Another Country?

On 18th September 2014, the Scots go to the polls to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country. I hope that they vote to stay part of the UK. Whichever way they go, there ought to be a General Election in the UK. But there won’t be.

I’m not Scottish, but have some affinity for Scotland. When my father first came to the UK at the beginning of the 60s, it was to the Clyde shipyards where he did his apprenticeship and to lodgings in Paisley. Even now, more than fifty years on, there’s a distinct Scot’s “Helloooo” to his telephone answering. The first house my parents bought was in Kilwinning in Ayrshire when I was a baby and I lived there until I was 3. It is only in recent years that we have stopped getting Christmas cards from our old neighbours or indeed my Dad’s first landlady and that is down to some of them having passed away and my Mum’s numerous house moves in the past decade. My earliest memories are of boat trips on Loch Lomond (which I called Loch Mondo, which I still think is a better name) and playing on the beach at Saltcoats, aptly named as every photo from that time, even if labelled “August ’74” has everyone in thick jumpers, wellies and overcoats. I liked going up to visit my sister when she started a PhD at Glasgow University (although in a murmur of what has come since those early post-devolution days, it did seem odd that she and the other students who had come from England were categorised as “International Students”). One of the nice parts of the job that first took me up to Leeds was that I had responsibility for my practice area in Scotland too and got to go up to Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly. And just this year I’ve had a great time skiing in Glenshee and going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For me, Scotland has always in my lifetime had a very distinct identity of its own and clearly has had its own ways of doing many things. At the same time, while feeling like another country in a way which relatively nearby English places like Newcastle and Carlisle do not, it was part of the Britain I felt part of in a way that Ireland clearly isn’t, having been independent for a long time and having fought “us” bloodily for it. I can understand the Team Scotland v Team Westminster rhetoric of the campaign because the reason we moved from Scotland was that my parents didn’t want me to be disadvantaged by being a minority within a minority as Indian and Scots so they moved to England and I got the “Team Westminster” RP accent and education. But this does also show that the divide is false because in a united UK, you can move around and you can take your identity from the part you want. My Dad started as an honorary Scotsman (he must have stood out as a small Indian man amongst the welders and stood behind the goal at Ibrox watching his friend and former fellow apprentice making his debut for Glasgow Rangers) and moved, just as (accent aside) I feel an honorary Yorkshireman having spent 10 years in Leeds. That is just one of the things that a Yes vote would bring in, perhaps slowly, but surely enough.

However, I can understand emotionally why Scots might want independence and even that it might be worth doing despite the potential hardship that may be suffered in relation to using the pound sterling without UK agreement, needing to wait to be admitted to the EU (it is hard to see how countries like Spain which have their own secessionist regions and nations could support Scotland becoming an EU Member State while denying nationhood to Catalonia). Those arguing for UK exit from the EU also tend to believe it would be worth doing even if it had short to medium term adverse effects (although they generally make it sound as if there would be immediate benefits to outweigh these). As an aside, it is curious that when the UK and IP parts of UKIP come together they seem to result in denying the validity of Scotland’s claim to independence from the UK while wanting the UK to be independent from the EU.

What I don’t understand or agree with is the sudden rush over the past couple of weeks, apparently led by Gordon Brown, to offer the Scots a huge increase in powers and preservation of advantageous UK tax funding which mean that Scots per capita get 20% more public funding than other parts of the UK, if they vote to stay in the UK. There is certainly a case for a new settlement, and one which looks fairly at the claims of the other nations in the UK including England and the regions. The success of Scots devolution, the London Mayor and Welsh devolution (this last is successful only in terms of having provided strong local powers – that those elected to wield them have been terrible at so doing doesn’t matter, they can be defeated) and the high public engagement with the independence campaign make it hard to deny a similarly careful look at what everyone needs throughout the UK.

However, none of this, not the “Vow” to Scotland, nor the proper role of Scots MPs in Westminster (the “West Lothian” question), nor even the arrangements for the rest of the UK, has any democratic mandate in the UK. If there is a majority for independence, it is arguable that the Prime Minister should resign as the head of a pro-Union party and government (that perhaps being the distinction from the PM at the time of Irish Independence, another David, Lloyd George, who was not from the Unionist part of the Liberal Party and who did not resign when last the UK lost a constituent member). But, from a practical perspective, as the three main parties have been aligned on the main approaches to post-independence relations with Scotland, it would not be inconceivable that Cameron could start the exit negotiations and run them through to the scheduled General Election in May 2015 with a smooth handover should he lose that election. The one urgent change that would be required would be to pass legislation to limit MPs elected now and in 2015 for Scots constituencies from voting on matters other than those relating solely and specifically to Scotland.

However, the range of promises being made to Scotland if it decides to stay in the UK are a different matter. They involve large changes which were not in any party’s manifesto and which will have had no public scrutiny, particularly if, as suggested, they are rushed through ahead of the 2015 election. The opportunities and proposals for a broader constitutional resettlement and localisation can’t just be magicked up in a few months. The overall package of changes surely has to be mandated and this can only be done by dissolving Parliament and calling an election in which all the parties can set out what they propose to do for the UK as a whole, having retained Scotland within it. There are procedural difficulties due to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which limit Prime Ministerial discretion over calling elections, but these could be overcome by agreement (for example, in the circumstances, there could be an unopposed motion of no confidence). It wouldn’t have to be immediate, but it should be before May 2015 and before any attempt is made to have a new Scotland Act granting further devolution to Scotland without doing anything for the rest of the UK of which Scotland will be a long term part.

But I’m not holding my breath. There seems to be no sign that this will happen and ultimately that would be the thing which meant that both Alex Salmond’s Team Scotland and Dave, Ed and Nick’s Team Westminster won with the losers being everyone else.

You’re not from New York City you’re from Rotherham

21 years after Brentford’s sole season in the second tier of English football since the 1950s, our first month in the Championship has ended. Adjusting to the change has been a big job for everyone – I still instinctively look to the League 1 results on my phone’s football results app before remembering that we’re not there any more. The days of wandering up to the turnstiles two minutes before kick off other than for glamorous cup ties or make or break end of season games seem to be receding into the past as club membership is needed to get tickets even for relatively humdrum fixtures like our first away game this season at Bournemouth. And of course, the players and management have had to adjust to the demands of a higher division.

My personal impression, having seen us fall a couple of times to League 2 and bounce back relatively quickly is that the difference between Leagues 1 and 2 is not huge. This can be seen in the regularity with which clubs manage to secure promotion in successive seasons from League 2 through to the Championship without dramatically altering their playing style or personnel. Rotherham, our most recent opponents and fellow promoted club last season are a case in point. Both clubs have also made big squad changes since promotion.

Bournemouth, who are starting their second season in the Championship, showed us a couple of weeks ago the quality and consistency needed to do well. I was fortunate to get a ticket due to the Brentford ticket office still having the care for fans that it did in the quieter old days of lower division football – my wife bought me membership for my birthday and the club sold her a ticket for the match even though the tickets were still not on sale to those without substantial numbers of loyalty points. We looked reasonably good at the Goldsands Stadium without looking particularly likely to score. Pritchard, on loan from Spurs, looked very skillful but needed to learn not to play like 7 year old OMB and his friends, attempting a stepover or a Cruyff turn every time he got the ball, but to save the skills for impact – the more measured and experienced head of Smith, doing simple, direct things consistently well was a good change. Nevertheless, a narrow 1-0 defeat didn’t feel like a loss for some reason.

After that, we picked up our first win of the season away at Blackpool (which I missed because we were in Edinburgh for Mrs B’s 40th) and fought back from an early goal down and man down to rescue a draw at home against Birmingham City. That was followed by a narrow 1-0 defeat against another old enemy, Fulham in the Capital One Cup. Altogether, a reasonable start but no more or less.

So, on to the fairly local (for me) game away at Rotherham. Rotherham had beaten us well both home and away last season so I didn’t have particularly high hopes, even if OMB did predict 2-0 before the match.

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- OMB in pensive mood on the way into the ground

Oh me of little faith. OMB’s prediction came true and we won 2-0! The neat, patient passing game which Brentford has built up over the past 3 seasons looked a bit toothless against Bournemouth but came good at Rotherham, who themselves were better than most Brentford fans commenting online have given credit for. They hit the bar twice and were threatening on the attack during the first half as well as drawing some excellent saves from Button in the second half in moves which I was sure they were going to score from. However, whereas Bournemouth played in a similar style to us, but with the nous of a season’s experience to iron out inconsistencies, Rotherham were ultimately unable to deal with Brentford’s midfield and their more direct style played to Harlee Dean’s strength in the air in central defence. Douglas mopped up in front of the defence and linked well with the more attacking midfielders. Dallas has started to deliver on the promise he showed when he was brought to the club. New star signing from Spain, Jota, stood out by being clean shaven and Ginola-tressed. And by being very mobile so that Gray was less isolated up front. From that assured performance I think Jota has the chance of being a very special player for us as he gets more used to the pace and physicality of the English game.

Just as half time was approaching I was discussing with OMB how bad it would be to concede a goal then when a flowing counter-attacking move was finished off with a spectacular strike by Gray leaving the Rotherham keeper with no chance. I normally like the “It’s all your fault” song against opposition keepers but felt it unfair in this case!

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- great views, plenty of legroom, good acoustics, the New York Stadium is a good example of how a modern stadium for a smaller club should be

The second half, with Brentford attacking the goal in front of its supporters, there were a few chances to extend the lead in between dangerous Rotherham attacks which somehow were repelled by heroics from Button. Pritchard was the culprit in one move where he had two or three Bees in the box unmarked and waiting for a square ball when he opted to shoot from an angle and blasted it over. When we play with one up front and can find our midfield pinned back to stop it from supporting Gray it is perhaps unsurprising that Pritchard wasn’t expecting such an abundance of support! Rotherham then conceded that we’d taken their main attackers out of the game and made a couple of substitutions. We brought on Scott Hogan, a new striker from Rochdale who had just recovered from injury in a positive move to play with two strikers but, before he’d had a couple of touches of the ball he fell when unchallenged and immediately signalled to go off, clearly in some pain and anguish. He had a lengthy spell of treatment on the pitch and was stretchered off and I expect it will be quite some time before he returns.

Unfortunately, his injury was greeted by jeers from the home crowd about time-wasting and of being a soft southerner (charitably I assume they didn’t realise he was born in Salford and had played his entire career up to this season at clubs north of Rotherham!). More unfortunate still, this was taken by a significant proportion of the Bees fans as the cue they’d been waiting for to unleash a chant of “Town full of paedos” and “Jimmy Savile is coming for you”. After the horror of the report earlier in the week about the huge child abuse scandal in Rotherham I’d hoped that Bees fans would be dignified enough not to take the easy option and resort to this.

Finally the game restarted and Brentford brought on Proschwitz and Toral to rejig things. Proschwitz, a free transfer from Hull who had cost them £2.5m, looked a bit lumbering and cobwebby when I saw him against Bournemoth but seemed to have improved his fitness in the subsequent fortnight. I’m still not sure whether he is “the answer” to our needs in attack but he held up play reasonably well and was positionally sound. Toral, the third of our Spanish contingent (Tebar stayed on the bench) is on loan from Arsenal and looked lively. Fittingly, the two of them combined for our second goal in the 8 minutes of time added on for Hogan’s injury. I’d need to watch the replay but unlike the fan reports I’ve read online I don’t think Pritchard can be credited with the pass that found Toral at the edge of the box to turn and lay on the easiest of tap ins for Proschwitz. My recollection is that Pritchard was neatly, professionally and annoyingly running down the clock in the corner in front of me while being shepherded by two Rotherham defenders, one of whom managed to get the ball and then passed it behind him in the expectation of there being another defender to clear the ball upfield. Unfortunately for him, Toral was better placed and took full advantage of the gift. But, either way, I’m more than happy that we got the goal!

A sign of how good the game was, as well as his increasing maturity, is that it was the first game where OMB managed to concentrate through the whole thing. I had brought the iPad for him to play on if he had had enough of the football but we were told that he couldn’t use it inside the ground. I can’t think of any good reason for this other than that Manchester United have just banned the use of tablet computers. While the stewarding was perfectly friendly, I also thought it a bit over-officious that after having been searched on the way in, a steward steamed over to tell me I couldn’t drink a can of diet Coke in the ground and escorted me to a kiosk to get a plastic cup. In the sad context of Rotherham’s week it seemed a peculiarly modern irony that minor infractions of mildly arbitrary rules are enforced so zealously.

There is now a two week break for international games before the next league fixture (another novelty!) and this will give a chance for some of the little knocks picked up in a busy August to be healed. We actually have a similar record to the same stage last season in League 1 (although to be fair we did start last season somewhat disappointingly after missing out on promotion). It would be good to get a home win soon but I suspect that our style of play suits counter-attacking away from home better than going out to dominate at home, at least until the team has properly settled into its stride at this level. The first month of the campaign has been encouraging because there is still clearly more to come from the team, particularly from Jota as he acclimatises to English football and from Gray as he continues to make the big leap from playing the Conference last season. Excellent player though Adam Forshaw is, if his irritating transfer to Wigan goes through today it won’t have weakened the side which has done so well so far. If it doesn’t, it is not clear who he would displace in fighting back into the first team. If at the end of last season you’d said to any Bees fan that Forshaw would have a struggle to get in our team this season they’d have looked at you as if you were insane. And that is a measure of how far we have come and hopefully, of where we can go.

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- we did, we did!

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

For some reason, in recent years I’ve enjoyed reading Booker Prize losers more than the winners so I had wavered for a long time over whether to read Eleanor Catton’s 2013 winning novel, The Luminaries. I’d picked up and put down copies in book shops several times, put off partly by its heft (it is apparently the longest ever Booker winner), partly by the spectre of the last New Zealand winner (Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which is reputed to be nearly unreadable, I’ve not attempted it) and partly by how dreadful I found the last historical novel prize winner I read (Wolf Hall). In the end, spotting it for sale at £2.99 on the Kindle store I felt I could at least avoid the first of these misgivings.

I needn’t have worried. The Luminaries is a great read. It is set in 1865 in the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika. It starts as a sort of Victorian murder mystery with a dozen disparate men gathering in the bar of a hotel when an uninvited 13th man, Walter Moody joins them after having just arrived following a disturbing and rough sea trip from Dunedin. In sounding him out, the twelve share the tale of the disappearance of a wealthy young prospector, the death of local loner (and the finding of a large amount of gold in his hut), and the opium overdose of a prostitute all on the same night. Each of the twelve was a witness to part of the story and each felt that somehow they could be implicated criminally even though no crime had yet been alleged. As they share their stories each (apart from two Chinese miners whose English is inadequate for the task) pieces part of the mystery together. The book then goes on to show what each does with this knowledge and goes back to account for the events that led up to the mystery.

The book’s chapters are each headed up with an astrological sign and apparently the structure of the book is driven by the interaction of the zodiac symbols and the phases of the moon. To be honest, this passed me by completely and while it would have taken a lot of skill to effect, seemed rather gratuitous. Much of the intrigue comes from apparent coincidences and unsuspected connections between characters and their histories so I suppose this is not unlike the coincidental motion of the planets and constellations in astrology. However, the plot and characterisation are strong enough not to need a theoretical exoskeleton to tie them together. Perhaps the book wouldn’t have appealed to the Booker judges and critics without it but it felt like an unnecessary layer of pretension.

Read the book and see for yourself – perhaps the fault is mine in reading on a screen as there have been numerous articles recently to the effect that readers may read less deeply in eBooks than they do in paper books.