Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A Syrian Situation

A small headline at the bottom of the front page of the Times this morning caught my eye. It said 'Mass Murder Claims'. Nothing new there, I thought to myself, and half-wanting to drag my eyes away to read about something less gruesome, I sipped my latte and reluctantly scanned down the small piece.

30 minutes later, I realised today was the day. Today was the day I stopped turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to events unfolding in Syria, because having read what I read, and knowing what I now know, how can I? I've avoided the news, avoided the tv programmes, thought, "Oh, that's terrible!" when Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist, was killed alongside her French counterpart in the Syrian city of Homs, and then thought little more of it.

But I could barely believe what I was reading this morning. Between 45 and 50 (depending on which paper you read) women and children murdered in Homs on Sunday. According to reports, there were around 26 children and 21 women who were killed - some with their throats cut, some with their 'heads mashed in', some set on fire. 4 of the children were only aged 5 or 6. 19 of the women were raped. 1 was pregnant.

Both government forces and Syrian opposition are denying responsibility for the massacre, but it seems to be largely accepted that this was the work of President Basahr Al-Assad's regime, who are desperately trying to opress opposition forces. 

Reading these facts made me feel physically sick. I looked around the coffee shop I was sitting in. It was busy with morning trade, older people clearly part of a walking group, a large table of mums and babies, pushchairs grouped round the table like a line of defence. All laughing, chatting, soothing the kids. What would those Syrian women have given, I thought, for this? Just the normal every day freedom that we in the West take for granted. Just the basic human right to live our lives.

And I wondered why this was just a small column in the newspaper. It was one of the most sickening things I'd ever read. Researching more on the internet, reading reports from newspapers, CNN, and the BBC, this is the latest (probably not even that by now) in a line of almost 9,000 murders of Syrian civilians in a year. Like a lot of people, I'd probably not really paid much attention to these events, coming as they do, far down the line of 'Arab Spring' atrocities which we in the West have been drip-fed almost daily since the outbreak of upsurgance in the Middle East in December 2010. Eygpt, Libya, Iran, Syria...sometimes it all seems to blur into one. The politics are enough to make your head spin. There are opposition parties, activists, Security Councils, United Nations, treaties, government officials and human rights groups banded about like political confetti. Terms of slaughter are thrown at us from the media on a daily basis, to the point of saturation, and Afghanistan and Syria merge into one cesspit of human tragedy.

But what kind of regime attacks its own most vulnerable citizens in this way? What kind of man takes a knife, a rock, a match, to his own people, to a young child? Civilians being treated in hospitals, apparently, are now becoming victims of torture in their beds. And yet Britain, no doubt wary of further military involvment in yet another conflict which 'isn't our war', hops around on the sidelines, wringing its hands; the US, on similar shaky ground, leaves the platitudes to Secretary Of State, Hillary Clinton, and urges the international community to join in condemning Syria's "horrific campaign of violence" against it's own people. Right, Hils. That'll scare them.

Tellingly, given Britain and the US's reluctance to commit any form of military allegiance to the Syrian opposition forces, there are two countries whose voices have not been heard condeming President Assad: Russia and China. Russia, whilst being diplomatically pressurised by Clinton and William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, to stand with them in backing the UN against Assad, is known to be supplying the Syrian government with the arms it's using to butcher its own people; the landmines being planted along the border with Turkey to blow up Syrian refugees as they are flushed out of their villages and towns are Russian-supplied landmines. The fetid stink around world politics is growing, as the humanitarian situation becomes more and more desperate. 

As Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times journalist who was seriously injured in the attack which killed Marie Colvin, said in an interview with CNN, "It's really hard when you've got people presenting you with bits of people saying, 'Why aren't you helping?' What can I tell them? It's not like we don't know what's happening any more. We do know."

And then there are these people. Entirely innocent, except of being Syrian civilians in a volatile environment; women and children, just going about their every day lives of repression and political silence. Look around you today - count 26 women as you walk down the street. Count 21 children as you pick up your kids from school or nursery, or on your way home from work. Think of all your friends who are women, and the freedom we take for granted every day. And then imagine what those Syrian women felt, unable to protect their children or themselves, unable to speak out. Utterly helpless.

It's too easy to think 'There's nothing I can do', and to get on with your every day life, with its own problems and situations. But please just take time to read about the events in Syria, to arm yourself with knowledge, however minimal; think about it, imagine if this was happening to you; talk about it, tweet about it; don't ignore it #helpSyria.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

A Look Back & A Look Forward

I was absolutely incandescent. I was irately dancing up and down in my dressing gown and slippers, shrieking hell and damnation at the tv - as unedifying an image as you are likely to have seen at that time on a Saturday morning.

My one consolation was that the entire collective of ITV experts - plus Steve Rider - seemed to be even more flummoxed than I was. At that moment, during the 18th minute of the World Cup semi-final between Wales and France, there appeared to be only one person on the face of the planet who thought Sam Warburton's tackle on Vincent Clerc was deserving of a red card, and he was the man on the pitch with the red card in his hand, and his name was Alain (I say 'was' - I imagine it still is, unless subsequent accusations of favouritism have induced him to drop the 'i').

And yet. With the benefit of hindsight, a lengthy period of cooling down, and much conversation on Twitter, I can confirm that I was wrong. Note this down, because it never, ever happens - ask Mr Grimes. HOWEVER. I believe that the tackle was no better or worse than other examples which have been highlighted during the tournament, and which garnered no worse than a yellow, but I believe the referees were given a directive after the pool stages to clamp down on these types of tackles. Do I think there was any malice in the tackle? Emphatically not; would I rather see an over-zealous referee and no players with broken necks? Emphatically yes, semi-final or not.

I see now that Sam Warburton was a player bursting with enthusiasm, power, and zeal, combined with the youth and relative inexperience of a 23 year old at his first World Cup, and captaining his country in the semi-final; keen to lead by example, he committed to a thumping tackle which garnered admiration from such a player as Francois Pienaar ("Textbook!" I think Francois said. Better throw out that textbook, Francois - it's out of date). It also, unfortunately, gave Rolland the opportunity to interprete it as being dangerous. Ultimately, the fault lies with Warburton.

With hindsight, I don't believe Warburton's sending-off lost Wales the game. Their inability, unimaginable as it would have sounded a couple of weeks ago, to field a single one of four potential kickers who could actually kick the ball between the posts lost Wales the match, and that's all there is to it. With Priestland injured, many teams would have given the right arm of their physio and a large amount of chocolate biscuits to have James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny as stand-ins. Even Sally Morgan would have struggled to predict that that one wouldn't work out. She probably could have predicted, however, that with Priestland gone before the match, and then Warburton, Adam Jones and Alun Wyn-Jones gone during it, the gods were not looking favourably on a Wales/New Zealand final.

With the sending-off, and 60-minutes of the most impressive display of fitness and determination by a 14-man team I think I've ever witnessed, if Hook, Jones or Halfpenny had managed to get any of the penalty or drop goal attempts between the posts, that match would've been one of the greatest comebacks ever witnessed on a field of international play. It was one point away from being Wales' finest hour this century. Instead, we have a New Zealand v France final, and a Wales v Australia third place play-off.

I don't believe this guff about no-one wanting to play in the play-off match. Wales will be desperate to end on a good note, and third place is still a great result for them. Hopefully it will be a fittingly impressive way to bid goodbye to their mercurial and talismanic wing, Shane Williams, who looked close to tears after the final whistle on Saturday. Without wishing to belittle Australia's efforts, they crumbled with little resistance  in their semi-final against the raging All Blacks, and I would question their motivation for wanting to come third in a tournament they will feel they could've won. Alright, I'm lying - I think it's hilarious. The Aussies have always been a bit susceptible to rolling over under the onslaught of a decent mind game - happy to dish it out, they can implode as easily as they can seize the upper hand during a match.

And so to Sunday, and the World Cup final. Many people, myself included, will watch merely out of curiosity, to see which French team turns up. They are undeniably 15 highly talented and able players. But I hesitated to call them a team, which tells you all you need to know. Will the fractured and uncomfortable French play? Or the mesmeric, brave French, who can start an attack move from their own tryline? If anyone won't underestimate them, despite their unimpressive and fractured World Cup campaign, it is the All Blacks. They will have no need of being reminded of the 2007 World Cup semi-final, or that bitter memory of 2009, when France had the temerity to beat the All Blacks at Carisbrook, of all places.

But hand on heart, and as much I want the Final to be a close match, I cannot see anyone standing between New Zealand and the William Webb Ellis trophy. I thought they would win from the start, and now, within spitting distance of the final whistle, I don't see anything to change my mind. In truth, if the World Cup is to be awarded to the team which has shown global dominance for not only the duration of the tournament, but for the past four years, there can only be one winner.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Life of Grimes: England Expects

Life of Grimes: England Expects: So, probably I am the last person qualified to offer an opinion on this topic. I'm a girl. The only time I've ever actually touched a rugby ...

England Expects

So, probably I am the last person qualified to offer an opinion on this topic. I'm a girl. The only time I've ever actually touched a rugby ball was one ill-advised winter's evening while at college, when I gate-crashed the ladies' rugby training and broke a nail. I was on the wing, for god's sake - I wasn't envisaging actually having to do anything. I thought it was the rugby equivalent of playing 'deep fielder' in rounders.

Anyway, it's my blog, I can say what I like. And, as it happens, I have been a fan of rugby since 1990 (ok, since I saw Rob Andrew on Question Of Sport, and fell in love *crosses self*). I've been on 3 British Lions' tours, the so-called 'Tour of Death' to NZ in '98, and many a home international. I was a hardened Sale fan for all the years they languished at the bottom of the Premiership, up until the point they stopped actually playing in Sale. Then they started to get good, damn their eyes.

And I started to think about this whole England world cup debacle. I can cope with England playing badly on the pitch - takes me right back to the bad old days at Sale. But playing badly AND behaving like the Manchester United youth team in Ayia Napa? That takes some doing. And then I read David Flatman's article in the Guardian on the subject, and it made me quite sad. Sad because I didn't totally agree with him, and I ALWAYS agree with him. He's erudite, funny, and sensible (not bad going for someone who's spent most of their adult life face down in the mud). He didn't particularly lay the finger of blame anywhere, but rather lamented the media-driven obsession with celebrity, and the way it has started to seep into the previously-fluffy world of rugby since the advent of professionalism.

Now, I don't really buy that. It has, ofcourse, but one inevitably goes hand-in-hand with the other, as football has found to its cost. You can't welcome the money flooding into the game with one hand, while trying to maintain the ethos of the good old days with the other. And where does the money come from, ultimately? The loyal rugby fan. Now, far from the loyal rugby fan being too bothered about what the Daily Mail says about Tindall's/Tuilagi's/Haskell's/Ashton's/Hartley's, etc. behaviour (small fry considering what once happened to the Calcutta Cup, or that taxi that Scott Gibbs nicked perhaps), under the microscope at the biggest, most media-savvy World Cup ever is not the place or time for it. If there ever was a time for it, I suspect it was circa 1989, and it is long gone.

I could over-look it if the team were running rings round the opposition in their matches. But they didn't. They looked like 14 strangers, plus St Jonny of Wilkinson, who I love dearly but praise the lord, there isn't a team from here to Timbuctoo that hasn't worked him out by now. Osama Bin Laden has more spring in his step.

I look at the dedication of someone like Sir Steve Redgrave, who I doubt had a drink for about 15 years, such was his determination to continuously be the best in the World, getting up at 5am a year before the Olympics to train at altitude on the freezing waters of some desolate mountain lake. And I read that Sam Warburton hasn't touched a drop since the end of the Six Nations, and I think, you know what? It's not that hard. It's surely not too much to ask that the players devote themselves body and soul to be the best in the World, at the very least, for the 8 weeks that they're away. I managed to stay away from alchohol for 9 whole months, it's really not that difficult (drink like a fish now, ofcourse, but that's neither here nor there). Scotland, of course, could live like Trappist monks from now till Lewis Hamilton gets Sports Personality of the Year, and they'd still be crap.

Arrows are inevitably being drawn in the direction of Martin Johnson, and not without provocation. From the man you expect to lay discipline down like Hannibal, to rule the players with a wrath to equal Sir Alex Ferguson's infamous 'hairdryer', comments like "Rugby player drinks beer: shock" do not really wash. It might not be a shock, but it also might not be advisable in a country where rugby is the national obsession, and players' every actions are studied, analysed and splashed across the front pages. Where the biggest event in the country's history is the 2011 World Cup final. Not the country's sporting history, note: it's actual history. Because rugby IS New Zealand, like no other country on earth.

Throughout the tournament, I began to see that Johnson isn't the demi-god I'd appointed him as. I'd been willing to overlook his dogged support of Steve Borthwick as captain, even though Borthwick is as much use in that role as a nylon tank. Capable player on his day, but a charismatic, inspiring captain he was not. And yet Johnson gave him way beyond the usual 'try-out' period, as if he was stubbornly trying to prove his point by sheer perseverance.

He seems to struggle to lose his playing loyalties in a way a less successful and conscientious man would not. Defending players from media accusations is one thing, but doggedly excusing their unacceptable behaviour is entirely another. Additionally, his continual advocacy of "a win's a win" above all else started alarm bells - surely at least aim to produce some entertaining, inventive play? Otherwise, really, what is the point? Aspiration to be the best should be tattooed on their souls, not aspiration to be ok. As Malcolm X once said, "If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything" - mediocrity, as it turns out.

Not good enough. England - at least the hard-working, loyal rugby fan - expects the entertainment to be on the pitch, not off it. I'm not sure we can lay the blame for the implosion at the door of professionalism any more. I don't particularly remember an instanteous shift in the atmosphere of the English game the minute the gilded gates opened. It's more a culmination of many factors - previous successes at World Cups raising expectations, this being probably the first generation of rugby players who have never known the game as being amateur, and the accessibility of worldwide media within seconds from anywhere in the world, about things we really don't need to know but are bombarded with nonetheless.

I think there is a general feeling that your average rugby fan is slogging his or her guts out all week, working ridiculously long hours in a job that they probably don't like very much to earn a wage that just about keeps the wolf from the door for the next month, assuming they are lucky enough to have a job. Many of them have saved some of this hard-earned dough in order to travel a year and a half on an aeroplane to a country which looks like Wales, to watch '03 all over again. They hoped. And you watch these players, who are given the opportunity to represent their country on the world's stage, playing a sport that they presumably love otherwise they wouldn't be doing it, and getting paid very handsomely, thank you very much. You watch them amble round the pitch, and give penalties away left right and centre as though no-one has ever explained Southern Hemisphere refereeing to them, and you start to wonder. Then you read in every tabloid in the country about the dwarf-tossing, blonde-fondling, maid-harassing, ferry-jumping antics, and the continuous and repetitive excuses given by the manager who once you idolised as a human Hadrian's Wall, and you lose any respect that may have been dwindling in the bottom of your pint pot.

The killer-blow for me came when I read that Manu Tuilagi's 'ill-advised' (for want of anything that isn't a swear word) early swim off the Auckland ferry came on the return journey of a lovely jolly out to the island of Waiheke where they reportedly visited a vineyard. Well, I don't know about you, but I want my mildly-disgraced, rudderless-ship of a national side to be catching the next flight home after losing the quarter final to France, trudging through Heathrow looking bloody miserable, getting their heads down and getting back to work, not engaging in day-trips at my expense and having a 'bit of banter' (think again, Mr Youngs) in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Ahhhh! Lordy, that feels better. Nothing like a bit of a rant to clear the air. Now then, where's my Welsh phrase book? Diolch yn fawr, as we *ahem* say in Wales......

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

And in the news this week....

Firstly, in the news this week: me and running are over. O.V.E.R. It's official.
We had our good times (primarily, me deriving mild amusement from being dizzy getting off the treadmill), we had our brief tumultous love affair (primarily before I actually started doing any running), and now it's run it's course. Oh, enough already with the cheese. It's rubbish.
It's the most rubbish thing since Sir Clive Sinclair stuck a AAA battery and a couple of trolley wheels on an Easter egg and called it an electric car. Seriously, why does anybody want to actually run?
I understand the Ethiopians doing it. They have to. They've got to get down to the watering hole and back in time to milk the goat before nightfall and the watering hole is 175 miles away. Although if I was Ethiopian, I'd either fashion myself a bike out of a bit of goat hide and some wizened twigs, or I'd be Very Bloody Thirsty.
But why does anybody else do it? I resent lumbering along on the treadmill like some flat-footed elderly penguin almost as much as I resent doing it outside, scaring innocent dog-walkers with my heavy breathing, as I clomp up behind them in the manner of a terminally-asthmatic elephant.
I hate it more than I strongly dislike Katie Melua (hate is a very strong word to bandy at someone who has done me no perceivable personal injury). I hate it more than I hate people who plonk themselves down next to you on the sofa whilst you're watching The Only Way Is Essex and ask, 'But is it real?'. I hate it more than I hate getting to the last Mini Egg in the packet. I hate it more than I hate candy floss, and sundried tomatoes, and Sauvignon Blanc (the waste product of a cat, in my opinion). And I hate it more than Premiership football (there, I've said it. So shoot me).
In short, I'd rather be held hostage in Essex by a Premiership footballer and force fed candy floss than I would do a run. But fear not, faithful followers, whilst I've decided that the 10k may not be a realistic target (I believe Tatton Park closes at 6pm - I'd be locked in the park over-night, and possibly gored to death by an irate stag), I will be doing the 5k instead. Can't take more than half a day, surely?

In other matters, all hail to the hooded ninja warrior who has been rescuing the citizens of Tunbridge Wells from anti-social behaviour and general nastiness (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1380610/The-Ninja-Tunbridge-Wells-Pyjama-crusader-launches-vigilante-campaign.html). In all seriousness, it's refreshing to find someone willing to stand up and be counted in an effort to make our streets safer, and our communities closer. I'm not sure how much of a hotbed of crime Tunbridge Wells is, but still, somebody's got to get that cat out of a tree, and at least if a fireman's not doing it, it's not costing the great British taxpayer about £576.  The anonymous man has apparently been seen assisting old ladies across the road, dressed all in black and wearing a hood. There's a joke in there about old ladies having a stroke, but it's very old and crude, and quite beneath me.

Right, I'm off to watch Masterchef. It's basically the normal guy, the Italian bird who was a nurse but now wants to give up helping others and become a selfish, egotistical maniac instead, and the mad American who makes desserts out of dry ice and beer. Tonight can only be better than last night's episode of John Torode cooking John Torode's menu in John Torode's kitchen for John Torode's friends and family, hindered to varying degrees by the slightly-perplexed contestants. It promises to be better, if only on the grounds of the expressions of the 3 finalists on being told they were off to New York to cook: Italian bird...ecstatic. Normal Guy....chuffed to little meatballs. Mad American, from, I believe, New York....massive underwhelment (I know it's not a word, but it's how he looked).
His expression was much as mine would have been had I appeared in the Masterchef final and John and Greg had informed me I was off to learn great things in the restaurants of Urmston. Exactly.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Gym'll Fix It - Running On Empty

It's only Tuesday, but already I have learnt this week that my 10k charity run target in June is under threat on two fronts (no, not those ones): 1. I don't like running. At all. In any way. 2. I don't like being pink and sweaty.

I had a suspicion about the running hatred before I started, what with never having voluntarily run a step in 30-odd years and all. But this week, it's reared it's ugly head with a vengeance, spitting on my repeated attempts to run for longer than 12 minutes (I know, I know - it's 10k, not 10cm), and trampling on my pathetic attempts to embrace the boredom and move past it.

After a mere 5 minutes, with my enthusiasm plummeting faster than Charlie Sheen's ticket sales, I watch the figures on the treadmill keyboard limp painfully slowly past 0.5km. Oh, and there goes another....2 calories. Whoop whoop. By now, I could tell you every news headline on the gym tv, the telephone number for Cheadle Glass, and the last seven songs they played on the screen....and there goes another calorie....

I can't peer round at everybody else and gain mild entertainment from people watching, because I've discovered if I move my line of sight from the zone directly in front of me, I fall over. So I stare, glassy-eyed at the tv screens, contact lenses drying out from too little blinking, wishing some serious news item would break to relieve the boredom slightly. Nothing too drastic, you know, just a volcano erupting somewhere or a government coup in French Guyana.

I'm not helped by the wheezing, pounding noises emitted from the bloke next to me, who is clearly the running equivalent of the guy on the driving range who likes to remind everyone how manly he is by whacking 100 golf balls with a Big Bertha, the noise of which can be heard from the other side of the M6. 'You are not Haile Gebrselassie,' I direct angry thoughts in his treadmill's direction, unable to actually speak, 'You are Bob from telesales. Now pack it in!'

I've noticed distinct behavioural differences between men and women in the gym (I'm ok when I'm on the weights machines - I can peer at everybody without falling off). Women generally scuttle from one machine to the next, anxious to get it over and done with without everyone seeing any pink, sweaty, wobbly bits. They avoid eye contact and have headphones in at all times to avoid initiating any random conversation. Men, on the other hand, wear their pink sweatiness like a badge of honour. They periodically glance round to check who has noticed their prowess on the rower/treadmill/weights bench, and make as much noise as possible, grunting like a mountain goat as they get pinker and pinker.

I am about to push Bob from telesales off his running perch. If only I could dismount elegantly off my own, instead of staggering drunkenly like some inebriate on a hen-do. I fear there is about as much chance of me grasping the point of running as there is explaining trigonometry to a labrador, but I will persevere. Mainly because if I manage to drop another 3 calories on that weirdy-skiing machine-type-thing, I'm due a quarter of a blueberry muffin *sighs*.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Gym'll Fix It

So, race is entered, number's arrived in the post already - no backing down now.

In somewhat of a blind panic, I visited The Gym. Gyms have been my nemesis in the past - places of torture, and insanely sweaty, unpleasant-looking people in lycra (alright, 'nemesis' might be an exaggeration. I can't forgive Gym for relieving me of 6 months' fees in 1997, just because I wanted to sit prettily on a rowing machine and leer at the young men who worked there. How was I to know you had to pay through the nose for that).

I arrived for my induction last week, all outwardly cheerful at what I thought might be just a little sight-seeing tour round the hallowed exercise pits of David Lloyd Cheadle. Picture my dismay as Herr Gym Instructor signalled me to 'jump' onto a machine which I imagined could easily have been used to interrogate prisoners of war. Turns out it was a cross-trainer. Well, I don't know, do I??

An hour later, I collapsed to the floor, finished off by something ironically called a 'medicine ball'. An hour of galloping from one instrument of torture to the next, with HGI cheerily engaging me in a one-sided conversation, all the while scribbling worryingly on a clipboard. Our 'chat' went something along the lines of: HGI: 'How's that speed for you?'
               Me: 'Fine.'
               HGI: 'Oh really? Well, you won't mind if we just sneak it up a bit then, will you?'
               Me: 'Hmpppsshhhffttttt*'
It really was every bit as bad as I'd secretly anticipated. I had some Know-It-All Gym'ed Up twonk waffling on in one ear about interval training, blah blah blah, resting heart rate, blah blah bah, while my face turned the colour of Revlon ColourStay lipstick no.6: Scarlet Harlot.

Surprisingly afterwards, I didn't ache in every crevice as I'd expected. I braced myself for days afterwards when getting out of bed, waiting to be hit by the bodily aches and pains which tell you loud and clear that you've been a tad ambitious with your poor bod. But they never came, and I immediately convinved myself that this was the sign of a latent Paula Radcliffe in the making. I've been four times since then, and am enjoying the post-gym buzz enormously. I always thought it was an urban myth.

I'm also enjoying the Costa Coffee they serve at the gym (two birds, one stone), and the people-watching. I've nearly come a cropper off the running machine several times, trying not to snort at some bloke strutting by, towel over arm, approaching the weight machines. I have to look away so as not to become an RTA on my treadmill as he pulls a variety of sex faces whilst wrestling with a weight which is clearly several kilos heavier than is healthy. Then there are the ladies in the -shall we say - autumn of their youth, trotting daintily away on treadmills to my left, neither of whom are in danger of working up a sweat if they stayed on it from now till Christmas.

Soon the warm weather will kick in, my fitness will pick up, and I'll be out on the roads, pounding my poor knee joints to a pulp. But I'll miss the daily soap opera that is The Gym.

* Hmpppsshhhffttttt = eff off, you cross-eyed ginger twonk. Go near that button again, and I'll get your effing clipboard, chop it into 75 pieces, and feed it into an area on your body south of your mouth.