Follow by Email

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Centenary of the Somme. 'And when they asked us". (Kern)

As a one off, I have decided to record my thoughts and feelings with regard to the Anniversary Service at the Theipval Memorial site. This is not s rugby related post, even though like many sportsman in the First World War lost their lives.

Alarm set for 4.05am, the usual  routine of waking every ten minutes to make sure that I wouldn't oversleep and miss the Eurostar, even though J had set her arm too there was still no guarantee in my subconscious that 2 alarms would work. Clothes laid out, we were up, dressed, and out by 4.15am.

We drove through empty streets to St. Pancras, and parked in the short stay car park for a daily rate of the Greek National Debt. The Underground just wouldn't have got us there in time, as we checked in before the first Tube Train left Cockfosters. We walked through St Pancras an hour after getting up. My stomach had jet lag, as leaving that early meant that we hadn't had breakfast, and it was screaming for food. Checking in for the train was easy. As we were on the 'special' train, staff were polite as our passports and baggage, twice, once by British staff and once by French staff. 'We were now 'En France'.

I don't wear dresses very often, due to the morning struggle trying to find unladdered tights was finally given up on. This meant that when I went to the loo, the dress was tucked into my knickers, and a kind French lady saved my dignity. (My mind was on a bacon and sausage roll).

By the time that was consumed, it was time to get on the Eurostar. I expected lots of British Legion types, grey trousers, white shirts, blue blazers and regiment ties. There were some, but also women in their wedding outfit finery, one or two children, who'd been taken out of school. Many were carrying boxes with wreaths of poppies in,  ready to place post ceremony, there was a hat in a polythene bag, being carried by one lady, that went all the way to France and back without being worn.

We climbed the escalator to board carriage 18. Needless to say that was the farthest away along the platform, and we were welcomed by Sebastian, and Amelie, French staff wearing poppies in their lapels. They were to host us all the way to Haute Picardie, France. After a small glass of water, they brought round breakfast. (It would have been rude to refuse) and so we ate the second one of the day - egg sandwiches, orange juice, yoghurt and a pastry. It took 20 minutes in a tunnel to Ebbsfleet, emerging somewhere near the Dartford crossing, the Queen Elizabeth bridge straddling the Thames. We picked up a few passengers there, and 20 minutes later we were under the Channel, to emerge in France in time for the 2 minutes silence at 7.30, the time when the troops went over the top one hundred years ago. No one spoke or moved for minutes afterwards. Commonwealth War Graves staff gave us lanyards and wristbands to ensure entry into the event, and for the buses back afterwards.

On arrival at Haute Picardy, a station on an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, there were around 12 coaches to transport us to Theipval. We were second tranche off, and whilst it was warm, it was windy as we were guided to the coach. The driver handed us a card with E on it to help us find the coaches afterwards. Each coach had a 'guide' on to instruct us on the details of the day. These guides were servicemen and women, and we had a young lady from the First Aid Nursing Auxiliary (FANY for short - the irony was not lost on me.)

We felt very important as we were escorted through the French countryside by the Gendarmerie on motorbikes, who stopped traffic at junctions and roundabouts to keep the 12 coach convoy together. On some roundabouts there were roses, which reminded me of the song of the Great War: Roses of Picardy. On a previous visit in 2014, the roundabouts were planted with wildflowers including cornflowers and poppies, but not this time, although as we drove through villages and fields, the poppies and cornflowers were evident. As we approached Theipval, we drove through the tiny French villages, who had decorated their houses with the Tricolour, but also Union Jacks, and I guess dependant on the regiment who protected their villages, South African, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand flags. (Is this where our future lies post Brexit?) These quiet villages were populated with people who came out to wave to us, they haven't forgotten, but I think the change to see William and Kate was the real reason. As we approached Theipval, the Memorial could be seen from miles away. It dominates the countryside, being on top of the hill. No wonder the Germans wanted to defend their position from there

I think the organisers were over optimistic with the timings, as we didn't get chance to take in everything around the event, and toilet and toilet break later, we picked up our bag of goodies, including the programme and rain cape, and found somewhere to sit in the audience.

When we got off the coach, we walked past small hillocks on the way to the visitor centre, and onward to the memorial. The hillocks were planted with cardboard poppies, each with a personal message on. Some were quite general, recognising the sacrifice, some related to the memories of a lost relative, sadly there was no time to read them and take in the messages. This was the first of many striking images of the day.

As we got closer to the memorial, there was a replica plane and tank, both were used for the first time in this battle. We were welcomed by a huge marquee, set up to serve coffee, with more displays, sadly no time to take these in, as we needed to be seated soon. We were also surrounded by a wood, and as we walked through a gap, the Memorial towered above us, we walked down the side, and towards the bank of empty seats, where we sat next to a guy who told us that Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were also on the train, he'd met Camilla, a very intelligent woman, who was interested in his fridge full of DNA. (Why me?)

To be honest, if you wanted to see what was going on, we may as well stayed at home, as we were effectively watching the BBC coverage. It was never about that though. It was about being in the location where the Battle had its epicentre. As I sat between the trees and listened to the service and looking at the Memorial, I though about my relative. A distant one from my grandfathers' side, his name appeared on the memorial three times. This is not odd, as when battalions were so decimated, soldiers joined others to the point where they were recognised as being part of their company. I wondered if he left behind a family. His citation doesn't mention a wife, only that he was the son of a couple from Larch Road, Balham. A road that doesn't exist anymore. t can only assume that the family line died with him on 1 July 1916, and so maybe we were the only ones there that were specifically remembering his sacrifice.

The skies stayed fairly dry for most of the service, the significant  rain coming just before the 2 minute silence. The rain also reflected the mood of the time, 1914-18 had cold wet summers, 1916 being one of the worst. The Somme is remembered for the mud, and any other weather would've been wrong. The unfortunate thing was that we hadn't got the plastic ponchos, and so the rain came through Abide with Me and the 2 Minute silence. As the petals fell, the mood was sombre. The sheer scale of the deaths on the first day cannot be imagined. A town the size of Uttoxeter wiped out in less that 24 hours. My village wiped out in the first hour alone. I was wet through, but it was nothing on what fate met these lads 100 years ago. I wondered who my relative had left behind. I hoped tat if there was an after life that those that died with no grave knew that people still cared about their sacrifice 100 years on, and were grateful.

At the end of the service, we made a call, not difficult considering we'd already had 2 breakfasts, that
we would risk missing lunch to take in the Memorial. As we walked down the side, we were lucky enough to see the dignitaries talking to the soldiers on duty, and squeezed past to see the wreaths on the cross, and the immaculately kept graves, the white gravestones contrasting with the red roses.

With time getting on, we returned to the buses, trudging through Somme mud, cold and wet - this was nothing to what the soldiers had endured. We picked up a bag of lunch each to eat on the coach, but with 600 children, needing to leave first, we were held back. Time perhaps that we could have spent looking around the visitor centre, or buying souvenirs in the shop. Missed opportunities of an afternoon, but not a life.

We ate lunch on the coach. Egg, cheese and ham rolls, with crisps and another orange juice.

Back at Haute Picardy, we were lucky enough to go through the tented customs, first, set up just for today. We waited 10 minutes in the sun for the train, and when it came, we were welcomed by a cold drink and hot flannel. As soon as we left, tea was served travelling through Northern France. Chicken and potato salad with a bread roll, followed by a fig pastry and creme anglaise. With so many eggs and bread, the figs were needed!

Back at St Pancras, we walked past congestion on the platform, Sol Campbell, was talking to Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. I reflected on our rotten politicians, the elite who are at the moment dismissing the preference of the little people of Britain and thought how little has really changed. I also felt incredible pride in what these men had endured. Leaders who lost the value of human life, treating them as a number not a person with hopes, loves and future, as they took the view you lose 100 men, we will only lose 99 and win the battle.

At the end of the film Oh what a Lovely War, the song  'And when they asked us' reminds us how for many years we never really knew what the soldiers had endured, and bravely protected their loved ones from the horror of war.

And when they asked us,
How dangerous it was.
Oh! We'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them.
We spent our pay in some cafe.
And fought wild women night and day,
T'was the cushiest job we ever had.

And when they asked us,
And they're certainly going to ask us.
The reason why we didn't win the
Croix de Guerre.
Oh! We'll never tell them,
No! We'll never tell them.
There was a front but damned if we knew where.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Gambler - Kenny Rodgers

Sunday was a strange day. We had the excitement of going through the same match day routine, although it was tinged with sadness as we also started to ‘bump out’ – pack up. We packed the first van of stuff we hadn’t needed, but was stored for Leicester, the next venue. Post protectors, flags, etc. to send over. Luckily we didn’t have to go with the van, the two paid employees did this, so we were left to go through the same routine as yesterday.
We started work at 7am for the second day on the trot, and finished 12 hours later. Working in Logistics has been incredible fun, but very physically demanding. We watched the Spectator Services volunteers turn up at around 12 on Saturday, and 9am on Sunday, there to add the colour to the event, but we knew that we’d be there long after they were home telling people what they’d done. Weirdly they finished at around 3-4pm, yet there was an evening party to thank us. As this started at 7.30, the only people there were paid staff and those logistics people that could still stand. It was probably one of the few things the team got wrong. Well –intentioned as it was, there is nothing to do in Aston for 3 hours to kill time, so people went home. The logistics team could have joined the party late, but Spectator Services were never going to hang around. A shame as there was free beer, that the Logistics team that stayed could never possibly drunk all of it.

Saturday’s game started at 4.45pm, and spectators started to arrive about 2pm. The weather was typical September weather. The children had gone back to school, so the sun was out shining, and we were experiencing an Indian Summer. The volunteers were dressed in blue, the South Africans in Myrtle Green, and the Samoans were also dressed in blue. Neutrals had their own club or country shorts on, so the event was very colourful. WE had to take some crowd control barriers out as there were insufficient at one point, so I could see the build up around the ground. People were sitting in Aston Park, with a beer enjoying the sunshine, At the nearby roundabout by the Witton Arms, the South African fans had taken it over, so we Christened it ‘Robben Island’.

A late run to find some missing bins meant that we were too late to get back as the roads to the ground were closed. Try as we might to get through, showing passes that allowed us pitch-side, it still wasn’t enough to get us along the Witton Road. WE fetched our Manager, but still the jobs-worth would bend and let us in. We were sent to a back gate to the ground that was locked. We ended up parking about half a mile away in the Villa Staff car park, which was full and another jobs-worth was trying to stop us parking there as well. In the end we parked the van in a tree. For me, the Jobs-worth had been too officious, as the Official Vehicle behind us, carrying the President of the Samoan Rugby Union was not allowed through either. An Official Guest turned away. Crowd safety is important, but so is common sense, and hospitality.
Later that day, we went out again to collect some bins, and chairs, the South African fans on Robben Island were still drinking, and using a supermarket trolley to put the empties in, to keep it tidy.

Sunday’s match was a much quieter affair. Starting at noon, it meant that people arrived a lot closer to kick off and there was less of a buzz around the ground, and afterwards, people didn’t hang around either. The weather was still good, and there were far more children around all waving flags and wearing rugby shorts whether it be one of the teams playing or their own club shirt. During the match it was obvious who the neutrals were supporting as the 40,000 in the ground were chanting ‘Ur-a guay, Ur-a guay, Ur-a guay,’. What was strange though, and it has happened at other grounds were England weren’t involved was to hear on both days ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. This has even happened at the Millennium Stadium. The game was one sided and a little flat. Uraguay’s effort was put into containment although, they could have scored a couple of times, as the referee didn’t spot the big Aussie lock lifting a leg in a couple of mauls near the line. The atmosphere would have been so much livelier had they scored.
I spoke to policemen, security and the stewards at the ground. All of them loved the rugby fans, the occasion and the event, and hoped that it would return to Villa as they loved being part of the event, rather than the antagonistic attitude of soccer fans, where they were constantly on their guard.

After the game, and on Monday, our focus was to bump all the rooms out, ready to load 2 lorries on Monday. It arrived in 3 vehicles, and we managed to get it all into 2, although the fun we had hand-balling the office chairs onto the waggon, so that the DHL driver didn’t have to go to Leicester with them, was a real art form, as everyone was lifting and shifting, including the driver, who joined in the fun as well. I am not sure how we managed to get them all on the vehicle without pallets, or stacked without falling (although one guy did catch a falling chair with his head.) We haven’t heard from the Manager at Leicester, so whether they all stayed on board the lorry, and were unloaded safely we don’t know.
At 4 o’clock on Monday, it was all over for us as volunteers at the World Cup. I have never worked so hard physically, or enjoyed work so much, without getting paid at the end of it. I made one or two contacts that may lead to my next job, but regardless it was worth every minute, and would do it again. I am not sure that in a couple of years’ time I could cope with the physicality of the job though. I walked over 10 miles every day, most of the in Safety Boots, carrying water, tables, chairs, boxes.

I’m not sure whether this will be my last blog, as I have tickets for a few games after today, starting with the England Australia game Saturday, Canada v Rumania Tuesday, a quarter final – I may sell the ticket dependant on results, and the Bronz Final and Final, which I shall attend for the sporting occasion as my hope of England being there sadly evaporated on Saturday with the meltdown (again) of the England team against the World Champions elect (in Welsh eyes).

The Gambler was England 2007's song - after a bad start and everyone wrote them off, they came through and got to a final. That spirit is desperately needed tomorrow.

Happy Days - Squeeze

Match days were the only days that we had to wear the Uniform. The Uniform was two shades of blue, neither of them too garish, so the clothing will be useful to wear after the event for watching rugby, walking the dog etc. The cap, of course is a different matter, but will serve as a souvenir for the event. We were told that we cannot sell before the end of the event. Sadly some people have already tried on eBay. I guess that they will be contacted to remove the items pretty damn quick. This is the third biggest sporting event in the world, and someone buying the kit poses a security threat – are they sports fans or terrorists?
On match day we had a variety of jobs to support the teams. These varied from making sure the press had stationary supplies, and water, to more exciting jobs like carrying the kit from the kit van to the changing room or pitch-side. One of my jobs was to take the water and Powerade (the event is sponsored by Coca Cola) to the changing rooms, match officials rooms, ball boys, and Anti-Doping etc. The players could order bottles of water, Powerade, or Powerade Zero. South Africa and Australia’s bottles were in the hundred’s, Samoa didn’t want Powerade Zero, just full fat and the amateur team, Uraguay, only ordered 55 bottles of water. Not a lot considering the warm weather, and the fact that a player can lose up to 7 litres of fluid per game. They probably aren’t used to what is on offer, and the fact that the other teams would carry some of the water away with them. We had strict instructions that the Eskys (drinks/ice butts) were not to leave with the teams, as at other grounds they had done. The Captain’s Run was Friday, and there were smaller orders that day. The Captain’s Run is when the teams run through moves etc. on the actual pitch and the Captain takes the training session. The water orders were smaller on those sessions. On Saturday morning we went with the drinks into the South African changing room. There was still a lot of drinks around, so we decided to consolidate and put them all together on the table in the changing room, rather than scattered around including cases in the shower room. I bent down to pick up the cases in the shower room, not knowing that the showers were automatic and I got wet, twice as I tried to do it for a second time from a different angle and the showers switched on again. I got wetter. Then my colleague showed me how to switch off the automatic bit to remove the cases in a drier manner.
On match day we had a variety of jobs to support the teams. These varied from making sure the press had stationary supplies, and water, to more exciting jobs like carrying the kit from the kit van to the changing room or pitch-side. One of my jobs was to take the water and Powerade (the event is sponsored by Coca Cola) to the changing rooms, match officials rooms, ball boys, and Anti-Doping etc. The players could order bottles of water, Powerade, or Powerade Zero. South Africa and Australia’s bottles were in the hundred’s, Samoa didn’t want Powerade Zero, just full fat and the amateur team, Uraguay, only ordered 55 bottles of water. Not a lot considering the warm weather, and the fact that a player can lose up to 7 litres of fluid per game. They probably aren’t used to what is on offer, and the fact that the other teams would carry some of the water away with them. We had strict instructions that the Eskys (drinks/ice butts) were not to leave with the teams, as at other grounds they had done. The Captain’s Run was Friday, and there were smaller orders that day. The Captain’s Run is when the teams run through moves etc. on the actual pitch and the Captain takes the training session. The water orders were smaller on those sessions. On Saturday morning we went with the drinks into the South African changing room. There was still a lot of drinks around, so we decided to consolidate and put them all together on the table in the changing room, rather than scattered around including cases in the shower room. I bent down to pick up the cases in the shower room, not knowing that the showers were automatic and I got wet, twice as I tried to do it for a second time from a different angle and the showers switched on again. I got wetter. Then my colleague showed me how to switch off the automatic bit to remove the cases in a drier manner.
We had an urgent team brief mid afternoon when we were told that we were required to move the ITV desk from pitch-side before the game, bring it back on at half time, remove it again and then bring it back on at full time. The presenters were Craig Doyle, Sean Fitzpatrick, George Gregan, and Francois Pienaar. All three have won the World Cup, with Pienaar being captain of the South African team in the iconic 1995 Final, where Mandela used sport (in this case Rugby) to unite the nation. Pienaar has also played for Saracens, so it was particularly exciting for me. I did also experience a great deal of trepidation. We only had 50 seconds to remove it from pitch-side. All week I had been wearing Safety Boots issued to me. They were too big, even with two pairs of socks on, and I had been tripping up stairs etc. I would have to run along the pitch pushing the desk with 40,000 people watching me. Luckily I did it without tripping although the wags in the crowd were all shouting: ‘Heave’, as if we were pushing in a scrum or a maul towards the line. After the game we had our photos taken with the presenters and I got to shake Pienaar’s hand. The hand that shook Mandela’s in that photograph, the hand that’s lifted the Cup.

The other pitch side job we had was to put out photographer’s stools and collect them all up again afterwards. They were really useful branded stools, that had gone walking at other grounds and so we were there to stop them walking. This meant that we were pitch side for both games. Not the best location from some points of view, but great to watch the tries being scored, whether a flying winger or a forward at the bottom of a maul. One guy, who ploughed his own furrow all week, had his face painted in the childrens’ zone both days, which was against the issued guidance for volunteers, but provided us with amusement, as to what he was going to do next. 
The real thrill for me was to go and fetch the South African teams’ kit on Saturday evening. We pulled the trolley through the players entrance into the corridor outside the changing rooms, whilst the kit man passed us the kit to put on the trolley. We were asked to pull the trolley out of the way, which meant that for an hour, we were watching the comings and goings from changing room to changing room. Years ago, players used to swop shirts straight after the game. For some reason this was deemed offensive, and they were instructed to do it in the changing rooms. This meant that the South Africans were taking their shirts into the Samoan changing room to swop. Oh for the old days as players went back into their own changing room bare chested. Bryan Habana had a jaunty pair of budgie smugglers with the South African flag on. The Samoan team had traditional dress on. Interestingly both team’s tTeam Manager was a woman. I think I missed my opportunity in life there with the game becoming professional long after I had to make career choices.
The wait meant that I missed the England Wales game. In light of the result, it was probably for the best as it meant that I went home tired but happy at my day’s rugby experience.

Cradle to the Grave - Squeeze Glenn and Chris back to their best

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Apeman - The Kinks

Pictures to follow once the embargo is lifted.
Today's blog is a tired blog. On the 40 minutes home on the train tonight, I fought sleep, reading Ray Davies autobiography "Americana" (he's one the the two Davies brothers in The Kinks.) Whilst it is hard manual work, it is great fun. The stadium has changed so much today. It no longer looks like a football stadium - 28 arrests last night and one trashed pub, it is slowly changing into a football stadium. Ironically the World Cup colours look so good against the Claret and Blue of the Villa, enhancing the look of the stadium. We have delivered furniture and equipment to the Press Room, Photographers' Rom, Technology Room, Changing Rooms, Medical Rooms, and Match Manager.
We've hunted down clocks, padlocks, batteries, crowd control barriers, whiteboards to name but a few. The contents of the room are dictated by Room Data Sheets which relate to the different rooms. 4 of the support rooms are in a row. 4 times I carried over a table, and 3 times I came back again with it as no one wanted it and we couldn't track it down. In total today, I have walked over 22 and a half thousand steps today or over 9 and a half miles - in safety boots. Most of the steps have been accompanied with some sort of equipment or other.

There's been some really strange jobs today. Apart from bumping in, we've made whiteboard stands, shelf units. changed batteries in lockers, torches and clocks, and made cardboard lids for re-cycling containers. I've watched the technology guys set up the music systems for the day, taken delivery of paper flags for the neutrals to wave, watched the Media Manager try to prepare for the request to have a media or TV report from the pitch before the posts go up and the pitch marked. I met the Brand Managers IMG and asked them what they did. They look after the interests of the brand that sponsor the World Cup, (Coca Cola, Heineken etc.) This may involve the hospitality boxes, or it may be to protect the brand against Guerrilla Marketing. This is when similar brands, such as Pepsi Cola giving away free samples near the ground. Part of the contract guarantees that there is an exclusive zone around the ground where only the sponsor brands can be involved. There have been incidences where burger vans can get in trouble and be asked to leave.

Sadly the food remains grim. Pig on stale white bread today. My digestive system is crying out for vegetables. The good news is that we have loads of liquid to drink now - mostly Coca Cola products, so I am wired with so much caffeine.

Tomorrow we prepare for the Captains' Run on Friday. I wish I could show you the pictures to see how the stadium is changing, almost on an hourly basis as the RWC branding is applied to cover up Villa's history, sponsors etc.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

C'est La Vie - Stereophonics

I bought a step counter as I know I need to exercise more. On day one, of being a volunteer, I managed 17,500 steps or 8.5 miles, today, only 17,000!! Most of the time, I was carrying weight, so that's got to be worth a Snickers Duo? Two days in, 4 sandwiches and I have a craving for vegetables.

A smooth journey into work again this morning, and I am beginning to get my bearings in the shopping mall that is kidding people is a brand new station. The platforms are still dark and dingy, and the layout disorientating.

I got to the Villa ground in good time, and the day's vehicles were already there. as soon as our supervisor was in, we started unloading. One guy, who disappeared due to work issues yesterday came in today with his phone welded to his ear. He took responsibility for check the contents of the vehicles, whilst the rest of us lifted and shifted... In between times he took more calls, or pretended to. he also supervised a lorry of branding that was nothing to do with us. The fork truck driver had 9 years experience of unloading and counting, but this guy obviously knew more.

His lack of the 'piano shifting' was winning others up as well. If he wanted to be part of the team, then he needed to graft, not play at it, which he continued to do all morning. It's funny, we'd only been there for a day, but we'd started to work each other out and pull together, and the new guy has to break in. The supervisor commented how easy it was to work with volunteers. We all wanted to be there, we wanted to do our bit for the 'team' and task. He said at the Olympi
cs, the people he worked with just wanted to be sacked so that they could claim dole again. Sadly from past lives I recognised that. (No political discussion to follow, I promise).

It was one guy's birthday, and we had pop (well Asti) crisps, sausage rolls and chocolate cake with candles that he had to blow out.

For all the training that we'd done, to make this team, the ice breakers, the games at Milton Keynes on the first day, the thing that really worked was a focus, an end game, getting the Villa ground game ready.

The hardest task today, was finding our lunch, It took an hour and half to find it. A search party went into the ground into our rooms to find it. Not there. Not in the kitchen, or in with the IT or Accreditation team. As a last ditch hope, someone opened the fridge door........

We knew that we would finish early today because of the football game in the evening. 450 stewards to stop half of Birmingham killing the other half. We had to hide anything that was worth nicking, water and pop, tools, freebies etc. When we left, the Police Incident van was pulling onto site. watching the game tonight, with a Villa win, I wonder what we will face in the morning?

You really got me - The Kinks

I had a relaxing train journey in yesterday, as getting to Birmingham to start work at Aston Villa for the World Cup for the World Cup for 9am would have meant me being in huge queues of traffic, which would have stressed me through the roof. I read a newspaper, a book, and arrived relaxed for the challenge ahead.

The morning was all administration - how to pick up a box, report an accident, read a data sheet, bump into a space using a space code (put furniture into a room with a room number) and plan to bump out again.

We had a tour of Aston Villa (soon to be known as Aston Nilla) starting with a Health and Safety talk in the Police Station. There were two cells, home and away,  and  monitors for the police to watch for those who cannot watch a game without starting a fight. We were also warned not to take any photos of Villa's internal rooms and post on social media, otherwise, we would be thrown off site, therefore, my photos are somewhat limited.
The ground, being an old one, had many tunnels, back routes, stairs that you can easily get lost in, but providing we find the right space code away we go.

The e-mail promised a bottle of water, which still hadn't come when morning break came at 11am. Tea of Coffee? When you don't like either, it might as well have been cyanide or arsenic). The first vehicle arrived as we were ready for lunch, but we quickly got into work mode, and unloaded it in the rain. The contents were tables, chairs, safety boots, hi-vis jackets, but no water.

Lunch was a cheese sandwich with crisps and a Snickers Duo. With no water it was like eating rubber bands and sandpaper. We called Aston Villa, the RWC staff, did a rain dance, but still no water.

Our afternoon was spent unloading another lorry and a van, and breaking down pallets to put everything into a container. This wouldn't have been necessary, only Villa play the Bluenoses on Tuesday. Police Leave cancelled the ground was in lock down, with security on every door. WE counter stuff off and we counted it into the container. The we started to furnish the rooms that we could. "Where's the Clocks?" came the question, "Back of the container on the left," came the reply. "Where's the flip charts?" came the question, "Back of the container on the left,"came the reply. Mmmm. Think we should have planned that one a little more. Luckily we still have three days to get everything ready for the Captain's Run on Friday.

We were told that we would finish at 5pm, but we all had thrown ourselves into it and smashed it by 4pm, including getting rid of the stretch wrap and cardboard, which allowed me to leave early.

I was glad I did, as I then remembered why I gave up travelling on trains. Because by mid-afternoon, they all go badly wrong. The first call was 'the 16.30 to Edinburgh (calling at Derby) is delayed by 45 minutes, as there is a trespasser on the line. Second call: "the 16.49 to Nottingham, calling at Derby disappeared off the board. This train had broken down. Miraculously, they'd found a 5 carriage instead of a 2 carriage train. and it pulled onto the platform. Everyone assumed that this one was the 17.03 to Edinburgh (calling at Derby). I eventually get onto the train with the 100s of others. Three train loads of people onto one train. I was lucky, I had a seat on the luggage rack, most stood. I got back into Burton 10 minutes late, flustered as I was worried that I'd miss the second event of my day: The Official RWC welcome to the Ireland Team.

I had to get changed in my car. That was really difficult, as people kept walking past my car. Still eventually I did it, and walked back to Burton Town Hall, found a seat as close as possible to the team, and then looked down. I only had one sock on!!

It started over 30 minutes late, mainly because the Irish team spent time signing autographs, having selfies with everyone outside. When they entered, there was a rousing welcome that took them by surprise. Things like this don't happen in Burton, and when they do, the locals respond. 400 clapped and cheered the team in. Devon Toner, 6' 10" tall, didn't only have to duck to get through the door, but also duck to get under the balcony on the way in. A school in Coventry started the event off with their version of 'A World In Union' and it was a damn site better than the murdering of the song by Paloma Faith which starts the ITV coverage. The children couldn't wipe the smile off their faces.

From there a couple of speeches by the alikadoos, and eventually the bit everyone was waiting for started. Led by Paul O Connell, the team came on stage one by one to receive their participation medal and caps. At this stage, their 'honours' were read out. Many of these players had played on Lions tours and I had cheered for them, including, delivering my pipe dream, a Lions tour victory.

Paul O Connell gave a speech, which showed the aura of the man; he has a presence that is difficult to  explain. You look up to him, follow him, a gentle giant who grows in stature on the pitch. He was surprised at the level of support in the crowd outside. Perhaps he needed a quiet word. The Midlands, including Burton is full of a diaspora of second, and now third generation Irish who came over in the 50s and 60s to work in the manufacturing, in Burton's case the breweries and Pirelli in particular.

The Mayor of Burton spoke about the origins of Burton, when an Irish nun St Modena turned water into Pale Ale bitter - I think that was her miracle, but up until the mid 2000s was the mainstay of the local economy, sadly replaced by low skilled warehouse jobs that blight the Midlands. He presented Paul with an engraved tankard and a bottle of stout. I was disappointed at the choice of beer. The Irish are bloody good at stout you know. Burton is brilliant at pale ale - its in the water don't you know, St Modwena lived to 125 so it must have been good! and we should have let the boys try that.

A friend's daughter sang to finish the evening off. A Wonderwall sandwich (I didn't know the song in the middle) that reminded me of the Lions tour.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sweet Caroline - Neil Diamond

I managed to con some work mates to come with me down to the Fan Zone. What goes on around sporting events is important, how the area embraces the sport and what it makes of it. Birmingham is a Football town, with the Seals and Bluenoses dividing the city, unlike Leicester where both sports are equally as important, although rugby has enjoyed more success. Rugby does the stuff around a game very well, making a game an occasion.

The first time I saw a Fan Zone was at the France World Cup in 2007, on that fateful day when England didn’t come second – a wonderful birthday present. 36-0 and the alcohol in Stade de France was non-existent. Euro-fizz without taste, colour or alcohol. 3 pricey pints of it I drank as well. The Fan Zone alongside was fantastic though. Stade de France is in a very poor part of Paris, Sant Denis, reminding me of Wembley, a deprived area with an opulent sports arena. The area has a high Moroccan population, who probably have never seen a rugby ball before, and they run the local bars, and cafes. Many sporting events are sponsored by multi-national alcohol companies, for rugby, Heineken and Guinness, who often have an exclusion zone around the stadia. What France did was clever though. They worked with the local bars and cafes, and got them to have stalls within the Fan Zone as well as their bars and cafes, providing they sold Heineken and Guinness, at the approved prices. They made money form the event, rather than their bars lose out and they could sell food, which was quality ethnic food rather than the standard burgers and hotdogs that pass for edible at too many sporting events these days. French rugby is associated with Jazz Bands, and they had hired one to build the atmosphere. The opposition, South Africa contributed some Zulu dancers and there was a brilliant party atmosphere. My lasting memory, however, was the ragamuffin young boy, probably about 8, holding hands with his Arabic dad, wandering around soaking up the experience, with a huge smile on his face as he took it all in. His first experience of a World event, and the Fan Zone allowed him to take part, where there is no way he would have been able to take part otherwise.

In New Zealand, my first Fan Zone was a much sadder affair. A frosty foggy afternoon in Christchurch, 6 months after the devastating earthquake that took the World Cup away from them. Christchurch, the ’English City’ in the South, with its Cathedral in rubble, the city centre closed or operating out of converted shipping containers, and New Zealand’s spiritual home for rugby. All taken away from them. In true Immigrant ‘Can Do’ style though, the fan zone was open, with bars, food, exhibitions of cultural life and more importantly, their plans for re-building the city. It was a much more down beat experience, but it will rebuild itself.

So the next World Cup has arrived, and the earliest opportunity, we went down to the Fan Zone in Eastside Park. This is the regeneration project for Birmingham of this decade, the plans starting in my previous role, it has been interesting to see it unfold before me. I had been looking forward to this and the BIG kick off all week, how would Birmingham do it, what would it offer? The vision for the legacy of this World Cup is more people involved in the sport, whether than be playing, watching or volunteering at the local club. We had 1quite a walk to the Zone, but it was well laid out. There weren’t a lot of people there, mostly teachers and coaches to let the local school children try out the game in Tag form,  or to take the skills challenges – passing the ball through the holes etc. Pictures on TV will show Birmingham has a young and vibrant city and the setting certainly gave that feel, with modern buildings surrounding the park.  Unfortunately they were showing the England Scotland game from the last World Cup, in Auckland, where it was hard to believe just how bad England actually were, but still not quite as bad as Scotland, although it was close!

Food was a little limited, and slow service, but having said that, it was cooked to order. Fish, Chips and mushy peas (no faggots!) in the fresh air can’t be beaten, but a little disappointing that the variety of food was a little limited. The bar was empty, but the call to go back to work was stronger (really?!?) But it did give a great sense of expectation for later.

The toss up was whether to watch the game after work there or go home to watch it. The weather forecast tipped it towards my comfy sofa, although I intend to re-visit the Fan Zone before it closes. 

The excitement of watching the opening ceremony was tempered by the fact that we could see and hear the crowd in the background having a whale of a time signing Sweet Caroline, and we had to listen to John Inverdale, with his love in with Jonny and Sir Clive Woodward. I would think most of the global audience would have rather watched the build up in the stadium, rather than be reminded about 2003.

Fiji scored a stunning try, which was given, only to be pulled back before the conversion was taken for it to be checked. It was quite rightly cancelled out, but the so called experts protested that the try should have stood, and the referee got it wrong. The experts were wrong. Until the conversation is taken, the referee can change his mind. In this case for the right decision. 

Sport always throws up shocks, and despite Fiji playing the better rugby, their fitness levels fell off towards the end and the final result flattered a stuttering England, and the shock wasn't to be. The real shock was yet to come in Brighton, where little Japan, (in both rugby terms and physically) beat the mighty Boks. Rugby has become stodgy in recent years, too many Rugby League defence coaches, and South Africa are one of the best proponents of this rugby style, but they were outdone by a quicker Japan who attacked the space. Hurray for Japan, I hope that this wasn't their Cup Final, after losing 24 games in the World Cup on the bounce, and they win another game playing the same way. Rugby needs more of that style in this World Cup if it is to reach out to the likes of the little boy in Sant Denis.