a regular basis, seemingly with one solitary thought in his head: how best to get Peter Bone MP in the news. He’s regularly one of the most enthusiastic expenses claimants, pays his wife top dollar for “secretarial duties” (so he’s big on nepotism too) and has a string of failed businesses and other ventures to his name. He also boasts a consistent record of losing supposedly safe seats in elections, sometimes bucking a national swing to the Tories by actually reducing their vote in the constituency he’s fighting.  All in all – not the sharpest or most useful tool in the box.

So those of us who do not inhabit the lunatic hinterland of the Tory Right can dispose of the latest Bone rant with a derisive sneer and a muffled chortle, and leave the Daily Heil readers to linger lovingly over what is a dead-in-the-water idea right from the start. But it does perhaps raise a legitimate question of the potential dedication of that anonymous late August holiday – many other countries use such occasions to pay tribute to their notable figures, so is it such a bad idea in principle?  Maybe not – so long as we manage to disregard the blithering of Bone and his ilk, and consider instead ideas from the saner end of the spectrum. The fact is that, whoever one might select as a deserving recipient of an honour such as becoming an eponymous bank holiday, the tribute is likely to be divisive to a greater or lesser degree. If you put forward the seemingly obvious name of Winston Churchill, you will hear voices raised by those with an awareness of his role in the General Strike in 1926. Those who espouse a free-market philosophy and howl in horror at the full-employment strategy that underpinned British politics until 1979 will not take kindly to any suggestion that Clement Attlee should be honoured by such a dedication. We’re a nation of many threads – and you can’t please all the people, all the time.

Why not then have a day when people of diverse views and differing affiliations can define their own tributes and make their own dedications – either singly or in smaller or larger groups?  It could be called “Heroes Day” and it would be an occasion for everyone to think of the person who means most to them personally, and commemorate that life and its achievements in the way they consider most fitting. Those who can gather like-minded people together could perhaps organise groups in tribute to a favourite hero or heroine. One group might have their Florence Nightingale Day, another might wish to raise a flag for Arthur Scargill.  Any or all of them could use their hero or heroine to create a local event, or maybe even something on a wider geographical scale.  They could raise funds for an allied cause, and generally do a lot of good.

Heroes Day.  It has a certain ring to it; the inclusive context tends towards the subjective nature of hero-worship, yet there is a patriotic flavour to it as well.  There might of course be a down-side: there will always be individuals or groups who will seek to ignite strife by seeking to glorify the names of those who most would feel are unfit to be remembered or revered.  That could be a knotty problem; the whole concept of a Heroes Day would be for self-expression to have its head and for people to be able to pay tribute as they see fit, and the introduction of any form of censorship would strike a jarringly flat note in that symphony of personal freedom.  It almost brings us back to the ridiculous idea which prompted this article.  Clearly, some careful thought would be needed.

On the whole, though, the idea of a Heroes Day has much to recommend it, and is no more open to abuse than any other such suggestion might be.  To a certain degree, you just have to accept that grown-up people have to be given the latitude to express their views and celebrate their beliefs as they see fit, and the existing laws and by-laws are after all in place already to deal with any extreme manifestations which might crop up.  On the positive side, there could be great benefits which might arise out of the events which could be organised nationwide to celebrate a Heroes Day.  Fund-raising and education spring to mind, cultural events and perhaps even job-creation could be possibilities.  And in these times of gloom, with austerity piling up all about us and threatening to drown us all under it’s murky incoming tide, don’t we need something positive to focus our attention and creativity?  A national holiday, with thousands of individual events dedicated to the whole panoply of heroes, both past and present, a source of pride perhaps comparable to last year’s Olympics and Paralympics, a surge of national well-being in the recognition of who we are and who we have been.  Heroes Day.  I really do think it’s worth considering.  Who would your August Bank Holiday hero or heroine be?

Game Giant Mattel’s “Complete Disregard” for Their Legion of Online Scrabble Fans

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Toy manufacturing giant Mattel are under fire from thousands of fans addicted to their online version of “Scrabble“, the popular word game played on a board with letter tiles, which has sold approximately 150 million sets worldwide. The row has erupted since the virtual web-based game, played regularly by a legion of Scrabble addicts on the Facebook platform, underwent “improvements” recently – changes which actually amounted to a complete revamp and not, according to angry users, in a good way.

The first inkling of change came in an online message seen by users as they started or rejoined ongoing games. A better experience was promised, and an exciting new look. What wasn’t flagged up was the overnight loss which would ensue, of game records, results, scores and contacts built up in some cases over years of enjoyable competition. Overnight, hordes of dedicated users found that their treasured online profile of games and opponents had been lost. Many thousands of people who had found friends in this virtual Scrabble world were angered to find that their fellow players were not in touch with them anymore, no warning having been given, no consultation having been entered into, and no option to retain the friendly competition that had lasted for so long and given such enjoyment.

What these frustrated online Scrabblers are left with is the unwelcome sight of a new version of the Facebook-hosted game which some have described as “brash” and “vulgar”. The rankings they have built up over long periods of participation, some players having many games on the go at any one time, have been lost, utterly and without warning. As many as 3.5 million online users were left with an unwelcome surprise as their opponents vanished along with the Scrabble-based friendships which had grown up between so many of them. Is this right or fair? More importantly perhaps for Mattel, is it even good business? There is, after all, that powerfully iconic word “goodwill” which many business people (and even some international conglomerates) keep close to hand at all times, as a reminder not to go stomping all over their customers, for fear that they may take their custom elsewhere. But Mattel seem curiously insensitive to the implications of goodwill in this case, and appear instead to be determined that there should be no going back, despite the growth and proliferation of some vociferous movements of protest and resistance.

The fury of the people affected, who have been so abruptly denied their daily “fix” of Scrabble and companionship alike, is readily understandable. A typical player is 72 year-old Kath Ward from Dunstable in Bedfordshire. She told the Mail Online:

‘My daughter knows that I like Scrabble, so when she found the game on Facebook she encouraged me to join and I signed up just to play. I have loyally played it every day since unless I am on holiday or terribly busy. I play for about three quarters of an hour to an hour depending on how many games I have on the go. I have made friends with people all over the world. People were very nice, you start off saying something like “that was a good word” and go from there. You get to know people. One of the people I regularly played with is in Spain and when we were there she invited us to visit. It saved all your games, so you had a record of all the people you had played and your statistics. This game means a lot to people – mostly silver surfers – they had dozens of friends on it. But it’s all been wiped overnight.’

Mrs Ward’s is one voice among many thousands being raised angrily at the sudden and arbitrary way in which their pastime has been wrenched from them. Users are talking about friends they’ve been in touch with for years, forming an online community of online Scrabble addicts, often chatting about general matters in between games, sometimes arranging to visit on holiday – but in many cases the previous version of online Scrabble was their only contact, and for some – shatteringly – the friendships have been lost with the abrupt deletion of all existing data.

On a purely competitive level, the point is also made that this was Scrabble – not some passing fad as many online games are – and that Scrabble people are obsessed with their records and rankings. Who should know this better than Mattel, the creators of the game? And yet they have acted in what seems an extremely rash manner to eradicate all these records, rankings and scores. The Mail Online reported a spokesman for Mattel as stating:

‘The Scrabble Facebook game is now managed by a new partner EA Mobile. The benefits of the new game include gameplay across devices, the addition of the Collins Official Scrabble Wordlist, the ability to play in six languages, the option to customise boards and tiles and the option to play ad-free. As part of the transition, we were unable to carry over ongoing games and statistics, the timer mode and the manual match-making function. The new version will have the same robust statistics moving forward.’

On that last point, many long-time Scrabble users are highly dubious, claiming that the ongoing stats include many people who have actually abandoned the game in disgust at the changes which were imposed. Mattel appear determined to remain obdurately on course with the new game; outraged former users seem equally set on maintaining their loud objections and making as much of a protest as possible for as long as it takes. The strength of the movement against the changes appears to be growing: one Facebook group maintains that the Scrabble changes are reversible, and continues to demand that Mattel see sense, look to their customer goodwill and set matters straight.

Watch this space!

Birds of a Feather: From Screen to Stage – and Back Again?

Birds of a Feather

Birds of a Feather

This article first appeared on “The Public Reviews” which aims to provide an informed critique in a wide range of theatrical productions as well as reviewing new album releases. It appears that, having made a successful transition from screen to stage, the story of the Birds of a Feather may be due to make a TV comeback, with the BBC considering a new series for the three main characters, Sharon, Tracey and Dorien.

The current fashion for stage adaptations of legendary TV sitcoms has spawned a number of notable successes, the steep challenge for the actors generally being: get as close as possible to the characters as created by much-loved original performers on the telly. No such issue arises here; the original Birds of a Feather, Linda Robson, Pauline Quirke and Lesley Joseph, happily still flock together – and the chemistry so evident in the TV show of the eighties and nineties manages to rekindle itself, and how, on stage 15 years or more later. With contemporary references liberally sprinkled throughout the script, getting the laughs as well as firmly establishing the situation in the 21st century here and now, the overall effect is one of an old favourite given a smart new coat of paint and an air of the fresh and new on a familiar and fondly-remembered theme.

Things have moved on in the lives of the archetypal Essex girl sisters Sharon & Tracey, and their wantonly nympho neighbour Dorien. Neither of the girls are with their former jailbird partners, for differing reasons, and Dorien has been adventuring elsewhere until her own misfortunes prompt a reunion with her old friends. The three are back in the old routine almost immediately with a round-robin of insults and bitchiness, some well-intended, others of a more crudely visceral nature. The technique of the “false corpse” is put to good use as well; one of the ladies may appear to crack a smile not called-for in the script – the actors’ dreaded “corpsing”. But it’s sometimes intended, as here, and it then has the desired effect of drawing the audience in and making them feel involved with what’s going on up there on stage. This of course they love, and they laugh and applaud accordingly, feeling part of a shared experience – which is a big beacon of success for any theatrical comedy.

The stage, of course, presents challenges rather different to those presented by acting in front of a camera, but the three main characters make an effortless transition. There are some sparkling moments, of high comedy and low ribaldry alike, and the rapport between the three – such a memorable feature of the original TV incarnation – is still very much in evidence, especially when they are relaxing into banter between themselves. This central triumvirate is the Alpha and Omega of a show that doesn’t do more than pay lip service to offering anything else. The supporting actors are up against it in having to create new characters against the tried-and-tested expertise of Quirke, Joseph and Robson. That they largely fail to make any real impression is somehow inevitable and does not detract from the overall effect – which is quite delightful.

The problem with the sub-plot is that it is rather thin. The problem with the main plot is that it is even thinner. But no amount of murder, betrayal, deceit or family issues can detract from the main point of the evening’s entertainment. The fact is that both plots are incidental to this point, namely the provision of a theatrical vehicle for the revival of one of the most memorable and witty comedy trios of recent times. In this, the show succeeds brilliantly, and the inadequacies of the two-thread storyline are forgotten and forgiven as the ladies go about their work.

The result is a technically brilliant exposition of a comedic triangular relationship between the two sisters and their erstwhile neighbour. The point of attack switches constantly; one minute we have Pauline Quirke’s Sharon on the back foot as the other two round on her, the next it may be Linda Robson’s Tracey or Lesley Joseph’s shimmeringly-brilliant Dorien who is under fire. The banter is sometimes light-hearted and sometimes plumbs the depths of vicious invective, but no-one can doubt the bond between these three. It is sharp, pacy, serve-and-volley humour and it has the audience screeching with delighted laughter, the acid test of any outstanding situation comedy passed with flying colours.

On the down side, the idea of video excerpts to bridge the gap between scenes is a bad one; a lot of plot and humour is lost due to the sheer inadequacy of the projection. Again, this is a drawback that is quite glaring in itself, but which doesn’t diminish the production as a whole – due to the stars’ utterly dominant performances.

For those who remember the TV series – they won’t be disappointed with what they see. For anyone who sees the show as a newcomer to Birds of a Feather, they will have their appetites whetted for more – and it appears a new small-screen series may be in the pipeline. If true, that’s something to be eagerly anticipated. On the evidence of this theatrical offering, there’s plenty of life left in the old Birds yet.

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Ingenious Suggestions Invited

ImageSo, I’m writing this book.

It’s going to be about my team, Leeds United, and how the club have accompanied me on the highs and lows of my life, giving me misery when I’ve been at my happiest, and more misery when I’ve been down. It’s been done before, but every fan’s story stands alone and is unique in its way. Football affects us all differently, and we all react in an individual way to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune that the game visits upon us. I started relatively late watching Leeds, and it was all my dad’s fault when I finally got round to it. Thanks, Dad. I think.

Really, I wasted the first 13 years of my life farting about watching old films and reading Biggles and Billy Bunter books, when I could have been watching Revie’s heroes stomping all the opposition into submission, and winning the occasional pot along the way. Instead of seeing us win our solitary FA Cup, I was reading a poem out loud at a Music Festival in Ponte, finishing runner-up in true Leeds United style. Instead of watching us take two league titles, I was being a bookworm and dreaming of a career as an astronaut. Talk about a misspent youth.

I finally started watching Leeds in April 1975. Revie had gone to his ill-fated stint as England boss. Big Jack had gone. The great days had gone too, although that wasn’t apparent at the time. Leeds were on their way to the European Cup Final, and my first game was a 0-2 defeat to Liverpool four days before I saw us beat Barcelona 2-1 in the European Cup Semi, First Leg, Cruyff, Neeskens and all. So, fittingly it was Billy Bremner who gave me my first Leeds goal, rocketing a shot into the top left corner in front of the South Stand as I watched stood precariously on my milk crate in that weird shelfy bit halfway up the Lowfields Stand. I still have the commentary of that goal as a ringtone on my iPhone. Fantastic.

And the rest is history; my history and the downs and ups of Leeds United FC over the subsequent 38 years to date. I hope you’ll buy the book, when it appears, and read more of my memories, interspersed with various rants here and there about how the game was, is and (I’m afraid) will be.

The thing is – I really need a title. I’m a bit stuck there, call it sub-editors’ block. The actual book is coming along nicely, and I think a lot of Leeds fans will empathise with what’s contained between the dust-covers – but I’m damned if I can think of a title for the front. Hang on – “The Damned United”?? Hmmmm, ideal – but I have the feeling it’s been done.

I would really appreciate some suggestions. If I end up using one of them, I will happily credit the owner of the idea on the inside front cover, as you do with proper books. And I’ll furnish a complimentary copy also, so you don’t have to wait for it to appear in the bargain bins for 99p. Can’t say fairer than that.

Honestly, I’m fresh out of original, snappy titles. Please help. As Brian McDermott says, we need to sing Marching On Together, and really mean it, suiting actions to words – so your support and inspired suggestions would be right in line with that Leeds United MOT spirit.

I look forward to some brilliant ideas, thanks in advance.

In Memoriam: Margaret Hilda Thatcher (1925 – 2013)

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HM Maggie the Thatch

An evil old woman was Thatcher
For cruelty you just couldn’t match ‘er
She said she’d not turn
But now she can burn
For the Reaper has managed to catch ‘er

An Acrostic Call to Arms

Virtue, it’s said, is its own best reward
Often we’re put to that test
To fight for our rights with a pen, not a sword
Elections must bring out our best

Let us stand firm and keep fighting our end
And never be beaten or cowed
Brave to the last, though our spirits might bend
Out of hardship, we’ll still shout out loud
Under vicious oppression though we live now
Remember to stay strong and proud

Never shall we be cast down by our foes
Even though tyranny reign
Vainly they seek to cut down the red rose
Efforts that we shall disdain
Ready to fight for the causes we chose

Tyrants have never been masters for long
Out of this darkness we’ll rise up reborn
Ready and able, our rallying song
Young or old, we will find our new dawn

“Blue Bloods” – Off-The-Peg Morality and The American Dream

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“Blue Bloods” is a CBS-produced TV drama – now in its third season – airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK, which typifies the successful formula used to create a top-rating series stateside.  It centres on the Irish-American Reagan family, a bunch of high-achievers and strong role models, who pretty much run the NYPD between them, and also – in the shape of Assistant District Attorney Erin Reagan – have a massive influence over the prosecution of all the ne’er-do-wells apprehended week by week.

The Reagans are a disparate collection of characters – all human life is there, of a positive and admirable kind, anyway.  Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck) is the head honcho, as Police Commissioner, his Pop and perennial éminence grise Henry (Len Cariou) also held that office, but is now retired and dispenses slightly crotchety wisdom informally, in the family setting.  Frank’s two sons are obligingly different types of police officer – Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) is the hard-nosed yet lovable detective, and Jamie (Will Estes) is the rookie, law-graduated yet lovable street cop.  Between them, these two officers are responsible for just about all the law enforcement and bad-guy nabbing in New York City on any given day, swinging into action after receiving pearls of fatherly wisdom from dad Frank, and hauling their quarry to be processed by sister Erin (Bridget Moynahan), the principled yet lovable prosecuting counsel.

As we can clearly see, the family theme beloved of American popular culture is particularly strong here.  The Reagans, we learn, have hauled themselves up from humble and inauspicious circumstances (Frank’s grand-daddy was – whisper it softly – a shiftless alcoholic!) by hard work, unswerving rectitude, devotion to the Mother Church and regular injections of moral fibre dispensed at the family dining table.  They think no small beans of themselves – oft is heard the stern admonition “Remember – you’re a Reagan”.  The aforementioned dining table is a huge affair, laden with food symbolising the bounty deserved by all God-fearing, hard-working folk, and it is here that family issues are thrashed out, subject always to the casting-vote wisdom of one or other elder statesman.

On the street, the action is often hot and fierce, and some moral dilemma is always just around the corner.  Detective Danny tends to be the fulcrum for most of this activity, his hard-nosed yet lovable tendencies neatly counter-balanced by his partner detective, Jackie Curatola (Jennifer Esposito), a tough yet lovable dame whose trusty gun is worn artlessly displayed upon a shapely hip, and whose heart is good.  Patrolman Jamie, during momentary lulls, will deal with less immediately life-threatening issues – he brings a fresh-faced approach to law enforcement, frequently showing his more hard-bitten and cynical colleagues the error of their ways, by the application of homespun Reagan principles and a boyish grin.

The Reagans have had their problems; all has not always been rosy in their garden.  Frank’s eldest son, Joe, died in the line of duty – but this might almost be seen as lay-your-life-down credibility, an essential qualification for such an exemplary family.  Frank is also a widower, bless him, and daughter Erin is divorced – we get the distinct feeling she married beneath her, but hey, it would be hard not to.  There are three generations of service veterans to provide the right kind of backbone for this American dream, and the recurring visits to the family table are a hymn to extended-family devotion, enlightened discipline for the youngsters, unquestioned fidelity in the surviving marriage (Danny’s, despite his regard for his disconcertingly hot detective partner) and just generally The Right Way Of Doing Things.

For anyone who likes some fairly compelling action, a neat delivery of morals and homilies every week, and the pre-packaged security of the family home and fairly smug prosperity, “Blue Bloods” is the ideal TV series.  Beyond a nagging feeling that it would be easier to watch for a UK audience without some of the schmaltzy sermonising, it’s actually a pretty good watch – the production values are excellent, the acting generally good, and you do get used – eventually – to Selleck’s habit of slowly exhaling through his nose in a wise way, whenever he’s contemplating some knotty problem, or about to deliver a tablet of sagacity.

The suspension of disbelief is, in any event, a pre-requisite for a TV drama these days – the way real life pans out simply wouldn’t make good viewing.  So you find you can handle the apparently accepted fact that one family seems to hold such complete sway over law enforcement and the administration of justice in a teeming metropolis like NYC.  Then again, the Reagans are simply one hell of a family – as they’re usually just about to tell us.

Les Misérables – Making A Good Thing Even Better

As a devoted fan of the stage show since January 1988 when I first experienced it at The Palace Theatre in London, I have to confess:  I was extremely reticent over the prospect of seeing the film adaptation.  Perhaps I was unsure of my own ability to switch environments – seeing new faces and hearing new voices, fearful of sitting there for three hours annoyed, and missing my old heroes.  Maybe it was just my inherent small “c” conservatism, an instinctive preference for the cosy familiarity of the “Les Mis” I know so well and have loved for so long.  Whatever it was, I was wrong – and I would now like to don the sackcloth and ashes, and order a large slice of humble pie.

Les Misérables on the big screen is magnificent – even magnifique.  Epic in its scale, it is an assault on willingly-receptive senses right from the off.  The adjustment I had so feared being unable to make was accomplished right away and without protest from my latent prejudices. One immediately noticeable improvement is the enhanced exposition of the movie version – little linkages are made in the narrative of the story that are not apparent – to me, anyway – from countless viewings of the stage show.  The downward spiral of Fantine is thus portrayed and explained more effectively, and the emotional impact is increased.  The same can be said of various other points in the film, where the reaction to unfolding events is unexpectedly raw, largely because what has caused those events to unfold is a lot clearer.

This shuddering impact – the emotional equivalent of a kick in the guts – is never more pronounced than during the suffering and despair of Fantine.  We know what she is going through when we see the show at the theatre.  It’s horrible, and unfair, and we weep for the hapless victim of pitiless exploitation.  But withal, there is an ethereal prettiness about the character even as she labours under the cruelty of fate as manifested by various uncaring men.  It’s a broad brush which paints the picture on the stage, skilfully as it might be done.

Contrast this with Anne Hathaway’s no-holds-barred portrayal of descent into despair, loss and death.  No soft focus here, no semi-comic images of the harlots scene.  There is an ugliness and horror about Fantine’s situation as it plummets downhill, and Ms Hathaway treats us to a smorgasbord of blood, sweat, grime and tears, not to mention snot, spit and coarse dentistry.  Her evocation of innocence and anger at cruel fate is compelling even as it is repellent.  The pathos of her dawning, disbelieving hope as Valjean whisks her away to hospital is palpable, and the skill of the performer is complemented by pitiless close-ups, every nuance of expression and suffering right in your face.  The impact is awesome, in a way that could never be achieved on stage.  You sit there in the dark, and you suffer – vicariously it’s true, but nonetheless convincing for that.

Look out for and beware many such moments of tear-jerking, sob-racking grief in this three hour marathon which yet somehow flies by.  The rebel’s badge placed with unexpected tenderness on the corpse of a young boy, whose sightless eyes rivet the watcher in horror at such waste.  The last two students, cornered by an open window and snarling defiance behind their tattered flag as they face the guns levelled at them, determined on their martyrdom and quite impervious to fear.  Powerful, massively emotive stuff.

This is the magic of the movie treatment of Les Mis.  Time and again, you are drawn inexorably into the inner feelings of a character in extremis, and this applies to heroes and villains alike.  The distinction between the two poles of good and evil is fine, as it should be with any real, human story.  These are three-dimensional characters given full rein by the possibilities offered on the big screen.  Our feelings are not spared, and there is uncomfortably little distance between our perspective and the struggle and conflicts unfolding before us.  But the same also applies to the moments of love and beauty, and to the final message of redemption, and we are warmed by these in equal measure to the shock and grief we experience elsewhere.

Les Misérables is a motion picture tribute to an immortal piece of musical theatre, and as such it has more than achieved its goal, which must – as a minimum – have been to leave the legacy untarnished.  In actually enhancing the experience, it has certainly surpassed my expectations, and I feel that the next time I see the show, it will be with an increased understanding of the story, the characters and the whole phenomenon.  An amazing movie and one I would heartily recommend to anyone – but make sure you’re adequately hydrated, and take plenty of tissues….