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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Richie Benaud: More Than Just Player, More Than Just a Commentator

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Richie BenaudOthers have written plenty about Richie Benaud the player, and Richie Benaud the commentator, but there’s a lot about Richie Benaud the person that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in the obituary pages during the past week.

Benaud the captain was arguably the greatest cricket has seen in the post-war era. His on-field achievements have been well-documented elsewhere, but his skills as an innovator went well beyond the boundary ropes.

From the time he became Australia captain at the start of the 1958/59 season, Benaud understood the increasing importance of good public relations. After each day’s play, he would hold a press conference for British and Australian reporters, something that had never been done before, and wasn’t done again until many decades later.

These press conferences weren’t the cliché-ridden, predictable affairs that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Benaud talked candidly and was never evasive in his answers. He would talk about the day’s play, clear up any misunderstandings about incident or doubtful decisions, and he was fair in his assessments of players from both sides. In effect, he more-or-less wrote their articles for them.

When touring England in 1956 and 1961, Benaud took a great interest in the BBC’s early television commentaries. After the 1956 tour, he stayed behind and took a job with the News of the World as a police roundsman. Unlike so many of today’s retired sports stars who think they’re God’s gift to television once they’ve been retired for five minutes, Benaud was serious about making it in all forms of journalism, and was prepared to start at the bottom, doing the less glamorous jobs. His relationship with the paper lasted more than half a century until its very last edition in 2011, in which he wrote an excellent column which emphasised the importance of subeditors, something too many newspaper owners nowadays see fit to cut back upon.

Around the same time, he managed to arrange a crash TV course with the BBC. He was a fast learner and soon absorbed a great deal of information about the use of cameras and tips for commentary.

One of his tasks was to spend a day shadowing one of his heroes, the horse racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan (who is still very sharp aged 97). Sir Peter instructed Benaud to remain silent, take notes, write down any questions he had, and at the end of the day they would go for a drink and he could ask his questions.

Benaud made his first BBC radio commentary in 1960 and soon moved into television, a relationship that would last until the corporation lost the rights to televise England cricket in 1999. Further work followed in Australia, initially with ABC and then as an integral part of Kerry Packer’s revolution with Channel 9, who he would continue working for until shortly before his death (a voiceover obituary of Philip Hughes was his last work for the broadcaster).

The newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn once asked Michael Parkinson what one characteristic all the successful people he’d interviewed had in common – the answer was they were all very hard workers. This could certainly be said of Benaud. From the time he married his second wife Daphne in 1967, she would carefully plan his whole year in his diary, and there would be few, if any, idle days.

If he was not working, he would probably be playing golf. During the British winter, he would be in Australia running his public relations and sports news agency, or commentating for Channel 9.

He would be up every day at dawn, writing, telexing, or even fitting in a round of golf before a day in the commentary box. It was quite common for colleagues to be arriving at the breakfast table at 8:00am to find Benaud returning from a round of golf.

After a busy day there would usually be dinner parties at night. The hospitality was superb – he certainly appreciated good food and fine wine, but in the background you could be sure to hear the ticking of telex and tape machines, later fax machines and the ping of emails arriving.

Benaud usually ended the Australian winter by reporting on a few golf tournaments around the world before arriving in England with Daphne in May, where they would set up their office at their flat. In September, he and Daphne would usually go on a gastronomic tour of France where he would fulfil various business commitments he had in the country.

He’d typically arrive in the commentary box fairly early, complete with two battered leather cases and in later years his laptop. During his off-duty moments, he could often be found studying the Sporting Life and Racing Post, where he had a decades-long friendly rivalry with Jack Bannister in picking winners which lasted until weeks before his death.

During the long BBC era, a full day’s commentary would end with Benaud appearing in front of camera, still immaculately dressed, often in his cream jacket, to record presenting links for the late night highlights, which included a slick and acute summary of the day’s play. He’d do this from the top of his head, without notes, and would cue in various film inserts.

When the rights transferred to Channel 4 in the summer of 1999, Benaud moved with them. The tone of the Channel 4 coverage was quite different to what preceded it. Far greater use was made of technology and it rapidly made the old BBC coverage appear somewhat staid.

Benaud adapted his style to the Channel 4 coverage – his commentary style became a little looser, and he appeared to be given more freedom to use his dry sense of humour. He probably sounded more like the Richie Benaud viewers in Australia had been hearing for many years. Channel 4 never used him as a presenter but he was still regularly seen in front of camera at lunch and teatime features.

Analysing the final decade of Benaud’s life and career is a little more tricky. He famously retired from British TV commentary after the 2005 Ashes, turning down an offer to be part of the Sky Sports team when they took over the rights the following summer, but that wasn’t quite the end of his relationship with British television. His voice was once again heard on the BBC, who took the Channel 9 commentary when they showed highlights of the 2006/07 Ashes series down under, and the same applied when ITV had highlights of the 2010/11 Ashes. At the 2009 Ashes series in England, he appeared as an on-screen analyst for Channel 5’s highlights programme during the Saturday of each Test, though he did not commentate at all.

Ever the professional, he instructed three or four very close friends, whose judgement he trusted, to be completely straight and tell him if they felt he was ‘losing it’ as a commentator. Commentators in other sports had gone on too long: Eddie Waring (rugby league) really was suffering from dementia in his final years. John Motson (football) began a decline in the late 1990s and became a parody of himself. Tony Green (darts) lost the plot years ago.

Thankfully, Benaud never did ‘decline’, but there was a significant change in the way Channel 9 covered cricket that did not suit his style. In his final years, Channel 9 moved from two to three man commentary teams.

One of Benaud’s strengths is that he knew when to say nothing and understood the power of the pause. He also would develop a talking point during his half-hour commentary stint. The three-man booths meant a more conversational style and near-constant ‘banter’ between the commentators which prevented him from working in the way he always had.

A planned retirement from commentary in 2010 to focus on studio work and features never materialised. He continued to be heard on commentary, though less frequently than before, and as a summariser, rather than describing the play-by-play action. He was effectively the ‘third man’ of the booth, and he would have to fight to get a word in edgeways. Indeed, there were at least two half-hour commentary stints in later years where he didn’t say a single word for the duration.

His commentary career ended when, in October 2013, he crashed his vintage 1965 Sunbeam Alpine into a wall, sustaining a cracked sternum and shoulder injuries. Friends said he seemed more upset at having written off his car than the fact he’d sustained injuries which would take many months to recover from.

A planned return to the Channel 9 commentary box in 2014/15 was prevented when he was diagnosed with skin cancer, a likely consequence of many years of playing in the blazing sun without sun cream or a hat in less enlightened times, which ultimately prevented him from coming anywhere close to the age of 104 his mother reached.

During his final summer with Channel 4 in 2005, Benaud regularly referred to the long-running ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ advertising campaign on Australian television that told viewers to slip on a shirt, slop on sun cream, and slap on a hat. Unfortunately, that advice came decades too late for him.

Richie Benaud's advice to commentators

Richie Benaud’s advice to commentators

Benaud’s advice to commentators is timeless. It was relevant when he started in 1960, it’s relevant now, and it’ll still be relevant in another 50 years’ time.

When it comes to TV cricket commentary, Benaud set the standard for others to follow. The modern-day Sky Sports coverage is technically brilliant, but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Channel 4 team Benaud spearheaded. The Sky Sports commentary team often feels like a clique of middle-aged, grey former England captains. It’s one-dimensional, lacks any ‘light and shade’, and is punctuated by prattle about rounds of golf and wine cellars – both passions of Benaud’s, but the key difference was when he was in the commentary box, he made the players on the field, not himself, the focus of his attention.

Written by Marcus Stead

April 18, 2015 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Jeremy Clarkson: Some Perspective, and What Happens Next!

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ClarksonLet’s be clear about one thing: Jeremy Clarkson was got rid of because he subjected a colleague to an attack that left him requiring hospital treatment, which was preceded by a prolonged period verbal abuse that amounted to bullying.

Initial reports of a handbags ‘fracas’ between Clarkson and producer Oisin Tymon following a long day’s filming were underplayed. The truth was far more serious.

That’s why the BBC made the decision, not because he’s a very different beast to most of the corporation’s staff.

They’d have taken exactly the same course of action had it been those who fit the BBC mould better, such as their favourites Stephen Fry or David Tennant, and the same would apply to the legions of managers that dominate the BBC in their unofficial uniform of pink open-neck shirts and designer stubble (like Alan Yentob and Danny Cohen, more on them later).

You can’t go around launching physical attacks on your colleagues, and yes, there are limits on what you can say when shouting at subordinates, even in a high-pressure environment.

It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but the BBC were wrong turn a blind eye to the warning signs in the months leading up to the incident by increasing Clarkson’s workload.

His friends and colleagues had known that he had been fragile for some time following a difficult 2014 – his mother had died, his marriage had broken down, he’d had health problems, and the N-word scandal in the middle of the year had left him clinging on to the Top Gear job by the tips of his fingers.

Whether in sport, the movies, music or TV, it’s a fact that talented people are often difficult to manage, and the BBC didn’t manage Clarkson at all well for the 12 months prior to his departure.

However much the BBC bigwigs hated Clarkson and everything he stood for, the fact is he was the frontman for one of the most successful brands it has ever had.

It’s worth remembering that for the first 24 years of its life, Top Gear had a more sombre magazine format that mixed reviews of new cars with features on motoring safety issues and the impact of new government legislation. Presenters in its early years included former newsreader Angela Rippon, as well as the science-based academic William Woollard and the calm, thoughtful, understated motoring journalist Chris Goffey.

The emphasis began to shift towards entertainment from the time Clarkson joined in 1988, initially as a bit-part reporter. Within a few years, he had become the programme’s main presenter, and with Clarkson at the helm, it was regularly BBC Two’s most-watched programme of the week throughout the 1990s.

The old Top Gear began to lose its way towards the end of the 1990s as long-standing presenters left to be replaced by relative unknowns, and following Clarkson’s first departure in 2001, the programme appeared to have run its course and was axed later that year, with many of the then-presenters going on to take an almost-identical format to Channel 5 under the name Fifth Gear (a programme still going strong 14 years later, now broadcast on History).

Top Gear LogoThe following year, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a radical new look. A returning Clarkson was at the helm of a new studio-based format that went for mass entertainment, humour and controversy, complete with sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May (who replaced Jason Dawe from the second post-relaunch series), which helped build a chemistry and rapport that remains fresh well over a decade later.

Clarkson owned a stake in the new format and could share in its commercial success. Thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s presenting style and very, very strong work ethic, the new-look Top Gear rapidly became a flagship of the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule, providing a welcome alternative to the genteel dramas that generally dominate the timeslot.

The format’s success was good news for Clarkson, who sold his stake in the franchise for a reported £13 million in 2012, but also great news for the BBC, for whom the Top Gear has become big, big business.

In January 2015, the new series of Top Gear on BBC Two was simulcast in more than 50 countries across Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, with a further 10 countries in Asia showing it within 24 hours of its original transmission, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.

Then there are the format rights, which the BBC sells to overseas broadcasters to make their own versions, as well as live arena shows, the Top Gear magazine, repeats on Dave, BBC World and other channels globally, DVD releases, and other branded merchandise. Not bad for a series that began as a regional programme for BBC Midlands in 1977!

All these factors combined means that Top Gear is now worth somewhere in the region of £150 million per year to the BBC. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for BBC Radio Four is £115.9 million, the entire BBC local radio network in England is £146.5 million, while on TV, BBC Three’s annual budget is £112.9 million, BBC Four’s is £67.8 million, while the BBC News Channel costs £57.5 million.

Whichever way you look at it, if Top Gear was axed, it would create quite a shortfall in the BBC’s income.

The BIG question is this: Which is bringing in the money? Is it the Top Gear brand/format? Or is it Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and the senior production team?

Yes, the BBC owns the Top Gear name and franchise, but without Clarkson and co, how much use is it to them?

Clarkson and co can come up with a new programme name, tweak the format and keep going with another broadcaster, but the BBC has a far tougher task in making Top Gear a success with Chris Evans, Joss Stone or whoever else at the helm. They own a programme name and a format, but not much else.

Would the British public warm to it? Would international audiences take to it to the same extent? That’s anyone’s guess at this stage.

One big irony is that Top Gear is a very un-BBC programme, made by and broadcast on the BBC.

As an institution, the BBC has, in the last two decades, become increasingly inward-looking, bland, self-satisfied and smug, dominated by a metropolitan elite who all went to the same universities, attend the same dinner parties in Islington, shop at Waitrose, have the same cultural tastes, and hold the same set of liberal views.

This culture has been allowed to expand over the years as BBC mandarins recruited and promoted from within their own kind.

Andrew Marr, himself a part of that set, put his finger on the pulse of the BBC’s institutional bias a few years ago when he said: “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities, and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”

Do goldfish know they’re goldfish? Are they aware that a world exists outside their goldfish bowl? I’ve no idea, but BBC executives don’t appear to know much about life beyond their own goldfish bowl of BBC buildings, fashionable restaurants, pretentious opera houses, and designer-furnished homes in the more fashionable parts of London.

Last week, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s ‘Creative Director’ said on Newsnight, said, in defence of the BBC: “There are quite a lot of programmes which reach out to audiences which are C2s, DEs, which aren’t the metropolitan elite.”

C2s are the social demographic described as ‘skilled manual workers’ and DEs are ‘semi and unskilled manual workers, pensioners, widows (no other earner), casual or lowest grade workers’.

They’re not the sort of people Yentob or other BBC executives encounter very often, but believe they know what they want to watch, and kindly make programmes for.

I have been known to mingle with such peasants, usually for a few beers and a game of poker than a dinner party with overpriced, obscure food and wine from Waitrose, and I can assure Mr Yentob that these philistines consume very few of the BBC’s programmes outside of sport and Top Gear, generally preferring the offerings of Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and, increasingly under Peter Fincham’s leadership, ITV.

Then there is Clarkson’s old nemesis, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who made an offensive comparison to Jimmy Savile when describing Clarkson’s situation. This is the same Danny Cohen, still only 41-years-old, who, fully aware of Savile’s, erm, ‘dark side’, commissioned a special ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ programme shortly after his death, and also has such highbrow, intellectual hits as ‘Snog, Marry Avoid’, ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ to his commissioning CV.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons for liking Clarkson and liking Top Gear. But less clear is why Clarkson is somehow considered a ‘right winger’.

Stephen Fry was once described (by an uncertain source) as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. On that basis, Jeremy Clarkson is ‘a left wing person’s idea of what a right wing person is like’.

Driving gas-guzzling cars and making politically-incorrect jokes about foreigners and homosexuals does not make you right wing.

In the eyes of BBC types, a right winger is something undesirable that behaves like Clarkson, but where is the evidence that Clarkson is especially right wing?

Yes, he attended Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, and he’s friends with David Cameron (not that David Cameron is truly right wing). He comes from a well-off background and his mother, Shirley, did very well out of manufacturing Paddington Bear toys (the prototypes being Christmas presents for a 12-year-old Jeremy and his sister, Joanna).

But beyond that, the evidence is thin. When has Clarkson ever said anything of note about the things that right wingers (quite a broad church, actually) consider important?

Has Clarkson had much to say at all about things like national sovereignty, a low-tax economy, the traditional family, law and order, proper education, Christianity, personal responsibility and individual liberty?

These are values the BBC cliques are at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile to, but are the values that millions of ordinary British people hold dear.

That’s not to say Clarkson should have things to say on these matters – he’d be well-advised to stick to what he’s good at, but to claim he is a ‘right winger’ is neither fair nor accurate.

Clarkson Hammond MaySo what happens next? We know that the planned arena shows are to go ahead without any Top Gear or BBC branding (the shows will be known as ‘Clarkson, Hammond and May’), and inevitably, Clarkson’s agent will be (has already been?) inundated with offers.

James May and Richard Hammond’s contract expired at midnight on 1 April. They, too, are free to speak to rival broadcasters.

Sky are going through a period of cost-cutting at present after paying a staggering £4.18 billion to hold on to their Premier League football rights, up 70% on the previous inflation-busting auction just three years ago. They’re unlikely to splash out on a big contract for the trio.

ITV are the front-runners to sign them. As a business, it’s in much better shape than it was seven years ago, its share price has risen steadily in recent times, and they have money to spend. All they’d need to do is come up with a new programme name, a slight format tweak, and they’d have a product they could export globally and successfully, as they do with Downton Abbey and many other flagship programmes. Could it be as big a hit as Top Gear? There’s no obvious reason why it couldn’t.

Such a programme would also attract, and I hate to use Yentob-speak, the ABC1 demographic that ITV finds harder to draw in – more affluent, younger people (especially men), who are much sought-after by big brand advertisers, like, well, car and electronics companies, the sort who advertise during ITV’s football coverage.

Of course, there are other possibilities, Channel 4, Channel 5 (recently purchased by American giants Viacom), Netflix, Amazon and goodness knows what else.

For the time being, Clarkson would be well-advised to take a break, sit on an island somewhere and get his head together, but bet your bottom dollar on him being back on our screens before too long.

Clarkson is dead. Long live Clarkson!

Written by Marcus Stead

April 2, 2015 at 2:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Marcus Stead’s Coffee Break Episode 1 – The Trial Run

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Me2014Click here to view my new YouTube show, Marcus Stead’s Coffee Break. Episode 1 is very much a trial run, and there’s lots wrong with it. We have: 1. Priceless advice for young wannabe journalists. 2. Shrinking chocolate bars/boxes. 3. Russell Brand – time to show him the red card. Enjoy!

Written by Marcus Stead

March 23, 2015 at 6:04 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

30 Years On: An Honest Assessment of the Miners’ Strike

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By MARCUS STEAD

It’s 30 years since the end of the 1984/85 miners’ strike, and in the coalfield of South Wales, a version of events has gone down in folklore that bears little resemblance to the facts.

The conventional wisdom dictates that Margaret Thatcher had some kind of mad vendetta against the mining communities in general, and that her policies are somehow to blame for everything that’s gone wrong in these communities in the years since.

This crude, caricatured thinking conveniently ignores numerous inconvenient truths, such as that Harold Wilson’s government closed far more coal mines than Thatcher ever did (Wilson closed 260 to Thatcher’s 154).

The ‘blame Thatcher every time it rains’ rhetoric also ignores the reality that between 1997 and 2010, the party most former miners loyally support, Labour, had an unbroken period of government (on-going if we include the Welsh Government), and did little to seriously improve these communities or the lives of ex-miners and their families.

As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. It’s easier and more comfortable to run with the theory than to face up to the reality that the miners themselves need to shoulder much of the blame for letting themselves be manipulated by National Union of Mineworkers president Arthur Scargill’s vanity, hypocrisy and madcap leadership.
On this sad anniversary, it’s time for a reassessment. Nelson Mandela believed in truth and reconciliation as a means of healing a society.

First must come truth, for without it those 30-year-old wounds cannot heal. It’s not morally right to continue to indoctrinate the young with the ‘Thatcher’s evil’ version of events, nor is it right for the miners themselves to continue to present Scargill as a hero, for it was his recklessness that led to ultimate defeat and the eventual destruction of the mining industry.

Let’s start at the beginning: The coal mining industry of the early 1980s required enormous government subsidies. In 1982/83, the stated operating loss per tonne was £3.05 (around £10.20 in today’s money), and international market prices for coal were about 25% cheaper.

The industry itself was losing around £1.5 million per day (around £4.6 million by today’s figures), making it an intolerable and unsustainable burden on the taxpayer.

Several years before the strike, the Thatcher government made it clear that to return to profitability, the mining industry would need to modernise, invest in mechanisation, and yes, there would inevitably be subsequent job cuts.

The pretext of the strike was a very modest proposal by Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board, to close, over a period of time, just 20 of Britain’s 170 coal mines with the loss of 20,000 jobs, spread across northern England, Scotland and Wales, undoubtedly difficult for those communities affected, but peanuts compared with what happened in the years immediately after the strike.

Three years earlier, the Thatcher government backed down from plans to close 23 pits after Yorkshire NUM members passed a resolution to strike if any pit was threatened with closure for reasons other than exhaustion or geological difficulties.

Following MacGregor’s announcement, Scargill made an unsubstantiated allegation that the government had a long-term strategy to close 70 pits.

There was absolutely no room for manoeuvre with Scargill. Not a single job loss, whether as a result of pit closure or modernisation in working practises would have been acceptable to him. His demands were to intensify to an absurd degree later on.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Arthur Scargill in recent years.

Crucially, Scargill, a man of infinite vanity, never called a full, national ballot, which would have strengthened his moral case enormously, and would become a legal requirement when the Trade Union Act 1984 came into law shortly after the strike began.

Upon the enforcement of the Act, striking miners were not entitled to state benefits due to the lack of a national ballot, and Scargill shamefully decided he would rather force miners, their wives and their children to rely on handouts and charity for food and clothing rather than call a ballot and ensure they had the safety net of state benefits to keep them in an acceptable standard of living for the strike’s duration.

Each mine had an individual ballot, with 18 of the 28 pits in Wales voting against strike action. The way ballots were held in pits that voted in favour was also highly dubious, with Betws and others holding a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

In other words, miners may well have felt intimidated into voting in favour of action, even if they knew it would be self-defeating. Indeed, that year’s Trade Union Act, soon to be enforced, made secret ballots a compulsory precursor to strike action.

Intimidation was the main method used by NUM militants of spreading the strike across the many South Wales pits that didn’t vote for it and didn’t want it, with flying pickets appearing at mines as men arrived for work. This was confrontational, anti-democratic and bullying behaviour from Scargill and his apparatchiks.

Scargill’s other gross miscalculation was to begin the strike in the spring, when demand for coal had peaked. Unknown to most at the time, the Thatcher government was well and truly ready for the strike.

It had stockpiled enough coal to fulfil the country’s energy needs well into the future, thus ensuring the NUM could not hold her government to ransom the way they did with Heath, Callaghan, and indeed Thatcher herself in the near-strike of 1981.

Striking miners protest in London.

Striking miners protest in London.

By the summer of 1984, Scargill’s demands had intensified and become even more ludicrous. Preventing pit closures was no longer enough. He now also demanded, amongst other things: A four-day working week; a substantial increase in wages; retirement age brought down to 55; consolidation of the incentive bonus scheme, development of 40 million tonnes of new capacity; new investment to expand all existing pits.

There were other demands, too, but these are the ones that stand out as the barmiest. There was no way the Thatcher government could possibly give in to them.

Scargill himself was now a regular fixture not just on the heavy political TV programmes, but also on light entertainment chat shows, where he made no secret of the fact he was a Marxist who wanted to bring down the democratically-elected Thatcher government.

This was now a straightforward battle between parliamentary democracy and mob rule led by a union baron who didn’t even legitimise his own strike with a full, secret ballot. We should all be glad that parliamentary democracy won, including the miners who lost their jobs.

As time went by, a minority of miners in South Wales returned to work, believing the strike to be futile and knowing it wasn’t in the best interests of themselves, their families, or the long-term future of the industry. They were subjected to cruel taunts of ‘scabs’ by their colleagues, for abandoning a strike that was only ever going to end one way.

It wasn’t just name-calling. Many strike-breaking miners had their properties vandalised, faced physical violence, and were shunned by former colleagues when the strike eventually ended.

One other highly irritating aspect of the strike’s legacy is the way people in mining communities try to romanticise and sentimentalise it, by talking about the sense of community, the togetherness, and of fighting for principles.

The reality was far less happy. The lack of money coming into their homes meant miners were reliant on union reserves for food, as well as parcels from Paris, Amsterdam and even Russia.

Striking miners depended on money gathered from charity collections in town centres to pay their household bills, with public sympathy gradually eroding as the months rolled by as the futility of the strike became apparent, all while Scargill lived a life of luxury cars and properties paid for by his members.

Strains were put on marriages, long-standing friendships were tested, and there were several violent incidents where innocent people tragically lost their lives.

Due to the sheer length of the strike, many pits permanently lost their customers, at a time of extensive competition in world coal markets as well as a concerted move towards oil and gas power production.

There was to be no way back. The NCB accelerated the closure of pits on economic grounds, resulting on a far greater loss of jobs over a far shorter period of time.

The knock-on effect of widespread pit closures was massive. In many valley towns, the pit was the main employer. It was going to be extremely difficult to encourage new jobs to the affected areas to fill the gaps.

Long-term unemployment became a very real problem. Areas that were known for their Protestant work ethic, close families and tight-knit communities began a downward spiral into crime, poverty, drugs and welfare dependency.

Of course this is something to be regretted, but former miners owe it to themselves, and to future generations, to acknowledge that were it not for Scargill’s gross mishandling of the conflict, the speed and scale of pit closures would have been far less severe, as indeed would the social impact that followed.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

A Christmas Reflection

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Years ago, I attended a church where every Christmas morning the priest went through a routine at Mass that has stayed with me ever since.

It was the same every single year. He would begin his sermon by inviting all the children to sit in a semi-circle at the front. Then he would ask them what presents they’d received for Christmas. Excited hands shot up and the answers were much as you’d expect: games consoles, footballs, dolls houses and so on.

Next he would ask them what presents they had last Christmas. No excited hands shot up this time. A small number, maybe 10% of those assembled, cautiously raised their hands and could just about answer.

Then he would ask them what they received two Christmases ago. Not one hand went up. Nobody had a clue. Then he would turn to the adults and ask them the same question. In a congregation of around 300 people, not one individual could remember.

Now it’s your turn. What presents did YOU receive two Christmases ago? Can you really remember what you got last Christmas? There may be the occasional reader of this blog who received an engagement ring from their partner from the top of the Empire State Building, but for the most part it’s long forgotten.

This year, a great deal of media attention has been drawn to the phenomena of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Manic Monday’. I first became aware of the former around a decade ago from America, where apparently it crept in during the late 1990s, but until now was unfamiliar with it in a British context. I can honestly say I was completely unaware of ‘Manic Monday’ in any sense until this year.

Those crazed scenes of stampedes of people  charging through supermarket doors before they’ve had a chance to open properly and those arguments between customers over who put their hand on the last cut price 42” LED TV first have become extremely ugly, unhealthy aspects of Christmas.

Whether you’re a child or an adult, ask yourself how much the presents will matter to you next month, let alone by next Christmas. In reality, people are sucked in by cleverly-pitched marketing campaigns and alliterative tabloid headlines. They are told that aspiring to own that TV or that computer game will make them happy and their life complete.

The truth is that excessive consumerism offers us no such thing. The more you have, the more you want. What you currently have will become the norm, and you will want more. This leads to neither happiness nor contentment long-term. In fact, the novelty will wear off in days or weeks, months at the absolute most.

Think back to your old childhood Christmases. Most people, including those youngish like myself, can remember a time before Black Friday and Manic Monday, when there was very little hype until well into December, and shops weren’t afraid of putting up Nativity scenes in their windows – the official excuse for not doing it is that it’ll offend people of other faiths. The reality is that it’s generally the aggressive secularists and radical leftists who dislike it the most.

Can you remember many (or even any) of your presents from those Christmases? Probably not. What you are more likely to remember, especially if you were fortunate enough to have a happy childhood, are family gatherings, nice meals, sitting in front of a warm fire watching TV or playing games together.

If you consider yourself a Christian, you’ll want to remind yourself every year of the Christmas story – of the baby Jesus born in a stable to give hope to a troubled world. But even if you’re not, it’s time to go back to basics, to a Christmas of families, long days spent with people who won’t be around forever, children appreciating the magic of the season.

These are the things you’ll cherish in your hearts in years to come. The other stuff, the forced jollity, the Black Fridays, the Manic Mondays, the big-screen TVs and games consoles that seemed so important at the time will all be long forgotten.

A happy and joyous Christmas to you all.

Written by Marcus Stead

December 25, 2014 at 3:42 am

Remembrance Sunday Reflections

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PoppyEarlier this year, I caught up with veteran broadcaster Shaw Taylor, shortly after he revived his role on Police 5 after a gap of 22 years.

Shaw, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, was one of Britain’s most versatile broadcasters, able to be sombre and authoritative, or light-hearted and self-deprecating, depending on the occasion. From the 1950s until he largely retired at the end of 1992, he took on roles as varied as quizmaster, crime fighter, talent show judge and sports commentator.

For many years, his ability to set the tone made him ITV’s commentator of choice on Royal Occasions, as well as at the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, taking on the role Tom Fleming, and nowadays David Dimbleby provides for the BBC.

Shaw understood that the job of commentating on the ceremony was a difficult one. For much of the time, the pictures speak for themselves. Say too much, and you are intruding on a private moment of grief. Say nothing, and you risk leaving younger generations ignorant of and perhaps unable to understand the emotions one experiences at times of war.

Having done his bit during the war, Shaw was well-qualified to articulate these emotions. He was called up from his London office job in 1943 to serve in the RAF, but even as a young man, he wore his trademark glasses, and short-sightedness dashed his hopes of becoming a Spitfire pilot. Nevertheless, he was very active at RAF Ventnor Chain Home Radar Station on the Isle of Wight, before being posted to Japan in the autumn of 1944, and finally Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he was now a Leading Aircraftsman and worked as a teleprinter operator.

Eventually (at some point in the late 1970s or early 80s), ITV stopped covering the Cenotaph, and, on its final year, Shaw wanted to add something that would underline the sheer futility and waste of war but at the same time hint at the comradeship that developed amongst those who fought it.

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Late on the Saturday night before the ceremony, Shaw sat with a blank piece of paper and gazed across the brightly-lit London skyline that he had once seen in pitch darkness lit only by the flickering flames of the blitz. He began to write a poem, and the following morning, as the Band of the Brigade of Guards struck up with ‘Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’, and the dwindling numbers of First World War veterans straightened their backs to lead the parade past the Cenotaph, Shaw picked up his microphone and began to read out his poem, ‘I Watched Him Go’.

At the end of the broadcast, the ITV Midlands franchise, ATV, was inundated with calls from viewers wanting to know who wrote it. Shaw could only answer that it was his hand who wrote it, but who guided his hand he will never know.

The following year, although ITV no longer covered the Cenotaph ceremony, the TV Times printed the verses relating to the armed forces that Shaw had actually broadcast the previous year. The verses dedicated to the civilian services, nursing, the fire brigade and the police were added by Shaw in 1995 and broadcast by the BBC during celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Shaw intended for the poem to reach the young, and he realised its impact when he was contacted by Chris Murray, a teacher of English at an academy in Strasbourg, France. Part of his course was the study of war poets such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert W. Service.

Murray came across the fighter pilot verse of ‘I Watched Him Go’ in a book about the RAF, and not knowing about Shaw’s broadcasting career, assumed him to be a war poet. He made contact and Shaw sent him the poem in full.

Among the works of all the more famous poets, his students voted ‘I Watched Him Go’ to be the poem that most affected them in underlying the futility of, yet at the same time the strange comradeship that develops in times of war.

As we commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One, it seems appropriate to share Shaw’s poem in full on this Remembrance Sunday.

 

I Watched Him Go by Shaw Taylor

I watched him go

He climbed the trench a yard ahead of me

And hardly topped the ridge before he

Stopped stock still, and sagged.

I caught him as he fell.

Our arms entwined we slithered down

The wall of stinking mud until

We hit the duckboards at the bottom.

His eyes stared up “Why me?”

They seemed to say “Why me?”

I lit a fag and gave it him,

He took one puff, enough,

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

The smoke still trickling from his lips.

 

I watched him go.

The boat’s side caving in my ribs.

With shoulders hunched and fingers numb

With cold, I grasped his hands.

Above the gale I heard a yell

“Hold on – for God’s sake hold!”

And realised the voice was mine.

He couldn’t hear. I’d not the strength

To haul him in – nor he

And all the while the greedy sea

Kept dragging him away.

Our fingers touched and parted. Just a kid.

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

His head held back for one last breath.

 

I watched him go.

His wingtip not ten feet from mine.

“Red Leader Bandits Angels Five”

I heard the call and so did he.

He grinned and raised a thumb.

I knew the sign – the first one down sets up the pints!

And then they ran, those round black holes

From near the tail. A perfect line

Of perforation straight to him.

The forward jerk, the smile transfixed,

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A twisting spiral trailing smoke.

 

I watched her go.

Her nurses cape held high to shield her from the heat

We kept the hissing jet of water neat

And straight towards the yellow fangs of flame.

Why did she yell and run bent low towards the blaze?

What did she see? A figure? Shape? A trick of light?

I wedged the writhing nozzle tight

Beneath my arm to keep a sodden path

Between the burning timbers

And the heat crazed walls.

That’s when she went, I watched her go,

Amid the rumbling roar and showering sparks.

 

I watched him go

He hurtled past so fast I laughed.

I’d never seen a policeman run before.

And then I saw the child

In open space, it’s face turned up

Towards the whistling shrieking sound.

The ground came up to meet them as they fell.

The child secure, held safe beneath

A shrapnel shredded tunic seeping red.

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A shield of blue above the unharmed child.

 

They’re all gone now.

 

Their names an unremembered line

On Rolls of Honour glanced at now and then

By those with nothing else to read.

A breed of men and women I was proud to know,

And yet, I never think of them except

On days like this – and sometimes in the lonely night.

And then I wonder why they went?

What hand reached out and took them

In their prime? A time of grief

For those held dear.

Good God, you must have heard

Their prayers you must!

Or is there no-one there to hear?

 

(Copyright Shaw Taylor)

Written by Marcus Stead

November 9, 2014 at 3:37 am

What Can We Learn From Germany?

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We have to admit, however grudgingly, that the right team won the World Cup. There was no obvious stand-out team for most of the tournament, but following their 7-1 annihilation of Brazil in the semi-finals, it was clear that Germany had by far the most balanced team.

They didn’t have a megastar player like Ronaldo or Messi, but there were no significant weaknesses in the team either. To use that tiresome cliché, Germany were ‘efficient’. The rest of the football world is playing catchup.

But it goes beyond football. In terms of economic growth and an approach to life, we in Britain have much to learn from modern-day Germany. It’s very easy to get to Germany in this age of the Channel Tunnel and cheap flights, but it’s remarkable just how little most Britons know about our old rival.

Last year, the BBC made a fascinating programme called ‘Make Me a German’ in which journalist Justin Rowlatt and his wife, Bee, spent a week in Germany and tried to live life as typically as an average German would.

They went to great lengths to get the specifics right, and consulted an advertising agent who had done much research in this area. Everything from the time they got up in the morning, to the supermarket they shopped in, to how they spent their spare time had to be as typical of the average German family as possible. So much so, that they left two of their four children with the grandparents in London, as the average German birth-rate is 1.4 children per couple.

The findings of this programme were fascinating, and each aspect of life can teach valuable lessons to us here in Britain:

Work

Germans work less and earn more than we do. Two thirds work for small and medium sized businesses, most of which are family-owned.

There is no Microsoft, Apple or Amazon in Germany. These are specialist businesses – they tend to do one thing and do it very well. In this instance, Justin went to work at a pencil factory that exported all around the world.

The way they prepare young people for work is different. In Britain, the emphasis is on getting young people to university, even if that means saddling them with huge debts with no guarantee of a good job at the end of it. In Germany, more than half of young people do apprenticeships, something far less rare in Britain due to social snobbery and businesses being unwilling to shell out the costs of training someone up.

There is a sense of loyalty – a lot is expected of the staff but in return the company will do certain things to try to retain them. Like everything else in the programme, Justin’s job at the pencil factory was average and typical of the country.

Germans typically work an eight hour day, which includes an hour for lunch, in which Justin went for a hot meal at the heavily-subsidised staff canteen.

The work itself is hard and disciplined. You are there to work, not to discuss your personal life, gossip about celebrities, or spend half the day on Facebook. You owe it to yourself, your colleagues and your employer to do an honest day’s work.

One of the ways the pencil company helped its staff was by a doctor carrying out regular health checks on the staff. This also gives staff the chance to discuss minor medical matters, something that in Britain would involve making a GP’s appointment, which could quite easily take them away from the workplace for around half a day.

The pay is good, and although wages don’t really rise much above inflation, job security is high. In Justin’s case, he earned €2,250 per month. In addition, he received a transport allowance and extra for working shifts, taking his total monthly salary to €2,802 per month. He also received 30 days holiday per year.

There are taxes to be paid: Income tax, health insurance, pension insurance, unemployment insurance and payment towards nursing care. Justin also pays less tax because he and his wife have children (more on that later).

On top of his salary, Justin will receive a production bonus. It’s yet another incentive to work hard and not let your colleagues down.

Compare this to Britain, where the culture is work long hours in insecure jobs, have the bare minimum of holiday leave, have to rely on a very basic, bureaucratic healthcare system in the NHS, as well as make your own provisions for your old age in terms of nursing costs and anything beyond the miserly state pension.

Housing

There is no property owning fetish in Germany, and unlike Britain, there is no social snobbery attached to renting. Taking out a huge mortgage just so you can say you ‘own’ your own home is not the norm. More than half of Germans rent, including many in well-paid jobs. As ‘typical Germans’, the Rowlatt family lived in a fairly spacious rented 1970s apartment.

Wives and Children

This is where Britain really has lost the plot. Radical leftist and New Labour disciple Patricia Hewitt described stay-at-home mothers as a ‘problem’. Many British women consider being out of the house working, and dependant on the state and an employer rather than a husband as being ‘liberated’. The role of the parent has largely been taken over by the state in the form of ‘childcare’, namely handing very young children over to strangers whose attention will be split between yours and other children.

British ‘childcare’ is a very peculiar concept indeed. Many lower income families have no choice but to do it. Those with higher incomes often decide to let one parent (usually the mother) to stay at home, while making significant sacrifices. They rarely complain, but many draw the line at having to pay taxes to subsidise ‘childcare’ for other families of similar means where both parents choose to work.

We have to wonder why Ms Hewitt and other New Labour apparatchiks are so keen on this. Separating children from their parents as soon as possible so that the state can install its conformist values on them has long been one of the key cardinals of communist regimes, the sort which many New Labour ministers supported in their youth (Hewitt, Reid, Clarke, Mandelson, and others). How many of them still hold these views deep down, but are too politically savvy to say them in public?

Things are very different in Germany. The tax system is unashamedly designed in such a way that it is both affordable and practical for mothers of young children to stay at home and bring them up. There is a social stigma against mothers who go out to work, called ‘raven mothers’. Germans rightly understand that young children require a level of attention that cannot be provided by a stranger in ‘childcare’. They teach them such things as table manners and appropriate behaviour, which would be very welcome indeed in Britain where children running around restaurants and making a noise on public transport has become increasingly common in recent years.

As toddlers, children typically spend a few hours each day in kindergarten, which costs just a fraction of ‘childcare’ in Britain, but these take a very different form. In the programme, Bee took her children to an outdoor kindergarten in a forest. Toys were banned, children bonded with nature and developed their communication skills with each other. Importantly, they also learnt to clean up after themselves and the site was spotless as they left. They seemed happy and content – they were allowed to be children and spent time in a natural environment, rather than in stuffy rooms with computers and plastic toys.

Primary school doesn’t start until the age of six and the school day is short. At secondary school age, there is a three-pronged system which sends children to schools that best suit their abilities and natural skills. There isn’t some cruel ‘Eleven Plus’ style exam to determine this, instead, it takes the form of a discussion between parent, pupil and teacher, and the decision can easily be changed if it turns out to be the wrong one.

Shopping

The overwhelming majority of Germans shop at discount supermarket chains, with Aldi having by far the biggest market share. Credit cards are frowned upon – the German word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’ – ‘schulden’, and people mostly pay for things with good honest cash.

Leisure Time

Social life in Germany seems more varied and more interesting than in Britain, where millions come home from work and spend night after night watching television, barely knowing their neighbours or having much to do with the wider community. In every German town and city, there are lots of ‘societies’ where people take part in purposeful social activities. In this instance, Justin joined a singing society (a particularly popular activity), a group of about 30 people, male and female, from a varied age group. There was plenty of time for eating and drinking both in the interval and afterwards, but the singing itself was structured and had a purpose.

Sunday

In Germany, Sunday is a genuine day of rest. The shops are closed and people are expected to behave quietly. Noisy activities such as drilling and mowing the lawn are prohibited and police have the power to impose fines, on a scale of proportion, for people who violate such laws. In this programme, there was an incident (possibly staged) where the Rowlatt children were making a noise that disturbed the neighbours, and they received a visit from a neighbour, a policeman, who informed them of the Sunday laws.

In Britain, the Sabbath was largely abandoned in 1994, when the Sunday Trading Act effectively turned the day into one of shopping and spending, rather than worship, relaxation and family.

Football

The way in which German football clubs are run is radically different from those in the English Premier League. In Germany, the fans own 50% plus one share. Tickets for good seats cost around €15, meaning ordinary fans can easily afford to watch their teams play.

The English Premier League is to a large extent predictable, with leading clubs more-or-less buying a place in the near the top of the league. There is a soullessness about it. Well over half the clubs are now under foreign ownership, and there is a real sense of detachment between the clubs and the communities in which they are based. The stadiums may be full, but the atmospheres are flat as ordinary fans are priced out of the ground with corporate interests and the well-off filling the seats.

Many foreign owners see buying a football club as a snobbish status symbol, the same way insecure men in Britain buy Porsches to draw attention to themselves. Another motive for a person of extreme wealth to buy a football club is that it can effectively become a form of money laundering.

The way German clubs are structured prevents this from ever happening to them, and what’s more, they’re very successful! German clubs have been far more prevalent in the latter stages of the Champions League than their English counterparts in recent seasons, and, as is now blatantly obvious, a far better structure is in place to ensure the German national team has a good supply of talent. The matches themselves are played in atmospheric, noisy stadiums populated by real fans.

In conclusion, German people, it seems, do not take their lifestyles for granted. The country was flattened and bankrupted after World War II, and it required hard work, discipline and good management to build it up. Much more recently, the cost of reunification in the period after 1989 was hugely expensive. Today, Germany is effectively bailing out countries caught up in the Eurozone crisis.

Personal financial responsibility is taken seriously. As we’ve already established, debt is discouraged, while people on average save far more of their incomes, allowing banks to loan out far more to people starting their own small businesses.

Germany will continue to face difficulties and challenges in the years ahead as the Eurozone crisis continues, yet in terms of work, family, leisure and overall quality of life, there is much we in Britain could learn.

Written by Marcus Stead

July 21, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Posted in Comment, Politics, Review