Friday, 31 July 2009

Sir Bobby Robson 1933-2009: From Langley Park to St James's

‘I’m black and white’, said Bobby on the day he walked into the job at St James’s Park. And he said it in that doughty fashion that made clear, even in his mid-sixties, he was not to be treated as anyone’s affable grey-haired uncle. Fact is, the stature and esteem in the game that Robson bore with him from his services at Ipswich, Barcelona, Porto, PSV, and for the English national team, were more than Newcastle could have hoped for from a boss at that particular low ebb in fortunes.
He was born in Sacriston and raised in Langley Park, and County Durham, town by town, village by village, can go either way when it comes to football loyalties and the rivalry of the region. But there you have it: black and white was Bobby, proven thus by years of boyhood terrace allegiance. His dad was black and white, and so Bob got on the bus to St James’s, every Saturday.
I recall rather more hope that expectation when Bobby took charge, but obviously I should have known better. Robson’s five more or less full seasons at Newcastle were, on the whole, wonderful. Twice he put NUFC in the frame for the title, right at the sharp end of the race. He saved the club from relegation in 1999-2000, largely by getting Alan Shearer to stop playing with his back to goal. 2000-2001 was a big letdown (though we’d take it now) and, for all that he could buy, Robson bought poorly. But 2001-2002 was in many ways a glory season, thanks to his acquisitions of Craig Bellamy and Laurent Robert. Robson seemed rejuvenated that year, never more endearingly than when asked to comment on the somersaulting goal-celebrations of another of his smart purchases, Lomana Tresor Lua Lua. Quoth Bobby, ‘Yeah, he’s quite gymnastic. Very fantastic…’
Robson should never have been sacked by Newcastle, not even in August 2004, by which time the team he had built looked spent. Nevertheless, and without doubt IMHO, this was round about the time he was due a graceful retirement. In 2003-2004 I think we won about thirteen games in the course of sneaking a highly flattering fifth place on the last day. Craig Bellamy’s big mouth and execrable manners had become more conspicuous in NE1 than his (occasional) goals or assists, and as Robson told David Walsh of the Times, retrospectively but feelingly, ‘For how long do you put up with that sort of guy?’ Not too long when you’re pushing 70 and you’ve already been grievously ill, and there’s the considerable matter of your being a bloody cast-iron legend in the game. Robson had more than earned the right to spend his days in the company of a better class of person, i.e. free from the likes of Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer too.
Still, be it said, Robson’s Newcastle departure should have been a mutual matter, carefully negotiated, for the sake of strategy and continuity as well as dignity and just deserts. That it wasn’t tells you much of what you need to know about the rancid karma Newcastle United has stored up for itself in recent years and the payback they’ve rightly suffered.
As Alan Shearer is reported to have said of SBR this morning, ‘He was a great man, a winner and a battler...’ Many more tributes from greats of the game will surely follow.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Another summer of black water...

'The summer came and went / It passed us over...' So sings David Sylvian in the elegant Blackwater by Rain Tree Crow, an ironic favourite of mine from what I remember as the fairly heady and sun-baked summer of 1991. But lately the British summer has been black water all the time, indeed black sheets of rain...
Today the Met Office has issued a 'revised' forecast for more 'unsettled weather' until the autumn - though 'the end of August might be better again.' Cheers. Apparently when the Met was enthusing about a 'barbecue summer' back in April it was doing so 'to help journalists' headlines.' An ‘independent meteorologist' called Philip Eden has blamed ''spinners' in the Met Office' for going to town on same. Has every workplace got to have a spinner now?
Also we're told that 'at the time of the ['barbecue summer'] forecast there was pressure on the Met Office from tourism chiefs in the UK to be positive about holidays at home...' As if those Brits who were financially fortunate enough to contemplate a holiday this summer weren't already poring over the UK brochures, knowing their hopes of sun were written in sand...
Now we're told the fact of the matter is that the jetstream is stuck above the UK, locking a weather system in place. Result? Black water...

Monday, 27 July 2009

Helmand/Panther’s Claw: Our Watches, Their Time?

And so Operation Panther's Claw, the five-week mission that cost the lives of ten British soldiers, has ended in Afghanistan, with our forces claiming success. An area 'the size of the Isle of Wight' has been cleared of insurgents ahead of the elections on August 20. The MoD says British troops will remain to secure the area won for three-to-six months. ‘I’m very proud’, Gordon Brown hads said, ‘of what our forces have achieved over the last few weeks – indeed for all the time they've been in Afghanistan.'
The funerals of those servicemen killed in Helmand have been a sombre fixture of our news so far this summer. There was something uncommonly grave in the coverage of the interring of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe: the most senior British officer to die in action since the fighting on Goose Green during the Falklands War. That gravity was embodied in the deeply dignified bearing of the widow, Sally Thornloe (pictured above in Shaun Curry’s striking photograph), required to manage that unanswerable sorrow of which I suppose the greatest empathetic version we have is Andromache’s lament for Hector in The Iliad (‘… for you did not die in bed, and stretch your arms to me, nor tell me some last intimate word…’)
Currently we are having a passionate national debate about the worth of a soldier’s ultimate sacrifice in respect of ‘our mission in Afghanistan’: a phrase that came to made to sound either dutiful or scornful depending on from whose lips it issues – for instance, those who don’t want to see the recrudescence of a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, breeding and exporting global jihad in concert with a nuclear/jihadist Pakistan; or, alternatively, those who say that Afghanistan is merely a notorious graveyard of imperial hubris, now occupied merely for the sake of America’s longterm strategic interests in the region. (Whatever side one favours, it's possible to believe that the craggy ungovernable vastness of Afghanistan will devour more lives and efforts than are truly worthwhile - or as one Taliban commander supposedly said, 'They may have the watches, but we have the time.') Personally, I can see the case for both arguments, but if one has to state a preference (and one does) then I’m in the former camp, supportive of 'the mission', as dangerously stretched and implausible as it can often seem.
Last week Paddy Ashdown defined that 'mission’ as one that has migrated from ‘the limited military aim of driving out al-Qa’ida’ into ‘another full-scale attempt, in a far-away country, to create a state of which we in the West can feel proud.’ This analysis is echoed whenever General Stanley McChrystal, head of the NATO force, speaks of 'fighting for the population.' Today David Miliband has tried to confirm that sense of a worthy endeavour: 'In Helmand, we are working to help build schools, provide clean water and electricity, surface roads and support agriculture...'
In this context the grisly fight in Helmand was part of a clear military strategy known as ‘Clear, Hold and Build’: that is, to take ground into which constructors and committed democrats can move and start to work peacefully. Today that clearing of Helmand is supposedly done, ground taken from the Taliban in the area between the economic hub of Gereshk and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. This was an intense fight with, inevitably, a high risk of casualties. Alan Mallinson described it as ‘very like the ‘break-in’ phase of any offensive battle in conventional war.’ And so British soldiers were killed, at a rate that I suppose would be commensurate with losses sustained during the Falklands campaign.
But people of conservative instincts contend that in the Falklands there were material British interests at stake, it wasn't in the name of ‘good projects’ or ‘nation building’ or humanitarian windiness. Moreover, in both liberal and conservative media alike you can now read the charge that our forces in Afghanistan are lions led by donkeys, armed for the task by a lying miserly government.
As far as I can see, what really matters right now is what the Army thinks: lose the morale of the troops and you’ve lost the war. The British Army seems to be holding its course, though its commanders would - to say only the least - like more helicopters. Clearly helicopters allow faster action or response, they aid force protection, assist supply lines, evacuate casualties quicker. Our options would be enlarged if we had more. And yet Paddy Ashdown (one of the few politicians the general public respect on military matters) believes the real issue is ‘having enough ‘boots on the ground’ to do the job.’ Allan Mallinson agrees, citing ‘a bluff saying in conventional warfare: the more you use, the less you lose.’
It's hard, though, to be sanguine about such 'losses.' And clearly a significant swathe of the British public are fed up with it and want us either to do the job by remote control or get Our Boys out of it altogether. Of the former party, those who simply call for more choppers must surely be aware that helicopters too can be shot down in spectacular and deadly fashion by forms of ordnance available even to cave-dwelling mujaheddin. Some people believe our mission can be accomplished better by safe removal of ground troops and occasional bursts of heavy ordnance, laser-guided aerial bombing. If they seriously believe that, they must be ready for the accidents: the collateral-damage annihilation of wedding parties.
Those who want us to wash our hands of The Mission altogether are never going to be convinced by the argument that we are doing Good Works out there, and so the Government has a tough case to make. Miliband is clearly trying his best when he says, ‘We are not fighting in Afghanistan because girls were not allowed to go to school, but helping them do so will lead to a better future for Afghans.’ Paddy Ashdown too stressed the element of self-help: 'The key principle through all this should be not to seek to do things 'for' Afghanistan, but to increase Afghan capacity, especially at the local level, to do things for themselves.' As such it's no surprise that the UK is subtly and carefully shifting the focus to whether or not the Afghan Army has the will and calibre and capacity to do the 'holding' stuff, and whether Afghan people and their politicians will 'build'. (One notes the care with which the text of Miliband’s speech has been entitled, ‘How to help Afghans defeat the insurgency.’)
The hope is that the main way Afghans will be helped is by legitimate local politics. It’s hard to be dewy-eyed about Afghan democracy when the main choice on offer is the compromised and placeman-packed Karzai government. And one can’t shoot one’s mouth about a renaissance of women’s rights when the young female Afghan politician Malalai Joya makes clear she thinks things are no better in that respect. Joya wants the West to clear off, and her voice clearly rhymes with the message of any Stop The War platform: ‘The Afghan people want peace, and history teaches that we always reject occupation and foreign domination.’
Well and good, but I just can't see that there's any prelapsarian choice available here. Our fortunes are all tied together now: we are the world. When it comes to the rights and wrongs of one’s country at war I try not to mouth off too confidently from the comfort of my swivel-chair when it’s not my backside that’s getting shot at. But I'm on the side of 'good projects' and against the Taliban. And as Christopher Hitchens puts it, ‘Might we not be able to shape events in Afghanistan nearer to our heart's desire without making ourselves responsible for the running of the whole nation and society?’