Monday, 15 July 2019

Another one over. See you next year Wimbledon.

Over five hours of tennis. Epic, grandiose, nail-biting to the end. Federer should really have won. He could perhaps even have won in three straight sets. But he didn’t. He probably let Djokovic off the hook. No disrespect to Djokovic. He’s a truly great player, but the majority of beautiful tennis, of excitement, thrills and variety came from Federer. Djokovic seemed quite flat at times. All the more credit to him for maintaining his focus but Federer had more chances. In their previous two finals at Wimbledon it felt inevitable that Novak would win. Not yesterday. That will make it hurt doubly for Federer. Next year he’ll be thirty-eight. Logic dictates that yesterday’s final was his last though with Federer logic is at times wasted. Some of the tennis he played yesterday defied logic. Sublime drop shots, exceptional half volleys at his toes, backhands winners down the line. The line is, he makes it looks easy. Which it isn’t. That is his genius. Djokovic, at times, doesn’t make it look easy. But his defence is the greatest in tennis history. That is his genius. You think he is in trouble, but he still comes away with the point.  Federer’s game fits grass court tennis like a glove. Djokovic, at times, looks like a flailing octopus in comparison. Yet he won. Aesthetics win you fans but they don’t always win you tennis matches. Still I feel for Federer and felt very sad. Novak is thirty-two and will have more chances. Federer may not. But his tennis this year will stay with me for a long time. He was also part of the two greatest matches on the men’s side. The other being the semi -final against Nadal. Not quite an epic, but still four sets of thrills and spills by the men’s game’s two greatest rivals and greatest stars.
Finals often disappoint, in other sports too and this one started off quite subdued. But momentum gradually built, and it finished up the longest men’s final ever, if perhaps not quite as dramatic as in 1980 between Mcenroe and Bjorg, 2008 between Federer and Nadal and of course, Andy Murray vs. Novak in 2013.The women’s final, by comparison, lasted one hour and was fairly drab by comparison. The winner Simona Halep will receive the same amount of money as Djokovic for spending a fifth of the amount of time on court. Sometimes the quest for equality fails to deliver justice. Surely true equality would oblige the women to play the best of five sets too?  
Another highlight was Andy Murray’s return to the doubles arena. Men’s and mixed with Serena Williams. It was tremendous seeing them play together and enjoying themselves too. Not that they weren’t competitive, but they were relaxed. A rare treat for them and the spectators. Murray, it seems, still has a part to play, which is wonderful, a player of true class. Serena Williams, like Federer, thirty-seven, impressively again made it to the singles final. Not that long ago she almost died during childbirth. She is an astonishing player and presence; a force of nature. Dan Evans, the English player who was banned for a year for using cocaine acquitted himself very well and is a very entertaining tennis player, with an old school game suited to the fast grass. His 5 - set loss to Sousa, the Portuguese – a far higher ranked player - was one of the matches of the tournament. Full of suspense and excitement. If he had won and he had chances, he would have met Nadal. What a thrill that would have been. He probably doesn’t have the weapons to trouble the big guns, but he plays with skill, adventure and enthusiasm and will hopefully have a successful year.
A couple of other points. In the sixties and early seventies, Australia was one of the dominant countries in tennis, both for men and women; Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Tony Roach, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court and Yvonne Goolagong amongst others. In the eighties we had Pat Cash, in the nineties, Pat Rafter both sublime serve volleyers and grand slam champions and also Leighton Hewitt. Less flamboyant, more pragmatic, but a world number one. This year, granted, Ashleigh Barty won the ladies French Open, a fine achievement, but on the men’s side who do we have? Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios. Both have talent, Kyrgios, in particular, is spectacular at times, but their attitude of belligerence and disinterest and Kyrgios’ swearing and spitting on court – making his mate Andy Murray, almost saint-like in comparison – are tiresome and depressing. Still, it’s their life and it is only tennis, but the sport needs to maintain some dignity in a world currently so lacking and they have failed to respect that, unfortunately. But as Jean Renoir, the great French film Director, said, in his film, ‘The rules of the game’, “chacun a ses raisons”, i.e.  “everyone has their reasons”. I’m not judging them but as a tennis fan it is my right to criticize.
Wimbledon, like Christmas come around once a year and disappears too quickly. A metaphor for life, I suppose. I miss it already.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Garden notes with some Wimbledon chat thrown in...

"At Christmas, I no more desire a rose, than wish a snow in May's new fangled birth; But like of each thing that in season grows." William Shakespeare, Love's Labours Lost.

July already. Half-way point of the year. How are your gardens coming along? It won’t get much better than this so enjoy the colours. Summer, seems to have finally arrived. Pleasantly warm, blue skies, light winds. After the coldest and wettest June that I can remember in all my time in London, things have calmed down. And following the incongruity of last weekend’s brief Mediterranean heat, the ‘Spanish Plume’, plume not plum, as they call it - essentially hot air travelling up from Africa across the Iberian Peninsula towards us - things have developed into a classic English summer. That intense level of heat of last Saturday just feels odd. You should be in a place with palm trees and ice cold cerveza and calamari when it’s thirty-three degrees. Now it’s looking good for quite a while AND it’s the first week of Wimbledon too. Lovely weather and Wimbledon without rain. England at its best. Don’t read the newspapers or watch the politicians. That’s England at its worst. Watch tennis. And good news, it’s not been snatched by Sky Sports yet either.
         Is Wimbledon the greatest tournament of all? I’d say so, but I loathe comparison and everything or almost everything in life is subjective. Is it just jingoism? Nostalgia? Perhaps, but not quite. There is something about the grass, the gentility, the history, the atmosphere, the uniqueness. A cushion to protect those of us lucky enough to love the game from the harsher realities of the world. Or at least forget them temporarily. But tennis is more than that. We can learn from it. Wimbledon is a place where beauty, dignity and respect thrive, one or two Australian louts aside. Neither beauty nor dignity nor respect are priorities of politicians or the capitalist machine.  Now the French open, also a great tournament, is played on clay. Clay will never have the romance of grass. That’s just aesthetics, it’s a natural reaction of the senses. If you go to Paris and go to one of the beautiful parks, on closer inspection, the white gravel leaves you a bit cold. And they don’t let you sit on the grass. A double whammy. The French are better than us at many things, including tennis – Andy Murray aside - but regarding public parks, perhaps they can cede defeat. Regents Park, Hampstead Heath, Richmond Park and all the other beautiful parks up and down the country are testimony to that. And an English garden does, after all, have a certain renown and reputation.
         So back to the garden. The French lavender, after a strong April and May is suffering, losing most of its colour and the bees with it. Perhaps the cold and wet of June did for it. And I have noticed waking around the neighbourhood that English lavender is currently thriving. A beautiful purple/blue colour with intense perfume. Perhaps that’s my comeuppance for being too pro-European. An interesting development has been the white lavender. This is the wonder of a garden. It was planted last year but I don’t remember it being white before. In retrospect, I think it didn’t flower. The scabious is thriving, loved by bees as is the buddleia, a late bloomer and always welcome. On the lawn, some buttercups have sprung up. What a thrill to see those yellow flowers. The simple act of visual recognition does something to the brain and takes you back through time to childhood innocence and enthusiasm. Well, I was mostly innocent. The other marvel is the thyme pot. A pot belonging to my absent friend Daniel Kirkpatrick who cooked with it when he was still with us. The mass of colours would have pleased him. And the roses are currently budding again after their first flowering. There is literally one rose flower in bloom today (from three plants). A single solitary and most beautiful English Miss, yes that’s the name; English Miss. Delightful name, delightful colour and perfume. And perhaps just one is apt. Two English Misses could be considered indecent.
         Birdlife is relatively quiet. Swifts screeching across the sky, like something from Star Wars, herald summer at its peak. Still city birds, unlike swallows for example, they nest in holes they find in these old Victorian houses. The odd blackcap, a summer visitor, the odd wren, so tiny. Blue and great tits. Goldfinches, so gregarious and beautiful. A dunnock, the bird which proves that still waters run deep. Drab and brown they hop about looking for seeds. But they enjoy rather exciting love lives. Polygamous, essentially the swingers of the bird world. The ubiquitous robin and blackbird. Blackbirds are rather taken for a granted, I think. Their melodious song is one of the symbols of spring and summer and the male is really rather beautiful. Jet black plumage contrasting with orange eyes and beak. Sadly, no summer visitors such as warblers yet, but there is time for that. Plenty of unidentifiable insects flying about. A large green cricket on the wall. Little centipedes fleeing the light when uncovered by moving plant pots. An unusual wasp with long antennae. A harvestman which I don't think I've seen since I was a kid. No it's not a cheap pub chain. It's related to spiders. A round body and giant long legs. The odd mammoth bumble bee and some solitary wasps and bees. Small. Tiny in fact and colourful. They’re useful pollinators and unlike social wasps and bees, the fear of a sting, which we seem to have ingrained in us, is an irrelevance. Hoverflies too, using wasp mimickery to trick potential predators - are again harmless and identifiable, by their hovering, naturally enough. All these insects are what you want you to see in your garden. One other more unusual sight last Saturday evening was a hummingbird hawkmoth. Very striking, it is basically, a large striped moth that feeds like a hummingbird i.e. hovering in front of plants to suck their nectar with a long proboscis. And it is predominantly Mediterranean. We saw one whilst walking past a garden. Almost certainly it hitched a ride on the Spanish plume across the English Channel, ended up in North London and presumably returned again as the weather cooled. They surely couldn’t survive a normal summer here. An astonishing thing is nature. Now back to the tennis.

Friday, 21 June 2019

Its tennis time again in London. Queens Club tournament and its German counterpart.

I watched a tennis match yesterday. Nothing unusual in that. It’s the season. Andy Murray was playing. At Queens Club in West London, the pre-cursor to Wimbledon. That was unusual. He could hardly walk five months ago. Subsequent hip surgery has given him his movement back. It’s unlikely he’ll make back to the top as a singles player, I fear, but as a doubles player he gave us a great spectacle. Alongside his partner - he was playing with another elder statesman and former Queens champion, Feliciano ‘Wile E Coyote’ Lopez – he took to the court and they won. They beat the favourites. Murray’s class shone through. He has won Queens Club five times. It seemed apt.
            I’ve been watching Queens Club since the late eighties. Many an afternoon, I would rush home at lunchtime with relish to watch it and reluctantly leave a little later to go back to school, resenting the boredom that awaited me. It was, of course, a different time. In those days it was the Stella Artois tournament. These days its sponsored by a very trendy and successful drinks mixer brand, Fever Tree. In all fairness, Gin and Tonic does seem more appropriate for the genteel surroundings than a beer which is alternatively known as “wife beater”.
            The tennis has changed too. Thirty years ago, serve and volley tactics dominated the grass game. These days not so much, so it was a pleasure to watch another match yesterday between the Frenchman Nicolas Mahut and the great Swiss, Stan Wawrinka. Mahut, an excellent doubles player, is a little old school, volleying, sliced backhand chip and charge and so on. And he won. Granted, Wawrinka arguably let the match slip out of his hands and he is not a natural grass court player, perhaps? The speed and unpredictability being tricky for him but he has three Grand Slams and awesome power. So well done Mahut. I’ve spent seventeen summers in London and never been to Queens Club. I did try once with my mate Richie, in 2015, but the queues were so long we thought ‘sod it’ and watched it in a pub round the corner. I should rectify that as it has huge charm. A sort of mini-Wimbledon. Impossible to know who will win, but whoever does will take massive confidence into Wimbledon. The young Greek, Tsitsipas, is favourite and looks pretty good, but Raonic, the giant Canadian is a danger.
            The German equivalent of Queens is also happening this week. In Halle, West Germany. Also played on grass it attracts an equally impressive field of players including Roger Federer who has won it about twelve times. It’s very different from the cosmopolitan, ‘Pimms on the lawn’ feel of West London. Massively different, I can confirm as I’ve been there twice. Gerry Weber, whoever he is, set it up in the 1990’s. A sports stadium and not much else, in the middle of rolling, verdant countryside. A little incongruous but I like that. He may have worked in Fashion. There is a catwalk at the tournament. That’s as fancy as it gets though. Catwalk strutting models aside - many of whom, are refreshingly non-skeletal - it’s delightfully low key and delightfully German. Great beer or ‘pilsner’ as they call it, served in real glass, not plastic cups.  Bratwurst sausages on a bun, chips with industrial mayonnaise. What’s not to like. And lots of little plump German ladies and gentleman who are there for a good time and for great tennis. Nothing else. Not to be seen, not to show off, just to enjoy themselves. It’s amazingly uncool which of course makes it far cooler than anything which aims to be cool and the tennis is great. If I had to pick, I’d take that over Queens any day.  Nothing against Queens, but Halle has that unique charm. And better beer, better sausages and a catwalk. And we still have Wimbledon.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Efficiency over beauty. Thoughts inspired by a tennis match.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windemere’s Fan.

  Watching a particular point last week between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal at the French Open semi-final epitomised the theory and concept of efficiency over beauty. For those of you not familiar with the technicalities of tennis, Roger Federer’s magnificent one-handed backhand has certain limits, i.e. his ability to compete when the ball bounces very high. The two-handed backhand, though less aesthetically pleasing – resembling more a cricket shot – is far more efficient in being competitive on the high bounce. One of the main advantages Nadal has over Federer – and other single handers like Stan Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem – on clay, at least, is his left-handed cross-court topspin forehand, which bounces at shoulder height to Federer’s right backhand. He simply cannot remain competitive in these rallies. My point? Someone like Djokovich can, as he uses the double hander. In other words, elegance and beauty have been sacrificed for efficiency.
'The winner takes it all'. 'To the winner the spoils. 'To win someone’s heart'. Winning is sadly but truthfully, almost everything. And certain tennis players understood this and changed tennis forever. Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg were the first two male tennis stars of the modern era to use the double-handed backhand. Traditionally, in both men’s and women’s tennis, the single hander was the go-to shot. These days, as I understand it, no women in the top 100 use it. In the 80’s, however, in men’s tennis, the one-handed backhand remained dominant, but by the 90’s two more world number ones, Jim Courrier and Andre Agassi had taken it on, profiting from the extra control and especially, defence, that the double gives. Fifteen years later, the only top ten single hander was Roger Federer. In the last fifteen years only two players have won grand slams using the one-handed backhand, Federer, of course and Stan Wawrinka. The rest of the so-called big four; Nadal, Djokovich and Andy Murray, all play with the two-handed backhand and the only other two players to win a grand slam since 2005, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin Del Potro, likewise. Less romantic, less beautiful but more efficient.   
Such is the way of things. Luckily for the romantics amongst us, the aforementioned Thiem from Austria and Stefanos Tsitsipas from Greece, tennis’ latest star – like a cross between Bjorn Borg and Barry Gibb in his Staying Alive phase – both play with the single backhand and both look like future slam winners, and maybe even before Nadal, Djokovich and Federer retire.
This sacrificing of beauty and elegance for efficiency isn’t limited to tennis of course, or other sports, for that matter. Formula One being an example. Obviously with Formula One, safety has also been an important consideration but anyone who believes that the contemporary version is more entertaining than the 70’s 80’s or 90’s is living in cloud cuckoo land. Equally, beyond sport, things have developed in a similar way. Passenger planes, like Formula One cars are more efficient, more automated and safer but undoubtedly less beautiful, inside and out. Has there ever been a more extraordinary plane than the Concorde? Extraordinary yes, but fuel-efficient? I fear not. Cars, similarly are more reliable but aesthetically? Let’s not even go there. They all seem to look the same for one thing. Clearly beauty and elegance are not the world’s priority. Profit and balance sheets trump aesthetics every time.
I’m working my way – very slowly – through a book called The Relevance of the Beautiful. It’s fairly dull, highly intellectual and having been written about 80 years ago, feels very distant from most of modern culture but when I do understand what the author is talking about it does makes me think about beauty, art and morality. In other words, the history of art, its origins, its place in our society. Yes, fairly irrelevant probably, in these days of Facebook, Love Island and The Fast and the Furious part 25 but what the hell. Beauty, sadly, may not be a priority but it inspires me every day. A rose, a sunset, Roger Federer’s single backhand. And it's free too. Just needs a bit of your attention. I’ll take that over a bunch of narcissistic cretins trying to get laid or some pointless celebrity on Instagram but I guess I’m in the minority. 
Oscar Wilde, I suspect, would have disdained modern trash culture but perhaps not have hated the perpetrators. Perhaps he’d even feel sorry for them, though he’d probably claim never to think about them. Them not being worthy of his energy. I’m trying not to hate them and certainly trying not to think of them. Art for art’s sake? I’m not sure about that Oscar but beauty for beauty’s sake? Certo, as they in Italy and they know a thing or two about beauty. Perhaps not so much about efficiency? And so it goes on. Oh well, it’s Wimbledon time soon. Green lawns and white shirts. No tennis shirts that look like they were designed by Jackson Pollock. Nothing wrong with Jackson, certainly but perhaps not for a tennis shirt. Keeping it simple. Simplicity, beauty and elegance often go together. I’ll take heart in that.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

May 1989. Street Fighting Years and Simple Minds. So not much has changed...

"In the bowling alleys, in the easy living, something good got lost along the way." Paul Buchanan. "High" by The Blue Nile.

Thirty years ago, May 1989,  Glasgow. A warm summer was beginning. I have a memory for these things. It was also a pretty decent summer for music too, I think? Jason Donovan aside, though he was right; there are too many broken hearts in the world. There was Midnight Oil, Beds Are Burning, a good tune with a strong political message. I can’t actually remember much else. But there was an album, Street Fighting Years by Simple Minds, released in May 1989. Lots of people liked them, lots of people didn’t. Back then, they were a pretty sizeable operation. And they were from Glasgow too.  
         For me, I’d become a fan a couple of years before, when I heard their live album, called Live In The City Of Light. Copied on tape from the LP by my friend’s big brother. I was blown away and bombarded my mother with it in the car for a couple of years, much to her dismay, I suspect. An album of power and great atmosphere. I was hooked and devoured their back catalogue, as varied and original as any British rock band, I’d say. As a youngster to become a big fan of a band, is an emotional experience, so my anticipation of their first new album since I had become a fan was huge. I knew a couple of tracks already, Belfast Child, in particular, a number one single, so there was anticipation. Nobody would write a song about Northern Ireland these days. Nobody needs to, perhaps? 1989 was a more volatile time in that part of the world. Also, the internet has allowed us all to have a say. And gentrification in the UK as a whole; Coffee shops, sourdough and vegan muffins have smoothed things over. Collectively, we’re just all a bit smoother and smugger than we were in 1989. The middle classes, at least.
Anyway, I bought the cassette and I still, just about, remember listening to the title track for the first time. Acoustic bass and rolling piano chords? Slide guitar? No crashing drums. It was all very soft. Soft but insistent. The antithesis of the live album, but I thought it was beautiful. I still do. An emotive song which starts off a gentle stream, transforms itself into a huge powerful ocean wave and then ends as a long tranquil river flowing into the sea. It was dedicated to a man called Victor Jara, a Chilean folk singer, a voice of freedom, murdered by the state. It was that type of Album. Soul Crying out, another beauty, was about the Poll Tax. Remember the Poll Tax? “Like a tax on breathing” as Jim Kerr, the singer called it. And they tried it on Scotland first. Nice move, Maggie!  This Is Your Land - with an ecological polemic, presumably inspired by This Land Is Our Land a Woodie Guthrie song, covered by Bruce Springsteen - had guest vocals by Lou Reed. You’d have to feel pretty good about life if Lou Reed agrees to perform your song, wouldn’t you? Manu Katché, the sensational Peter Gabriel drummer was there. And Stewart Copeland, legendary drummer with the Police got involved too. Pretty good team, I’d say.   
I still listen to those three songs. They’ve endured, the rest perhaps a little less so? The album ends with a beautiful bagpipe track called When Spirits Rise too. Again this was new. Simple Minds were pretty electronic in the early days. They had dance beats. Then came lush, ambient sounds and atmosphere. Then they become a rock band. Now it was bagpipes and violins. It was an original type of album. It’s not considered a classic, but there is some greatness there, for me. And courage, to move away from their previous success and completely change the style. It was, also, a different time for popular music. Rock Bands had a part to play in the political process. Simple Minds, amongst others, were partly responsible for helping to release Nelson Mandela. They wrote the song Mandela Day for the Mandela concert at Wembley stadium, the previous year. That summer, 1989, they filled Wembley stadium themselves and played that song as well as other anti-apartheid classics;  Biko by Peter Gabriel and Sun City by Little Steven, Bruce Springsteen guitarist and collaborator. A year later, Mandela was free. These days Wembley is filled by Ed Sheeran’s one-man-band, sponsored by Ryan Air. Popular music, like flying used to be a bit more romantic, a bit more exciting, a bit less smooth and a bit more dangerous.  
The record and tour were big news. They were big, though it lost them America, commercially at least, maybe a bit too militant for the Regan Era or just too different from the previous studio record, “Once Upon A Time” which was very successful there. Furthermore, at the end of the year, after the tour, their original keyboard player - integral to their sound since the beginning - Mick McNeil, left the band, never to return. Maybe it all got a bit too much for him. Either way, Simple Minds, for me, at least were never quite the same. And I’ve never quite got over it. As I said, it was an emotional involvement. The political activism never really returned either. 1989 was just that kind of year, I suppose. Tiananmen Square, China. The Berlin Wall coming down, accompanied, perhaps not unsurprisingly, in news reels by another song from the same album, Let It All Come Down. You’d think they’d planned it, but I don’t think they did, it was just that type of year. And they’re still doing it, Jim Kerr and the highly under-rated guitarist Charlie Burchill, thirty years later and good on them, they continue to create new music and tour the world successfully with varying line-ups as opposed to doing 80’s re-union tours to pay the bills. They haven’t stood still. Nostalgia shouldn’t be a lament, but quite naturally, it often is. I try to live in the moment, though a part of me, will forever want to be back in my room for a little while, that May of 1989, West End of Glasgow, trees blowing in the summer breeze, listening to that album for the first time.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

A slow start to summer won't dampen my mood...

“It was fine May weather, with the hawthorn flowering on every hedge.”
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

There hasn’t been any fine May weather so far. More of that later. A miracle of nature has just been and gone. Cherry blossom this year was particularly striking.  Did you notice? The delightful pink colour contrasting with the blue skies of early to mid-April is one of the visual highlights of the year. There were plenty of blue skies in the first half of April and some very cold nights. Whether this made any difference or not it was most impressive. March was dull, mild and grey. April was mostly cold, barring the exceptional heat wave over Easter. With lots of sunshine. That must have helped.
A potential consequence of the Easter heat has seen another marvel manifesting in the garden. The lavender plants are positively thriving after a poor summer last season undoubtedly due to my over-eager chopping the previous winter. The roots and branches stretching out with impressive suppleness to maximise contact with the sun, they are a magnificent sight. A classic favourite with bees, the cold weather seems to be limiting their fluffy, buzzing presence but the lavender plants are proving most popular with a range of different bumble bees which are working away despite the low temperatures. Most of us think of a bumble bee as the large hairy one with black and white stripes and a yellow tail. This is true but there are many other species to look out for. The first to come this year was a small black bumble, then a more classic stripey bumble of relatively small stature. And a bronze coloured one. I’ve only seen one large bumble so far. Hopefully as the weather warms and more flowers come into bloom, their number and variety will increase. Keep an eye out, there are more types than you might imagine.
            As Shakespeare noted in his sonnet, “rough winds do shake the darling buds of May”. There have been some rough winds and cold winds. Storm Hannah in late April did some damage and more recently,  winds coming from the Arctic over a still cold North Sea have made it distinctly un-summer like. The cold start to May seems to be limiting activity in general but there are signs of another of my favourite gifts from the plant world. The beautiful sight of hawthorns is beginning to unfold and should reach fullness of expression around the third week of May. Look out for those splendid white flowers, it won’t last long.
            One other jewel is imminent. My first rose flowers of the summer should soon arrive. Nurturing plants and see them flower is a powerful act. And developing a new relationship, as it were, as I have since I started growing roses is akin to making new friendships with all the joy, anticipation and discovery that comes from it. Like friendships or any relationship, in fact, gardening is a case of the more you put in, the more you get out. A rose flower shows the genius and wonder of nature as well as anything; The detail, the intricacy, the delicacy, the beauty. It's worth the effort.
            I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently in an “English garden, waiting for the sun”. Not sitting though, too cold for that. De-weeding, tidying and planting. Summer sun may be reticent and secretive at the moment but it makes it all the sweeter when it does come.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

All hail, Cesar, AKA Billy Mcneill.

A great man died yesterday. Billy McNeill captain of the Lisbon Lions, the legendary Celtic team that were the first Brits to win the European Cup, in 1967.  The leader of a swashbuckling attack-minded group of players saturated with legends: Jimmy Johnstone, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch etc. All of them, the entire team, that is, were from within thirty miles of Glasgow. In addition, the manager was the greatest of his generation, Jock Stein, Alex Ferguson’s mentor. That match changed football. Beating Inter Milan, the bronzed Italian Adonises, whose defensive style had dominated European football, opened the door to other attacking teams. The following years, it was Manchester United’s turn. Ajax with their “total football” won three in a row, a few years later. Celtic’s ground-breaking victory would not have happened without Billy McNeill, I suspect. Every successful team needs a great captain.  Tall and majestic he had that rare gift of poise. Nicknamed Cesar, not due to any Roman connection though it does fit a man of his majesty, it was due to him owning the same car as the character Cesar from the original Ocean’s Eleven film. One of the few players in those days at Celtic to own a car, most of them took the bus to training.  A man of dignity and honour, like his contemporary, the English captain, Bobby Moore, a far cry from the bling and tack that is modern football, though Bobby Moore managed to be a bit of a celebrity in the seventies, he was never cretinized by wealth like the circus that is the contemporary game.
              They came from a different time. A time where they would consider luxuries, what we take for granted; Central heating, an inside toilet, a hot shower, a car, good food. Such training in life must keep one's feet on the ground, surely.  People like Billy McNeill are a lesson to modern times. Their values should be taught in schools. Our self-obsessed, self-indulgent culture of entitlement where mediocrity is often celebrated or at least tolerated has its plus points, of course. I’m very grateful for the modern luxuries but our crass lack of dignity as a society would surely have been a big turn-off to the great and modest Billy McNeill.  Or maybe, not? Maybe he would have taken it in his stride like he did everything else. Suffering dementia for many years and latterly unable to speak, he remained a devoted and loyal family man. His family should be proud. And we, not just football fans should be grateful. Thank-you Cesar.