Caro Ramsay
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This week my guest blogger has celebrated the publication of a long awaited book.

It's about football. Or soccer as you guys might call it.

I recall having a long conversation with Lisa Brackmann about the atmosphere at a baseball game and why it all takes so long. She explained about the family entertainment, the food, the celebration.

I grew up in Govan. Home of the Glasgow Rangers . In the East End of the city is the home of the Glasgow Celtic. This is a tribal and sectarian situation, which should be getting better but to be honest, I think they are now sober,  tribal and sectarian!

But there are of course, many other little clubs, full of charm and empty stadiums/stadia,  the butt of jokes with a  goalie who is often a plumber. A far cry from  the Beckhams.

So after being a journalist, a war correspondent and a travel writer, Gavin Bell took a notion to write about the passion, and the  heartbreak of  football for football's sake.

What was it that sparked the idea for this book?  

When I was a boy I had a set of football league tables made of cardboard, given away by a newspaper. They came with name tags of teams and every Saturday, as the results came in, I’d rearrange them into their new positions. I knew next to nothing about most of the clubs and even less about where they came from, but names like Accrington Stanley and Plymouth Argyle had a magic ring to them and in the back of my mind I had this thought that one day I’d visit them. So this book is really a boyhood dream come true.


Is it because you are a Motherwell supporter that you are drawn to 'teams who win nothing but their fans devotion'?  (Motherwell is a town to the east of Glasgow,  known for its steel production, hence the team is called The Steelmen. They play at Fir Park.  It has a three piece suite in the stand and that's an all seater stadium for them. For many years I thought they were called  Motherwell nil.    These are the two famous Motherwell jokes)

One thing supporting Motherwell gives you is a philosophical attitude to life. You are spared Old Firm ( Rangers and Celtic) expectations and demands that you’ll win every match, and when you do win it comes as a nice surprise. This outlook is shared by fans of the likes of Grimsby Town and Berwick Rangers, they are kindred spirits, and I felt very much at home in their company. We understood each other and it was a pleasure sharing opinions and reminiscences with them.

 And that idea of the buses leaving Motherwell and Paisley to watch The Old Firm teams?

They say real football fans don’t choose their clubs, it’s either where they come from or the team their mum or dad supports. So I think it’s sad that so many Old Firm fans don’t come from Glasgow and don’t support their local teams. Motherwell and St Mirren are both family friendly clubs that care for their fans and deserve their support. Our tenement and my primary school were barely half a mile from Fir Park, and although we moved to Glasgow when I was only seven there was never any question in my mind that I came from Motherwell, and that I would support the Steelmen.


And, thinking about our visit to Maryport,  the most depressing place on the face of the planet if you recall? Is the passion for the local team something that gets folk out their bed in the morning?

Possibly. I discovered amazingly close bonds and easy familiarity between lower league teams and their fans that are rarely if ever shared in Premier League glamour clubs. As often as not players, managers and even owners mingle with supporters for drinks after games. And small clubs with big hearts invest huge time and effort in social welfare programmes in the communities that support them. So for many fans, particularly in towns struggling with post-industrial decline like Accrington, their local teams are far more than football clubs. They are a way of life. A Grimsby fan told me: “This place is on its rear end, the team’s about the only thing it’s got going for it.”


This is a departure from your award-winning travel writing, was it hard to make the transition?

Not really, I love football as much as travel and for this book I found myself wandering off in the footsteps of writers, artists and poets like Laurie Lee, L.S. Lowry and Rupert Brooke, whose musings helped to convey images of the places I was writing about. The Plymouth pub where Beryl Cook sketched some of her most famous jolly paintings was great fun.


Any great stories come from the research you did?

The kit man at Berwick Rangers used to be the team’s part-time physio and he told me about a match at Stenhousemuir when he ran onto the pitch to help an injured player, who continued playing. When he came back to the bench one of the club staff said: “That was an easy tenner.” One of the substitutes asked: “Whit’s that aboot a tenner?” He was told that if an injured player carried on the physio earned ten pounds, but that if he had to leave the field the physio got nothing. In the second half the substitute came on and collapsed in a heap five minutes later, and the physio ran on and asked him what was wrong. The player replied: “There’s nowt wrong wi’ me but that’s a fiver each.” True story.


Did you ever play football? What do you do now?

I reached the dizzy heights of playing for Govan Amateurs in an era when many opponents were the sons of shipyard workers and hard men not known for shirking tackles. Games frequently degenerated into kung-fu with a football, so I switched to my dad’s sport, middle distance running, and I was amazed when rivals congratulated me after races instead of trying to kick me to kingdom come. Now I’m a dad myself and my greatest joy is discovering the world with my lovely wee daughter. As soon as Covid permits we’ll be off to Fir Park, Motherwell.

Gavin, Colin and their mum. She used to run the riding stables where my dad got manure for his allotment! Small world.


 Because it's a Saturday was published this week and is availble through the usual channels - 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B001HD08G0It's also on Waterstones and W H Smith websites.Gavin BellScotland
Michael Sears (of Michael Stanley)
Michael - Thursday Last month I read an essay in the New York Times Magazine about swifts. It’s called The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down and it links to our current difficulties in surprising ways. The author, Helen Macdonald who wrote H is for Hawk, writes a very personal piece about these strange birds and it’s definitely worth a read. The elegant African Palm swift. Often seen over our bungalow at Olifants Swifts are birds that spend their lives in the air on the wing. They feed on flying insects, sleep in the air – half the brain at a time – and come down only to build their nests and breed. They don’t perch, they don’t really interact with the ground at all.  The Alpine swift makes its way from Europe to South Africa with the seasons. You usually see them here on their own. They may fly huge distances or just recycle a large area, but they may fly more than 100,000 miles in a lifetime. They may be in flocks or alone. Barn swallows roosting. Never swifts... Swifts can be confused with swallows, but they aren’t related. Swifts and swallows are examples of parallel evolution. Apparently, this is the best design if you intend to fish food only from the sky. Actually, they are quite easy to tell apart because swallows flap their wings rapidly and are often seen perching in trees. They love telephone lines and form neatly packed lines. Swifts float above it all, wasting as little energy as possible on wing motion. They can rotate their wings from the base allowing efficient flying at height. This ability is shared only with hummingbirds (which are supposed to be their closest relatives). Chimney swift swarm They seem able to test the weather and the winds with intricate flying, rising and falling – so-called vesper flights. Presumably they use this information in their flying and hunting for food. It’s hardly surprising that they migrate large distances. Why not? You’re flying anyway. So they follow their food north and south with the seasons. Little swift nests in South Africa As for the world, they stay above it, remote, aloof. Only returning to it to breed.
Sujata in Baltimore, MD

 Sujata Massey

This is a post about voting in 2020 . . . but it begins at the time I was trying to become a citizen.


In 1998, I was a longtime green card holder who had finally made a citizenship application. Friends had told me not to be nervous at my US citizenship exam. They said it would be ridiculously easy. I was 34 years old, a newspaper reporter with a British passport and an American accent. I was used to talking to every kind of person.


But when I went into the little room at the Baltimore Immigration and Naturalization Service and met my examining officer, I knew it wasn’t going to be simple. The questioner was an unsmiling American man with a curt manner. After running through the basics on my name, age and address, he casually led off with this question: 


“What’s the last year you voted in a US election?”


He made it sound innocuous, and of course, it wasn’t. This was a trap question to weed out those who had committed a deportable offense. I answered truthfully that I had not voted, but that question made me realize how powerful voting might be for me in the future. 


I got enough questions right that I passed and got both a certificate of naturalization and a U.S. passport. That fall I cast my first vote in a presidential election and have been voting ever since. As years passed, I found myself going to meet-and-greets for candidates at people’s homes, phoning potential voters, going door to door, and even driving voters to their polling stations. 


So much of that activity cannot happen this year, because many campaign organizations are moving to remote strategies to keep from spreading COVID-19 infection. I get my politics by watching TV, reading the paper, listening to the radio and meeting candidates and activists on zoom. There’s a letter-writing campaign, Vote Forward, that I hope to participate in. A writer should be able to write a few letters encouraging people to find a way that works for them to safely vote.


Here in Maryland, our Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has declared a state of emergency which means he can decide how we vote. He’s decided to keep in-person voting. At the same time, he’s acknowledged that thousands of election judges are unable to staff the polls. His solution is closing Maryland's 1600 polling places. Instead, there will be 360 voting centers to serve the state. I'm waiting to hear if there are enough people willing to work at these places to make it possible to cast votes in a timely fashion and if the voting centers might also have boxes where absentee ballots can be dropped off. That’s a strategy I'm hoping to participate in, having read the thoughts of New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie.


And while Marylanders are asking for the whole state to receive mailed absentee ballots, what’s happening instead is he’s requiring every voter to send in an application requesting a ballot. When I went online to request a Maryland absentee voter ballot today, I dutifully filled out every bit to find out I’d created a “system error.” Fortunately, I had more internet links to try, and at a different site, I was successfully registered to get an absentee voter application. But there you have it: Maryland has a terrible online system, and that’s if you have the energy to try.


Beyond Maryland, absentee voting is hard. Will the ballots come to us, and will they be received by the vote-counters in time? In May, Trump appointed a campaign supporter, Louis DeJoy, as the new postmaster general. Since DeJoy’s taken over, he’s fired many experienced officers in the system and made changes that have led to infrequent mail delivery for our household and almost everyone I know. In Minneapolis, the post office simply stopped delivering mail to a public housing complex. Imagine that kind of effort, applied by the post office to public housing addresses in cities all over the country.


I wave when I see Tom, our wonderful neighborhood postal carrier, faithfully walking his route with a mask during these hot months. Occasionally, he has nothing but advertising circulars to dispense to the block, because the delivery truck containing letters and packages never showed up that day. And imagine having a neighborhood post office with zero stamps in its inventory!

When we all know the post office needs to sell stamps to generate income to support itself--there are no tax dollars supporting mail.


“When the post office is closed during business hours, you know you’re in a banana republic,” an irritated woman muttered as we waited in a distanced line outside the post office one morning. 


Yes. And if we cannot have our votes counted, it will only get worse.