Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Defining Image of Great Britain

How to sum up this weekend? For anyone reading this post months from now or from some remote corner of the globe, it is the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Republicans have been snorting and chuntering about 'how much of their taxes have paid for the blah blah blah'; old people have been dewy eyed about dear old Liz; Huw Edwards has been up to his usual voice-over trick of stating the bleedin' obvious; and everyone has become an expert on the history of the British Monarchy.

Surely, it is on this weekend that we find the true essence of what it is to be British. Surely there will be one snapshot, one image, one face which can be plastered on billboards in travel agents from Washington to Wollagong to get people to travel to our glorious island nation; to visit our tourist attractions; to take photographs outside our discretely renovated ancient buildings; to buy our unimaginably crappy merchandise and souvenirs, covered in pictures of double-decker London buses and bulldogs. Well actually, there is.

It could be the Queen. An 86 (I think) year old woman stood on her feet in the driving rain for hours on end waving at soaking wet people drift past her on the world's least pleasant river. This after 60 years of life spent shaking hands and pretending to be pleased to see people. 60 years of uncompromising integrity, unfailing dignity, unflinching faith, boundless kindness, generosity, love, care and commitment to her nation and her people. I would dearly love to say that that is the essence of what it is to be British, but I think that would be overly optimistic. I would love to say the behaviour of a Nation and Commonwealth mirrors that of its Monarch. But it doesn't, and that image of her persevering through the wind and rain, literally and figuratively, is not that defining image we're after.

It could be the Duke of Edinburgh. He has 4 years on his wife, and he still stood there waving even more vigorously than her all afternoon. He has chuckled, grumbled, grinned and offended all manner of people for almost all of his married life, having sacrificed a naval career. You might think this thoroughly imperfect, rude, often obnoxious, often hilarious, committed, wholehearted and genuine bloke is perfect for our defining image of Britishness. But, without meaning to be overly pedantic, he is, in fact, Greek. Just saying...

It could be the thousands of people stood in the Mall, waving their Union Flags with 'The Sun' emblazoned across the middle, singing the National Anthem, and not knowing the second verse. Having a ball at the Jubilee concert. But I reckon nobody complained about much, so they are not authentic as our defining image.

No, for our defining image we have to rewind to Sunday morning. We have to zoom in to a soaking wet park in the Fifth Worst City In The World. My Church had long planned a 'Big Jubilee Lunch', with inflatable slides, cage football, climbing tower, face painting, coconut shy. When your budget comes from tithes and council grants, that counts as 'the works'. But then, 'Alex' intervened. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, try http://joshramble.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/maybe-next-year.html. If you can't be bothered, that means the weather took a turn for the worse.) It rained. And rained. And rained. The inflatable slides invoked the evil god of Elf and Safety, and refused to come. The coconut shy, the football, and the face painting gazebo lay derelict. In any other nation on Earth, they would have had a committee meeting, and decided to go home, and do something warm, dry and sensible.
Not here. No, these Britons obeyed every patriotic cliche in the book. They kept calm and carried on; they made do and mended.
Men were sent home to fetch tarpaulin to reinforce wind-battered marquees and gazebos. A man with a Ukulele played 'Here Comes the Sun'. A boy with a trumpet played 'Is This The Way To Amarillo'. Picnics were had under shelters, on tables which should have been filled with activities for the myriad visitors, who had decided to stay home. Terrible jokes were told over a waterlogged microphone, as anorak-clad, trenchfoot-suffering people trudged through the headwind across the saturated field, pretending to be happy and find the jokes funny. One kettle, between about a hundred people, went ten to the dozen for five solid hours, as men, women and children warmed themselves with the tepid fruit of its labour.
This, truly, was the Britain which has, throughout the centuries, looked the odds in the eye and shouted a resounding 'No!'. The Britain which has made a fool of common sense and logic. The Damp, Bankrupt Rock in the North Atlantic which no army, neither Hitler's nor Napoleon's has been able to overcome for 946 years.

So, what of the defining image? The organiser of the lunch was a woman called Julie. For months, Julie had planned and advertised and cajoled and persuaded this event into existence. In about 20 minutes on Sunday morning, it collapsed around her ears. The rain poured, the attractions cancelled, the crowds, after a collective net-curtain twitch, stayed at home, and the minions started grumbling. Whispers of 'cancel, cancel, cancel' rang around the park.

All of a sudden Julie disappeared, and we all thought that final discussions were taking place before she announced that enough had become enough, and it was all over. Instead, she emerged from a tent, and took our breath away. Stood there, with her soaking wet hair plastered to her forehead, a silly Union Jack hat on, a blue translucent waterproof poncho on over the top of a red fleece, and Union Flags protruding from her pockets at all angles, she was the ultimate image of Britishness. She was dripping with defiance, determination, and above all, rain water. With great ceremony and theatre, she looked round at all of us agape volunteers, drew a deep breath, and in as sonorous, booming, and Churchillian a voice as she could manage, announced, 'We are carrying on.'

And there, dear friends, we have the defining image of our country. Glorious, eccentric, ridiculous, lovable, defiant, damp, cold, honest, hilarious. Great Britain

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tendulkar: The Run Machine, with a dash of humanity

Very seldom will this blog be given over to eulogising about one individual, besides Jesus of course. But today, a feat has been accomplished of such magnificence that I hardly thought I could leave it. Today, one man finally put the icing on the cake of a career which has so perfectly illustrated the beauty of sport; the way in which it can unite and divide people, the way agony and ecstasy can dwell alongside each other in complete harmony, and the capacity it has to create heroes.
That man is Sachin Tendulkar. That feat is scoring his hundredth international hundred.

For those uneducated in such things, cricket has a curious way of valuing milestones and statistical achievements. Scoring 100 runs is seen as immeasurably more valuable than scoring 99 runs, even though it makes only 1 run's difference to the situation of the game. There are batsmen who will score 30, 40, 50 game in, game out, who exasperate us hugely. Then we get a batsmen who will score a hundred every 6 or 7 games, and naff all else. Who is the great player of the two? You guessed it: the second one.

But Tendulkar was not like the second one. He simply scored hundred after hundred after hundred, with some 60s and 70s sprinkled inbetween. There have been more flamboyant batsmen, there have been more flamboyant characters, but never has a cricketer exhibited such astonishing productivity.

For 22 years of international cricket, Tendulkar has produced the most alarmingly high number of runs of any batsman in history. But part of the genius is that he did it carrying the hopes and dreams of 1 billion Indians on his shoulders every single day, and he never cracked, he never stepped back to 'manage his workload', he never went off the rails and was found drunk next to an upside down pedalo in blue Caribbean Seas. No, Tendulkar did the only thing he knows how to do; he scored runs.
This ability to handle pressure was never illustrated better than the world cup quarter final of 1996. India played Pakistan, and Tendulkar was batting with the young Virender Sehwag (to whom I will later return), in front of an adoring Indian crowd. He carried not only the hopes of every Indian in the world, but of every Hindu too. Bowling at him was the best fast bowling partnership in the world, along with the fastest bowler ever recorded. 150 balls later, Tendulkar had compiled an innings of measured, controlled, brutality. Without the expression on his face changing one iota, the Pakistani bowlers had been made to look foolish, and Tendulkar had not shown even the smallest hint of mortality.

And that has more or less been the pattern since. He has smashed record after record, including the magisterial way he became the first man to score 200 in a One Day International against the might of South Africa and Dale Steyn. That record has since been eclipsed by Sehwag, which seemed a travesty to me. It was like replacing the Ferrari F40 with the F50; the greatest car in the history of ever with one not even worthy of comparison, except that it is a bit more muscly.

Sure, there have been wobbles every now and then, and none more so than the year long gap between his 99th international hundred and his 100th international hundred. The stage was set in the 2011 world cup final. Tendulkar back in his home town of Mumbai, against an aging Sri-Lankan attack, and backed by 1 billion Indians, baying for blood. He had missed out on a hundred by 15 runs in the previous game against Pakistan, and this man rarely misses out twice. He made 18 serene, untroubled runs, before a full delivery from Malinga the Slinga bowled a full delivery, which found the edge of Tendulkar's flashing blade. For the split second between the faint nick, and the sound of ball thudding into wicket keeper Sangakkara's gloves, the entire cricketing world held its breath. Surely they can't do this to him. He must drop it; this is wrong. He did not. For what felt like the first time in years, Sachin Tendulkar blew it.

What followed was the Indian Juggernaut thrashing Sri Lanka to lift the world cup, and the great man was spared blushes. But it just didn't feel right. It was the beginning of the worst year of his career; scrabbling around desperate for those magical three figures. Balls he would have smashed for 4 in hears gone by were getting him out, LBW decisions were going against him, stunning catches were being taken whenever he hit a ball slightly off the ground. I remember seeing him smash dreadful balls from some mediocre West Indian spinner directly into fielders' hands. For once, he looked like the rest of us. Sometimes unlucky, sometimes drawing brilliance from opponents, sometimes a little bit rubbish. The little master was no longer a god to Indian supporters, no longer a machine to the rest of us; he became a human being, and a desperate one at that.

When it came, it came against Bangladesh- the whipping boys of test cricket. I expected it to feel wrong, like it shouldn't really count. That a man who had put Akram, Younis, Akhtar, Warne, McGrath, Lee, Pollock, Steyn, Walsh, Ambrose, Bond, Vettori, Muralitharan, Vaas and Flintoff to the sword, would collect his crowning run against a lowly Bangladeshi left armer seemed like it would be a travesty. But it didn't. It felt like it was simply another string to Tendulkar's considerable bow: that he could not only operate as the greatest batsman in the world, whom everyone expected to score runs without even thinking about it, but that he could also cope with disappointment, failure, struggles, desperation, and come out the other side of it by (what else?) scoring a hundred.

He completed that historical single, lifted of his helmet, and the sweat on his brow seemed all the more genuine. He did not charge round the ground, Brian Lara style, milking the adulation, he simply looked heavenwards, smiled meekly, put his helmet back on, and carried on batting. The final frontier, that of his own weakness and fallibility, has been conquered.

So what now for Sachin Tendulkar? It's obvious isn't it?
He'll put his helmet back on, carry on batting, and score some more hundreds!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Maybe next year

It has come to pass that there are readers of this blog from across the globe. Greetings to you! Particularly those in Russia and Japan, it is jolly exciting that you are remotely interested in what I have to say. Today, I would like to tell you about a very curious English tradition. It's something we do every year, without fail. It is something that we love, and love to hate. It is something that happens in every single nation on Earth, but nowhere else reacts to it quite like good old blighty. This tradition, ritual, phenomenon is commonly known as 'Winter'.

Allow me to explain. Every winter, this island nation either buzzes with excitement, or sighs as one, with collective disappointment and cries of 'things ain't what they used to be!'. Why? Because some lovely weather man, with a nice smile but reassuringly aged face, and just a touch of grey in his otherwise jet black hair, or weather woman with her crisp grey suit, annoying bob haircut and excessively friendly disposition, tells us our chances of snow this year. In recent years, we have had a bumper crop of snow, and the excitement starts well before the first BBC forecast. It starts off as a murmur. Someone will whisper in your ear that they have 'heard there's snow on its way,' never saying it too loud lest the secret police overhear and throw them into the tower of London for their seditious rumours. Next, the social networks pick up the news, and then it really gets going. Then the disagreements come, as to the exact details of the impending snowfall.
'It's going to come next Monday at 6.30 in the evening, lasting until 9.24'
'No no no my friend, we won't see any till Wednesday afternoon. You mark my words.'
'Are you joking?! I cross referenced 74 different websites, and they all appear to indicate we might be waiting till the week after.'

Then our minds are laid to rest by the Beeb. We get to the end of the 6 o'clock news; a story about child poverty in Sierra Leone just finishes, and the newsreader has to replace his sincere face with his gleefully excited one. 'The moment we've all been waiting for,' he starts, like he's about to announce the X Factor results, 'time for the weather forecast with Alex.' At this point, 'Alex' becomes the most powerful man in the world. Prior to today, 'Alex' has not featured at all in anybody's life bar his mother's, who is ever so proud of him, and has eagerly tuned in for this defining moment in his otherwise nondescript life. Usually, 'Alex' looks a little dishevelled and miffed, at always playing second fiddle in the weather department to Carole and Shefali. But today, he looks magnificent; not a hair out of place; eyebrows perfectly shapen; creases in his trousers sharp enough to give you a paper cut; practically bursting with excitement and desperately trying to retain his professionalism. He looks like he might cry with joy when he confirms we will see some 'Wintry showers' (ridiculous euphamism), and ends his report by advising us to wrap up warm. Seriously pal, are you a weather man or Trinny and Susannah? Anyway we pan back to the newsreader who is grinning as if to say 'I told you it was exciting!'

There are 2 possible situations now. Either it snows or it doesn't. If it doesn't, 'Alex' will become an object of national hatred for getting our hopes up, only for him to personally dash them at the last. It is his fault if it does not snow. But assuming it does, the ridiculousness continues. The forecasted day arrives. It is overcast. Now, it is important to realise that, with snow, everybody is an expert. People look up at the clouds and pronounce that 'there's snow in 'em'. Others say there's no chance. Regular chaps look heavenwards and analyse the colour, the altitude, the heaviness, the wind direction and speed, the humidity, and make detailed calculations, giving answers such as 'Nah.' Gritting lorries whizz around at 100mph, causing more accidents than they hope to prevent.

Then it starts. Across Britain, 60 million people run over to the nearest window and gaze, utterly mesmerised. For 10 minutes, everyone is delighted. Then the chaos begins. Traffic is brought to a standstill, children have their noses broken and backsides tanned by over-zealous snowball throwing, teachers are constantly on edge, the entire working population loses its motivation, and wants to go play! Half the elderly claim they have never known it this bad since Churchill were in power, whilst the other half claim that when they were young, they knew winters where the snow was 29 feet deep, and the entire county of Lincolnshire was completely buried, and wasn't seen again till mid March. The smart arses who go on skiing holidays either whip out their skis, 'just to ski down the lane' (because all the sort of middle class people who go on such holidays live on lanes. Everyone else refers to their road either as a road or a street. Lanes are for top earners), or go round telling anyone who will listen that this snow is nothing compared compared to the last time Daddy took them to Val D'isere.

That evening, some poor reporter will have been sent to some isolated spot in the Lake District or North Ayreshire to report from the side of the road on the treacherous conditions, whilst gradually turning into a snappily dressed snowman with a microphone. There appears to be no reason for this, as the people who live in North Ayreshire know very well that there is lots of snow, and everyone else is too busy with their own snow to give a monkey's about what things are like in North Ayreshire. Just tradition I suppose...
We will then be told how schools are closed, and that children, such as Jack and Jill from Somerset, have been out enjoying the snow with friends. This strikes me as rather silly, given that the previous reporter has just been urging everyone to stay indoors, lest they end up looking as ridiculous as him, only for his colleague to show us how much fun it is outside.
We will then be told that old people might die. Forgive my insensitivity, but doesn't that happen regardless of the atmospheric conditions? Just saying...

When it all starts to dissipate, we are all gripped by gloom and depression; that our sole source of joy for he last week is quite literally going down the drain, and that catching up will need to be done at school and all sorts. We never seem to mentally prepare for the inevitable, when it comes to snow.

And if it never does snow? We get to the day 'Alex' has told us about, and it feels all wrong. We feel empty, let down, disgusted. Those who said it would never happen are easily recognisable by their smug faces, and those who said it would blame it all on 'Alex'. He is never seen again on British television, and the rumour is that he has fled to be weather forecaster in Alaska. Word on the street is that it's an easier job there.
As for the rest of us, we pick ourselves up from this let down, dust ourselves off. We are absorbed back into our usual routine, but always holding onto the eternal promise that comes with being British.

Maybe next year.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The day I nearly died

Today will always be remembered as the day on which I nearly died. Very nearly.
Oh I covered it up pretty well, lived as if nothing in the world were troubling me; devil-may-care, happy-go-lucky. All of that stuff.
But in fact, the day started with a brush with death more terrifying than anything I have ever experienced. I nearly never made it out of the house this morning. In fact, I nearly never made it out of the bathroom.
Yes, our story starts, once more in the bathroom (This is the other time a visit to the bathroom went pear shaped: Oh, there's a bird perched on the shower curtain rail.)
I had breakfasted on peanut butter, lavishly spread across a slice of Kingsmill medium white. Doesn't sound particularly civilised or refined, but you really can't beat it, especially when washed down by a cup of tea with milk and one sugar. So far so good.
Breakfast done with, I went to go and remove its taste and smell from my mouth by brushing my teeth. Now I try to be diligent with my mental, I mean dental, health, lest the evil orthodontist man (See http://joshramble.blogspot.com/2011/07/mouthful-of-abuse.html) shout at me again for not brushing properly. Git. Anyway, his telling off of me worked, because I brushed with standard brush, then with the little one, then I went for mouthwash. This is where the problem started.
Before I actually reveal my folly, I will explain a little more. I was tired! I had stayed up quite late reading the Bible, and that is the actual truth, I'm not just trying to Christian myself out of the blame, and this lack of sleep was taking its toll the morning after the night before. I wasn't fully awake, and was operating on auto-pilot somewhat. Auto-pilot, like any modern technology is fantastic when it works, as it had done for my breakfast and brushing. Where auto-pilot falls down is when it fails.
Auto-pilot says when you have a piece of toast, you spread peanut butter on it. Well, mine does anyway.
Auto-pilot says when you have a boiled kettle, you pour its contents into the same mug as your tea bag, milk, and one sugar.
Auto-pilot says when you have a toothbrush with toothpaste, you rub it across your teeth.
Auto-pilot says when your pour a liquid into your mouth, you then swallow it.
Great with tea. Bad with mouthwash.
Hopefully you can see where this is going. If not, I'll spell it out. I swallowed my mouthwash.
As I did it, I was looking in the mirror at my out-of-focus face. I watched as it drank the mouthwash, and for a split second, looked like everything was fine. I watched its throat gulp. I saw as its eyes widened a moment later, and all of my face's features panicked. Only then did my mind register what was going on, and it panicked.
I snatched up the bottle, without really knowing why. I hoped it might calm my fears somehow, perhaps by showing me some chemical ingredient that comforted me. 'Oh phew, it's made of C7HO9PRx! That positively masaaaages the throat!'. That didn't happen. Instead, the bottle screamed 'DO NOT SWALLOW' in capitals and everything!
It was about this moment that my throat started to burn. I put my hands to my larynx and started choking, and collapsing to my knees, before I realised that it wasn't actually that bad. I got up, feeling like an idiot, and that was when the belching started. I don't like to be too vulgar or anatomical, this is a family blog after all, but honestly, these were real bone-shakers, right from the diaphragm. (What a ridiculous word.)
These subsided eventually, and I did survive, and have since gone on to live a normal, healthy life, but it does raise serious questions about society. Somehow.