FRIENDS DEPARTING

FRIENDS DEPARTING

John and I were very sorry to hear of the death of Terry Wogan. It is true that you felt as if you had lost a personal friend. John had spent many hours driving the roads of Britain accompanied on the radio by the congenial and entertaining Wogan.

Terry Wogan was someone in whose hands you felt safe. There was never any danger of him lapsing beyond the boundaries of good taste. Although he was amiable, you also felt that he had an innate toughness and shrewdness and would deal competently and appropriately with whatever was thrown at him. He had that wonderful combination of self confidence – he knew his worth – and a humility or modesty where he valued other people’s talents as highly as his own.

He also had that peculiarly Irish characteristic where, politically and possibly in other ways, you never know who you are talking to, and people’s inner beliefs remain largely undeclared. Although he was a master of light comedy and ridiculous whimsy, you still felt that at heart he was a serious person.

The reactions to loss and grief are unique to each individual mourner and are not always understood. My mother gave me, many years ago, a dark red lipstick n a golden case. I’ve worn it for years and when I put it on in the morning, I remember my mother. One day last week I put it on and realised it was finished – I could feel the hard edge of the rim. I felt completely desolate, and for all that I have a tendency to eliminate promptly from my life anything which I feel has outlived its usefulness, the empty golden case still lurks in the bottom of the wooden box which once held a whisky bottle and where now I keep my make-up.

You begin to feel undeniably old when people you have known all your life and loved, valued or respected begin to start slipping away one by one. I look around at other loved and long-respected persons – there are precious few – and felt suddenly fearful for them: David Attenburgh. Billy Connolly, the Queen, even, and I think, Don’t go; not yet. Stay with us a little longer.

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GAMESMANSHIP

One always watches Opening Ceremonies (of countries about whom one cares) with slight anxiety. If it all goes horribly wrong, it doesn’t bode well. If it’s all incredibly slick, but vastly expensive and boastful, that’s not good. There’s a huge potential for error. Then there’s the messages – the overt and the hidden. So I commenced watching Glasgow’s Welcome to the Commonwealth Games with trepidation.

Glasgow is a very distinctive city. It comes high on my list of Ten Favourite Cities of the world. It’s scarred but still lovely. It’s full of contrasts. It has a tendency towards self pity and drowning its sorrows in drink; it can lurch with startling speed into violence; and it also has an amazing resilience and capacity for endurance and regeneration. It can be stylish and witty and fun. It’s people are big hearted, generous and friendly. But they also have a strong sense of egalitarian self belief, consider themselves the equal of anyone, have (mostly) little time for snobbery or pretension and they have an assassin’s keen eye, swift hand and cruel tongue. I cannot claim to be a daughter of the city of Glasgow, though I know it quite well and have always loved it; but I know to tread carefully. I briefly went to school there, and a wee local toughie of a schoolboy said to me, (I translate) ‘When you came here first, I thought you were a right wee snob: but I see now that you’re not.’ In its bluntness, directness, acuteness and generosity that’s a very Glaswegian remark, and I was highly complimented.

So, Glasgow’s lovely; Glasgow’s friendly; but it’s definitely Not for Messing With.

In the event, I thought the ceremony a triumph. It obviously had a modest but adequate budget which I thought was entirely appropriate. It mastered modern technology successfully. It was self mocking about its cliches. The tartan uniform was not old-fashioned kitsch but up to date and edgy. The pipes were played but in a modern funky style. There were in jokes. Dancers were dressed as Tunnocks Tea Cakes (of which this Scot is also inordinately fond.) They showed quick camera shots of the statue of the Duke of Wellington with a traffic cone on his head. (Students had traditionally placed traffic cones on the head of the statue, and Glasgow City Council proposed raising the statue out of reach on a plinth, (though there is no height that would be unscaleable by a drunken Glaswegian) at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. In a matter of hours, tens of thousands of signatures were obtained on an objection, and some pundit declared that the City of Glasgow cared more for the traffic cone than for the statue. The Duke remains, with a traffic cone on his head.) Billy Connolly appeared and spoke affectionately of the city and its people, and reminded us that Glasgow was the first city to name the street which held the S African consulate, Nelson Mandela Street… So Glasgow said, with all its warmth and openness: Welcome to the Games. But it also said, And all will go well, so long as you remember: Do not mess with us.

The crowd was well behaved and good natured. (It couldn’t believe its luck that it sat out hot and dry as darkness fell.)

There’s always a Daddy-O of games – some recently retired, very high achieving athlete of impeccable reputation who seems to steady everything with his very presence and is everywhere at once. For the Olympics, it was Steve Redgrave; for the Commonwealth Games it’s Chris Hoy. (Is this an official position? Is the athlete approached and asked: Are you willing to be the Daddy-0 of these games?). Chris Hoy did everything asked of him with modesty, grace and charm.

The crowd – oh, they were magnificent. They stood in absolute pin dropping silence in honour of the dead in the Malaysian plane. They applauded each and every entering team, including the English.

The tension which the Queen, with all her experience, displays these days at any major Scottish event, shows that she does not fall into the trap with English politicians and consider the whole referendum issue to be one of minor relevance, a provincial matter She knows that if things go badly wrong, her heirs (though not herself) stand to lose a quarter of their kingdom. The Queen herself was received with great warmth. It was noticeable however that when the National Anthem was played, the crowd stood politely, but it did not sing.

The Provost of Glasgow spoke with passion of his city and from a working class perspective and why should he not? Billy Connolly spoke warmly of the city but reminded us that Glasgow was the first city to name the street with the South African consulate, Nelson Mandela Street. Alex Salmond, class act that he is, scored no political points but swiftly discharged his duty as First Minister of all Scotland. The Queen was gracious. The Games were open.

Magnus Linklater in his article in The Times of July 26 drew entirely different conclusions to mine. He said the crowd sang the National Anthem with gusto. Is he joking? Has he never heard the rugby crowd at Murrayfield roar through a second verse of O Flower of Scotland, unaccompanied by the orchestra – because it will sing what it likes and won’t be dictated to? That’s gusto and you could almost hear them in Glasgow.

And he said the crowd cheered the Queen and only rendered polite applause to Alex Salmond. The Queen, an elderly lady, much respected, who has treated the Scots with cautious respect over the referendum issue, (which they have observed and will remember) will be welcome in Scotland, irrespective of the outcome of the vote, for as long as she lives. Why ever did he think they might not cheer her when she graced the Games with her presence?   They have better manners than that.   And she’s not just Queen of England, after all.

As for politely applauding Salmond, that’s appropriate too. This was a sporting occasion, not a political one. Besides, we don’t need him to be Daniel O’Connell. (Not yet anyway.) But I felt Salmond was moved and relieved as he drew his brief remarks to a close, and it is rare for him to show any emotional reaction. The people of Glasgow, on behalf of Scotland, had done him proud. They’re not stupid. They know how to behave as a dignified and modern nation should. With their own voice they had welcomed everyone in the spirit of warmth and hospitality for which their city and our country are famed.

Let Glasgow flourish.

WE, THE BRITISH

WE,  THE BRITISH

I find it hard to believe there can be anyone in Britain less interested in sport than I am.   Personally I can’t see that it makes any difference if you run a mile in 4 minutes or 40.   (You’re being pursued by a wolf?    He’ll maintain the chase for days if necessary and besides his pack will join him and hunt you down.   You’re doomed, basically, timed trial or not.)   Similarly, does it matter that you can hit a ball over a net, or into a hole?    (Now I can see that it could be significant if you could sock it to your opponent between the eyes.)   And, it seems rather unfair that the difference between a gold medallist (here comes the all-conquering hero), and the silver medallist (also ran…) can be a hundredth of a second.

And so, you would not expect anyone to be less interested in, or enthusiastic about, the Olympic Games than myself.

But I DO like STORIES and some great ones have emerged this week, and some interesting personalities have come to prominence as well.

First among the Honours lists must come Sebastian Coe.   Always for me a suspiciously Establishent figure, never the less he has been a good leader for the Olympic team for all these years and been a constant steadying influence.   Then there’s Boris, so different from Coe, but like his predecessor so emblematic of the City of London:  he has done his bit also.

There’s the athletes themselves who have laboured so hard and for so long, and yet there is still an element of luck as to whether it all comes good on the day, and they go on to fortune and glory, or whether it has all been for naught, and they lapse into obscurity.  Quite often those praised and expected to do well, stumble on the day, and some hitherto un-noticed fellow steals past them and goes on into history.

Bradley Wiggins – babies, I hear, are being named after him – seems a quiet and modest fellow.   Yet he knew his worth.   When some commentator asked him, did he think he had the power to win, he gave his interrogator a brief ‘look.’   “Yes, I can win the Gold,” he replied.    “I’ve just won the Tour de France.”    And on he went to win the Gold.   We won’t forget him.

But the most delightful thing was the Opening Ceremony.   I had no great hopes of it.   The Chinese effort, for all its magnificence, had  filled me with horror.   Ours would not be on such a scale, and would this be depressing?

But instead, it was a triumph.    When it opened with that English anthem, Jerusalem, I thought, Oh, no, and prepared to gather up my skirts and depart.    But then they went on to play the anthem Danny Boy of Northern Ireland, and I thought, Wait.   When they came to O Flower of Scotland, a song imposed by the Scots simply because they kept singing it instead of the official version being played, I thought, oh, they are going to acknowledge that we are four nations.

Then the run through our history – our rural beginnings;   our industrial past.  No boasting about our wars, nor about our empire.    Things included that we care about, like the NHS.   And all done with a lightness of touch and humour.   The queen entered into the spirit of things.

As for the torch, sports philistine that I am, I had got rather fed up of it on its interminable progression around the country, though I do acknowledge thousands of people were interested in it and its planned route was a great success.   But it was nice to see David Beckham, who has never stinted in his willingness to serve his country, guiding the boat with the torch on board down the Thames.   Steve Redgrave is the Daddy-O of British sport at the moment, and the beautiful cauldron being lit by seven youthful aspiring athletes was everything that was appropriate and fitting.

At the end, you thought, We are the British.     This is a mighty thing – who else would you rather be? – but also a mighty accomplishment on the part of the Olympics organisers.

I had wondered what benefit the Olympics could bring to us.   We are not, as some countries have been, anxious to be placed on the map.    Everybody knows where we are.    But the benefit the Olympics has brought us is nothing to do with other people.   Hosting the 2012 Olympic Games has reminded us who we are.

We are the British.

THE PIED PIPER?

THE PIED PIPER?

 

Following our return from a visit to Scotland, I’ve had the opportunity to take another look at contemporary Scottish politics.

I have long observed and appreciated the cunning and long sighted strategy of Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland and Leader of the Scottish National Party.   Apart from all his other qualities, he has a deadly wit, and I really enjoyed his dismissal of George Osborne after the latter’s ill-advised holiday on some oligarch’s yacht in the company of Peter Mandelson.    “If George wishes” he began with deceptive amiability, “to be mistaken for a man of the people, then it might be preferable not to accept hospitality from a Russian oligarch – but certainly he should avoid doing so in the company of Peter Mandelson, who greatly outclasses him in his mastery of the black art of politics’.      We all laughed and Osborne for once could not come up with a smart reply, but I thought Salmond himself was no mean practitioner of the black art.

Salmond is what my brother would refer to as a ‘gradualist’ inching the Scottish people along by gentle degree to whatever his eventual goal happens to be.     With Salmond being so clever and so devious, you can never be entirely sure.

He has a well thought out approach to the monarchy and professes to wish to retain the Queen as Head of State.    But when you see him in her presence and you watch his body language – though I am quite sure he is scrupulously polite and correct –   I’m not so sure she can rely on him.   He describes the Queen as ‘a very astute lady’, so no doubt she has the measure of him.

I had not realised until recently that IF Salmond’s goal is genuinely independence, then not only does he need a Scottish majority vote in favour; the English would also have to vote.    I suspect he’s pursuing a two pronged strategy – giving the Scots things they – indeed everybody – would want – free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, no tolls on bridges, free education for everybody but the English, to please the Scottish voter; and using these same policies to annoy the English so that when it comes to the vote, the English say, Go then; we’re better off without you.   I do find it very funny when he says, England should not worry about having to go it alone;  they’ll manage fine;    but he is being deliberately insulting, though he can’t be charged with this intent.

I saw him on a recent Question Time, surrounded by Secretaries of State for Scotland past and present.    In comparison with him all the Secretaries of State  look like school boys in short trousers and cap, apart from Malcolm Rifkind, who however looks extremely cautious.     They were urging him to hold a referendum now (believing he would lose.)    He doesn’t intend to hold it now because he similarly isn’t confident of victory (yet).     But they should be careful what they ask for.    There is a perverse quality about the Scottish voters, who might just say Yes out of spite and malice and because they are expected to say No.

I would guess – but it is many years since I lived in Scotland – that the majority of Scots – provided they would suffer no personal loss – would prefer greater independence from England, even if that falls short of a complete secession from the Union.    But one wonders whether Salmond’s silvery eloquence and guile are not enticing them along a path whose ultimate destination is undisclosed;  or if not undisclosed, whose potential gains and losses are difficult to calculate.     When the Labour party brought forward devolved government for ‘the provinces’ it did not foresee that this would help, rather than reverse, the cause of nationalism.

The Scots are a shrewd and canny people.   The Queen herself said, at the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament that she had confidence in the judgement of the Scottish people, and who would be so bold as to disagree with her?   However, the Scots should make quite sure that they are not like the children of Hamlyn, blindly following the Pied Piper through that briefly opened door in the hill, from which no-one could ever return.