Weekend Gremlins

‘Floor of Doom’

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Dedicated reelers have been spinning themselves and their partners with joyful abandon at the Royal Caledonian Ball since 1848. The Royal Cal is the first of the big reeling balls and the most prominent. It has been cancelled in the past only because of war, (Boer War and the World Wars) and after the death of King Edward VII. With over 700 guests it is an immense party with tiara's and sashes 'encouraged.' Children may observe the set reels from the balcony with their nannies, 'in uniform.' Tickets are consistently in high demand and are priced at a premium to benefit a range of charities which the ball has supported since its inception. 

With a sense of bewildered astonishment the gathered guests at this years ball on Friday witnessed large cracks emerging in the vast dance floor after merely two dances. Who know's? Perhaps the reeling community is tainted with the Obesity Crisis. Perhaps it was a floor designed for floppy disco dancing rather than 700 reelers galloping round the room like the Scots Greys charging the French guns at Waterloo. The cause was irrelevant to those present as dancing was suspended and despite the best attempts of those present will not happen again in the Grosvenor Ballroom until next years ball.  

The committee have announced they will give refunds. Refunds are unlikely to be taken up by most given the altruistic nature of the event. Physiotherapists across the land are facing the unavoidable reduction in post-event injuries and physical complaints with fair-minded stoicism. 

 

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The next day over 82,000 serving and retired soldiers and sailors gathered with family members amongst them at Twickenham for the annual Army v Navy rugby match. It is the largest amateur rugby game in the world and the one which records the biggest beer consumption in the Twickenham area of any event. Few of the attendees at the previous night's ball would have been at both events. The game was going swimmingly until at 15 minutes, a sailor got himself sent off. This undermined the Navy's hope's of winning. Despite this, they played well with 14 men. How much closer might the 22-14 score have been had they been at full strength? 

The crowd enjoyed the game and the day out in the sunshine right until the 60 minute mark when a power problem caused the scoreboard and big screens to go blank. So did the tills in the bars. When the tills stopped working so did the beer pumps. Having the beer stop flowing with 82,000 thirsty serving and retired servicemen could be described as sub-optimal. Others might say calamitous. A body of opinion exists which advocates that the rugby only serves to impede a good days drinking with old mates. For this cadre, the beer tap debacle brought their fun to a shuddering halt. For the majority though, it was a blip in a good day out and saved many a few bob given most servicemen have an aversion to paying £5.50 for a pint at Twickenham and do so only reluctantly.

Two sets of gremlins over the weekend then at two very differnet events. Could be an interesting summer.

Journal

It was a curiously melancholic week leaving much to reflect on. The passing of Professor Stephen Hawking attracted the kind of attention that such a full life deserved but one which will only be seen in it’s true perspective with the passage of time, and how appropriate is that. When I heard the news I resolved to write a blog post about him which would have been wholly inappropriate coming from someone who barely scraped a ‘C’ pass in physics O-Level and who hardly understood anything in A Brief History of Time except the punctuation. I was anyway only going to highlight three points. That Professor Hawking proved to us all that even the most catastrophic physical disability need be no reason to  dim the lights on the human spirit and soul, that he opened the door to science for many, many school students across the world bringing vision and excitement to the most complex of theories and of course, that it is rare for any generation to live with one of the ‘Greats,’ among us. Fortunately for my readers, my friend Ilyas Khan, who is chairman of the Stephen Hawking Foundation, gave an appropriately eloquent and loving tribute to the man in a BBC television interview. It is well worth watching.

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

Ronnie 'Annie' Oakley on the left; NI

On Thursday I learned that a very old friend and mentor from my days as a young soldier and junior NCO in the RHF was moving from hospital to a hospice. We haven’t seen each other for half a lifetime but an exchange of texts, (he was unable to talk), brought many happy memories back. Happy, incidentally, is a relative term. In this case we’re talking about a shared brew in a downpour, which only served to wash away some of the week long oil and mud encrusted grime on the North German plain, a quick joke at the gates before a patrol in Armagh or our epic double act at the Battalion Christmas Concert in Hemer in 1979. It should have won a BAFTA but the judges didn’t much get round the lively regimental cabaret scene that was BAOR.

Andrew White

Andrew White

Friday and a drive down to Cirencester to attend a memorial service for another Army chum who sadly died last month after fighting a bastard brain tumour over the past two years. He saw it off for much longer than was expected but that rather summed up his go-forward never-look-back approach to life. Tenacious, bordering on obstinate, he was never going to detune his approach to the world because of some irritable health issue. The memorial service was genuinely thoughtful and therefore memorable. There were a few tears, many more light hearted moments with some moments of quiet reflection on the passing of a strong personality. His three children spoke wonderfully well. They were warm, engaging and witty. As I listened I thought, ‘Andrew, that’s your legacy right there.’ Afterward, as we chatted over drinks, I heard voices and saw faces together I haven’t seen for 20 or 30 years. At one point I closed my eyes and thought, ‘this could so easily be then not now.’ Overall, I think I rather prefer memorial services to funerals when the grief is simply too raw to engage with the family on any level. I would prefer of course, not to go to any, as would we all. I have already lost more of my Army contemporaries than is fair or reasonable. 

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Saturday saw a really rather chilly and wintry trip to Twickenham, the best part of which was the apres’ in the car park before the match. A memorial service for English rugby might be an appropriate next step but as a friend said, ‘it’s a good thing it’s only a game.’ Having deluded ourselves over the past twelve months that the dark days of 2015 were far behind us this Six Nations has been an absolute shocker. While the rest have swiftly caught up with England our team have gone into reverse. Whatever the coaches and players say our boys simply looked knackered. They lacked a yard of pace, any fizz or imagination. It is an uncomfortable truth for the RFU that in pursuit of greater revenue they, and Premiership rugby, are driving English players into the ground. Players need some down-time. What made the game more unpalatable was the £130 that my ticket cost. Thats £1.62 per minute of play and on the basis of what I watched on Saturday has no justification. Obviously, I got to sit just a few seats away from the noisiest and most animated Irishman in the ground but I can live with that. They earned their moment. I was left pondering on the way home though the wisdom of taking Mrs Flashbang to Twickenham in the snow for a birthday treat. For the same money we could have enjoyed the 8 course tasting menu with wine at our local Michelin starred restaurant. Life is all about choices.

Calcutta Kibosh

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I remarked to a friend the other week that I didn’t think the Six Nations was any more exciting, or the day out at Twickenham any more enjoyable, than was the case twenty-five or thirty years ago in it’s previous guise of the Five Nations. We were all reminded of those days on Saturday when England turned out at Murrayfield for an old fashioned leathering the likes of which we had naively thought had been consigned to the past. In future years they won’t remember the shoeing that Scotland took at Twickenham last year. Saturday’s match though will be talked about in fifty years time as possibly one of the best, if not the best, Scottish performance ever on a rugby field.

The mantra I have always inculcated in the kids is that when a bad thing happens, it isn’t the bad thing that defines you; it is the way you react to it. So we shall see with England. In time we may see Saturday’s comprehensive defeat as the best possible thing to happen to this English team on the World Cup journey. For Scotland, who have always been hostage to high national expectation, the best outcome of these championships would be to see more youngsters flooding into their local clubs and increased sponsorship coming into the game there. The game in Scotland has been in the shadows for far too long and it is good for rugby that they are once again ascendant under Townsend's leadership.

Happy

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Kwagga Who?

All Blacks v Ba Ba's - Man of the Match; Kwagga Smith

All Blacks v Ba Ba's - Man of the Match; Kwagga Smith

"It's a huge honour for me to play for the Barbarians - old guys and young guys coming together for the love of the game."

"It's a huge honour for me to play for the Barbarians - old guys and young guys coming together for the love of the game."

A magnificent game of rugby at Twickenham this afternoon saw the All Blacks beat the Barbarians 31-22. The all Southern Hemisphere game enhanced the reputation of the Ba Ba's and cemented that of the All Blacks who, after a very patchy first half, solidified their game with more structure and composure to come from behind and win comfortably. On one of the few occasions when the selectors of Man of the Match agreed with me they selected South African flanker Kwagga Smith. Immediately after the match South African social media was buzzing with 'why isn't Kwagga a Bok?' comments while Northern Hemisphere social media was buzzing with 'I hope that Kwagga bloke doesn't become a Bok,' comments. I don't know where he's come from but I think we'll be seeing a lot more of him. In his post match interview he sounded like he's just come straight off a farm somewhere in the back end of Natal. He reminded me, bizarrely enough, of another unrecognised hero from the past; remember this guy?

Alf Tupper..... they didn't rate him either..

Alf Tupper..... they didn't rate him either..

 

 

Happy Days!

Remind me again, why is everyone whinging about French rugby.......... looks in great nick to me.

Happy Friday and it's off to Headquarters tomorrow for the France match. I'm so excited I could scream like a little girl with her fingers trapped in a car door. Bit pathetic really for a middle aged man but there we have it. The recurring joy of three pints of Guinness before and after a game shared with 82,000 like minded souls is a joy to cherish and one that remains undimmed, unlike most other things in my life.

Of course the odd stick is thrown into the spokes but we never quite fall off. Twickenham itself doesn't help with its ridiculous DJ prompting, ersatz piped singing and fireworks before kick off which is all as banal as it is unnecessary. Just leave the crowd be and the rugby will take care of the atmosphere. The growing "Engurland," element in the crowd is contemptible and so far resisting all attempts at retraining but we'll get there. Other gripes include the £1 deposit for a beer glass which effectively has just increased the queues and people who hold up queues even more when they pay for a beer with cards, "no, go away unwashed student person.... we don't use cards for a beer," and the loud mouthed Welshman that I always seem to have sitting behind me, wherever I am in the stadium, giving me a running commentary. 

I was going to add to this some negative comments about the "kicking" game which is in vogue this year. I find it as irritating now as I did when Jonathan Webb used to hoof the ball down the park in the late eighties / early nineties in a two man game of aerial ping pong. I was going to say these things come in cycles. Actually, having taken a cursory look at the stats, I would have been talking drivel which, is not at all unusual. 

With thanks to rugbyworld.com, we discover that in the England game, Ireland kicked the ball 38 times. Since 2009, a sample of 99 matches, we also see that a total of 38 kicks is the 21st highest in that period and the same number that England recorded against Wales last year. While there has been more talk on the subject the actual number of kicks in the games is pretty consistent. You can read more about the geeky stats at rugby world, (games catching up with American Football in the statistician department). I wanted though, to make a very simple point. Much sports media attention, and after match pub chat has focused throughout the tournament on the use of kicks from both an attacking and defensive perspective. There is just one wee, incy, wincy flaw in this Northern Hemisphere introspection.

Luke Morahan against the Lions in 2013; "they keep giving me the ball boss"

That would be the Southern Hemisphere currently licking their lips at the prospect of all these high balls raining down on them, gifting possession. 

Philippe Saint-Andre - taking it all on the chin at the moment but for years had us on the edge of our seats.... for all the wrong reasons!

I also wanted to just mention the French who have been in a world of pain and confusion in recent years. Some of the best and most memorable rugby I've ever watched has been with Les Bleus as it has for us all, (France v NZ 1999 at Twickenham, best match I've ever witnessed). Obviously, England fans know all about pain and confusion so I wanted to tip my hat to Philippe Saint-Andre who, rightly or wrongly, is enduring the worst of it and his 1991 try against England, voted in England's centenary year, 2009, the best try ever scored against us at Twickenham. 
 

St George is Smiling

William Murdoch, the last Aussie skipper to lose three Ashes

"Ring Ring....."
 
"Hello - Australian team dressing room."
"Hello mate...Can I speak to Ricky Ponting please."
"Sorry mate -  he's just gone out to bat."
"It's OK - I'll hold."

 And so, after a final night of sleep deprivation and what was a rather feeble celebratory cheer at about 1:30am from your writer, lest he wake the sleeping dragon, the Ashes have come to a bitter sweet conclusion; I'm probably not the only one feeling a little empty now the series has finished. Of course, the one person who won't be sad to see the end of the series is Mrs Flashbang who, for reasons best known to herself, has been becoming increasing irritable at being woken at four o'clock while I watch the cricket............ women, they just don't get it.

Few of us of course will be crying in our beer about the demise of Aussie cricket given we've spent much of our adult lives being humiliated by them which, of course, is exactly why it's such a terrific win. Of course we know they'll be back searching for angry vengence but just for the moment, we're waiting for them.

The Aussies themselves meanwhile must go through a period of soul searching and introspection and find the answers they need to rebuild. Well, as always I'm here to help and picking up some research from Citi analyst Andy Bowley, a good starting point for our Aussie mates would be to accept that their ICC ranking has dropped to it's lowest since rankings were introduced in 2003 and then examine if there is a correlation with falling Aussie beer sales since 2003. One look at the chart tells us that beer sales have fallen off a cliff.

 

We can only hope of course, that as part of the rebuild the Aussies get the whole 20/20 thing in some kind of perspective and that once again those who administer cricket across the world reflect on the quality and stickiness for paying fans of 5 day, 5 Test series. I shouldn't think much will happen though, administrators and many players compromised themselves a long time ago in favour of Crackerjack Rounders.

The only flaw in an otherwise memorable series for me was the Barmy Army, that would be that motely collection of so called supporters who seem to have got lost on their way to West Ham and who have made a smash & grab on the title of official English cricket supporters. Odd the way all the players, former players and officials talk about them in deferential tones more usually associated with senior royalty. Frankly, I think they're a bloody nuisance and shouldn't be let back in the country but that would probably leave a lot of taxi offices in Gant's Hill, call centres in Worksop and civil service offices up and down the country severley undermanned. What a shower of Herberts.

Unsurprisingly, we're beginning see the same ignorant "Engerland" element appear at Twickenham where I've heard booing, really for the first time over the past couple of years.  I guess we'll be hearing more of it too unless the RFU slams hard the creeping habit of senior coaches to critisise referees in either a veiled or open way after matches; once that takes hold it quickly filters down to fans, schools and local clubs.

But I digress, lets not conclude on a gloomy note for we have the one day matches and the Six Nations to look forward to; oh, and just for the record, I'm bloody relieved that Warny isn't involved in their set up yet and Ponting remains, in my view, one of the greatest cricketers the game has known. In the meantime, I'll leave you with todays Aussie cricket jokes which oddly enough all seem to be recycled English cricket jokes from the last Ashes series,

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Andrew Strauss... first person to bring Aussie ashes to the UK since Paula Yates

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A man goes into a brothel... "I want to be totally humiliated .. how much?"

"$60 dollars"

"...ok what do you get for that ..?"

"a baggy green cap and an Aussie shirt"

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Q. What does Ryan Harris put in his hands to make sure the next ball almost always takes a wicket?
A. A bat.

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Q. What is the height of optimism?

A. An Australian batsman putting on sunscreen   

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Q. What do you call an Aussie cricketer holding a bottle of bubbly?

A. A waiter

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Q. What do Aussie batsmen and drug addicts have in common?

A. Both spend most of their time wondering where their next score will come from.

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What do you call an Aussie with a 100 to his name - a bowler.

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Well, I didn't say they were good Aussie cricket jokes.....

 

 

You've booked what?

   

Sadly, I've had to decline the kind offer of a ticket for Saturday so I won't be drinking Guinness in and around the leavy environs of Twickenham and generally enjoying the best day out of the year.  I won't be doing that for two reasons. 

First, the supine servants of SKY at the RFU have decreed that KO will be at 5pm, which largely achieves maximum disruption and inconveniance to the supporters forking out £70 a ticket. Whilst there are a few who will view it as an opportunity to spend an extra two and a half hours in the Turks Head, the majority probably conform to the long held view that 11am until 1pm in the pub is long enough before hooking up with your mates, well anyone realy, in the car park and then KO at the usual time. Our lives have been built around it FFS. Why can't I make a 5pm KO......?

Well, yes, Mrs Flashbang has booked me in for a "family celebration," in the evening. We're talking about a whole new level of potential cringing embarrassment here at an extended family get together in London. A  different league to the usual "Oh, terribly sorry, he's been at the rugby," that Haslemere hostesses are used to hearing. It's just not worth the risk.

Thanks then, all just what I need to look forward to.

Booking anything on the evening of a 6 nations match is never going to end well, yet wives persist in doing it every year. What makes them think it will be different this year? Saturday evenings after Twickenham are for curry, beer and obviously some red wine just to make the mixture wholly unstable, for it is then that the 10 o'clock fairy taps us on the shoulder and lo.......... we become Brad Pitt, with the dancing ability of Travolta, the smouldering intense eyes of Clooney, and the lovable rouguish "give me a hug," gleaming smile of Farrell. You realy don't want that sort of delusional drunk slobering over your friends at dinner so girls, don't do it - just never book anything on rugby days.