Thursday, 16 May 2013

My letter from America- part three

Another flight, another blog post. And another pomposly-titled 'letter from America'.

I am a huge admirer of Alistair Cooke and his brilliant series on America so this mini series of mine was meant as a tribute from a fan not as a comparison! His work remains as fresh and incisive as ever- some of it over fifty years old.

I start my scratchings just a few minutes into our flight home (and can post them through the wonders of onboard Wi Fi)- after nine wonderful days in this wonderful country. I write just as our two fellow passengers in the row in front have fully reclined their seats as soon as humanely possible. I know this is a reasonable thing to do- especially as we contemplate an evening flight- but it still annoys me a little. Despite this setback, I will push on.

The last few days- the days we have been in Boston- have been glorious. Great weather. Great city. Great food and great times with my amazing wife. Our love for Boston grows with each visit. We have officially declared it today our favourite US city. This accolade sadly carries no trophy, monetary value, or great prestige but a firm place in our hearts.

Angelina Jolie's health news revealed in a well written piece in yesterday's New York Times has captured the headlines and it seems the hearts of the nation over the last day or so. There has been much talk of her using this "platform" to inspire women across America. This cliche was a little over-used on TV but the message resonates; one advantage of this world of celebrity we live in- and I can't think of too many- is that awareness can be raised around such issues by the mere fact of a famous person is associated with them. Let us hope this silver lining develops now and of course that her health remains good and her treatment works.

OJ Simpson is back in court and taking the stand- something the US networks appear to be fascinated by- as he appeals his 33-year sentence handed down four years ago. The networks could not help but point out the obvious- OJ has not been spending much time in the prison gym! His re-emergence- at least in my mind- prompted a rapid search on YouTube for clips of his most famous (infamous) moment, when acquitted of the murder of Nicole Browne Simpson in 1995. The first thing that struck me was how long ago that was- and how old it made me feel! I was also struck by the extraordinary passions the case stirred at the time, well beyond the facts of the case but touching on the very fabric of US society with questions raised about race, police corruption and the cult of celebrity. Looking back, I guess the idea of a black man being President within a decade or so would have been mostly unthinkable then.

We were not alone in Boston. The Prime Minister was there too- promoting British business- and paying his respects after the Boston Bombings. We too stopped in Boylston Street to take a look at the memorial that has developed. I was struck particularly by the simple tributes people had left- many of whom had clearly competed in the marathon. Many left their running shoes, vests or running numbers. Some had written messages. Some left hats, scarfs or other symbols from their home towns. Much of it was very simple. Much of it very moving.

Returning to the Prime Minister for a moment, it seems that my Party back home is going through one of its wobbly spells- trying it seems desperately to alienate the electorate- most of who give Europe no more than a passing thought- hand marginal seats to Labour and the Lib Dems via the protest vote of UKIP and throw away any chance of victory in the next General Election. We appear to be locked in a permanent abusive relationship with the European issue- one from which we are not able to escape. The only winner in the long run will be the Labour Party- certainly not the country.

There is no doubt that many Tory members and supporters, and many Tory MPs, feel strongly about Europe and have deeply held and principled views on our future with the EU. But I can't help but think that much of this current outbreak of self harming is driven more by strained relationships between the leadership of the Party and its backbenchers- it feels as much a question of trust and respect than one of policy. I fear that whatever the Prime Minister does on this issue he will continue to experience these bouts of unrest. It appears we have not learnt from the mistakes of the past and that he is unable to build the bridges necessary to have the whole Parliamentary team facing the same direction. A dangerous mix.

As our flight continued on its way back to the UK I became aware an entertainment phenomenon. Perhaps this is just me, but my boredom (mixed with occasional fear) levels are pretty high when flying, especially across the Atlantic. As a result I make use of the shuffle function on my iPod more in this setting than anywhere else. The spectacular smorkesboard provided so far by the big Apple in the sky have included Joni Mitchell, the Beatles (this is not that big a surprise given everything they have ever released is on it!), Richard Burton narrating part of the War of the Worlds, Oasis and Russell Watson! Diversity or what?!

One brief incident I have so far omitted to mention from our trip was a passing meeting with Sir Clive Woodward in New York. I say meeting, it was more of us both using a revolving door in a hotel at the same time. That said, it was Sir Clive and we were just yards apart. I'm counting it! This chance encounter- with a man who enjoyed incredible success with England peaking in that never to be forgotten moment as Johnny Wilkinson "drops for World Cup glory"- came the same week as another sporting Knight, Sir Alex Ferguson, announced his retirement. This got me thinking about great coaches/managers from different sports. Here's one or two more of my favourites to join them as I sign off (knowing that as subjective judgments go this is right up there!); Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley (obviously!), Brian Clough, Jose Mourhino, Jock Stein, Bobby Robson, Duncan Fletcher, Tony Jacklin and Aidan O'Brien (I know, not technically a coach or manager but it's my list!).

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Boston Strong

We went to Boylston Street today. I have included some photos below.

The image of the trainers is particularly poignant.

My letter from America part two

"I'm pleased to say there is no weather across the country today". The reassuring words of our Captain as we taxied to the runway at San Fransico Airport. What he meant in non-US aviation jargon was that the weather is clear- no storms, snow etc- all possible when flying from one end of this huge country to another!

We are halfway through the flight as I start to write and so far- with the exception of a few bumps as we joined some heavy cloud after two hours- he has been true to his word. But as the flying pessimist, I will only be content once back on terra firma. In my thirty-five years I have so far resisted the temptation to do a Pope John Paul when landing and bending down to kiss the Tarmac but I have thought about it many times. Perhaps one day.

This flight- United 788- fits more neatly with the stereotype of US domestic flights than our last; more bus travel than air travel. Packed to the gills, bags everywhere, an overpowering feeling of being a little closer to ones' neighbour and their armpit than is ideal and the equipment ('the plane' for those of you not fluent in aviation!) has seen better days. Anyway, enough ramblings about the journey. What do I have offer today by way of observations after five days on the US west coast?

Our time in San Fransico proved the point that every city has its own personality and the east and west coasts of the US are very different. Immediately upon arriving in the city by the bay it is hard not to feel a sense of calmness, a slightly slower pace than found out east and a willingness of strangers to engage in idle chatter with you. This is all of course from the box marked 'mass generalisations' but it is worth reflecting that the mania of a New York or DC we did not find in San Fran. There was a very tangible European feel about the architecture- obvious in the history of the city and its French designer- and a wonderful diversity about the city and its people- from ethnicity and the fragrant Chinatown to sexuality and the happy sight of so many same sex couples holding hands and kissing in public.

But our arrival in San Fransico sadly coincided with an awful event just across the bay; the tragic death of double British olympian Andrew Simpson in a sailing accident. It was amazing to be six thousand miles from home and yet be sharing in local, UK sadness. The words of his families, friends and fellow sailers left a real mark as his passing will have had on them.

The analysis- endless, endless analysis- of the Celevland and Arias cases has continued unabated. As every gory detail is revealed from the now widely named 'house of horrors' in Ohio- a name by the way which provokes very strong memories of the awful Gloucester case of Fred and Rose West- one feels more and more repulsed. The same is true of the Arias murder. Both cases are now prompting a fascinating debate about the death penalty in the US.

The debate has been blurring out from the TV in our hotel room, which looked out over Alcatraz- an eerie reminder of the brutality of the penal system. I am strongly anti-death penalty. I do not support it in any cases or for any offences. I do not believe the state- any state- should kill anyone except in war. But these cases are perfect case studies which challenge my views.

Arias. A more brutal murder it would be hard to find. Extreme violence, almost torture. No remorse. A life taken viciously and many others ruined. For her to spend one more day as a free woman would sicken me. Her punishment- I believe that punishment must play as much of a role as remediation- must hurt. Her life must end in prison but not at the hands of the prison. Life for her must mean life but I cannot think that the state killing her make any of this better or fix any of the wrongs that have been done.

Ok, that was easy. Now on to Mr Castro. Much more difficult.

Again I start from a simple principle. No to the death penalty. Yes to life behind bars. And by life, I mean life. But aren't his crimes so heinous, so extreme, so appalling, that his is the exception which requires a new rule? Maybe. The kidnapping and sexual assaults are enough to turn anyone's stomach but the details of the regime he imposed on these young women go so far beyond my comprehension that I am left challenging my own views. The cruelty. The brutality. The sick mind games. The mental torture. The abject existence with no hope of an end in sight he forced those women to live, and I fear we do not the half of it yet. On balance, I am clinging- just- to my anti death penalty view but I can't help but think that his death would be a good thing- but not at the hands of the state. Thinking that, let alone writing it, makes me very uncomfortable but not as uncomfortable as hearing about his vile crimes.

It will fascinating to see how those involved with these cases will resolve this dilemma. I will be watching very carefully.

On a brighter note, it was moving to see the spire installed on the new World Trade Centre- Freedom Tower- in New York. I never had the opportunity to climb the original but would hope to make it up this one. I will not rehearse my own version of that terrible day here for we all have our own experience of 9/11 which will stay with us. Suffice to say, that it was the day that life changed forever for so many. I still think of those people jumping from the towers. To jump- for that to feel like their best option- still strikes cold into my heart. Those images are images that will never go away.

My thoughts are now turning to Boston. To a city very close to my heart. It was here and then Cape Cod where my wife and I spent much of our honeymoon four years ago. It has been the scene of several repeat journeys since. Our visit last year to the incredible Fenway Park sealed the deal on my affection for baseball and the Red Sox in particular. I am trying hard hereto resist my Liverpool/Irish tendency towards sentimentality but it is certainly true that there is no other sporting arena like it in this country, perhaps the world. I am only hoping that the Sox can rediscover the early season form that has deserted them in recent weeks. They are 'on the road' whilst we are in town but I will be watching on NESN from the great bars and restaurants of Boston.

But my overriding thoughts as we wing our way to Boston is the humbling opportunity we are getting to show in a very small, unnoticed way, our solidarity with this great city and its great people. This has been a tough few weeks for Bostonians. We are here back precisely because the people and the city are amongst the best in the world.

More in a few days. In the meantime, LetsGoRedSox!

Friday, 10 May 2013

Sir Alex Ferguson; the end of an era.

My name is Ben and I am a Liverpool fan. There, I said it. Now, let's hear no more about it as I share my thoughts- as objectively as I can- on the end of the Ferguson era and the appointment of David Moyes as Manchester United manager. 

Yes, I am glad that at last the Ferguson 'perch-knocking off' era (read; United winning, Liverpool not winning!) is over and I am hoping that Mr Moyes does not continue this domination of English football. But Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement from management is not just the end of an incredible era of success- unrivalled in the history of our national game- but the end of an era of his type of management. 

Ferguson is 'old school. He ruled over his players (I use the word 'ruled' advisedly) in the style of a manager from another time. His is not the approach of more recent, mostly non-British managers. 

He was fiercely loyal in public (something we should all be with our teams in whatever industry we work) but not backward at coming forward to show his true feelings in private (yes, yes the hairdryer treatment- which in my view has been way overblown- pardon the pun); he commanded the respect of his players based on his outstanding playing career and subsequent extraordinary success as a manager- I rank his achievements at Aberdeen almost as amazing as his trophy haul in Manchester; his approach to man-management- getting the best out of a hugely diverse range of players; his eye for buying and selling players is second to none- in 26 years you can count on one hand the number of players he has sold that have gone on to do better after they have left him and on many, many hands the great buys he made and the players he helped make great; his knowledge of the game is outstanding; and his desire, no obsession, to succeed has provided a turbo-boosted drive to his club for 26 years. 

That drive manifests itself positively- goals in injury time more often that I have been able to stomach (cue Mr Tyldesley amongst others) and at times negatively- with a demanding approach towards match officials, mirrored sometime uglily by his players. In summary, he was a winner and his players and fans knew it and became winners too.  

Now to Mr Moyes. I have another confession to make. I have not been in the 'David Moyes is a brilliant manager' fan club down the last ten years. No, that is not just because he has been the Everton manager, but because I see an occasionally tactically naive manager; someone who waits too long before making changes when the game is  going against him; someone who too often sets his team out not to lose rather than to win; and, I know people will think this harsh, but in ten years managing a club with the history and reach of Everton- whatever the post-1992 view of football- they are still one of the biggest clubs in the game- he is trophy-less. During the same time, teams like Leicester, Birmingham, Swansea and Middlesborough have picked up silverware. Moyes has not been ambitious enough when it comes to winning- whether that is games or trophies. 

In the plus column, he has a lot going for him. He has bags of integrity. Cliche alert: he is cut from the same cloth as Ferguson. Strong values, a fierce work ethic, bags of passion, and an appreciation of the need to take his fans and his club seriously. He has shown loyalty to Everton and has played for one of the biggest and most passionate clubs in the world in Glasgow Celtic. He has a superb Premier League record, given the resources he has had at his disposal, and commands respect across the game. He has shown a great commitment and aptitude for developing young players- something coveted at United. He has in short, served his apprenticeship and deserves his opportunity to manage at the highest level of the European game. He must surely also have been given the Ferguson seal of approval to have been appointed. 

The decision United have faced in replacing Ferguson is near impossible. How can you replace the greatest manager of all time? Who can handle the pressure of following the unfollow-able? United have been here before and did not get it right after Mr Bubsy moved upstairs. In many ways this decision is even more difficult after a generation of success and continuity. 

What United have done with Moyes is both risky and risk adverse. I will explain.
The risks. This is a manager with no Champions League experience and limited European experience. He has not experienced the pressures of spending big money on big players, or in managing big star players (Mr Rooney aside- and we know what happened there).  He has not won a trophy in his managerial career. He has not managed somewhere where the expectations come anywhere near those he will experience in Manchester. He remains in my view slightly untested at this level. 

The risk aversion. United have appointed someone they hope will provide continuity. A safe bet. Someone they think can be the Alex Ferguson of the next 26 years by picking someone like him. But he cannot be. No-one can. Alex Ferguson is a one-off. No matter how similar Moyes is to Ferguson he cannot out-Ferguson, Ferguson. They have resisted a Mourhino-type appointment because it would be too much change, too much personality, too different from before. They have chosen Moyes hoping it will be steady as she goes and after all Mr Ferguson will be around, ready to help behind the scenes if needed. The first time United lose two or three games on the run, how long will it take for some fans to start calling for a second coming of the great man? In an attempt to go for a low risk, more of the same approach, I think they may have set Mr Moyes up for a fall. In an attempt to replace Ferguson with a younger but the same type of model, I think they will find he will come up short. 

I obviously don't want Moyes and Manchester United to succeed- my United friends would expect nothing less- but I am interested to see if they have got this right. Time will tell. I have my doubts. 

My letter from America* part one

*with apologies to Alastair Cooke

I write this at 36,000 feet making my way from New York to San Fransico aboard American flight 179. Despite a three hour delay due to bad weather, which was a little frustrating after an early alarm call and a bumpy enough journey so far (despite my best efforts, I remain a nervous flyer), I am writing this in good spirits. 

It is hard not to be when spending quality time (as holiday time invariably is) with my wonderful wife, but also when in the United States. It is hard to be precise but my trips to America are well into double figures. I love coming here, although this is my first venture as far west. Given my strong feelings for this great country it feels remiss that I have not recorded them anywhere. This post intends to start putting that right.

I considered the best way to do this and decided to reflect on what I have seen and heard since arriving a few days ago.

The first and very obvious observation is that- even with the delay aside- the flight I am currently taking is nearly as long as the one I took from London to cross the Atlantic. The vastness of the USA is mind-blowing. I regularly fly from London to Manchester- around 180 miles- and consider that to be a decent trek as part of my normal business. Many of my fellow JFK dwellers this morning were travelling five, ten, twenty times that distance as part of a routine commute or business routine. 

I am though- to borrow that offensive cliche bypassing much of the country- the "flyover states"-  by heading from east to west coast without stopping. What am I missing? Only a road trip could answer that. One for a future holiday! 

Since being in the States, several big news stories have broken. The biggest of all- attracting worldwide coverage- is the case of the three young women held captive in Cleveland for ten years and their escape this week. Enough has already been written about the monstrous acts of their captor, the bravery of the women (especially Amanda Berry), the starring role played by neighbour Mr Ramsey, and the questions being asked of the Cleveland police, the 911 responder and the FBI. What is my contribution to this story? 

Well, I have been most struck by the news coverage of the event and the way the people of Cleveland, including friends and families of those involved, have figured. There has been much use of sporting metaphors ("we have a slam dunk case"), a huge willingness of the families to be filmed living through this event (grandmother and Berry filmed having their first phone call together for a decade), an insatiable thirst to speculate and comment on speculation from the case (from the horrendous circumstances in which they were confined to what could have happened to them, including graphic discussion about the likelihood of sexual assault), and an incredible ability to fill hours and hours of coverage with very little actual news. 

The takeaway (as our American cousins like to say): despite the amazing nature of this story (which really speaks for itself) the US networks' coverage- this includes all the networks I saw which from ABC, Fox and CNN- resorted to trivia and half truth to fill time. There is clearly a mindset that repeating something- no matter how true or important- must be avoided in exchange for saying something else or the same thing differently. I am left asking, is this the fault of the networks who are trying to compete with each other with something new every five minutes minutes, or ours as the audience for demanding more and more intrusion and detail? I'm just not sure; probably a bit of both.

That takes me to a second big news story. The gruesome case of Jodi Arias, who was convicted this week of murder and now faces the possibility of the death penalty. Here I have two observations. The first, filming courtroom and the legal process is a good thing. I have long believed that giving the public information, unfiltered, raw, direct is the key to improving our democratic process and the choices we make. Parliament being televised has brought more accountability. If you don't like what you see, you are informed enough to do something about it at the next election. We need to extend this transparency dramatically into every corner of public life and public bodies. Local government discussions, meetings of public bodies, courtrooms should all be filmed and made available free to the public online if not on TV. There is nothing to fear from the public seeing how our laws are made, kept and discharged. There is nothing to fear in letting the customer see what s(he) is paying for. 

Both US cases, emphasised the important role the local mayor and police chief play in American public life. A clear, visible figure to answer the questions, learn the lessons, and when needed take the praise and criticism of the people who elect and pay them. We are catching up slowly with this approach- something I strongly support. 

Walking around New York it was clear to see how much building work is being done; how many hotels were being renovated, how many major projects were underway. My conclusion; this looks like evidence of the US economy in growth, something we had heard much about in recent months? If so, good news all round. I hope we catch our customary cold from the US sneezing soon! 

One last reflection for this post- more to follow after a few days on the west coast- contains the endless stream of adverts on TV for health remedies, drugs and treatments. The fact that they dominate the ad breaks is not news in a country fascinated by its health and wellbeing but the percentage of time the adverts spend on disclaimers rather than on the product itself is worthy of comment. 

Nothing speaks more powerfully to the litigious culture of this country that after the mere mention of a product and its intended benefits prompts a long list of possible side effects and the inevitable advice to speak with your physician if you have any doubts. Don't blame me if it doesn't work or you die after taking the pills is clearly the message. Lawyers 1, General Public 0.

The spectre of being sued hangs over so much here; hence why the pilot leaves the seatbelt signs on much longer than anywhere else I have flown or the detail given on menus for what you might or might not find in your food. 

That said, it is great to be here, in, or at least above, the land of the free. I now can't wait for this plane to land (or at least to stop moving around!) so we can enjoy the rest of our trip.