Friday, 23 November 2018

How I fell out of love with cricket (Part 2)

In the early 1980s, after several years of study and the first skirmishes with the world of employment, my life moved on and was no longer dominated by the idle preoccupations of youth. After university in the North East of England, I spent my mid-20s in assorted places south of Manchester, in Stoke, Bristol and Salisbury.

In 1984 however, I swapped life in Britain for one in the south of the Netherlands. As a Geographer and student of languages, I took to it like a duck to water. But if following the fortunes of Northern cricket had been difficult enough Down South, before the age of internet, keeping in touch from the heart of Europe was going to be a tough ask. Thankfully, Test Match Special (previously on BBC Radio 3), providing ball-by-ball commentary of every test match involving England, transferred to Radio 4 on Long Wave, whose signal could be picked up to adequate effect in Limburg, the southernmost province of the Netherlands. Unlike the UK, at the time cable television was widespread in the Netherlands and with large numbers of British servicemen living in the south of Limburg (on account of NATO military bases nearby), the local network offered a British Forces Broadcasting Service channel in its package. During the summer months, it would show Test Match highlights every day. And when BBC 1 and 2 were included on the cable network in the 1990s, it was possible to watch cricket all day. Life was beginning to normalise again. Nevertheless, experiencing cricket in the flesh again was proving a tad more difficult.

When my son was growing up in the 1990s, he joined HCC Heerlen, the local hockey club. I’d never played the sport myself before, but enthusiastically enrolled for the mixed recreational sessions for adult beginners held every Monday evening to keep fit. It soon transpired that the abbreviation HCC stood for Hockey & Cricket Club. Before I moved to the continent, I had little idea that cricket – amongst certain circles - enjoyed widespread popularity in the Netherlands. As such it was one of the few countries on the European continent that practiced the sport (it’s claimed that Dutch colonists brought it back from the Cape). 90 percent of clubs today are based 200 kilometres away from Limburg in the heavily populated west of the country. More often than not these clubs were founded early in the last century as mixed cricket and hockey associations which catered to the middle classes as a way of singling them out from the hoi-polloi. 1930s Heerlen, then a boomtown as a result of the rich reserves of coal that had been found underground, attracted senior personnel to the mines and when the hockey club was founded the intention had been to establish cricket as a summer sport. It never materialised, though short-lived efforts were made in the 1960s to get one off the ground.
On Monday evenings, when we retired to the clubhouse after a strenuous runaround, I would sometimes reminisce about cricket with a South African hockey-playing friend, but otherwise it was a sport very much off-the-radar in this part of the world.

One evening in March 2003, I had an unexpected call from a local GP in my adopted home town of Heerlen. He had been smitten by cricket whilst studying Medicine at Nijmegen and explained his crazy idea of setting up a cricket team in Heerlen and how he had me lined up as a potential volunteer. I’d learnt by now to be sceptical of such calls – no sooner did someone throw an idea up in the air, than it fell back down to earth with a whimper was my experience in such matters. But he sounded genuine and I was soon helping him on his - now our - recruitment drive. Once we had enough interested people, we arranged a knockabout on the hockey field, albeit with a tennis ball and a handful of would-be exponents of the sport, whose understanding of the game ranged from intimate to non-existent.

But we pressed on regardless. My doctor friend took the bold step of entering us in the Dutch league that season starting in May, with all that entailed: playing facilities, equipment and, most importantly, manpower. In the next month or so, we cobbled together a few more willing hands who were conversant with the game: my hockey-playing friend put forward his son who had grown up watching BBC cricket broadcasts; amongst the local immigrant community we found a Pakistani, a Sri Lankan and another Brit; the university in Aachen furnished us with a couple of Indians, a South African and a stray Kiwi. With a few other stragglers we managed to string together a full complement of 11 players. The local council gave us a field to play on and with a litlle bit of help from a British army team in Brunssum a few miles away, we had the gear we needed to get started. By late May we were up and running and ready to take on the rest of the Netherlands at cricket.

It was then my world turned upside down.

[to be continued]

See also Part 1 of How I fell out of love with cricket 

Friday, 19 October 2018

Thoughts on a People's Vote

I’m not one for posting political views on my blog, but sometimes things just need to be said.

I must admit, I have had my reservations about a People’s Vote. For one thing, if one is ever held soon, it is more than likely to widen the deepening social and political divide in Britain caused in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum. Nevertheless I will be supporting those who are marching in London this weekend to demand a People’s Vote. I do so on the grounds of the democratic premise of the 2016 referendum being fundamentally flawed. To put it plain and simple: I, along with hundreds of thousands of other UK citizens living in the EU, were denied a vote in a plebiscite that directly affected our rights. These rights, over which we had no say, are now being trashed before our very eyes: that isn’t how democracy is supposed to work.

If media reports are to be believed this shambolic, laughing stock of a Tory government is now earnestly mitigating for a no-deal Brexit, a situation that would leave my country crashing out of a political union which has enabled it to prosper economically and culturally for four decades and – more than anything - has helped keep the peace on a turbulent continent for an unprecedented 70 years.

At the time of the referendum, many of those who now sit at the cabinet table and are personally responsible for the unfolding fiasco scoffed at ‘remoaners’, the harbingers of doom and gloom. They called it Project Fear. Amongst other things, they told us we didn’t need experts, we would hold all the cards in the withdrawal negotiations, and assured us that concluding a free trade deal with our European partners (sic) would be the easiest thing in history: German car manufacturers and Prosecco growers would see to that.
Well, what a surprise: Project Fear is rapidly becoming Project Reality.

I do not believe the option of a no-deal featured on the original ballot paper – at any rate, I can’t recall it being mentioned during the campaign. As it happens, I never saw the ballot paper anyway, because it wasn’t sent to me or to the other 1.2 million UK citizens living on the continent who stand to have their rights swept away by a no-deal Brexit. Mrs May has said that “asking the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy”. Well, Mrs May, I can tell you it was a gross betrayal to be denied a vote in the first place. It was a gross betrayal to promise from the very start of negotiations that our rights would be protected, only to be later used as bargaining chips. Abandoned in the referendum, we have now been well and truly hung out to dry.
Incredibly, the government has already published over 100 guidance papers on how to prepare for a no-deal Brexit and yet not a single one of them refers to citizens’ rights.  

This current rabble in power doesn’t show any signs of listening. They don’t even listen to themselves. Fed by a frenzied Europhobic media, much of the country seems to be suffering from a delusional take-back-control, will-of-the-people, brexit-means-brexit psychosis that no medication seems capable of curing. Hopefully the thousands attending the march, including many citizens from abroad, denied the vote in the referendum, will be making their voices heard. I wish everyone on the march this weekend a safe and successful day.

Previous thoughts on Brexit: I want my Identity back

Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Invincibles

Castelluzzo. Its very name intimates impregnability, and even though there is no evidence to suggest there was ever a permanent stronghold here, this truncated cone of a peak holds a commanding position above the approach to the valley. On its flanks is a distinctive outcrop of rocks, about 200 metres below the summit, whose crags conceal an almost inaccessible cave known as Bars d’la Tajola, or ‘Cavern of the Ropes’. Accessible only from above, in times of hostilities – of which there were many - this lofty bolt hole offered a place of refuge away from the threat of danger in the valley below.

Tucked away in a small corner of Piemonte on the border with France, Val Pellice has never featured on any Grand Tour. Although it is the gateway to some splendid walking trails in the Cottian Alps on the border with France, without the enticement of a ski resort it attracts little inward tourism. It may not be one of the most majestic of Alpine valleys, but what it lacks in physical grandeur, it makes up for in history and legend.

Bars d’la Tajola is just one of many historical features scattered around the hills and valleys that allude to a turbulent past. At the entrance to the valley is Torre Pellice, the valley’s principal settlement and the centre of the ‘Valdesi’ community, whose peoples also inhabit the adjacent valleys of Val Chisone and Val Germanasca. The cultural roots of this mountain community go back as far as the twelfth century when these whereabouts formed a bastion of a Proto-protestant faith that predated the Reformation by several hundred years.

The ‘Valdesi’– or Waldensians in English – first came onto the scene in the 12th century as part of a religious movement which had turned its back on the worldliness of the Catholic doctrine to observe a simpler way of life. Disillusioned with the traditional teachings of the Church, its founder Peter Waldo was a rich merchant from Lyon whose disciples – known as the ‘Poor Men of Lyon’ - originally met with the approval of the local Catholic archbishop. From the east of France, its teachings quickly spread, initially to Lombardy, but later to other regions of Europe. Over time, the Church of Rome became intransigent to these dissidents and ultimately denounced them as heretics. Hence there followed a policy of persecution and they were forced to go underground, or at least retreat to less obtrusive surroundings on the mountain fringes.

Having adopted the teachings of the Poor Men of Lyon, the fact that the Waldensian communities survived in this region of the Cottian Alps is probably due to a combination of their geographical isolation and their level of organisation. When Luther and other religious reformers emerged in the early sixteenth century, the Waldensians made a conscious decision to join the Reformation. In 1532, at the Synod of Chanforan, in the Agrogna Valley a few miles from Torre Pellice, representatives of the Swiss Protestant movements and the Waldensians resolved to adhere to the principles of the Reformation and to publish a translation of the Bible in French, the language used in the valleys at that time. Emboldened by the changes taking place, the Waldensians came out of hiding and started to build their first temples (hitherto their religious teachings had been served by roaming preachers who travelled following fixed itineraries).

But religious harassment was endemic in the Middle Ages and in the Valli Valdesi persecution came with the territory, quite literally. Periods of uneasy truce were followed by sporadic bouts of brutality. This came to a head in 1685 when the Edict of Nantes, which had granted concessions to the Protestant communities of France (and Savoy) was repealed. A full-scale pogrom followed with 2,000 Waldensians being massacred. Many more thousands were faced with the choice of converting to Catholicism or being incarcerated in prison. Some sought refuge in the mountains and fought a rearguard action against the occupying forces, who had colonised the valleys with their own. The guerrilla tactics deployed by these so-called ‘Invicibili’ resulted in some limited successes and in 1686 they were eventually able to negotiate a deal whereby 2,750 Waldensians were given the option of exile in Geneva.

Banished from their homelands they pinned their hopes of a return on chnaging circumstances. These came about even more quickly than they may have anticipated when, in 1689, there was a decisive shift in the international situation. The king, Louis XIV was caught on the backfoot by Dutch and Austrian troops when invading the Rhineland Palatinate and William, Stadhouder of Holland succeeded to the English throne after James II, a Catholic, had been driven out of the country. Western European geopolitics were shifting. The exiled Waldensians were now in receipt of generous support from Protestant lands to the north and the Huguenots of southern France. On 17 August 1689, Henri Arnaud, one of the leading pastors, assembled an army of a thousand men and set off on a tortuous route across the backbone of the western Alps to evade militias loyal to Savoy. Crossing these hostile and barely impenetrable lands and confronting many hazards along the way, they finally reached the village of Bobbio in Val Pellice on August 31, having overcome all obstacles in their path. At Sibaud, just above the settlement, a thanksgiving service was held in recognition of this epic undertaking. A monument stands there today to commemorate this epic event in Waldensian history, the undertaking having since become known as the ‘Glorious Return’.

The Sibaud monument and bonfire ready for the 16 February festivities

After a period of hostilities, various treaties were signed which made reoccupation of their lands possible. The events should have marked a turning point in their fortunes, but resettlement of their valleys proved problematic, not least because they had been laid waste and local conflicts dragged on. For 150 years the Waldensians led an insular existence in their valleys, hemmed in on all sides by legal restrictions. Contact with the Protestant communities outside Piemonte was however maintained and generous support was offered from active committees in Britain and Holland. Later, the French Revolution brought renewed hope. Because of this almost total isolation, this period was known as the Waldensian Ghetto. Despite being physically hemmed in however, thanks to the religious and cultural relations maintained with outside states and the importance the community gave to education, the best young Waldensians took up studies at illustrious English, Swiss and German universities.

On 17 February 1848, the Albertine Statute was proclaimed in Turin. This was later to become the basis of the legal system for a unified Italy which was declared in 1861. More importantly for the Waldensians it gave them the right to be free citizens with full civil rights. To this day, Waldensians throughout the valleys of Piemonte celebrate this act of enfranchisement annually with great bonfires throughout the valleys on the evening of February 16.

Until this point, because of their isolation, the Waldensian valleys had been forced to align themselves politically and culturally to communities on the other side of the Alps. Over the centuries, Latin, Occitan, Piedmontese, Italian and French had all coexisted as working languages, but to all intents and purposes the latter had become the Lingua Franca of the valleys, reinforced by the adherence to the Reformation in the 16th century, the translation of the Bible into French and the events surrounding the Glorious Return. Furthermore, the use of French, which was the language of the European courts and diplomacy, enabled the Waldensians to escape their isolation and attract the support they needed from outside. French continued to remain the language of the valleys after the unification of Italy, but with their gradual assimilation into mainstream Italian culture and especially the imposition of Italian under Mussolini, Italian gradually became the more dominant language. Television too, has contributed to the decline of French. Today French is still spoken in the home in some of the valleys and is understood by the majority of the population.

The last 150 years or so since the proclamation of the Albertine Statute have been relatively peaceful compared with the religious turmoil of previous centuries. The unification and democratisation of Italy and the onset of secularisation have largely seen to that. Whilst religion may not play such a big part in present-day Italy, the Waldensians are staunchly proud of their cultural heritage. The elegant pedestrianised Via Beckwith in Torre Pellice’s ‘quartiere valdese’, flanked by the Tempio Valdesi on one side, and the Centro Culturale Valdese on the other, provides evidence of this.

The town’s tourist information centre is only too pleased to direct you to some of the historical places in the valleys around, for example: the Sibaud monument near Bobbio Pellice where the covenant of the same name was signed on the Glorious Return; the Ghiesa d’l Tana, a small cleft in the rocks on the wooded hillside above Agrogna where the faithful were said to have worshipped in times when the Waldensian teachings were prohibited; or the memorial at Chanforan commemorating the agreement signed with leaders of the Swiss Reformation to have the bible translated into French in 1532.

Some landmarks of course, require more legwork, such as the Vallone degli Invicibili, the small valley where the ‘Invincibles’ held out after the 1685 massacre. Indeed – as we have already remarked - the Bars d’la Tajola, on Castelluzzo, requires some nifty ropework too.

Further reading:
The Waldensian Valleys, Giorgio Tourn (2005), Claudiana

Internet links:

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

How I fell out of love with cricket (Part 1)

Growing up in the South Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, on the face of it, I had a fairly unexceptional upbringing. There are doubtless many more exciting places on the planet to spend one’s youth, but the truth of the matter is, none of them had an Old Trafford.

I was a child of the 1960s at a time when Best, Law and Charlton – we called them the ‘Holy Trinity’ – were sweeping all before them on the hallowed turf of Old Trafford football ground. On Saturday afternoons, chaperoned by my eldest brother, we would walk the 2 miles to Manchester United’s stadium where we would click-clack through the turnstiles and, along with 60,000 other devotees, cheer our heroes on from the Scoreboard End terraces. 

In the summers however, I would trade in the Red Devils for my other heroes who played at the other, older ‘Old Trafford’. Lancashire County Cricket Club didn’t have the same star status as their footballing counterparts down the road, who were winning European trophies under the astute guidance of Matt Busby. Lancashire was a strong county side in the 1960s, never quite good enough to walk off with the main prize, the County Championship, but the team was a leading exponent of the one-day game, then still in its infancy. The Gillette Cup, a 60-over-a-side knock-out tournament was cricket’s early equivalent of football’s FA Cup and by the end of the decade, the Lancashire side had an almost vice-like grip on the trophy with the wily Jack Bond, the team captain, at the helm. On one memorable occasion, amongst many others, crowds at Old Trafford witnessed David Hughes hit a superb 25 in a single over to steer Lancashire home in the twilight against Gloucestershire in the 1971 semi-final.

Old Trafford has been Lancashire’s home since 1864, predating football’s younger version by almost 50 years. As well as county cricket, between 1884 and 2018 it hosted no fewer than 75 Test Matches, in addition to countless other one-day internationals featuring England and the other major cricket-playing nations.

The allure of visiting teams from Australia or the West Indies and the spectacle of the one-day game caught the imagination of an impressionable child like myself growing up in 1960s Manchester. When I was in my early teens I took out a junior membership with Lancashire. This entitled you to free admission to all games, including 5-day Test Matches which Old Trafford hosted almost every summer. On weekdays when Lancashire were at home playing one of their 3-day county games, after school, it was our custom - my like-minded friends and I - to walk the 2 miles and watch the final session of the day. During rain breaks in less well-attended county games, we would huddle at the back of gaping stands and listen to our voices reverberate off the roofing whilst we waited impatiently for play to restart. Buit it was on Gillette Cup and Test Match days that Old Trafford came to life. The crowds were drawn in by the big occasions, such as when Ian Chappell’s Aussies came to town in 1972, with upcoming stars like Dennis Lillee, Rodney Marsh and Greg Chappell, who would become household names in the following decade. The England selection too had a sprinkling of ‘Lancastrians’ at the time, including Peter Lever, Barry Wood, David Lloyd and Frank Hayes. If cricket wasn’t being played at Old Trafford, you could invariably watch regular live cricket broadcasts on BBC TV, fronted by Peter West and Jim Laker, or tune in to Test Match Special on the radio with such legendary commentators as John Arlott and Brian Johnston at the microphone. With their team of expert summarisers, including Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman, they reported on the latest state of play from Lord’s, The Oval or Headingley. Lancashire’s continuing success in the 1970s, particularly in the one-day format, took me to grounds further afield, such as Edgbaston (Birmingham) and Trent Bridge (Nottingham), culminating in Gillette finals at Lord’s, the home of cricket, in 1975 and 1976.

When I wasn’t watching football or cricket, I was at school. Chorlton High was a comprehensive which didn’t have a great tradition for sport, never mind cricket. Nevertheless, our academic year had a fair smattering of cricket enthusiasts and we cobbled together a school team which played its home games at the upper school’s Nell Lane sports facilities. When our school days came to an end, a few of us took the initiative to establish a pub-based team (by now we had moved on to more adult pastimes) and called ourselves the Chorlton Wayfarers. We were a motley bunch, glued together by an enthusiasm for the game and by regular Friday evening sessions at the Trevor Arms on Beech Road. As the name suggests, we were a team of all-comers with no membership requirements, just a love of cricket and beer. Apart from our Friday-night watering hole, we had no home venue, instead arranging weekend and evening fixtures against teams playing in the local leagues in South Manchester and Cheshire. Two years running we took the Wayfarers on tours to Worcestershire and Herefordshire. It didn’t matter whether we won or lost, our passion for cricket was sustained by the camaraderie and, it must be said, our predilection for the amber stuff. I can happily report that friendships which germinated on the cricket field 40 years ago are still intact today and on regular visits ‘home’, I still find myself reminiscing with friends about our ‘Wayfaring’ over a pint or two of beer in a Manchester pub.

In September 1976 I went to study at Newcastle University, marking a new chapter in my hitherto short life. Making new friends and developing new interests, it became inevitable that the sporting ties with my home-town would loosen somewhat. However, the cricketing world didn’t stop revolving and summers would still be spent in Manchester where Old Trafford and Wayfarers’ games were never far away. In 1977, a few of us organised a trip to the Trent Bridge Test Match featuring England and Australia, most notable for Geoff Boycott running out local Nottinghamshire hero Derek Randall. When the Aussies came again in 1981, the whole nation was gripped by the Test Match series, remembered chiefly for the feats of Ian Botham whose extraordinary performances with bat and ball that summer were the stuff of legend.

[To be continued - see Part 2