Thursday, 31 August 2017

How to save Test Match cricket

I recently wrote about the impact of the cult of satisfy-me-now on cricket and how this ridiculous attitude was killing the virtues of Test Match Cricket. How then to solve this? 

Firstly, I think it worth commenting on the notion of “the shorter the better,” which frankly I think is ridiculous. If a piece of music is great, let’s hear it for longer! By that I don’t mean just repeat the same guitar riff or vocal hook as that would soon get boring, but try and find a way of extending it in a way that complements the existing passage. This is why classical and progressive music exists across so many forms. If you visit a magnificent restaurant, you don’t want to wolf down a Big Mac and chips, but relish more courses and take your time. When film producers decide they want to turn Lord of the Rings into a movie, they make three volumes instead of trying to cram everything into the shortest possible framework – the same thing goes for the likes of Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. You get the idea: if you’re onto something good, make it last rather than being puritanical and condensing it into a micro moment.

When thinking about the impact of T20 cricket on the Test Match format, it is worth considering the period of “timeless tests” during the twenties and thirties in which many series would climax with a test removed of the limitations of time in the event that both teams were draw level at that point. The final one of these was played in 1939 and was abandoned as a draw after ten days as England would have missed the boat home (frustratingly England had reached 654 for 5 in pursuit of a victory target of 696). Now I am not advocating a return to these for a number of reasons, but there is something epically wondrous about the idea of being able to go out and bat forever should skill and mental fortitude allow this to take place. I’ll never forget the games of cricket in the school playground whereby, having fantasized during the morning math’s lesson of batting forever at breaktime, I would carelessly get bowled first ball and then have to wait for the entire group to have their turn at an innings before I would get another chance. Knowing full well that this could take multiple playtimes (perhaps even a week if someone got in and stayed in) I would naturally protest that it was a no ball or that it was just a practice go – to no avail. Cricket is both timeless and instant in its very nature and it has to have a weighty enough platform upon which to show off its epic grandeur.

Back to international cricket then and I firmly believe that the three formats of the game need to be coordinated in a way that gives sufficient weight to the longer form and brings them together. All series should comprise of 3 20:20s, 3 One Day games and then either 3 or 5 tests, depending on the status of the teams involved. I have no problem with the concept of a two-division format, although promotion and relegation would need to be managed over a certain length of time in order to sufficiently plan ahead for future tours. More importantly, tests should be scored in order to create a meaningful ranking of teams, so that there is a clear positional table with a “winner” at the end of each year or season. The scoring needs to reflect the complexity and nuance of the game, with more batting points on offer if runs are scored in challenging conditions (i.e. a hundred in a low scoring game is worth more than if a side reaches over 500) and the overall points should definitely be worth more if a side performs well away from home. This is crucial in order to incentivize domestic teams to produce players capable of performing in conditions other than what they are used to on a weekly basis in their own country. We need sufficient motivation in order for English seam bowlers to find a way of taking wickets on hard pitches that offer no swing or seam and for sub continent batsmen to be able to handle a green top surface. Only then will more series be competitive and sides avoid the sort of spineless collapses that mean yo-yoing series in which matches are over within three days.

Part of the challenge here is to calibrate and co-ordinate these fixtures so that every country is able to play their best players throughout the year and for that reason the ICC need to deal with fixture scheduling properly – that means tackling the IPL, Big Bash and other franchised global 20:20 leagues. These can exist, but personally I would remove first class status from them in order to create a more balanced context for players to judge their own stats (Yes I can make a load of money, have a great time and meet other professionals but my runs and wickets won’t count in my overall record). I would have perhaps 2 or 3 short windows throughout the cricketing calendar in which these tournaments can be held, but it is then up to players to decide on whether to participate as by doing so they risk burnout due to forgoing their natural rest breaks. As a consequence, more players will identify perhaps only one or two of these in the main part of their career with the final participation being towards the end in order to garner a perfectly reasonable pre-retirement payday (aka the Top 14 rugby completion in France). 

The goal here has got to be about building positivity and mystique around the game, rather than forever talking about it in a negative light (i.e. what is wrong with it or what needs amending). The great series of the past should be actively discussed and promoted with the outstanding players, performances and matches taking on legendary status – again I would liken this to the Lions tours in rugby where as much of the excitement is down to the esteem that rugby fans hold past series and the myths that go with them. It is crucial that children are exposed to this without financial barrier, which is why I would let in under 16s for free on the last day of a test match (you’ll get the money back by their lifetime love for the game and potentially their participation) and if attendances start to increase then ground capacities can be expanded further, along with the benefit that wider TV audiences would bring. The remuneration should extend to the players and it is imperative that financial rewards for Test Matches should completely outweigh those for the limited over’s format. I include as part of this, sponsorship deals for the leading batsmen and bowlers, who should also have their performances incentivized financially.

Test Match cricket is all about those intense, spectacular moments that take place within the broader tapestry of the five day window. Let us cast our minds back to the greatest series of them all in 2005 when England finally win back the Ashes urn after 26 years. The first four matches were action packed, with wickets and runs flowing on a consistent basis and with it the momentum of the series, but actually the final match at the Oval bucked that trend. With Simon Jones injured, England won the toss and batted with the intention of trying to force Australia out of sight. They only half managed that but as a consequence of having struggled so much against England’s pace attack, the Australian top order took so long to score their runs that the match essentially reached the end of day four with two innings completed and England having to survive a day to force the required draw. By comparison it had been a relatively turgid affair (though admittedly involving great discipline from England’s bowlers and resolve from Langer and Hayden). Then at the final hour, the climactic scenes burst forth and who could have expected what came to pass on that last day? A flurry of wickets and England looked as if they were going to crumple and fall at the final hurdle, having worked so hard to be in a position to win the series. I watched aghast, clutching at the arms of the sofa, not wishing to believe that the match would be lost, only for Kevin Pietersen to launch an astonishing assault on the Australian bowling attack and make a magnificent debut century in the face of defeat. That century would have been astounding had it been in a limited overs format, but the fact that it came in the context of the match and the series, gave it a level of credit that only Test Matches can generate.

That is what we must fight to save. 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The left breaks away: the cult of isolationism

Laura Pidcock, the Labour MP says she could never be friends with a Tory: 'Whatever type they are, I have absolutely no intention of being friends with any of them.'

Never mind the fact that Parliament is supposed to work for the greater good of the country, irrespective of political affiliation. That’s not to say that all MPs are supposed to agree on issues – quite the opposite (and even if they do the opposition exist to call the government of the day into question and hold them to account) – but they do have an obligation to work together on certain issues. The most notable are when security is called into question with the outbreak of war or terrorism; and also on cross party measures and initiatives. Very often, you would find a socialist Labout MP chatting with a landowner Tory MP at the bar over a whiskey – evidently that is something the new generation are keen to avoid.

The thing I find ironic is that there are a great many on the left who condemn the divides we face in society in the wake of the Brexit vote and yet here is one of their MPs essentially calling for an even greater divide. In other words, if you represent the other lot we’re not talking to you – you’re the enemy. I’m sure the majority of Tory MPs are sufficiently thick-skinned not to let this upset them all that much, but how does this approach cascade down the ranks of society? Does Laura Pidcock only represent the people who voted for her? Will she regard all non-Pidcock voters in her constituency as the enemy, especially those who voted Tory? How then does she intend to win their vote if the dialogue is abandoned and the drawbridge pulled up? I am assuming, of course, that she actually wishes for a discourse, after all many socialists are against free speech and the art of debating. 

In Labour’s landslide victory in 1997, many people who had voted for Maggie Thatcher in the eighties, voted for Tony Blair. In order to obtain their vote, he had to reach out to them, to understand them, their aspirations, values, passions and suchlike. How on earth would he have achieved that if he had simply regarded them as the enemy? It is possible of course that if the Tory party were to continue its lamentable performance from this year’s election campaign over the coming 12 months then Corbyn’s Labour party could get voted in (god help us), but even then it would be a fairly narrow squeeze and in order to establish itself both in longevity and more importantly in order to force through legislation, it would still need to reach out to non-voters as a means to win more seats. Were this not possible, they would have to co-operate with other parties and this is where Pidcock’s puerile attitude really starts to come unstuck.

Perhaps what this demonstrates is that the fundamental difference between the left and the right you tend to see when perusing Twitter profiles is that by and large, those on the right tend to talk about the things they are passionate about and the beliefs they hold in a positive light. That’s a generalisation of course and there are many exceptions, but typically it will read, “Love Europe, Brexiteer, love my country, wine-drinker, free speech, sports fan” – something of that ilk. Typically someone of the left will have “Hates the Tories, anti-Brexit madness, stop the NHS from being privatised, hates privilege...etc...etc.” Where is the solution? The genuine positive intent? By that I don’t mean the destruction of something but some sort of creative objective or purpose? 

That’s right, it doesn’t exist.

What it really boils down to is that the likes of Pidcock just want to put their hands over their ears and scream until people they don’t like go away. Debate, reason and justification are now merely trivial matters that get in the way of evangelical beliefs. And that is why we have ended up with students protesting every time someone “upsets their feelings”, authorities are looking for the next statue to pull down, lest it offends someone and the police are more concerned with painting rainbows on their cars rather than arresting criminals. 

Monday, 21 August 2017

Death by on-demand! The spiral towards instant gratification and certain oblivion

My late grandfather was a blind cricket fan and as such listened to countless audiobooks, many of which involved the subject of cricket. Once he grew bored after repeated listens, he would often give them away and as such I came into possession of a handful, including one BBC set comprising of highlights from “A View From the Boundary.” AVFTB is a feature of every home Test Match where upon the late Brian Johnston (and subsequently Jonathan Agnew) interviews a famous cricket fan at lunchtime on day three. In the duration of that particular audiobook there were interviews with John Cleese, Michael Parkinson and Christopher Lee, all of whom waxed lyrical about their love for the game and their own playing experiences. But it was Ben Travers who was the pick of the lot. At the time of the interview in 1980 he was well into his nineties and had as a youngster actually watched WG Grace and Jack Hobbs play together. Moreover, he was also present at the famous Oval test in 1902 where Gilbert Jessop made a match-winning hundred off 76 balls (at a time where you had to hit the ball out of the ground to register a six, not to mention taking into account a poorly-weighted bat and larger boundaries). To those who love the game it is an absolute treasure-trove of memories and insight into some of the golden eras of that past.

Then last week, Jonathan Agnew invited Richard Osman into the commentary box at Edgbaston and it is fair to say that the stock of AVFTB took a major nosedive. It was rather like exploring through a magnificent ancient wine cellar, packed with thousands of priceless dusty bottles and related tasting notes, only to find that someone had, without any degree of irony, stowed a bottle of Asda-own Lucozade in one of the slots. Within minutes, it had been established that he was not someone who has ever played the game (which is absolutely fine – many are not), but contrary to his image as a “deep thinker” far prefers the shortest form of the game. Moreover, he has no interest in the nuance of the sport, but only the final result. In fact, when pressed further on the matter, he announced that in his view the shorter the game the better and “if you could get it over and done with in ten overs” that would get his vote. Clearly taken aback, Agnew presses him for his thoughts on the Test Match format and how he would go about preserving the status of the game and all Osman could offer was that once all of the marketing efforts  have been thrown behind the T20 format and to a lesser degree the 50 over game, you might get the occasional child showing curiosity towards Test Matches if they becomes so obscure and shielded from view that a bizarre kind of dark fascination emerges from the shadows. Agnew described this as “reverse psychology” but in truth Osman was describing a form of extermination in which Test Cricket remains as a museum-piece that those of us odd enough to still find it fascinating can toddle off and watch.

It was honestly the most nauseating pile of excrement I’ve ever heard served up in a cricket interview.10 overs a side? Why not just have one batsman toss the ball up and see how far they can whack it before dashing off for a MacDonalds and a selfie session? Osman’s constant line was that children today have no attention span and that the generation of the sixties and seventies only watched Test Matches because they had nothing to do and their lives were boring. With television now being so instantaneous and short-form, every type of entertainment (and by extension that includes sport) has to follow suit. As if the interview couldn’t get any worse, he then proceeded to use music as an example to illustrate his views. Apparently he had been to the Proms and found that it dragged on compared with a “3 minute pop song on the radio” which condensed music into something he and most others could fit into their hectic schedule. At this point I had to stop myself from hurling my ipad against the wall and I simply deleted the rest of the recording before suffering a complete breakdown that such a complete cow pat of an opinion had been given airtime on Test Match Special.

In Richard Osman’s defense, he is not alone in his views. I have read on countless forums and social media platforms the views of so-called cricket fans who wax lyrical on the 20:20 game only to deride Tests because they “don’t have the time to watch something that takes five days. In other words, cricket (as with many other sports) has become something which needs to adapt to suit the needs of incredibly busy (because aren’t we all so important these days) people who can’t possibly give up more than a couple of hours to following a sport or pastime. The flaw in this argument is that whenever did anyone have the time to dedicate to watching an event that spanned five days? Test cricket has almost always been five days – in fact if you go back a century many were “timeless” (i.e. did not have a fixed length) and even those I recall from when I first started watching it had a rest day on the Sunday that mean that four out of the five days were played during the week when most people were either at school or work. I suspect that very few people in the history of mankind have actually bought tickets for all five days of a Test Match and yet that has not stopped tickets being sold, nor has it prevented people from engaging in the game. I have never attended more than one day in any single Test Match and yet I have found a way of following the rest of the game via a combination of radio commentary, television coverage, highlights and in more recent times, BBC newsfeeds. In 2005, during what is commonly described as the greatest series of all time, I began watching the final test at the Oval in a hotel bar in Taunton whilst on a cricket tour with my old club. I missed some of the second day whilst we played a match then listened in on the radio on the way back home. I caught up with the highlights and then followed the BBC feed whilst at the library doing some work, before finally watching the final days play at home. Rather than flick a V sign at the inconvenience of its duration and spite myself with my own self-importance, I found creative ways to stay in the loop and I now have fond memories of that summer based on where I happened to be during key moments in the series. Likewise I recall waking early during the winter months and listening to TMS commentary in the dark during winter tours in the early 1990s at a time where England would frequently be hammered abroad and so when they finally triumphed away in Australia during the snowy winter of 2010/11 the night time commentary was a dream come true (especially given that we were frequently up in the night with a non-sleeping baby).

The only people who are able to offer the five day format their full attention in person 100% of the time are the players, the coaches, the commentators and those professionally involved in the game. That does not prevent it from maintaining its relevance in today’s world – on the contrary, it is an antidote to the instantaneous garbage that we are served up in so many channels of life. This idea that the three minute pop song is the only format that kids can possibly digest is also a load of garbage. Having been subjected to “One Last Time” by Ariana Grande on every radio station and TV channel for the past month I would suggest that by limiting music to such a bland set of boundaries is more likely to put people off than engage them (especially if the result is as desperately tedious as that particular single). Are we saying that no child would ever be engaged by something a little longer? Or something that wouldn’t normally be played on the radio? Imagine if we just threw all the output from the history of classical music, prog-rock, jazz and heavy metal into the bin and simply stuck to a radio-friendly formula? What sort of regressive artistry would this be? The same goes for literature – why bother with the likes of Lord of the Rings in which entire new worlds and languages were developed for our indulgence over decades, when we could quickly scan the synopsis of the latest Jordan autobiography during our lunch break? 

There is a mindset that has developed, mainly from the shift in the way that media has been generated and consumed over the past twenty years, in which people are no longer encouraged to seek out the great treasures of the world, but instead feel that they should be able to simply press a “subscribe” button and sit on their fat, lazy arses to be spoon-fed sanitized components from the elements that the zeitgeist algorithm generates based on their own personal preference-centre. Perhaps it starts with a caramel latte, followed by an episode of “Bake Off”, then an “X Factor” audition, before an Instagramed lunch, a quick T20 competition, followed by Snap Chat and clubbing? If we didn’t pander to this weak, self-indulgent mentality and actually spent our time and effort focusing on ensuring that the sport and the arts remain high-quality in their output then I believe it would die off as the trend towards instant gratification would die off. Instead, we are indulging this approach by asking what can be done to sanitise everything according to these constraints. 

And I believe that everything can be turned around. Test cricket is the greatest format of the game and probably the best game there is on the planet. Likewise, as bad as that interview was, it too could have been turned around. After his opening comments, I would have applauded and cheered had Jonathan Agnew replied: “Well thanks for that interesting view Richard. Now kindly get the fuck out of my studio. I never want to see you here again, you complete cretin.”

You see, it’s that easy. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

England international rugby tickets at Twickenham – selling the game to the fans

I have been following rugby since around the age of nine, when I started playing at school, confused by the laws, the mud, the rain, the ball and everything else. At the same time, England became quite good and were winning matches under their new captain, Will Carling. A few months later they competed for the Five Nations trophy but unfortunately lost to Scotland in a now-infamous game at Murryfield. No matter – I was captivated and wanted to become a centre like Carling or his more flamboyant partner in midfield, Jeremy Guscott. Sadly, I was quite short and stocky at the time and was subsequently picked as a hooker in the scrum during practice games. I liked running, passing and kicking, but I wasn’t interested in having my face bashed in during rucks and besides which, my throwing into a line out was awful. Fortunately, my positional aspirations coincided with a growth in height and athleticism, so I was moved into the backline. A year later I started playing for Worcester at weekends and England once again had the chance to go for a Grand Slam, which they duly won, before going onto reaching the final of the home World Cup, losing to Australia. Another Gram Slam came the following year and, despite my playing time reducing as I gave more time to cricket than rugby, I had become a dedicated follower and supporter of both the national team and the game in general. 

In 1995 England lost out to New Zealand in the World Cup in a game in which Jonah Lomu single-handedly ran over their backline, scoring a hatful of tries in the process. It marked something of an end of an era as a number of their core players such as Brian Moore, Rob Andrew, Carling himself and Dean Richards all retired within a short space of time and the side’s performance slipped as a rebuilding process took place. Around this period, my interest in sport began to wane as the general fortunes of all the teams / participants I followed plummeted. The England cricket team slipped from mediocrity to obscurity. The England football team did likewise. Tottenham Hotspur sold all their decent players and seem to play every season out for survival. The 1996 Olympic Games featured only one single gold medal for team GB. Motorsport became dominated by a single German. Tennis became dominated by a very dull, hairy American. Domestic football became dominated by Manchester United. International Cricket became dominated by Australia. Snooker became dominated by Stephen Hendry. Over a period of several years I simply lost an inspiration to play or follow sport in general.

At the end of the decade I started a degree course at Plymouth University and in the mix of the usual fresher activity I had a couple of rugby sessions and started playing some football. Around this time the England rugby team became very good again and by the time I graduated they had won a Grand Slam, beaten the Southern Hemisphere teams home and away and were favourites for the 2003 World Cup. I was in Australia for most of the duration of that event and then watched the final on television whilst travelling in New Zealand as Jonny Wilkinson dropped the goal that won the trophy. As a point of digression, the England cricket team also began to improve (finally winning back the Ashes after a long wait in 2005) and at that point I started playing cricket again in the Birmingham League, keen to make the most of competitive sport in the knowledge that my long list of injuries would not allow me to go on forever. This cycle of sporting success triggering my own motivation persisted through to 2012 where upon the fantastic achievements of Team GB in the London Games, followed by the coverage of the Paralympics drove me to start running again and winning back a modicum of fitness, even if the days of me flinging a rugby ball around or hitting sixes had disappeared. Earlier this year, I competed in the Wolf Run and now as I reach the end of my thirties I can still regard myself as being reasonably fit and, more importantly, I am as passionate for sport as ever.

The reason for this brief “rugby focused” retrospect on my sporting journey is the theme of broadening the game’s appeal and spreading the interest in the game, not only to different sections of society but also to the next generations, who will hopefully continue to support the national team with enthusiasm and produce a talent pool of players in the process. Speaking for myself, an interest in sport cannot be manufactured or taught, it has to be ignited organically. By this I don’t mean a pre-game advert, a YouTube video or a well-written introduction by a presenter; I mean a great game, passage of play or piece of individual brilliance. It might include a stocky lad from a small northern town watching Flintoff take wickets and wanting to join his local cricket club. It might be a tall black boy watching Maro Itoje take on the All Blacks with a man of the match performance and decide he wants to be a lock forward. It could be school children packed together in the front row at the Principality Stadium watching Elliot Daly go over in the corner in the dying minutes for an England victory and realizing that this is the sport for them. When I began watching cricket and rugby, almost all the games were on the BBC, with the exception of summer tours which were (I seem to recall) not televised in those days. Then of course in the nineties Sky TV took over, firstly with the cricket winter tours, then the Lions tours, then the autumn internationals, then the summer tours, then the domestic cricket competitions, then the domestic rugby league games, then the summer cricket series, then everything. It was only the Six Nations and rugby world cups left on terrestrial tv. More recently, domestic rugby has moved to BT and there is talk of some cricket coming back to the BBC, whilst the advent of on demand TV apps means that some highlights can at least be seen throughout the season without having to justify £50 or more a month for the privilege.

But there is only so much we can take from sport on the television. To really experience the event, it is still something to actually go to a game, to enter the stadium, to relish the atmosphere, to witness those individuals in the flesh, taking on the best in the world. Cricket is a relatively accessible sport to watch live; for county or franchise matches are either poorly attended (in some cases) or either scheduled with such frequency that tickets are relatively accessible. Moreover, although Test Matches are still popular, there are seldom sold out for all five days, which means that with some diligence tickets can be sourced and a great day out can be had. Rugby too, at a domestic level, is easily accessible as prices are reasonable and most clubs will have spare capacity (the likes of Saracens, Sale and Wasps often have excess capacity within their stadia, whilst even the more traditional town and city clubs such as Leicester and Bath will have some games where tickets can be obtained in advance). Where this all falls down, however, is at international level.

Want to go and watch England play at Twickenham? Good luck. Be my guest – have a go at getting hold of tickets. There are broadly speaking three batches of games that occur at Twickenham over the course of the season; the Autumn Internationals, the Six Nations and perhaps one or two end of season non-cap Barbarian games or pre-tour games. You might, if you are incredibly lucky, be able to source the occasional ticket for the Autumn games on an online ticket distribution network at an inflated price (try over £200 each) and the same for the end of season games, though it must be noted that in the latter, many players are no available due to club commitments, Lions tours or simply selection policy. For the Six Nations, however – the competition that really counts and captures people’s imagination – tickets are like gold dust.

If you visit the official England Rugby website, you will discover that there are three ways in which tickets can be purchased. The first is to pay for a debenture, for which you will receive at least one ticket a year for a decade at a cost of over eight thousand pounds. A bit steep? Sure. So the second option is to become a member of a local club, as they receive an allocation of tickets to international matches. However, this in itself is not straightforward, as not all clubs either count or receive a reasonable allocation. Moreover, as an adult, what if you don’t actually play the game? Would you pay to join a local club simply to secure tickets? This is unlikely to work as an approach because local clubs will probably charge over a hundred pounds for full-season membership and then tend to favour a “team ethos” so it would be frowned upon for someone to literally hand over some money just on the off-chance of securing a set of England tickets. It is likely in that instance that priority would be given to players, or at least those with a degree of involvement in day-to-day activities – which is perfectly fair, though does exclude those people who simply want an avenue to watch and support their national team. The third option is to become a member of the “England Rugby Club” – essentially a paid-for, season-long membership that costs £35 and means that you will receive notifications of tickets for the Autumn Internationals and potentially get placed in a ballot to get tickets for the home Six Nations matches. This is the option I have recently taken in a desperate attempt to secure tickets to an International (and I dare say the only realistic option for most people).

The difficulty of course is that this still represents a reasonable outlay of funds without guaranteeing a ticket and is a bureaucratic barrier that will mean most non-club affiliated fans will probably give up after the initial attempt, perhaps hoping that they can buy a last minute ticket or perhaps get lucky with a friend who “has one going.” It is on such a note that my real irritation begins to kick in because Twickenham have recently announced that they will be reducing the 82,000 capacity in order to make way for more corporate facilities – in other words companies who buy tickets to dish them out for sales teams to use as part of account management and winning new business. The people who end up with these typically get to watch the match in a nice warm executive box without having to queue for beer or to use the toilets, with a perfect view of the game and in all likelihood no genuine interest in the game whatsoever. In the course of my professional career over the past decade I have often heard people talking about having attended a match in such circumstances, only to add with an air of ambivalence that “rugby is a bit boring.” And yet our RFU feels that this is the way to prioritise the ticket allocation within the stadium plan…

Presently, the England rugby team are experiencing the most sustained period of success since winning the World Cup, with back-to-back Six Nations trophies, a Grand Slam and a record winning streak to boast of. Moreover, they had a high representation of Lions players and have also demonstrated a wide pool of youth talent with many new players having enjoyed success on the Argentinean tour. Everything bodes well for a successful run up to the World Cup and even beyond (the main point of failure in 2003 was the inability to plan beyond that point with many retirees). The architect of this success has clearly been Eddie Jones, who has brought back some of the key missing components within the English game, including investing in youth, backing talent and focusing on aggression and ability over what could be regarded as “niceness” (a Stuart Lancaster focal point was “culture”, whatever that might mean). This doggedness is ultimately what brings success in a sport as abrasive as rugby and complements all the things that we love about the game; the intensity, the skills, the fitness, the battle and the attitude of focusing on the conflict on the pitch and the camaraderie off it. 

What then of the impact of this winning spell on the wider appeal of the game? Are we going to see an influx of new fans and players? Will we see the baton being handed down to the next generation? Unfortunately, given the picture I have painted this seems unlikely. I have recently watched all three Lions tests in the pub and, whilst the experience was fantastic, there were not many kids in attendance as a packed-out boozer is not really the sort of environment that young children are welcome in at 8am in the morning. Of course, many would have watched the Six Nations games on BBC or ITV, however, how many new fans would have been able to convince their parents to secure Twickenham tickets for them? The home of rugby is famous for its west car park in which debenture holders bring lavish picnics to feast upon before the matches start, and yet this level of exclusivity is exactly the sort of thing that infuriates so many people. It’s fine for the RFU to offer great packages to those able to afford nearly ten grand to secure high end tickets, but there has to be an understanding that they need to open up at the other end of the scale if the game is to be sustained and opened up to a wider audience. If I think of the mongrel spirit which Eddie Jones has so successfully installed and which has taken this England team to a new level, how might we secure this within the next generation of players if the only ones able to attend games and feel a connection with the international team are those from middle-class backgrounds? When I watch other international teams, I often note the players who offer something different from their English counterparts and in many cases this is less about their position or application but more about their natural credentials. Take Ireland for example: in the main England are probably on balance a slightly better side with a greater array of playing styles at their disposal, but the one thing that Ireland have is a collection of very rugged, physically abrasive “farmer-type” forwards who dominate collisions and win ball simply as a consequence of their physiques and attitude (I referral to players such as Tadhg Furlong and Sean O’Brien). Imagine, therefore, if more kids from some of the rougher areas of London, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle were able to attend a thrilling Six Nations game at Twickenham and were suitably motivated to take up the sport instead of going down a more unsavory route and ended up being the heroes of tomorrow. In fact, we don’t have to rely on imagination – take the current examples of Ellis Genge at Leicester and more so Kyle Sinckler at Harlequins. Both have come through the ranks of local clubs despite unconventional jounryes compared with most professionals and both have had to overcome huge issues with aggression and behavior in order to hone their discipline and secure professional contracts. In both cases, they are physically dominating, aggressive and committed young men with masses of potential or perhaps several years ago would not have been afforded a chance. The question is, how many more such kids could be out there, were the RFU to prop open the door for the game to widen its appeal and break down the financial barriers to becoming an England rugby fan in the truest sense?

Why not have a couple of games a year at an alternative stadium in Manchester, Birmingham or even Newcastle in order to widen the catchment area? Why not create youth packages in which free tickets would be given out for England A fixtures, with a ballot for those in attendance to follow up with a full International ticket if they get hooked on their first game? Why not reduce the number of corporate boxes and actually increase the capacity? It’s not as if the RFU need the money after all. In recent weeks there has understandably been a lot of focus on the All Blacks and how a country as small as New Zealand (by population at least) can have produced such sustainable success in their national side. One of the many reasons for this is because it is the principle of ambition for every youngster in New Zealand to become an All Black. Everything from the moment they start playing sport at school, all the way through to adulthood is geared towards giving individuals the chance to play for the black jersey. Whilst there are a plethora of factors in this (some of which having nothing to do with stadia and ticket affordability or accessibility), I can’t help but wonder what we would achieve as a rugby playing nation were we to employ such as attitude to the game of rugby. A starting point would be making it easier to get kids to watch their national side. In 1995 in the run up to the 1995 World Cup, Will Carling famously referred to the RFU as “57 old farts,” and was promptly sacked. Although the game very swiftly turned professional following that altercation I suspect his appraisal still stands.

In any case, I’ll keep you posted as to whether I can get hold of some tickets this season…

Monday, 12 June 2017

Theresa May - she's apparently not going so I've written a speech for her to use

"I would like to take a few minutes to address everyone in this country. Last week, most of you gave up your time to vote in a general election that I called. I called it in the belief that it was crucial to the success of our Brexit negotiations that we had a strong hand with a large parliamentary majority. Last week, whilst the Conservative Party received the highest share of the vote and by far the highest number of MPs, we did not receive that majority and as such my position and indeed the position of this government has been made all the more difficult.

I would like to make it clear that I take full responsibility for this. Whilst My Corbyn ran a consistent and engaging campaign, I made a number of mistakes and as a consequence did not manage to engage enough voters and in the process caused upset to many who have voted for our party in the recent past. There are those of you for example who were concerned at the plans for social care and our communication around this was poor. Many of you are concerned about funding for the NHS and the education system and we did not do enough to explain about how our approach to these would be costed. There are a growing number of younger voters who have been engaged by the Labour party’s socialist policies and whilst I completely disagree with their economic basis, I have to admit that they have been far more successful in connecting with students on many issues. There is then the matter of Brexit and whilst we have a very detailed plan, we have done a poor job at communicating this and I have to take personal responsibility in not utilising my wider team in this regard. Finally, there is the most important matter of the economy and once again, I have clearly not done anywhere near enough in connecting with everyone on this vital topic.

As a consequence of this poor campaign, a number of our MPs have lost their seats, a great number of Conservative party voters and members are dissatisfied with our performance and more importantly the electorate in generate have been frustrated with an outcome of a general election that does little for any group amongst us. I will, however say this. Whilst his campaign was excellent, Jeremy Corbyn still lost the election and was rejected by a majority of the British people. Moreover, I remain convinced that his social and economic principles of the 1970s would be just as utterly disastrous for the long-term good of this country as they were in that decade. My poor performance should not be used to mask the fact that socialism is a backward step for any prosperous nation and only leads to a spiraling economy, lower aspirations and increasing national debt – all of which would be disastrous for the United Kingdom.

I have formed a government with the backing of the DUP in order to start the important Brexit negotiations that are due to start later this month. They must continue and they will continue as Article 50 has been triggered and the will of the people must be observed. At the same time I am reflecting on the last few weeks and will make the following commitments to you the British people.

  • Firstly, the current situation is of my doing so I shall not resign and walk away. I will work even harder to clean these matters up
  • Secondly, I will press ahead with the Brexit negotiations
  • Thirdly, I will take on board all of the justifiable criticism that has come my way and act upon it both in terms of my own performance and more importantly my approach to forming and communicating Conservative Party Policy
  • Fourthly, there will be no further general election this calendar year. To call one would destabilize business confidence and it is clear that the general appetite for yet another vote in such a short time frame would be limited.
  • Finally, next spring, once the first year of the Brexit negotiations are past I will be calling a Conservative Leadership election. I will be standing in that election and pressing my credentials to continue as Prime Minister but will also openly invite other candidates to put forward their claims. The contest must be open, fair and a proper showcase for the various merits of those standing. Once either myself or a new leader has been elected, that individual will be able to decide if they wish to call another election at that point. That will depend on the status of the Brexit negotiations, the position of the new government in Westminster and the general consensus of the people as to whether they wish to participate in another vote.

That will form the political framework for the next 12 months. Once more, I would like to thank the British people for the time they have taken to participate in the general election and I pledge that will take everything on board to avoid making the same mistakes again. In the meantime I would encourage everyone, including members and supporters of other parties to get behind the Brexit negotiations so that we can look forward to a progressing productively on this front."



Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Fact Claimers of Old Twitter Town

Recently I got myself into a hefty row with a bunch of Labour supporters on Twitter. Clearly, I should have known better to have poked the hornets’ nest; the trouble with platforms like Twitter is that the buffer of anonymity that hovers in between the idea and the click means that very often we feel just that tiny bit less inclined to bite our lip when we read what we consider to be gibberish and within seconds the floodgates have opened. 

The tweet that drew my attention was buried in a thread on one of the "current affairs" list contributors that I follow and contained a graph purporting to show the steady decline in police officers since the 1970s with particular focus on the Tory party and their role in public service cuts. The graph was headed with a tweet insinuating that this trend had in some way contributed to the recent Manchester bombing and that similar terrorist atrocities would likely follow as a direct result of these cuts. Within seconds I retweeted this in the form of a quote, stating that it was a typically pathetic attempt by the left to try and politicise what happened according to their own agenda. Before I touch upon the barrage of responses, perhaps I should explain the flurry of thoughts that led to my hurried retweet. Firstly, the graph itself was  something I took at face value; had I the time or inclination (not to mention a full time job, two young children, a tight schedule and a hundred other more exciting or pressing matters to attend to) I might have researched the validity of the "fact"; as it was I assumed for the purpose of the discourse that it was correct. Secondly, the reduction of front line police numbers is something that can be viewed in the same context as the "cuts" to the NHS, it is the tendency of Tory governments to try and reduce the size of the state in order to live within our economic means. Moreover, with the wastage that exists throughout the public sector it is no wonder that budgets end up being cut. One only has to look at the prevalence of diversity officers, chaplains and community managers who earn massive salaries whilst at the same time we are told to make do with fewer nurses and police officers. Thirdly, and most importantly in the context of this particular tweet and the recent events, one has to consider that the Manchester bombing was carried out by a radical Islamic terrorist. This guy was a suicide bomber who was prepared to blow himself up in order to kill others at a pop concert, especially young children with their families. These are people who will get into a lorry and mow people down in cold blood, hack people's heads off and detonate bombs in crowded areas. As such, an increase in front line police officers is arguably of limited use when it comes to preventing such occurrences; this is a quite different game even to that played out during the Troubles.

Predictably, given that the woman who had posted the tweet framed herself as a die-hard Corbyn supporter, I was immediately hit by a flurry of responses and a huge amount of abuse. The first response was actually from the poster who suggested that I remove myself from Twitter as I was offended by facts. Many others then piled in, liking her response then adding further left-wing sound bites, berating me for typical Tory views and suggesting that I prepared myself for a huge change that was about to come. Apocalyptic stuff. As I began to respond, the inevitable abuse began to rain down. I was a moron, I was this, I was that. Naturally, having a short fuse, I gave it all back and within minutes it descended into a full-blown slanging match. Beyond all the name-calling however, the bit that I just could not get across to any of these people was that it was not the fact that I was attacking but the narrative being built around it. An argument is a constructive viewpoint, often built around facts but always using the interpretation of them to end purpose. If at any point during the resulting debate the person simply responds by screeching "I've got a fact," then they seem to be missing the point. 

And this is really the problem with the Twitter landscape these days - as is the case with most landscapes - we have been distracted by this curious phenomenon of fake news and the intellectual left. There is a growing suggestion from the liberate elite that anyone on the right is anti-fact, anti-intellectual and lazily accepts mainstream media narratives without any form of consideration. In essence they are thick (and by extension racist, xenophobic, homophobic, misogynistic and anything else you might wish to throw in). The cushion of insurance used by these enlightened left wing thinkers is that they are armed with facts. Facts, facts, facts. And data. Lots of data and statistics. They are professors, lecturers, human rights lawyers, technicians and economy analysts so they must be correct. Never mind the fact that these occupations tend to exist on the periphery of working life, rarely soaking up the stresses and strains, triumphs and tradegies of the economic treadmill, starting businesses, paying taxes and balancing plates as many of us have to do. No, these are textbook commentators, life-guiding geeks who have a view based on their own theoretical interpretation of statistics rather than cold, hard experience. Facts are fine. Facts are important. What is more important is the ability to strategise. To make decisions based on the world around us, choosing paths based on the biggest challenges and the biggest opportunities, rather than to sit behind cosy graphs and idealistic beliefs. We live in an aging society with high levels of immigration. The NHS is not sustainable in the form it first took back in its post-war infancy as people these days see it as a free ride to irresponsibility and entitlement. Similarly, we face a massive threat from radical Islamic terrorism that will stop at nothing at maiming and killing indiscriminately. There are over twenty thousand on a watch list, of which around three thousand of those are on a high-level of scrutiny. I don't believe that we can afford to simply watch these people, they need to be arrested, in some cases deported or imprisoned, or in other cases quite simply bumped off. Spending more and more money and not solving the problem in the process is a policy of madness. 

But then free stuff works as a socialist policy, right? A left-leaning liberal will happily post a graph showing the percentage contribution to NHS staffing by immigrants over time and use that to claim unanimously that any attempt to curtain immigration would destroy the NHS. A sensible counter-argument would be that firstly immigration could quite comfortably be reduced without impacting doctors and nurses (I don’t see them in the dole queues) and moreover a reduction in net migration would help to ease pressure on the NHS overall which in time would lead to fewer additional doctors and nurses being required. However, those are future states and therefore do not have any data to support them. Anybody offering up arguments or points of view on that basis are almost immediately shot down as being reactionary or having “non-evidence-based-opinion.” The hypocrisy on offer here is mind-blowing. Take the current Labour Party manifesto for example. Many of the big state spending policies are costed by raising corporation tax and assuming that revenue streams (i.e. performance from the companies falling into these buckets) would continue according to past and current trends. Conveniently, no provision is made not only for drop off as a result of corporate cut backs to retain profitability in the face of higher taxation, but a hit in the economy overall as a consequence of making the UK less attractive to foreign investors at a crucial point in our economic history as we embark on Brexit negotiations.

In other words, facts are great if they can superficially be used for platitudes. They are also great if left wing geeks can use them to support the notion that liberals are all academic and therefore possess superior intellect than anybody else. As soon as they are countered or approached by a different angle it is another matter. Perhaps we’re best when we just think for ourselves – if you want a hand with this then I’ve got a hint for you; simply ignore anything written by anyone with an EU flag with a tear drop or a “I’m with Corbyn” profile shot. It’ll save you so much time in the long run… 





Friday, 19 May 2017

Life choices – argon, funeral pyres and wish lists

There is an elderly woman who lives next door who is senile. Senile is probably not a pleasant word, but then again nor is dementia (she’s demented?). The sad reality is that she lives alone, has no family to visit her, has twice daily visits from carers as she cannot be trusted to look after herself (the gas was switched off several years ago as she was leaving it on in the house) and doesn’t know what’s going on half the time. She passes the time by sweeping her driveway. Hour after hour passes whilst she shuffles from one side to another, feebly brushing at the block paving, irrespective of whether there is any detritus or not and occasionally stopping to watch the world go by. Given her state of mind and the fact that there is genuinely no cause to brush her drive, she ends up engineering problems – this can involve throwing food onto the driveway then returning a few minutes later to sweep it up, or pulling leaves from one of the trees, or more frequently venturing out to the roadside and sweeping the pavement. The latter is a deeply precarious exercise; she bears a perpetual wobble and this is more pronounced as she nears the roadside (a reasonably busy roadside), sweeping out the various leaves and twigs into the road (as a child might sweep crumbs off their table mat), causing the passing cars and lorries to veer out of the way, beeping their horns at her in the process.

You might well ask what I do whilst all this is going on? At the first opportunity after moving in and noticing this bizarre ritual, I pleaded with her to stop and immediately realised that she is incapable or at least completely unwilling to change her ways. Following conversations with the neighbours, it transpired that this behavior has been going on for quite some time and the care workers are not especially receptive to anyone broaching the subject with them. Aside from the concerns over safety (both to herself and to car drivers and pedestrians) there is the small matter of stuff being dumped onto adjacent driveways (ours included), glass bottles being thrown and smashing on the pavement and shrubs and flowers being torn as she absently roams the area decimating anything in her path. On several occasions she has been caught wandering the streets, oblivious to where she is or quite what she is and in recent weeks she nearly caused a major accident by trying to push a pile of debris into the main road. With all this in mind, I contacted social services and had a lengthy conversation to explain the situation, with a clear message to them that if they did not intervene soon then there was every likelihood that an accident is likely to take place (most likely a car accident in which an innocent person would be caught up trying to avoid her flailing or even collapsing in the middle of the road). They asked me to compile a “diary” of events, which I did, only to then ignore me and make no intervention whatsoever. As such, she is still out sweeping, still causing mayhem and shuffling ever closer to certain ruin. I only hope my children are not present if she ends up being flattened one of these days. The solution – given her circumstances – is very clear to me. With no dependants or family and with a bungalow on a premium street address, it would make perfect sense to sell her property and move her into residential care where the proceeds from the sale of her house would more than cover the cost of 24 / 7 care, keeping her safe and protected whilst also ensuring nobody else is caught up by her actions. Sadly with the care workers standing to lose out from this and social workers unwilling to step in, I fear that this obvious and logical step will never happen.

If the miracle did take place and they were to move her into a home, what then? Whilst it would be by far the best course of action, it would not cure her condition, which is seemingly a terminal descent into oblivion. I have had numerous discussions on the topic of dementia (there’s that awful word again) with my family and on every occasion I am absolutely clear that in those circumstances I would wish to be humanly put down rather than suffer a slow deterioration until death arrived. I understand that might sound depressing, but honestly, why would anyone wish to live for very long with such an illness, especially in later life? This cropped up in discussion in recent days with the Tory Party Manifesto and the move to use the proceeds of a deceased person’s estate to pay for social care rather than when they are alive. Alison is quite critical of this and struggled to understand why I didn’t share her concern (famously I am super-opposed to inheritance tax, believing it to be state-sponsored theft). My point is that at least in these cases a person is standing to benefit from the care they have received and are essentially paying for a service. But why pay at all? Is dementia not simply an unfortunate lottery in which certain unlucky people are made to suffer not only physically and mentally but also financially? 

Here is where I think the whole set up has failed and, if I might be so bold, I will make more of a controversial suggestion. At least some people might find it controversial – for me it is purely sensible. Why do we even keep people alive with advanced dementia? Why on earth would anybody wish to be locked into such an awful state? Why would anyone wish to see their friends and family in such a condition? Why are we spending our time trying to work out the costing for this in an aging population, whereas we could be looking into offering people the right to hop off the misery train and have the right to die peacefully, humanly and in a dignified way? Whenever I start on this topic, I am always overwhelmed with howls of protest, criticism and negativity, as if I am making a ridiculous point, being deliberately controversial or just plain silly. I am really not. Never have I been more serious. In that condition I WOULD NOT WANT TO LIVE. Seriously, what is the point in being a physical, psychological and financial burden to all and sundry, whilst all their efforts are trained on keeping alive someone who has no idea of what is going on and zero quality of life? But okay, I get that this opens up a whole serious of questions. Who decides when someone lives? What about family with a vested interest in an estate? What about the religious aspect? How do you humanly end someone’s life, etc, etc… Allow me to explain.

Firstly, we should all get the chance to specify whether we live or die. At the age of 18 or 21, it should be mandatory to complete a legally-binding form with full details of all these sorts of decisions (including by the way permission or otherwise to donate organs, approach to other life-threatening illnesses, etc). These choices could be changed in confidence at any point, based on evolving beliefs or feelings and essentially give others the instructions on what to do in the event of incapacitation. I find it curious that as a society we are so against these sorts of choices with so many counter-arguments being put up against euthanasia and taking command of our own destiny. None of us get a say in whether we are born in the first place and it strikes me that the same can be said of death – even if the practicality and means exists to do something about it. It is no wonder that so many people contemplate suicide for example as a way out of grim circumstances. I digress here, but even the options available to us with regards to our funeral and burial are governed by ridiculous protocol. For instance, I have for a long time expressed a wish to have an Ancient Greek style funeral with my body on a wooden pyre (perhaps on a beach for dramatic effect). The last thing I want is for my body to be buried in some ghastly underground tomb inside a coffin (Victorian fingers scratches anyone?), nor do I like the idea of passing though an incinerator like some sort of sausage machine. Accordingly I have given these instructions to my family who, aside from remarking quite reasonably that it’s a macabre topic, point out that such a “burial” might not be legal in the UK. Why in heavens name isn’t it? Whose business is it how I bow out and what difference does it make to them anyway? Ridiculous…

The second major point of contention comes with the method of euthanasia. Again, I cannot help but think that our mental efforts have in the past been wasted. Several years ago, the ex-Tory MP Michael Portillo made a program on the BBC investigating capital punishment and the science of death, specifically trying to pinpoint the most humane way of executing a human being. The program partly focused on the morality of capital punishment but was mainly an exercise in scientific research and to cut a long story short he concluded that insert gas asphyxiation (essentially inhaling a nitrogen or argon based gas – I cannot recall which) is utterly painless and simply causes the person to experience a blissful few moments before dropping down dead. I am personally against the death penalty for a great number of reasons (a different subject for a different day of the week) but why on earth are we considering such “pleasant” methods for criminals when such tools are available to help those suffering or in terminal pain? If I were ninety years old, bed-ridden, completely ga-ga and someone had given me the choice to have some gas pumped into my room to send me off to meet the fairies on a permanent vacation Id bloody well jump at the chance! And so would most sane people I’m sure! And in the process, we’d cut the cost of social care and all the anguish and pain that flows through society with the onset of dementia and similar conditions.

I cannot help but feel that the continual burden of religion and the way that religious beliefs have shaped our laws, customs and behavior has led to this strange sort of inertia where we thrown enormous sums and money, effort and energy into trying to manage the deterioration of our lives without taking a step back and actually re-examining our approach to the system. Ask yourself this: if we were designing a brand new society, free of the burden of our past, would we honestly deal with things the way we do now? Would we not empower individuals to shape their futures and make decisions whilst they are in a free and sane state of mind? Perhaps if the old lady next door had been given the opportunity of foresight then she would have made the call and would have put her broom down several years ago. 



Wednesday, 10 May 2017

I Am a Fox

I am a fox. It doesn’t matter what my name is because essentially I am just a giant ginger rat with a great PR team behind me. Allow me to explain.



Years ago, people used to see my kind as part of the ecosystem and turn a blind eye to us, except when we attacked chicken coups, livestock or pets. They would then set packs of hounds on us and these dogs would catch the slowest among us and tear them to pieces. It looked awful (and was pretty horrible for the fox) but then again it tended to be the old, slow, injured foxes who got caught as they were the ones targeting the farms. Oddly, when this happened, groups of men dressed in red would ride on horses and blow trumpets (which was a bit of a giveaway that the hounds were on their way). This practice kept us on our toes and separated the wheat from the chaff as, after all, we don't really have any natural predictors anymore.

Then some time ago a new group of people took charge of the country, many of whom hated the men in red as they were rich and upper class (don’t know what this means but I looked it up in my fox dictionary and it says that they take more tax revenues from them). Anyway, they decided to stop the hounds from hunting us, which didn’t stop the men in red gathering but it did mean more of the older and slower foxes started to live for longer. I thought that they would have done things the other way around, but what do I know? We also found that the expansion of suburban housing developments into the countryside meant that more of our kind ventured into the cities, where people who had never seen animals started to make strange noises when they saw us and put food and drink out at night. We’ve never known such luck! Foxes have now expanded their families all over the towns and cities of this country and we can pretty much do what we like, spreading disease, causing damage – wahay, it’s a great laugh! Of course, we still kill chickens and people’s pets, plus we forage in bins and kitchens, but that’s fair enough, right?

Now, a little bird tells me that a woman wants to bring back the hounds and lot’s of her enemies are angry. It’s also annoyed many of the people in cities who make the strange noises. They think we look lovely and don’t want dogs chasing us. You know, tons and cities are strange places; when I’ve been stalking the roads, I’ve seen all sorts of things happen, dog fighting, pest control and even an awful thing called halal meat, but we can’t talk about that as it upsets some people. The people who make strange noises don’t care about those other animals because they don’t have the same PR company behind them. Even in the countryside I’ve seen groups of people they called travelers (they live in houses with wheels on and talk in a funny way) arrange cock fighting and hare coursing, but again nobody cares about that because of a thing called class warfare (also don’t know what that means so I looked it up and there was something called inverted snobbery so I gave up reading).

Anyway, it all keeps me amused, see you soon! Boom! Boom!

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Spring Wolf Run – Wild Running Reviewed…

Last year I decided to give myself some of a purpose for keeping fit and in physical shape and booked myself in for the first Wolf Run of the year. For those unaware of what the Wolf Run is, it is one of the most popular of a growing number of mud and obstacle races that have been launched in recent years. Taking place four times a year to correspond with the seasons, it features a 10km run across rough farm terrain (hill climbs, wooded areas, ditches and such like) , interspersed with a variety of assault-style obstacles such as flooded crawl tunnels, cargo nets and slides. Some of these verge towards the intensity of a fun run (less distance, easy obstacles), whilst some like “Tough Guy” are fully brutal and geared towards those in the military and fitness professionals. From what I could tell, the Wolf Run was reasonably brutal without being ridiculous and more importantly seemed to be well-run and not too far away to travel. 


(Looks like fun?)

Between November and March I put some effort into training, though I struggle with too much running as I have a dodgy right knee which gets worse with repeated high impact activity (I try and run on the local park instead of the pavement). As such, my fitness improved and I felt ready to tackle the course. Then in March I was struck down with a particularly grim cold virus that immediately put a stop to my training. Not only was I subjected to the usual sore throat, high temperature, blocked nose, etc, but my asthma flared up with a vengeance. Fortunately this is a rare occurrence and 99% of the time my inhalers remain stashed away in a draw, but when I suffer from particularly bad cases of colds and flu I really struggle with my breathing and as such am fully reliant upon them. Initially I tried to shrug it off as something that would go within a few days but as the month progressed I failed to shrug it off (try getting a decent nights sleep and relaxation with my two children – utterly impossible) and I started to come to the conclusion that my participation in the Wolf Run was utterly doomed.

Then about 5 days beforehand my asthma lessened and I started to feel a little better, which at least allowed me a couple of light sessions before D day arrived. I made the decision that on the Friday before the run I wouldn’t do any exercise in order to reduce the chance of injuring myself and as a consequence I went to bed restless and began to toss and turn, resulting in the inevitable insomnia to which I have suffered since Em and Liv have been on the scene; any time I feel like I have the combined need and opportunity to sleep I immediately start having panic attacks and lie awake for hours on end. Finally at around 1.30am I drifted off, only to wake at 5.30am when one of the girls stirred. I knew then that there was no chance of going back to sleep and therefore I would have to go to battle on 4 hours sleep; hardly an ideal preparation time for a significant physical challenge. 

The Spring and Autumn Wolf Run events are held at a farm near to Leamington Spa, which on a Saturday morning is less than an hour from Kingswinford and the directions are well sign-posted on the surrounding roads. We pulled into the car park and it became clear just how well organized the event was as there were food bars, tents, toilets and merchandising stalls, giving the impression of a major festival. (with over four thousand people competing on each of the days, it could be argued that’s exactly what it is). For those competing, all that is required is to hand in a consent form in the admin tent to the queue with the first letter of your surname and then to complete the medical form on the back of your number, which then needs to be pinned to your chest. Once that’s done it is simply a case of waiting for the off, warming up and taking in some of the atmosphere. Fortunately I had managed to persuade Alison to come along with me (leaving the two trouble-makers at home with their grandparents!) so I at least had someone to talk to and we spent the time looking at the start and end of the course with some of the mud pits and climb nets indicting the challenge ahead. The most interesting thing was to watch the other runners as they started to gather as the array of different people competing was quite vast. Alison put them into four buckets; group one being ex-military and professional fitness gurus; group two being those who like to keep fit but don’t do it for a living (my category); group three being those doing it for a laugh and to get drunk afterwards and group four being people out of shape for whom it will be a massive challenge, but they won’t let a lack of fitness get them down (“aw bless” she cruelly dubbed them!). There were a lot of rugby players competing and most were in small groups, making me wonder if I would find it harder doing it alone. 

The start times begin at 10am and go through to 3pm with batches of 250 runners being set off at 15 minute intervals. Fortunately I was in the first batch which meant that I didn’t have too much time to wait around in anticipation. With ten minutes to go, we were called over to the start line where a couple of Radio One types started barking instruction at us and putting us through a warm up routine (“I’m fucked already mate” came one muttered response alongside me as we jogged around in a circle and then started crawling). One guy whose birthday it was ended up being called to the middle of the circle and had to do a set of burpees. Just what you need beforehand…


(So much cold water)


As soon as the countdown finished, everyone started running, with many taking the opportunity to dash to the front. Not having undertaken the Wolf Run before, I muscled past twenty or so slower runners then settled comfortably into a position somewhere in the first third, allowing enough space in which to check my footing and anticipate sudden movements in and around me. Within the first two hundred metres there was a sequence of tyres that required scrambling over, before another running stretch then a further set of hurdles. At this point, people began to space out, with the seriously fit still tearing off in the distance and the unfit plodders gasping for breath at the back. I found myself in a group with some rugby players who were running as a team and it was at that point that we hit the first real challenge, a set of tunnels submerged with mud that we had to scramble through on our elbows, thistles and brambles tearing at our hands as the smell of agricultural dung filled our lungs (“this is quite literally shit” came the anguished cry to my right). This early shock helped me immeasurably; I had nobody to communicate with and therefore no temptation to complain and as such the surrounding whinging came across as pathetic and unnecessary. As far as I was concerned it was wasted energy and the sooner I left them behind the better. As we scrambled to our feet, I fastened my pace and left them behind, overtaking another group as the ground began to incline and we began on a steep hill climb. Once again, hearing those around me struggling with the rough ground and steep inclination spurred me on and I sprinted the final section to the top of the hill where a tall climbing board awaited us. With every obstacle I had a sense of nervous anticipation as there is always the chance that it could prove especially difficult or end in injury, but fortunately I have reasonably upper body strength and don’t weight a huge amount (80kg) so any climbing hurdle was fairly straightforward for me and actually proved some respite from the running. Back down the hill we went, and then through a small wooded area and through some small mud pits before coming up to the first lake section. Here, the water came to waist height and we simply had to wade slowly through the cold water at a diagonal to the far side and again the whinging of those around me helped to spur me on (“Wish I hadn’t gone out last night” was one that I was tempted to retort with “try having four hours sleep mate”).


(Shiiiit!)


With the first section complete, I found that I settled into something of a pace and probably only ended up overtaking another twenty or so runners for the remainder of the course. At this stage, my recollection of the exact order of obstacles blurs slightly as tiredness started to set in after the first 3km and it was a case of “head down” and just get on with it. There were more mud pits – these ones surprisingly deep – then some blue tunnels made of plastic that were very tight and slippery and therefore hard to travel through quickly. I remember suffering from claustrophobia as a child but here there was no room for hesitation so I simply ensured I remained in space and chose to tackle tunnels and climbs without anyone crowding me ahead or behind. By far the hardest of these was a set of tunnels that required us to get on all fours and crawl down into the earth under a huge log – 5 of the 6 holes were submerged in water so I naturally chose the one I could see. Underneath there was a dark 10 metre scramble over rocks and mud to the end when I realized to my horror that the opposite end was completely submerged and therefore no getting away without my fair share of pain. Taking a complete plunge under the mud I managed to get under and back through fairly quickly, but I could imagine quite a few people panicking at that one throughout the day. 


(Brutal)


There then followed what seemed like the longest straight run, but that was largely because it was up hill and through a dense wooded area in which we had to take special care not to lose our footing and turn an ankle, or be bashed in the face by a branch or brambles. At certain points there was no option but to slow down to a gentle jog in order to carefully avoid the hazards underfoot and I really started to feel my knee tighten and therefore my right calf take the extra burden. After what seemed like an age we reached the halfway point in which there was a water refreshment stand, before another hill climb and then some hay bale scrambles and more tyres. Soon after came the bit that had daunted most people prior to the start – the lake crossing. The organizers had made it clear that you had to be a strong swimmer to attempt this and an alternative route had been prepared to the right but naturally I found myself headed straight for the water, coming to the conclusion that it would be a hollow victory if I completed the thing by ducking out of the central challenge. I slid into the water and after a couple of steps the bed disappeared from beneath my feet and the air completely left my lungs as the cold water rose to my neck. Initially I attempted a front crawl but on realizing how much effort that would take, I resorted to a gentler breast stroke (awful for bad knees) and fixed my gaze on the far bank (probably around 80 metres in the distance). Again, huge credit to the organizers as there were a number of canoeists scattered around the lake to ensure help was on hand for anyone struggling (and there were a few). It would be easy to panic with so many flailing bodies around but by maintaining a steady pace and keeping a consistent stroke I eventually managed to reach the far bank, helping another guy to get up the steep mud. It felt like my lungs had completely collapsed and I realized then that I had clearly not fully recovered from my virus as I just couldn’t catch my breath and the mental effort required to start running again was vast. 

Somehow I managed to coax my legs back into a reasonable pace and after a couple of minutes the cold at least left my body and the worst of the water evaporated. I recall little of the next phase, except that quite a few of the marshals (all of whom provided excellent encouragement as we slogged our way through the course) kept shouting that there wasn’t long to go and every so often another mud pit was flanked by camera signs indicating that we would be snapped in our anguish. At this point (I’m sure it was at this point) there suddenly loomed a ditch jump which for me proved to be one of the hardest things as my right knee was really starting to go and I was nervous about having to launch myself a great distance as I couldn’t be confident about landing correctly, especially with the ground being so uneven. As it happened I made a real hash of it, slowing down beforehand and almost partially descending the ditch before taking the lap and really feeling in on impact (“Should have jumped earlier mate” came a helpful shout as I ran off). The final major obstacle was one that most people had actually been looking forward to but again it was one I really struggled with; the water slide. As I climbed to the top, there were only a couple of others ahead of me so didn’t have long to wait, but as I did so a marshal suggested I took a run up and dive over the top. Having played a bit of rugby when I was younger I knew that this was easier said than done as if you don’t really know the terrain you can end up injuring yourself quite badly. It would appear that there isn’t a great deal of protection underneath the pink plastic of the slide and its fair to say that the entire of my groin area took a massive pounding as I rocketed down to the bottom (“put your arms out like superman” came the shouts). As per the ditch jump, I couldn’t help but feel like my efforts had been underwhelming, but I made it down and there was only another couple of kilometers to go. Head down and keep going.


(You gotta just keep going)


The final few sections were hard; the ground underfoot was rutted and hard (think of a barren farmers field in summer), there were some further mud pits which really disrupted the rhythm of my running, plus a couple more climbing sections. Eventually, I caught sight of the first section with more batches of runners setting off which indicated that we were nearing the end of the course. I say “we” – actually by this stage I was on my own with a huge gap in front and behind me. As the inflatable finishing line loomed up there were some further ditches, followed by a couple of cargo nets (the photographer behind at the top of one), followed by another tunnel scramble and then the final mud pit which a number of people took a photo-finish plunge into but I simply slide down and waded through – partly because I had made ground on one guy in front and felt there was a slight chance of catching him and partly because I didn’t have any energy for aesthetic finishes. The strangest part of that was that there was a genuine crowd who had gathered to watch and having spent the entire event in a world of my own, to see a huge screen and hundreds of people around was slightly bizarre!


(The final plunge)


Alison was there as I finished and she brought me a bottle of water once I had the obligatory finishing photo and taken my goodie bag. The lack of sleep had caught up with me, as well as the lack of hydration (I usually drink a lot of water but hadn’t done so that day in case of a lack of toilet availability – as it turned out this wasn’t a problem). I was told I had completed it in 1 hour and 16 minutes, which considering the average is between 1 hour 30 and 2 hours was pretty good. The fastest time recorded that weekend was something like 52 or 53 minutes so in light of my unsatisfactory preparation was pretty good. Once again, huge credit to the Wolf Run organizers as there is free water for runners and also hoses to get the worst of the mud off. I quickly changed in the car park into clean warmer clothes and we took a walk to get some food (the hot pork rolls were awesome) and watch others finishing. It was only when midday arrived and there were still people from my group finishing that I realized how well I had performed and what I was capable despite the hurdles and it did make me wonder what I could have achieved had I have been 100% beforehand. Then again, some of those finishing in quick times were seriously fit.


(I'm done)


The goodie bag you get contains a protein bar, water and a wrist band, along with a really nice Wolf Run t-shirt, so there is a sense of having competed once it’s over. I’ve got to give huge credit to the way it was organized and also to Alison who encouraged me to set up a  Just Giving page on which I managed to raise over £200 for Cancer Research. The punchline was that I could barely walk for two days, my right knee was all over the place and as I write this two weeks later I am still trying to shake off a terrible cold that reappeared within days of the race. Not only that but my asthma has also flared up again and I’ve really felt like an aging wreck. Was it worth it? Yes – it was hard yet invigorating and with the exception of a couple of the tunnels and the lake crossing was genuinely a lot of fun. Highly recommended, though I’ll give it a couple of months before deciding on whether to re-enter next year!