It’s whose fault? The IMF’s MD tells us what we know already

Once upon a time, the acronym IMF stood for ‘It’s Manley’s fault’, in Jamaica. The IMF as an institution was for nothing but vilification in the eyes of many, if not most, Jamaicans. I do not think that has changed drastically, but time and repeated experiences have led many, if not most, Jamaicans to understand that the IMF and Jamaica will be locked at the hip for many years because Jamaica likes too much to be a naughty boy and cannot be trusted to do what he’s told. He also hag an annoying tendency to start something, make out that he was doing it, and then drift off to watch some cricket match and leave the task unfinished. By the time the match was over, all the work had been wasted. The child was a royal pain. But, children do grow up and change with age. So, with Jamaica, it seems.

The IMF’s Managing Director (MD), Christine Lagarde, made her first official visit to the Caribbean, starting with Jamaica. She met the principal policy makers: ‘the Most Hon. Prime Minister Portia Miller-Simpson, Hon. Minister Peter Phillips and Bank of Jamaica Governor Brian Wynter’. christinelagardeJ20140627GTShe laid on the words of praise and some spoonfuls of feel goodness. Based on the IMF’s press release:

  • commended … commitment to reform;
  • economic outlook is improving…growth has picked up, unemployment has declined, inflation has been brought under control;
  • Debt-to- GDP has firmly been put on a downward trajectory.

But, more needs to be done:

  • Other major reforms that are still pending, including improving the collection of taxes, modernizing the public sector, and improving the business climate, and a prudent fiscal stance needs to be sustained.

The MD also met with representatives from the private sector, labour unions and opposition.

She also met with an interesting peer group: “Women leaders and I also discussed critical gender and economic challenges.”

Finally, she acknowledged what many, if not most, Jamaicans feel: “Economic adjustment is painful in the short run. Many Jamaicans have experienced wage freezes, and are facing higher prices for food and other essentials.”

So, she was pleased with the student, and wanted to see him to continue the good work.

The statement does not cover every word the MD uttered. Some seem to be excited that she mentioned that some US politicians urged the IMF to help Jamaica.  That’s no great shakes. Lobbying is part of the American political scene. Jamaica has its supporters and I would be surprised if they had not put in a word. That’s one of the reasons why we have an Ambassador in Washington, DC, to help steer some politicians into supporting us and making some noise for our causes. But, there are plenty more US politicians who don’t give a tinker’s cuss about Jamaica, whether because they have little truck with the IMF and its bailing out, or they thing that domestic needs trump any foreign concerns, or because they have their own preferred overseas area to support. So, let’s not thinking that Jamaica has suddenly hit the jackpot with American political sentiment.

But, what did the MD say that was new in any substantive sense? Nothing, that I can see. We knew that Jamaica had done some things well: the IMF performance criteria had been met and disbursements came as scheduled. We knew that more needed to be done: the programme is not near completion, so that must imply that way is left to go. We can reason, right? We know that the road is painful: the levels of unemployment have stayed high; inflation has eased slightly; the exchange rate has been on a water ride of a slide, which has touched everyone, even those well-protected with foreign exchange assets, or income streams. So, why the glee about the obvious? MD’s do not make country visits to lay into their hosts about how badly they have done things. The MD is not briefed to leave a bad taste behind after  the trip: visits like these are not about pushing countries off the gang-plank, but to keep them walking and believing that they wont fall off and drown in shark-infested  waters.

The MD also made a visit to UWI Mona, where she spoke about ‘The Caribbean and the IMF—Building a Partnership for the Future’. She talked touchingly about Jamaica, including about its cultural and sporting prowess worldwide. She also talked about the most touchy of subjects, the exchange rate: “In Jamaica, letting the exchange rate depreciate, although painful, has helped restore a good deal of lost competitiveness, and will support investment and job creation.”

It so happened that the day after that remark, I found myself in the company of two businessmen, trying to coax a little white ball around a grassy area. I had returned the night before from Europe, so was jet lagged. I had never met them before, and in getting to know them I mentioned that I used to work at the IMF. We talked about the exchange rate. “What do we have to export?” one of the men asked me. I began talking about bauxite, tourism, and agricultural produce. We agreed that most of that set was not really sensitive to the exchange rate, either because prices were negotiated, or tourism depended more on conditions in the home country. Tourists also like spending as little as possible above the cost of the holiday, especially in places that they don’t know too well. So, the depreciation wouldn’t help much in making us more competitive for the bulk of our exports.

We talked about the fact that Jamaica had good agricultural markets, but these were no longer there. Did the depreciation really help us regain those markets, e.g. bananas to Europe. It did not seem so.

The businessmen thought most of the impact of the depreciation was on domestic costs, and imports, rather than on generating exports. In other words, much pain for Jamaicans, and little to show by way of a much improved balance of payments.

I mentioned one of our best exports: labour skills. We talked about the well-trained labour force that the country (and region) had in the 1950s/60s, much of which was shipped off to Britain, and in later decades many were shipped off to the USA and Canada, as well. We also reaped the benefit of a later and strong trend of graduates leaving Jamaica (some 80 percent). Both helped by remitting to Jamaica, but also they could offer eyes that had seen more and could offer new ways to Jamaica. We are still reaping the benefits of ‘exporting’ those skills–we get about US$150 million a month, or US$1780 million a year (according to the Bank of Jamaica’s Remittance Report for February 2014). Those figures almost match what we earn from tourism, and exceed what we earn from exporting goods by about 30 percent, and is many multiples what we gain from foreign direct investment. Jamaicans get about US$760 a head. Remittances continue on an upward trend. But, the country has no plan to develop and export its people skills: that happens because job opportunities in Jamaica are so poor. Now, we can argue about whether or not those remittances mainly bolster an excessive demand for foreign goods and services. They sustain the economy to a degree that means we would have been dead, buried, and up in smoke years ago, without them.

The MD had to be delicate about the nation’s treasured flower, though. The Jamaican dollar has been wilting and showing the need for water. Many, if not most, Jamaicans, see the exchange movement without realising what it really represents. Because, the country has opted to let the market determine the external value of the currency, it is allowed to show that the exchange rate has been significantly overvalued. The IMF has said this for some time, and markets agree, and keep selling it more than buying it. But, the slide is also the ‘reward’ for faking it all these years. The fact that no one came and hung a sign saying ‘Beware! Naughty boy lives here’, does not mean that the world did not know what was behind our national gate. Sure, the world loved Jamaica when it saw its sprinters lapping others and bolting to the finish line first. They also adored the way they were captivated by musical rhythms that forced any living person to dance. But, they were not fooled into thinking that Jamaica was the best in any wider sense. The exchange rate reflects what they think: the Jamaican economy stinks. That’s what the MD means when saying that more depreciation has to happen. The stench was so high that the J$ has to go lower to compensate: it’s an inverse odour meter.

Where will the fall stop?

Easier for Jamaicans to see the J$ as a potential victim
Easier for Jamaicans to see the J$ as a potential victim

The market does not tell you when the bottom has arrived. It may continue falling to 115, or 120, or 125 to the US dollar. People hate not knowing, but that’s going to be the way for a few years to come. No point thinking that it will find a level and stay there for ever. Countries that have fixed exchange rates make us feel worse because they do not suffer this visible vote of no-confidence. But, they are supposed to be having more pain in other joints of the economy. We know that’s not the case, but that can’t last either, so The Bahamian and Barbadian economies have yet to experience some nasty shocks–but, let’s not dwell on our neighbours’ problems. Ours are bad enough.

My business persons, saw the problem simply. Too many public servants. Too little productivity. We do not know how to work hard. I could agree easily with the latter two points. We have anecdotes to support those views, even if data are slight. Just the same morning, I had stopped to pick up some staff of the golf course, who were waiting for taxis to get up there. They were 45 minutes late for work when I got to them. That’s a double mark for low productivity and how not to work hard. But, I would find it hard to blame them, totally. We have poor public transport, even though we have a lot of public transport. Working people without cars suffer a type of hardship that is really heavy. By contrast, I had just been in London and France for two weeks, and knew that getting around by public transport can be much easier. But, both countries have been into that for centuries; they both have some of the oldest public transport systems, that run around the place like strands of spaghetti.

I had trouble with the public servants argument. People say the same in almost every country, and the drain they supposedly impose has not dragged all countries down to where Jamaica is. My French hosts talked about how they public servants were just idlers, but someone was responsible for the country looking neat and clean enough to almost eat off very street. Sure, there may be too many public servants, but I would argue that many private firms are also bloated. We just prefer to sack public servants because we hate taxes, but we pay higher prices with less of a snarl. In France, they are a hated species also because they often want to exercise their rights to withdraw labour for better working conditions. We don’t see that much in Jamaica.

Yes, cut some government workers and lessen the public spending. How much better would Jamaica be in producing things? Not much, I hazard, because our poor work culture is not just a problem where the public purse is concerned. We have some amazingly dedicated people. Anecdotes again. Check out the service provided by Knutsford Express bus services: punctual, clean, tidy, good value for money. But, also check out any range of private companies that offer services and goods, with a ‘it soon come’ attitude. The Jamaican patty shops are not a great example of how to run a streamlined ship. But, we still go there and line up for patties. Jamaicans are probably no different at this moment than some of the world’s so-called efficient countries. We are locked into watching World Cup football. The Chinese have devised grand schemes to get doctors’ sick certificates to have the month free from work. Jamaicans just wont bother the doctor. Same results. But, when the Chinese go back to work, we believe that they will soon catch up, where the Jamaican will always be behind.

We have not figured out how to enjoy what we want on this tropical paradise and still get it done in terms of the things we say we are committed to doing. We need to treat getting to work on time the same way as we do getting flights to Florida: late doesn’t cut it. We need to do our jobs like those who fly planes: you can’t go and take long lunch breaks and expect the people to wait for you to return. They wont fly with you. We need some serious pride in ourselves and our country. In the same way that France, and much of England, too, has understood that cleanliness is very important, and now add to that by having organized waste collection and recycling, we need to follow. I went to Portland and back over the weekend. I did not appreciate seeing drivers in front of me throw their plastic bottles out of the window to land on the verge, and join other bottles. Who did the drivers think would pick up their garbage? I did not need to see piles of rubbish on the beach in the morning when I went for a swim.

I liked the way the people who organized the party I attended did it: guests picked up and put into plastic bags; men raked up and put into trash bags; a truck came and took it all away. We did not separate, as would have been the case in Europe, so that material could go for recycling and less would go to trash. But, we dealt with the cleaning. Some electricians came late in the day, to dismantle the lighting and dance set-up. They tried not to disturb our football-watching, but worked to clear the area fast, then head off. The caterers had done an excellent job with dinner and then breakfast. They get paid for what they do, but they did it to a very high standard. The principal guest said “delicious”; I said “excellent”. They left just before the last guests did, just after the first televised match. They cleared away, and left no trace of their activities. It’s not really hard, if you just do your job.

But, we are like the football players: we switch off. For them, the results are clear: Balotelli sneaks behind Cahill to head in at the far post–England lose 2-1. We try to do a rush job and it’s botched: Casillas had an easy clearance but muffs the kick and Robben dances away with the ball to help the Dutch to a 5-1 trouncing of Spain. Or Cote d’Ivoire, with time almost done and a tie locked up, giving away a needless penalty, and losing to Greece with the last kick, and not progressing to the next round, instead of the Greeks. Lost focus; forgot the context; lost the match. Beat themselves.

We look to blame others for faults of our own: we adopt the so-called ‘Suárez defence’. We do not commit any foul and bite someone. Instead, we trip and then stumble into their shoulder, and the teeth marks are just another indication of how the powerful elites will do anything to keep the little man from beating the bigger man. Like Uruguay, we are the perennial victims. Never expect us to shoulder (sorry, Chiellini) the blame for what we did.

Well, the world has other ideas. It wont give us a chance to steal victories when we have played like stinkers, and get to a penalty shoot-out and get lucky to take the trophy. No, the world treats us like marathon runners. Do it better than everyone else for a good long time and you shall win the prize.

Jamaicans love sport, so the analogies may get those message over better. We need to stop praising ourselves like we do cricketers, who can block and obstruct and be told they are doing a really fantastic job. We need to look for the example of the Jamaican sprint relay team, who thrash the Americans with basic talent, but great teamwork to pass the baton efficiently. We want to be like van Persie, having the imagination to craft the sublime header to startle the world and score the goal. That’s what our creative industries tend to do. We need to be grafters, whether old or young: work is work. Messi can be flashy, but most times, he just never stops working to do what he knows needs to be done. Dodging the boots and elbows, and not taking the easy option of falling over. Then, he sees his opening and takes it, left footed into the top corner, with time running out.

Take that! Messi's left foot can talk
Take that! Messi’s left foot can talk

Go and talk to Iran. Or, Timmie Cahill doing his job, even though it did not change the match: watch this.

Jamaicans know what to do. They just need to understand that it wont happen without their actually doing it.

The good, the bad, and the ugly (June 29): Suárez defence edition

No, the ‘Suárez defence’ is not a chess gambit, but it is a way of stifling an opponent. Luis Suárez, now almost less famous than comic portrayals of himself, reportedly told FIFA that he did not bite Chiellini deliberately, but lost balance and fell onto the man’s shoulder. I have to stop there. I’ve seen the replays enough times to know that Luis might have lost his mental balance and thought he was next to a shoulder of mutton.

Internet jokers, of whom I am one occasionally, lit into this near-ludicrous argument and lit up Twitter. Famous sporting philandering was now seen as ‘falling into the wife’ of a teammate. Zidane clearly stumbled and his head fell into Materazzi: it was not a deliberate head butt.

The problem I see is that some officials in Latin America may believe this arrant nonsense.
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This World Cup has done much to put a little shimmer on international football, with a goal fest, and so-called underdogs pushing over big guns. It has also given us absurdity. Cameroon delayed their arrival over money. It was paid and they came and played like a bunch of 9 year olds. Ghana went on strike over appearance fees. US$ 30 million was paid, then the team played against Portugal like they had been paid off. They lost narrowly 2-1 but they lost heavily in self respect. Their home coming should be interesting. Their Suárez defence? They fell under an Obeah spell?

Referees have found the power of a can of white foam. Players are entranced and dare not move. But, the refs are still too often scapegoats for apparent bad decisions. FIFA may yet accept video review. The question is what or who will trigger a shift? My own speculation is that national associations have to feel badly wronged when review could have corrected wrongs. Many other sports use it and their future hasn’t dimmed. I also have a notion that sponsoring companies may tip the balance. Reviews mean stopping play and would give more potential advertising slots. Football is already difficult in that regard. Many viewers do not like banner ads on screens. Plugs during commentary are really silly. The sound of cash tills may do it.

We are now at the knock out stages. Two teams were packing yesterday, Chile and Uruguay. They added much excitement and caused much drama. Thanks. Brazil roll on. The organizers are happy. Cue Pharell.

Contrasting views: all roads lead to Rio

Our journey back to Jamaica yesterday began with a taxi ride to Gatwick Airport, from the East End of London. Our driver was born in the Isle of Dogs, once in the heart of the London dockyards and part of the new wave of gentrification and new development. We talked about how the area had changed over the past 20 years. Much of London never had the ‘benefit’ of being destroyed during the Second World War, so massive redevelopment was always hard to do. The decline of the docks opened the way for a new wave of redevelopment, and it was spurred by the area being adjacent to a major financial centre. Many East Enders had been moving further east for years, and that process continued with the added pressure of new money and social groups wanting to move in. In a few words, the East End has become posh. Places with names such as ‘Leg of Mutton Lane Lane’ and ‘Westferry Road’ had real meaning.

The driver and I talked about how the area had changed physically. He mentioned that he had a book that looked at 500 years of the area’s history, its physical, social and economic make-up. I had been thinking that a great use of technology would be to make an overlay map that showed just that for any area. I had studied for years in the area and commented that I could barely make out where I was except for the trees; almost everything had changed. But, that is what progress means these days. We looked at the tall glass buildings, the wide streets, the fancy signs for new financial and commercial activities; men in suits and women in fashionable dresses–a far cry from the clothes of dock workers and their relatives. I thought of Jamaica, and Kingston’s downtown: progress had passed it by. People now flooded into the East End, after decades of people wanting mainly to flee the area. We continued to the motorway, and I thought about how improved transport links had made this side of London very dynamic: new rail links, new roads, a new small airport, London City Airport. That is what transformation meant.

East London transformed
East London transformed

We got to Gatwick and headed to check-in. (London’s airports are well served by public transport, and a train service runs every 15 minutes to this airport, to the south, but getting there from the east is trickier, so the roads are often quicker.) We completed the necessaries and sat to cool out in the lounge. Two ladies headed to Jamaica sat opposite us. They first felt miffed that they had not realised that showers and a spa were in the area. “It’s provided by the airport. I wouldn’t have bothered to bathe,” one said. I smiled and told her that it was BA who provided the service, and it’s common for them. She and her friend continued with their breakfasts, as did we.

“Glastonbury! Why do people want to go there, camping? That’s nasty!” My ears bristled. I asked her why she thought camping was nasty (remembering that she’d been prepared to go unbathed to the airport, moments ago). She explained it had to do with having to sleep on the ground. I asked her about her family background, and we had a discussion about life in Jamaica. She’d been born in England and never grew up in Jamaica. I explained that living with a dirt floor was common in Jamaica, and still is the norm in many places. She was not convinced that lying on vinyl would make it not nasty. I teased her more. She really did not like much to do with nature. She would go into the mountains in Jamaica only if she could get everywhere by car; walking was out of the question. I suggested taking a mule: she thought that was cruel 🙂 I suggested she talk to her mother about life in rural Jamaica. We continued and I asked how she’d feel about taking a walk up the Blue Mountains to the coffee fields. Again, she was fine if she could go on wheels. I shook my head. She rounded herself out by explaining how she’d bought Blue Mountain coffee on a previous trip to Jamaica, but had no idea what to do with the ‘granules’. She’d put them into a cup and they were “just swimming around”. She’d given the coffee away. I explained how to brew fresh coffee. The lights that went off in her head were very bright. MY daughter could barely suppress her giggles. She told the lady about staying at Strawberry Hill and going up further to Holywell.

Holywell: too natural; too challenging
Holywell: too natural; too challenging

The idea of staying in the National Park was daunting for her. We almost closed the case. We left them to visualise their trip to Negril and Montego Bay. My daughter could not resist telling the lady and her friend (whose roots were from Ghana) about the dangers of being in the sea, and what some people feel happy to do in the water. Some of that is truly nasty, she pointed out. She is my child! I suggested to the ladies to be less afraid of what nature has to offer.

We headed to the departure gate a little while after, and boarded with little fuss. We then sat on the tarmac for over an hour as ‘ground services’ fouled up, including having no bags loaded. We relaxed and start watching some films. We eventually got flying about 90 minutes late. The already long scheduled flight was already tiring us out. But, what to do? We settled in for a long session of movies.

I asked my daughter along the way how she’d enjoyed her trip to Europe. Very much, she said, but could not wait to get back to Jamaica. She was thinking about sleeping in her own bed and having her own dog chewing her feet, not other people’s pets doing that. She thought about the food she liked: fish and chips were very good, but… We enjoyed our long flight. We did not enjoy the long wait for bags, and I thought back to the problems in London, wondering if all had gone well with the loading. After about 40 minutes our bags arrived, and we cleared Customs fast and headed out to meet the wife/mother. She happened to be standing next to one of her ‘friends’, a government minister, and we exchanged a few stories about our trip, before leaving him to wait for his family. It was very funny once we exited Norman Manley International Airport that my daughter’s eyes were struck by all  of Jamaica that she had missed: the views of mountains, the breezes off the sea, the goats in the road, the trash on the road side, men standing in the middle of the road begging, potholes. “It’s so nice to be back,” she said. Within minutes, we saw a car accident, with a small JPS car against a broken light pole. The irony of that struck us all. “Maybe, the driver was hurrying to cut off someone,” my wife quipped. She tried to figure out how the car had wrapped itself against the pole. We were back home.

We got home relatively quickly. My daughter was shocked to see her puppy, who had been shorn and sported his summer look, which was more rat than dog. What a life! She jumped indoors and he bounded after her. I laboured with the suitcases. What a life! The little girl and dog were getting back into touch with each other and I emptied suitcases and started telling a few short tales about the trip. I’d been sharing lots of pictures, so the sights were already familiar. My wife had to head off to a reception with the IMF’s MD, who had arrived earlier in the day. I asked to give my regards. Twenty hours of travel was taking its toll. I needed rest and I urged my child to do likewise: we were both in bed soon after 8pm local time (about 2am London time, so nearly 24 hours being awake). My wife told us that she had a breakfast date with the high and mighty, and that we had a drive to Port Antonio due up later today. Move it, move it!

I started to read the day’s paper and catch up with Wimbledon tennis on TV; that lasted about 15 minutes. Neither was that riveting. We had to get rested fast as we would be on the move again soon. Next stop, Rio, Brazil.

I have a week to learn some useful Portuguese phrases. Thankfully, the day just ending was a rest day in the World Cup; the knockout phase would start in earnest today. Brazil-Chile is on the docket. Serous things a gwaan.

No more need for French politesse. No more need for Cockney slang. Patois was back on the menu.

The World Cup and the three wise monkeys: the lustre of Brazil 2014 is fading

Football brings out all the passion in players and fans. Often, the level of passion is excessive.

C'mon, ref! Did you see that?
C’mon, ref! Did you see that?

Players conduct themselves violently, verbally and physically. They often get punished for that. Fans go out of control, and fight or verbally assault opposing fans; they, too, sometimes get punished. Not all the crimes are seen, so some of them go unpunished. Technology can help with identifying offences. It often is with regards to fans’ behaviour; it is less often used for players: the governing body, FIFA, prefers to let errors be a core feature of the sport. To my mind, that is a very ignorant stance. It is getting full exposure during this World Cup.

FIFA bent a little by allowing ‘goal line technology’, so that ghost goals would not be allowed, and good goals would be counted. It has not been needed that much, and on one occasion seemed to fail, but it was because the ball approached the line twice; the right decision (goal) was made, eventually. But, it moves with fear and hesitation to use video technology further. It had to, though, because of a horrible-looking incident during the match between Italy and Uruguay. Luis Suarez, Uruguayan, appeared to bite Gustavo Chiellini on the shoulder, then seem to feign that he had been hit. FIFA mounted an investigation. They found Suarez guilty yesterday, and banned him for 9 matches, fined him SwF100,000, and from any football-related activity for four months. For what it’s worth, I think that sentence was ludicrously light. Sure, it will hurt his club and country in many important games, if they wanted to use his services. But, he is a serial and repeat biter of other players on a football pitch. He needs psychological help, clearly, if he feels that biting is a reasonable reaction to either minor provocation or no provocation. Amazingly, his team mates and national association, think that he has been hard done by and will appeal the sentence. But, other pertinent opinion is not wholly against Suarez. Citing a Reuters report:

  • Uruguayan Football Association president Wilmar Valdez: “…to me it really seems like a completely exaggerated and abusive sanction.”
  • Uruguay captain Diego Lugano: “Indignation, impotence, I think that’s what we all feel. We’d all like a fairer world, but that world simply does not exist. Those who rule, rule, and the strong ones are the strong ones… Keep feeling proud of him, he deserves it. Nothing will stop us. We will carry on with humility, union, determination, recognition of mistakes, and with our heads always high.”

Dr Andrew Evans, a performance psychologist at Nottingham Trent University thinks differently: “This punishment won’t serve as much of a deterrent to Suarez in the future as it’s too similar to previously imposed sanctions. What is really needed now is a psychological program capable of promoting long-lasting behavior change.”

We are FIFA. We are FIFA...
We are FIFA. We are FIFA…

Brazilian forward Fred seems supportive of Suarez: “It was unfair because it could end a player’s life. Four months, nine games, everyone on top of you, criticizing his error. He has to be punished, yes, but I’d like to see Suarez still playing in this World Cup.” (Perhaps, he means seeing him on another pitch and far away from him?)

Sports equipment firm Adidas: “Adidas fully supports FIFA’s decision. Adidas certainly does not condone Luis Suarez’s recent behavior and we will again be reminding him of the high standards we expect from our players. We have no plan to use Suarez for any additional marketing activities during the 2014 FIFA World Cup.”

Andreas Campomar, author of “Golazo! A history of Latin American football”: “For many Latin Americans the ban will have wider repercussions. It will be construed as the usual high-handedness Europe employs in relation to Latin America. A case of one rule for them and one rule for us.”

We see reactions vary depending on relationships to the player concerned. Facts are not all the same, it appears. This, I know already. I also know that footballers do not see their own actions the same as those who watch them. But, let that confusion roll on.

Say "Please, nicely"
Say “Please, nicely”

A week or so ago, I took issue with a Jamaican organization that supports children, for their apparent willingness to put forward the good behaviour seen during the World Cup as examples for children to follow. I asked why they did that without reference to the very bad behaviour. They said they were stressing positives. I responded that it was as if the bad were invisible. Their CEO contacted me privately and told me that the messages were not clear and they would be withdrawn. I do not know how they would have survived a credibility test with the Suarez offences. Again, however, people seem to see what they want to see.

I don’t want to equate Suarez’s actions to those of a killer, but some the reactions are not far from those of The National Rifle Association, which is challenging proposed legislation that would prohibit stalkers and perpetrators of domestic violence from buying guns, arguing that not all stalkers are violent and that the bill violates their Second Amendment rights.

Some stuff happens out of sight to the viewing public. Take the action alleged by the Ghana FA, that Muntari punched a staff member, and Boateng insulted the national team coach; both players were sent home before the team’s final match. Muntari had punched Armah during a meeting over US$3 million of unpaid money as senior players rounded on team officials for not keeping promises. The Ghanaian players’ discontent over the lack of payment, which had been simmering for days, exploded on Tuesday when they refused to train–even threatening to boycott their match against Portugal on Thursday–until they were paid more than $3 million in appearance fees, to be divided among the 23 players (about US$130,000 each). The fragile situation even required an intervention by President John Dramani Mahama, who spoke to the players on Tuesday and assured them the cash would be loaded on a plane and arrive Wednesday afternoon. Ghana played on Thursday, losing 2-1 to Portugal, and a neutral observer could easily say that they looked nothing like value for money, even playing at a level so low it was hard to believe that they almost beat the mighty Germany a few days ago. As I wrote on Facebook: ‘Ghana showing that if any good set of players so desire, they can play with supreme ineptitude.’ If someone levelled another charge of match-fixing against Ghana, I would not be surprised.

Of course, technology is making FIFA and match officials into a laughing-stock. While, they covers their ears and eyes to the many offences that are committed in the name of ‘the beautiful game’, cameras catch most, if not all of them. Some are broadcast immediately, showing officials to be either incompetent, unobservant, capricious, uncaring, or any range of other negative characteristics. I loved the replay last night of a player being held back by his shorts, which just about stayed on: the referee saw nothing, admittedly, because the offending player manhandled his opponent to the referee’s blind side. But, the assistant should cover the other angle. I know the system does not work, but that’s the theory. Other images now get aired almost as quickly and with added flair. They can come as ‘GIFs’ or ‘memes’, repeating the offending action, with some added animation or commentary; take a look at a compilation here. Again, the officials can look foolish.

The Economist published a very good article a week or so ago, arguing that football is a great sport, but it could be so much better if it were run honestly. That dishonesty comes in many forms, some of which I have just touched. Self delusion, denial, lying, cheating, greed, slothfulness, and more can be seen at this World Cup. It’s really a crying shame.

The anger of my Ghanaian friends yesterday was palpable, as they carried the collective shame of ‘Paradise Lost’, seemingly for ’30 pieces of silver’. Contrast that to the image (staged?) of Muntari handing out money on the streets in Brazil a few days ago. I felt it too: I had pinned hopes on Ghana reaching the final and winning it all. They had been ousted in 2010 by a set of controversial circumstances, including a goal-saving handball in the final minute of normal time, by none other than…Luis Suarez! That had left a bitter taste. It still is there. It is more bitter because I saw a team of wonderfully talented players reduced to the level of mediocre 12 year olds. Energy sapped. Imagination gone. Ability to think nil. Ability to execute nil. How do you go from heroes to goats in only a few days? It can’t just be money.

But, the tournament will move on. Little can change in terms of how the games are administered. People are excited that referees can spray white foam on the field and players do not move from where they should be. Now, it’s obvious if cheating is going on. Yet, FIFA resists doing similar things to make games more transparent and officiating easier. They were dragged kicking and screaming to sanction water breaks, while players are wilting in extreme temperatures and humidity. But, the quality of football had been lost on them for a while. Why else give the tournament to Qatar? Why not send it to Greenland in December? Who cares that they are not FIFA/UEFA members?

I’m not going to rant about the way that a simple game can descend into chaos. You read about how referees have performed in each game, and have a laugh while thinking whether they have a hard job or make an easy job look hard. They are the camel on whose back the straws are laid.

The world at our feet...
The world at our feet…

The layers of straw are sitting in their luxury seats and loving the beautiful game and all its flaws. Play on!

Life is just one big circle

Every day is preparation for the future. I have a hard time always keeping things in their separate boxes because I often see how stuff flows out of one and into another. It can be quite amusing sometimes; other times, a little distressing. I’ve been on ‘holiday’ with my daughter for the best part of two weeks. Many people scoff when retired people mention ‘holiday’, as if only certain forms of activity: time away from home and travelling are pleasures we can all enjoy. I love getting to mix up the many ingredients that have gotten me to this point in life and know that more gets added all the time. So, I am rolling with the moments.

My daughter and I spent a nice day yesterday being tourists and then getting to dislike them. I took her to visit my former grammar school, in part, because it’s just five minutes from Buckingham Palace, which she really wanted to see. “Will the Queen be at home?” was her first question. We saw how my school had changed physically: much of the interior design is untouched, and I could feel myself back 40 years as I walked up and down stairs; but modernity is there in full with iMacs all over the place and a new underground gym.

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Old school, new look

The old gym is now an art room. The school was rare in that it had courts for playing Fives, a game like squash but played with bare hands. The playground is still the same and I explained to the caretaker taking us around how we used to play several games of football at the same time going both lengthwise and across. Skills were honed by not getting mixed up by other games, and not colliding with other people. We were nimble. But, I did not dwell on the past there, and we headed on to see the palace.

I used to walk past it many times a week, heading to St. James’s Park for lunch, to read, sometimes to kick a ball with friends. Rarely, did we spend time looking at the palace or thinking about the Queen. I always noted the throng of tourists. Now, I was one of them.

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Cooee! Queenie!

Their faces were pressed against the railings and they filled both sides of the Mall, as they waited for the guards to change. I explained to my daughter, who had a hard time getting a view. “How do they see with those furry hats over their eyes?” Good question. “Why are they riding down to the palace on those horses?” I explained about the changing of the guards. I was not taken with the spectacle, and I’d seen it many times before, but noted that Britain does pomp really well: centuries of practice.

We talked about how I spoke, and that my accent reflected where I had gone to school, in an area where most people did not speak like Cockneys, but ‘proper’. We also talked about the fact that we must have been carrying some Jamaican ‘vibes’ because people came up to us and spoke with Jamaican accents as we walked aloud: ‘Bless up!” the security man said as we walked past a building. Strange. Maybe, we had an aura.

We moved through the throng and walked through the park, taking in the geese and pigeons. It was a not-glorious summer’s day in England: skies were overcast, wind was blowing slightly, people were on the grass, deck chairs were laid out empty but ready.

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Deck chairs, ready for summer
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Trafalgar Square, filled with visitors, and Nelson sees all

My daughter sat in one for a few moments: I explained that she had to pay to use it. We headed on to Trafalgar Square, and more tourists, who were clambering onto the base of Nelson’s Column and mounting the lion statues. I urged my daughter to do the same. It’s a kind of rite of passage. I did it when younger, sometimes when not completely sober 🙂 She did, and then waited patiently while a group of girls took their pictures by a lion’s mouth, taking about as much time as it does to make a movie epic :-(. We did our photos in about 30 seconds, then decided to go to the National Gallery, just the other side of the square. The whole area was full of people sitting and walking and hearing explanations in many languages.

The area was also now a place for open theatre and we took in some of the performances. We then went for the quiet of the paintings. Lots of children were there on school trips; English schools have another three weeks, or so. Many were on the floor drawing or sketching. We decided to look a little, then just take a pause in front of a Canaletto. I’m no art buff, but I know relaxing when I see it.

Canaletto - Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day
Canaletto – Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day

My mind wandered to matters Italian. I immediately thought of the Italian footballer, Cannielini, who had the day before been the victim of an apparent dental attack during a match. Luis Suarez, the alleged gnasher had been doing some ‘damage control’ during the day trying to make light of his latest biting incident. I had been flabbergasted at the incident and seen the replays many times. It’s clear to me: he bit the Italian, then made it seem that he had been struck. Low down. FIFA were supposed to deliberate on the matter and it had become quickly the subject of much online banter. That’s the power of social media.

We were due to have lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, Prezzo, so my wandering mind was not on a random walk. I thought about sport and cheating. I had to condemn Suarez. I later read some articles trying to defend him: ridiculous, I thought, and said in comments. Friends I visited later put it clearly: barbaric, unhealthy, animalistic, childish, unthinkable. It was not the subject for good adjectives. But, what will FIFA do? That is what concerned me. I went back to thinking about caneloni and Canaletto.

We headed on to lunch, with aunts of my first daughter. My little daughter was again having to deal with new people, some of whom knew her, but she could not recall. Anyway, she sat happily and thumbed the book she had grabbed in the morning: Tuesdays with Morrie. It happened to be in our room where we are staying. A challenging book and I am intrigued what a 10-year-old will make of it. Anyway, it had become the love of her life during our morning Tube rides. We had a great lunch, full of reminiscences, and including some pictorial evidence that was amusing but not damaging.

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Posh pepperoni

I looked great with a beard and lots of black hair. My daughter giggled at the sight. We enjoyed the memories and we enjoyed the food.

We caught up on where the various cousins were, now grown up and able to decide for themselves what to do. Live in Paris. Work in Virginia. Stay at home. Get into relationships. Usual stuff. We talked about being retired. It came with many benefits, not least time to do what you wanted, like go into central London for a long lunch, or travel for a few weeks with one of your children. It also came with fringe benefits, such as free transport and discounts at restaurants. Satisfied and amused, we all left and headed on to our next venues.

We rode the Tube with the husband of one of the aunts, as we headed up the Northern Line to Highgate. We talked about his life after teaching. His wife, my former sister-in-law, was still working, near Trafalgar Square, hence the choice for lunch. She was getting into athletics, and had taken up field events such as hammer throwing, discus, javelin and shot putting. That was quite intriguing. She was not into masters competitions, but representing a club at regular meets; their son ran middle distance events. The husband had not ventured back into sport, leaving his rugby days behind. He had thought about writing, after being a school headmaster. I shared thoughts on that, and suggested he give it a go. It’s his ‘piece of paper’ to fill. We parted and then my daughter and I sauntered up Archway Road to find more friends.

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The Woodman, Highgate: always a nice spot
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A dog and his favourite chewy toys

We reached a little close and were greeted by a man holding back a yapping dog. That was unexpected. The dog was a relatively new arrival, from a shelter. He carried a squeaky rubber duck. Touching. He liked us, judging by his desire to lick our legs.

We headed straight to the TV. Another round of World Cup matches were due on at 5, and I wanted to get a little sight of tennis, first. Friends understand such things, and we’d set out the afternoon in that way. My friend gave us drinks and my daughter gave up on us, once she had been offered a computer on which to play. We talked and caught up on a few years’ absence. One of his sons had just come back from a long trip abroad. He had slept, but then woke to realise he ‘needed’ to go to meet someone. He said a quick hello and goodbye. My friend’s wife came home from school earlier than expected, just as her son was leaving, before the football was due to start. She greeted us, then headed off to do some other stuff. We settled in for the football.

The game between Argentina and Nigeria had plenty of action. The commentators were all over the greatness of Messi and comparing him to Maradona. My friend alluded to the tainted greatness of the latter. “I can’t forgive him for 1986,” he muttered. We were one on that, and then went on a tour of football incidents that seemed to define players. We ended up talking about Suarez and his repeated desire to bite people. We agreed that he needed help. Would he get it and accept it? He’d refused it in the past. Are all great players and performers really badly flawed? Time worn debates were ready to be restarted. But, we let our arguments flow just a little, and focused more on the clear brilliance of Lionel Messi, who seemed more normal than many.

We talked about social media–my friends said they were phobic about it, or at least not very comfortable with it. We talked about how it seems to distort behaviour in some people. We agreed that some are fooled into thinking they are talking to the world and it’s listening, but that somehow they can do that and seem to be invisible. We agreed that it was not universally good and not wholly bad; not all happy, and plenty sad. A lot like football. A lot like life.

Walking back down Memory Lane

I took my daughter on a little walking tour back through time, yesterday: it was essentially to let her see where I had grown up as a boy. I arrived in London from Jamaica in September 1961; it was cold and damp. My parents went to live in Shepherd’s Bush, and I went to St. Stephens’s Church of England School. I was a fan of QPR from early days, as they were 10 minutes walk from me. I played on Shepherd’s Bush Green, just 10 minutes away. I got to know most of the area in a short radius, especially the market. I was a frequent user of the library. My father and I used to go to the public baths and washhouse; our basement flat had no bath. I ate in several places, including Cooke’s pie and mash shop. All of that, and more, I showed my 10 year-old yesterday. But, I got some surprises along the way. I had arranged to have lunch with a man who, as a boy had been my best friend from age 6. He now lived outside London, but would make the trip down specially.

Much of London is made up of 19th century buildings; Shepherd’s Bush is just that way, with lots of structures dating from the late-1880s. Immigrants, like my family, were just one of the many waves of people going there to live and work. It became home for many West Indians in part because it was close to hospitals that were taking in migrants, and its having easy access to public transport. I used to live on the Tube and buses. Exiting a station was no special thing for me. But…

My first surprise was what had happened to Shepherd’s Bush Green. Of course, change happens. But, I was shocked to see all the development of shops and multistory buildings near the Central Line station, which I had visited just a few years ago. I took that in with a sigh. We walked on the green. I pointed out the disused public lavatories, with their large ornate gates.
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What does that mean? One shilling; six pence; three pence.

No use had yet been found for their underground spaces. Maybe, none ever would be. We walked to see an intriguing moving play space. Where had the tennis courts gone? We crossed to where the cinema used to be. It was now an Australian restaurant. I showed my child the etched marking on the walls. I explained that they showed the prices, back from the days before decimal money, when pounds, shillings and pence ruled.

They seemed like hieroglyphics.

We went on to the public library and I walked proudly up the front steps. What! A bar and taps faced me. I blinked. I asked the young server what had happened. “It’s a theatre, now,” she told me. The new home of the Bush Theatre.

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The Bush Theatre. The bar, where books used to be. Changes.

I took that in. I read that the change had happened in 2011; I was last there in 2010. We wandered around, and I showed my daughter pictures of the library that were part of the decor. A young lady was doing some research, using the wi-fi service, and she asked me a few questions. She had also gone to school nearby, and we talked about using another library a few miles away, in Hammersmith, when we were schoolchildren. She shared my amusement at the changes. Buildings grow out of their uses and create new homes. Better that, than they stay derelict. My mind went to Jamaica’s downtown, where dereliction was more the order of the day. Even the theatre had not found use in its original form. Where were the visionaries to take those buildings and make them useful again?

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School and church from childhood days. Five minutes’ walk to and from home.

We walked on, and I showed my daughter a pub, that was now partly a supermarket; again, new uses. We stopped in front of my old primary school.

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Down there in the basement was home. Nothing special, just very special.

I showed her the small playground, placed adjacent to the church. I told her a short story of a fight I had once. “You were a naughty boy?” Someone let us into the school, which was still running (till mid-July), and I explained my visit. I made the trip brief, but not before a young schoolgirl had let her jaw drop to the floor as I talked about being there 50 years ago. We moved on. We crossed the road, to the street where I used to live. The roads were always neat and clean, and that has not changed much; they were also wide by London standards.

I’d noticed years ago that the area was being gentrified, and that feature has just been getting more notice, as shown in a FT piece last week. Many houses go for cool million pounds, these days. I showed my daughter the basement flat where we used to live. “Why did you live in the basement?” I explained a little social history. The houses still looked solid and neat, with blinds and signs of European chic now dressing windows. I took her on a mazy walk through some nearby streets, stopping to admire a Victorian era post box, that looked as good as new. We arrived at Mecca.

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The Loft, where fanatical young men stood and cheered for a team on Saturdays

I showed her Loftus Road Stadium, home of Queens Park Rangers Football Club, freshly promoted to the English Premier League. I explained what ‘The Loft’ was, and how I used to trek to stand there and look forward to a hot cup of tea at half time and maybe a hamburger.

We walked around three sides of the stadium, nestled with the houses. We went to the reception and I explained my journey, with a few reminiscences. I mentioned names from the 1960s, some of whom still visit the club. I had not expected to be able to show my daughter the inside of the stadium when no games were on. The club is also running to meet the higher standards of the premier league. We walked back the club shop and I bought her a jersey, which she can wear forever. I explained that back then, hardly anyone wore team kit to watch a match: that was for the players. Scarves, hats, and rattles were all we needed. Homage duly paid, we moved on.

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Middle Eastern-feeling in west London

We walked along Uxbridge Road, part of London’s former Roman roadways. My daughter did not ask about the Romans. I noted how the ethnic flavour had changed even in the few years since I was last there.

Then, I noted how Somalis were evident. Now, many places had a Lebanese taste, and men sitting outside cafes drinking coffee were everywhere. I also heard Slavic tongues, often trying to tease a reaction from some passing young lady. I hissed “Boring” at one group and got a glare. I glared back. I traced aloud the changes: English, West Indian, African, Somalis, Lebanese…. “What about the f***ing Irish?” came a shrill question, as a half drunk man overheard me. And…the Irish, I added aloud. We came back past my school and church, and went on toward the market. I explained about Lime Grove, and where the BBC Studios used to be. My encounter with aliens, the day I played in a friend’s garden and saw Cybermen walking across the studio gangway. I must have been about 9-10 when that happened. Frightening! My daughter told me how much she loves Dr. Who. I did too. So, we reached the market. I asked her which way in she wanted to try. We opted to go via the hanging clothes. She’d already spied the fruit and vegetables stalls when we’d come by earlier.

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Never pretty. Always functional and friendly.

The market has always been a bustling mess. Now, it is more bazaar than bizarre. Clothes and shoes and knick-knacks all over the place.

We heard strains of Jamaican accents, tinged with a strong London trait. We exited to the main roadway. We saw a fish seller, arguing with a man from Portland about the small kingfish tail he wanted to buy. “Is weh you cum fram?” He asked. We argued about our ethnic roots. A non-conversation. Walking on, we saw that mobile phones and their accessories were the main offering apart from clothes and fruit. Everyone seems to be giving away free SIM cards with a little credit. I wondered if people just took those and made a few calls, then repeated the process. I thought about how useful that would be for criminals. The villain in me? I got a seller to let me have a screen protector. He cut it to size and ‘fitted’ it, while a lady bought a cheap smart phone (ten pounds) and got a free SIM. The guy tried to up sell and offered me a case. No deal. Then, to the end of the market and another Mecca, though of different order. Cooke’s.

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Cooke’s eatery

Pie and mash is a dish more found in East London, but I just happened to live close to two shops that happened to be in West London, and I got to love the meal from early childhood. One shop is by the market.

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Refurbished and filled with modern baths?

Like a fish and chips meal, this is one of my ‘must have’ things when I visit London. My older daughter got her initiation a few years ago; her sister was due for hers. She asked about eels, the traditional dish. I explained. “I don’t like snakes!” Me, neither. The server asked what she wanted. She went conservative and took pie and mash, gravy and liquor (sauce made from the boiling of eels and parsley) on the side. She nibbled the pie; she loves mashed potatoes. She dipped the pie in liquor then tried the gravy; success. She nibbled on. We were hungry. I went smoothly through my plateful. She licked her lips. “Not bad,” she declared. We sat for a while. We were an hour ahead of my lunch buddy. We decided to take a walk then come back.

She was fascinated by where the BBC used to be. I told her it was just where people worked and that they only seemed different because we lap up television material like it’s nectar. She giggled. She saw an art college and wanted to go in. The building has been there for a hundred years and its style is clearly old, with lots of tiled steps. She adored being inside. I had visions of her at an old English college. We went back to meet my old friend.

Nearly fifty years between meetings is an incredible amount of time. We hugged and smiled at each other. We were no longer 11 year olds. We ordered food and started to recall. My daughter was going for her second meal, too. Impressive, I thought. We talked and talked, about old times. My friend’s memory was amazing. Many people from our class were still living close by. I told of times when I had crossed their paths later in life; very odd. We recalled some of the girls–all were beautiful. He told of his first kiss. My daughter smiled. We remembered how he had been assigned to ‘look after me’. How I was a fast runner; he was a great footballer. Together, we did a lot of damage on the football pitch–a cinder area, back then, not kind on the legs. Our teacher was a stolid man, who picked his team based on functional suitability: fast boys on the wings; big, strong boys in goal and defence. Oh, Mr. Cook! He also loved to use that ruler on your hands. We learned well, though, and were both good with both feet, a rare skill. We talked of races run and won; how he’d cheered. I soaked up the image of my running at White City. New boys and girls coming from the West Indies: Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana. Our friendships seemed unreal. It was so easy to get along? He remembered my parents, well. I remembered his, living just two minutes away. His uncle was the projectionist at the cinema and would let him in for free; he, in turn, would let friends sneak in through the side door. He got caught; we escaped. Naughty boys! Now, married with children. Working lives different; he’d worked for the Post Office for over 35 years (ironically, he might crossed my father’s path again). Education different, after primary school; he went to a good secondary school, but not university. Sporting lives different: he played for Chelsea FC as a boy and did well but was not kept; we’d both played football into our 40s, though.

I told him he had to visit Jamaica. We walked back to the Underground station. He had to head north. His wife suffers from MS. He gave my daughter a little gift and told her to spend it wisely. She gave a lovely thank you and they hugged. We hugged again. We didn’t cry, just parted simply.

The day didn’t end there, because we went on to Covent Garden, and enjoyed its usual offering of entertainment and people watching. But, a special stroll along Memory Lane had come to an end. Fifty years from now, what?

In-flight entertainment: Why the best laid plans fall flat

Monday was a long travel day, and it had its moments. My daughter is a seasoned traveller, and rolls with the rides. She tried to keep up our spirits by telling some bad jokes, but mine are worse. We rolled around the platform laughing as we waited for our connecting train to Paris, in the afternoon. The announcer first told us that due to “climatic conditions” the train would be five minutes late. Then, due to “traffic management problems” it would be 10 minutes late. It came in 15 minutes late. We still got to Paris about on time. While waiting, we shared corny jokes. We cracked up (pay attention), when I told her a joke about a kernel who was afraid to go to war. We had our last moments of French speaking when I told her “maize we” (mais oui, for the francophones). She’s 10, she loved it. All went well, but the moments were priceless. Let’s start near the end, then get to the beginning.

My daughter and I saw the funniest sight ever as we sat on the plane waiting to depart from Paris Orly airport. Dozens of rabbits were in the fields by the runways.

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The picture may be fuzzy, but believe me, their running around and avoiding swooping crows was worth the wait for air control clearance.

Would you believe it? The last time I visited La Rochelle, on my last day, my friends and I were having such a good lunch with their neighbours, that we forgot that I had a train to catch. We then looked at the time, and horrified, jumped up, dashed back to their house a few doors away, jumped in the car, and dashed to the train station in no time flat. We all jumped out of the car and ran into the station. My train was still there and about to leave. I gave quick hugs and kisses, then I hopped into the first door and one of my friends put my bag in behind me. As the train pulled out of the station, we waved goodbye to each other, and I then found my seat and sat sweating and panting. I told my daughter this story before our current trip to La Rochelle. It was really a funny incident. It came up in conversation over the weekend with my hosts and we all had a good laugh. It was not going to happen again. We checked my train times before heading to bed: 12:52, I announced. One of my friends said he could not find that train on the schedule, but I rechecked and we all went to bed.

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Strolling calmly into a minor storm

On the day of departure, we all got up later than usual. My jet lag was over. The night had been split with a huge thunderstorm: the day had been very hot–at 10pm, the temperature had been 88F/30C, the same as in Jamaica where it was 3pm. Wow! My daughter had crawled into bed with me during the night, afraid of the thunder and lightning. I had gotten up in time to see and say goodbye to the daughter who is the firefighter. She was making porridge, again, as she had every day since I showed her how. Her parents then woke and, as usual, had coffee and toast and jam. My daughter eventually appeared around 9am. We all ate and slowly my daughter and I packed and then sat to chill out. My hosts decided to take lunch for their firefighter, so we would leave around midday to also get the travellers sandwiches from the boulangerie. Once, we left, we met a traffic hold up, so turned around and decided to head for another route, as time was going, we got the sandwiches and went straight to the station. We looked at the board. No 12:52 marked! I looked again at my itinerary.

The time was there. I looked at the ticket…9:30. Aaargh! the 12:52 was arrival time, which had been misaligned by the printer. We looked at the board and saw a 12:28 train to Paris, and it was in the station about to leave. Yes. We started running. This time, my friends, my daughter, our suitcases and their dog. We scooted down the stairs and up the next flight, and flung the child into the train, then the bags. I paused. I gave hugs and kisses and let out a huge laugh. “Unbelievable!” I said. The train pulled out.

Fortunately, we had a good amount of time on the original schedule. We arrived in Paris-Montparnasse, walked out of the station to the bus 100 metres away, and headed to Orly airport. We checked in by 6:15 for our 7:40 flight. We cooled out in a lounge. Our plane left on time and we were in London within an hour. Our time had been better spent because of my mistake–less hanging around the airport, for sure. My daughter and I shared a strange adventure. You can plan and you can plan and you can still fall flat on your face. A lesson I learned years ago.

 

French lessons: Jamaica to the world

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Centuries of history (not all good, not all bad) integrated into every day life

I’ve spent the past week in France, with a family I first met several years ago in Guinea, west Africa. It’s really been a great time, spent mostly lazing around, eating, watching World Cup football, exchanging thoughts, and taking some little tours. The trip was largely to get my daughter a little immersion in French life and language: she did very well, including leading the way for a day eating waffles and crèpes, finished off by a long bike ride through the old town centre.

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Open space, to enjoy and to preserve with care

She got the chance to see how French people spend their Sundays in the summer: lazing on the beach, sitting in the park, playing in the park and at little squares, walking and talking.

I am always looking around at how life is lived. In France, it is hard to avoid seeing how orderly life seems to be. France is laid out very carefully, and villages and towns tend to feel much the same because many elements are controlled at the national level. Each town may have its own flair but there is a certain conformity that exists. You take a trip and road signs guide you clearly to small towns or larger towns and cities. You arrive at a place and you get a sign for centre ville (town centre), and you can then find your bearings to parking, or commercial areas, or open space. I contrasted that with Jamaica, where you may get no signs at all for long distances and may miss the town centre for want of any signs.

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Boules, played leisurely, with a drink in hand

Our ride in from the semi-rural suburb to the town centre was eye-opening in terms of how a town can be laid out to make it easy to move around on foot or by vehicle or on a bike. There are paved pathways everywhere, and we could take several and meander our way into the town centre. We took a route that brought us through a park, where people were lazing on the grass, playing pick-up football, playing boules, walking dogs and children. It was all very clean and well-kept, even in a wild, rustic way because areas were left that way for ‘bio diversity’ (a sign told me); Contrast that with Jamaica. We let people create pathways by the sheer numbers who walk a route and wear out the grass so that a dirt trail is visible and becomes the route of choice. We tend not to have open space for lazing around and simple recreation. The space around Devon House and Hope Gardens, in Kingston, are rare exceptions. People tend to just hang around on a road or on a street corner.

Jamaicans do not seem to take great pride in keeping their spaces clean. I often see people sweeping streets early in the morning, but piles of garbage, especially with discarded plastic items, are part of the Jamaica scene. Even in so-called ‘upscale’ communities, we would not be surprised to see the small piles. Sometimes, they are worse and include items such as discarded household appliances.

Social order in France is different. It is not always clearly visible. French public sector workers, for example, love to exercise their rights to withdraw labour. So, French railway workers were on strike when we arrived. We had concerns about getting from Paris to our destination further south, but our train ran on time, as did many others that day. The ticket inspectors on the trains did nothing, however, to check that passengers had paid. So, I then felt aggrieved that I had bothered to order tickets online from Jamaica and print them off at the airport. My friend had to go to Paris one day during our visit, and he had the same experience, but he and most passengers travelled for free because they could not buy tickets at the stations. The railway workers are public servants. My friend complains that there are too many fonctionaires, and they are a public burden for all of their working lives and retirement. But, they are part of France’s broad state coverage.

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Farm life is part of modern life

I’ve not seen any major strike during the past year in Jamaica. I’ve read about and heard stories of public workers taking money from the bus company and running all manner of schemes to line their pockets. I’ve seen a few, scattered protests. (Just to complete the context, I’m headed to London today and read that British airways cabin staff will strike from tomorrow, so the private sector worker flexing her/his muscle may grab me in England.) I have suffered, however, by a public sector that does not seem to be very effective or efficient. Services in Jamaica suffer from decades of neglect and underinvestment.

We reap that now with uncertain water supplies, for example. That’s life critical; train travel is not. I see the mess that is public road repairs. Dig up; patch up; wash away; dig up again; patch up again. Only a hard-headed idiot would think this is anything but rank stupidity or the effect of a permanent piece of bandoolism taking money out of the public’s collective pocket.

Go to almost any French town and you will find municipal camping; it’s now less than it was. But, you could arrive almost anywhere, up to about 9pm at night, and find a camp site. True, you needed a tent to pitch, but you could bathe, and sleep easily for a small amount. That’s not a part of our life style. Period. We stop on the roadside and sleep in the car or van, if needed. Our country is small enough that we can complete most trips easily within a day. France is huge, by contrast.

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Old buildings are part of the real history of any place

France has a massive tourism market. It is based largely on French life and history, of which there is very much to see and share. Town that have survived for over a thousand years are common. Physical structures that have long history are part of the national treasure.

Jamaica has very little history, and for many, it reflects aspects that create discomfort because it reflects our past slavery. But, attractive buildings should not be discarded, in my view: we can tell the stories for our future generations to better understand. I’m one who would work hard to see restored our many old great houses or parts of sugar plantations or our mundane-looking railway stations. We would get a better-looking country in the bargain. French people tour their own country to sample its history; foreigners do the same. It helps to have land borders to ease the movement.

France shows the results of having national visions and putting the pieces in place to achieve them. France has nuclear energy as a major pillar of its power generation. Popular or not, it’s there: France, therefore, focuses on threats to its supplies or uranium. France has grasped the importance of energy conservation and environmental protection. You see many reminders of how to save energy. You see many places to dispose of items so that they can be recycled: elegant shells placed on corners to take glass, plastic, or paper recyclable material. In the home, people dispose of their rubbish with an eye to where it will go next. We have Riverton dump. We pile garbage up in racks or bins, all items mixed together, in shiny plastic bags. Our streets are littered with those bags, and styrofoam boxes, mainly because we just do not have enough places for trash and then do not clear them regularly. I have not seen one styrofoam box on a road, or a plastic bag flying around. The French use plastic bags; I went to the supermarket, and used them. Food to take away is served also in styrofoam boxes, sometimes. But, the French are better at disposing of their rubbish and clearing the places used for that. It was not always so; progress from lessons learned and provisions made to help change habits. Suffice to say, the French do not now have the same eyesores as Jamaicans.

I shouldn’t dwell on economic policy, but I will just glide over it. France is a large, open economy, within a common currency area, the European Union. It is not a new thing and took decades to reach where it is. One aspect of that is the existence of a common currency, the Euro, which is used in the whole area. It is a freely traded currency and is relatively stable in value. France is not under an IMF programme and can borrow freely from private financial markets, if it wishes. People in France or the wider EU area do not obsess about the level of the exchange rate. Jamaica is an economy that has suffered decades of mismanagement and has an exchange rate that is now reflecting that accumulated effect–it’s sliding constantly. It’s never a good idea to try to pick a bottom for an exchange rate, so more slide is likely than less. We depend heavily on foreign assistance, in part because we became dependent on foreign goods but could not produce enough to pay for them. French people wander the world with pockets and bank accounts full of Euros, using cash freely if they travel within the EU, or checks and credit cards within the area or further abroad. Money, in that sense, is no problem. I have about JD 1000 in my wallet because I know it’s of no value outside Jamaica and despite the high denominations of our money, it is worth very little.

But, both countries are full of silly people. Jamaicans love to stand up for indefensible idiocy in the name of following rules. France, too, has that condition, but with a nice accent. I went to the supermarket the other evening to get some French food items to carry to a friend in London. I went to the self-service cashier and started to scan my items. The laser beeped and the register showed my purchases. I got my total and popped out my credit card to use. The machine only accepted cards with a little chip in them–a security feature that has been in Europe for a few years, now. No go. The machine had a slot for swiping a card, though. I tried that. No go. A supervisor came over and looked at the card. No go. We asked about swiping. “I’m not allowed to do that,” she said. We all looked puzzled. We guessed she did not know how to make that work, or had missed the training session. She shrugged her shoulders and walked way. My friends and I rustled together some cash and I paid. I could have just bundled the items into our bags and walked out, there was no checker. We scratched our heads. Jamaica’s “that’s how we do it” would not be out-of-place.

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Food, never the same; always interesting; alwys a talking point

I’ve loved being in a totally different language and thinking space for a few days.

You get to think about your own cultural biases well when they are not around you, but seen from afar. By comparison to Jamaica, France is much more tolerant of different life styles; that need not be limited to sexual preferences (one of Jamaica’s current hobby horses). French people greet each other with kisses, as well as handshakes; everyone kisses on the cheek, despite gender or age. It’s the French way, and is seen in French-speaking countries over the world. French men kissing each other are not homosexuals; they’re French. French men kissing young girls are not pedophiles; they’re French. It’s not a big deal.

I discussed with my friends what their children (two in their 20s and one still a teenager) were doing. One had graduated as an engineer, but did not want to pursue that as a career; he was working at a KFC and trying to figure out what to do next; his girlfriend is a biology graduate and working in another field. Another, went to university for a year but was not liking it, so went into the fire service and is happily training in that field, focusing on first-aid and ancillary services: according to local rules, her fire station does not allow her to drive fire engines, so she’s on a path that avoids that. The youngest is studying law at university, working in a restaurant part-time. Like most young people, they enjoy their fun and going out, within limits. They are all close to their parents, the two youngest still living at home, happily. We talked about graffiti–a feature of French urban spaces. We talked not much about politics, except about the shared curse of corruption. We talked a lot about travel to Jamaica–they had planned to visit earlier this year, but things had not worked out. We talked a lot about our languages: my daughter understands French quite well, and was getting braver and speaking more. She went shopping and managed well in the store; she’s only 10, and has to deal with language difference and age differences. I helped my hosts through many minefields in English, which they may be able to remember when I’m gone but maybe not. We had fun learning the differences between English words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as bubble, bobble, babble and bauble; as well as the chestnuts, there, their, they’re. We had fun with “ice cream” and “I scream”. French has its prickly language patches, too: my daughter played with sens (smell), sans (without), cent (100), s’en (within).

We had a great time Sunday afternoon, watching some people play boules, a form of bowling, played outdoors on a gravelly dirt space. They were having a few drinks (beers, pastis, sodas with syrup) and smoking the obligatory cigarettes. They wanted to let us pass on our bikes, but we explained that we had come to watch. “It’s a major championship, you know,” one man slurred. A young lady came to ask my daughter if she  was American; my French disguised my origins well enough. We joked about her staying in France to go to school. We watched the throwing of metal balls and the ribald jockeying for about 15 minutes. It was a nice slice of life: simple, inclusive, happy. Jamaicans would be playing dominoes and having their glasses of rum or a beer. My daughter covered her nose as the smoke of cigarettes hit her. Jamaica has taken a step forward that France has not yet taken, with its ban on smoking in public spaces. We can learn much from France, but we have a few lessons to offer.

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Sunday afternoon strolling and exercising

I left my friends a jar of jerk seasoning; it’s been at the dining table every day as a dipping sauce; it’s very popular. I showed the fire fighter how to cook porridge: she normally ate her oats with cold milk.

Life’s not really that complicated, sometimes, if you are open to what others have to offer.

 

 

 

Summer time! Ghana 2 Germany 2 is more than a draw

I have my heart on Ghana getting to the World Cup final and winning it all: I changed my Twitter handle to ‘Ghanacanwinit’ at the start of the matches. The ghost of the quarter-final defeat by Uruguay in 2010 has to be exorcised; it was by the performance against Germany last night. The match finished tied, 2-2, but in the world of what if that is football commentary, Ghana will look back on chances wasted by bad decisions when they had the German defence outnumbered in open play with the score at 2-1 and 2-2. But, that is part of football’s beauty. Their goals were beautiful strikes that came from a brand of fast and fluid interchange I have seen often in recent years. Technique is not missing. Final application is often. Mostly, not this time. Germany hit first and then came back well. Take the draw: it’s a fact.

Immediately after the match, I contacted a friend in Accra to let me have something on how Ghana reacted. Within minutes, he sent me: “We go put pepper in your eyes … We gonna make you cry. that’s how bad we’ll beat you.” He told me he was going outside to see if he could get me some pictures of revelry; it was very late at night, so he came back with nothing but another quote: “Oh I can’t say anything bad about the boys!!! Andre Dede Ayew both breasts are yours!!!” – Honorable Hajia Amma Frimpong.

What the match meant to people of African descent was clear, especially, those who have Jamaican connections, whose Ghanaian connections are still clear–Maroons history, Accompong. Some comments were very strident–Africa was coming back at Europe, alluding to slave ancestors and more. My friend proudly and loudly hailed his Black Stars. My best man is Ghanaian and I have to hail him and his wife today, to celebrate. I read reports that the Brasileiros were cheering for Ghana. It’s not the first time Ghana has lit up the World Cup, but this time heads turned because of the opposition; Germany has top-notch footballing pedigree. Behind Brazil, they strike fear in most teams’ hearts. Ghana did not get the memo, of it they did, it made no sense. Run, dribble, pass, shoot, knock heads, knock feet, jump up, run harder, faster… Neuer in the German goal was the man under pressure. He could not save either goal. Ghana could have scored more. Fans were happy. Social media was on fire.

We all love the little inside stories. The Boateng brothers, one playing on each side.

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A cynic was quick to point out that the game got lively once brotherly love was done and both had been substituted.

Miroslav Klose came on and scored with his first touch of the ball, to equalise. He matched Ronaldo with 15 goals as all-time top scorer in World Cup finals; Ronaldo also scored his 15th against Ghana.

All this on the longest day of the year. Historical facts are set.

But, the story was about Ghana sustaining their beautiful game, honed on decades of youth development. The under 20 team has been in the World Cup for that level since its inception in 1970. Importantly, they won the cup in 2009. The senior team did not make the final rounds until 2006. Flattering to deceive no more.

The team has stars and some grace the game at the highest club levels in Europe, with Italy now a happy hunting ground, helped by the performances over the past decade. Many great players still play in the national league. But, cream rises to the top. (Ironically, one of Italy’s new starts, Balotelli, has Ghanaian parents.) The youth have been blended well, and now the discipline needed to succeed at the highest levels is showing up clearly.

Well, Jamaicans will appreciate another aspect of the Ghana story: music and dance. The teams that are surprising this time round are coming with choreography. Ghana has the music going in the stands, and now they showed the stseps on the field, after their goal. It is all wet Africa. Watch.

Ghana is also about hairstyles, and that starts at the top with the captain, Asamoah Gyan, proudly sporting his number on his head.

Ghana is about African diaspora. Jamaicans are very much part of that. Maybe our football federation will think of linking with the Ghanaians and see how they can help us with our football program. ‘Back to Africa’ movements or Marcus Garvey might not have had that as a prospect, but sometimes we miss the obvious.

The game is played in the head and on it. Ask Gyan
The game is played in the head and on it. Ask Gyan

But, the match is and was about goals, plain and simple. Enjoy them all again here.

 

Accepting change means overcoming fear: the beautiful game (Brazil 2014 edition) is a good teacher

I believe it is better to be hopeful rather than hopeless. My French host went for a job interview yesterday, in Paris; the train operators were still on strike. He travelled to Paris for free, because he was unable to buy a ticket. That’s a win-win, because the interview went well.

It’s good to correct mistakes early. I like to think that those who really want to change, look at what has happened and use the information to avoid a repetition. I am less hopeful about FIFA changing, but now and again I feel optimistic. A Jamaican paper reported: ‘FIFA said Friday it has withdrawn Colombian linesman Humberto Clavijo from World Cup match duties after he flagged in error for two offsides in Mexico’s 1-0 victory over Cameroon. Two goals by Mexico’s Giovani Dos Santos were ruled offside in Friday’s Group A game. FIFA did not give details of the incidents ruled errors.’ That is rare corrective action, in terms of speed and decisiveness. It would be nice if FIFA could bring itself to explain what went wrong, but I can imagine the men clutching their jackets and already feeling nausea over what they have done. Let them have some calm.

Small is beautiful in the beautiful game. Admitted, the world is mostly about small countries, but very small ones are kicking butt at this World Cup: Ecuador, Costa Rica, Belgium, Netherlands are riding higher than expected. The ‘superpowers’ have never dominated football, and we will see how the USA and Russia fare in coming matches.

Hairstyles seems to have gone wild. I have to laugh and the way that professional athletes try to get an edge. The shoes? The clothes? The supporters? They all count. But, the hair? It must matter. Why else all the bizarre designs? Read this lovely summary. Some look like they were done in the dark and with less than a steady hand. The French team alone seemed to have gone wilder than most in their match against the Swiss, who also had their share of ‘hair heads’.

People love to watch football. FIFA is ecstatic that during the first week all sorts of TV viewing records were smashed. Read their bumph. Great news for them now and going forward with the sale of future TV rights. The USA market may at last be on board. See that train roll. Most of my American friends are football (soccer) fans of long-standing. But, it’s the only place I know where during big international football events major celebrities seem to fall over themselves to gloat that they don’t get it, or find it boring, etc. I’m not going over the silly arguments with people who will spend hours watching baseball, which I love, too, but please put away the ‘boring’ card.

If FIFA could guarantee lots of goals. Most football fans will take matches without goals, but we all love to see the ball make the net bulge. We know that scoring is very difficult, so when it happens it is a big achievement; Hence, the mad reactions of scorers and supporters. Those dances are justified, though some need much more rehearsal: France, you have time to work on that as much as set piece plays; call the Colombians.

Time was that players focused on their golf and video games in their spare time. On the goals, rather than the celebrations, they are raining in. France and Swizerland served up seven yesterday. The average number per match is just under 2.9, on track to be the highest since the 3.8 in Sweden 1958. Why? Here’s a brief analysis. Robin van Persie’s ‘flying Dutchman’ is still the favourite and has spawned the craze of ‘Persieing’, based on his flying pose. But, Australian Tim Cahill’s volley was special, too. Those two nations served up a festival of good goals, so lap all of them up, here.

Let’s take sports health seriously. The inaction by officials during the match over the concussion of a Uruguayan player has so far been matched by the silence of FIFA on the incident. I wrote on this yesterday. If the player had died or suffered an obvious brain injury, FIFA officials could not find enough distance between themselves and lawyers and media baying for someone’s head. But, it need not get to that stage. Enough experience and expertise exists for FIFA to draw on. The notions that govern football are rooted in the 19th century. The world has moved far from that point. Use the progress. The world’s players’ union has called for an investigation of FIFA’s concussion protocol. Hydration issues are now well-known, but football matches did not take stoppages to ensure this happened. Instead, players use breaks in the action to get bottles thrown at them to suck on quickly; goalkeepers tend to keep some fluids in the goal for themselves, or share with players who come nearby. Americans have rolling substitutions for youth-through-college players, so leaving the game to get a drink is easier. Not so, the pros in most leagues. But, wait. Some have had enough. A court in Brazil has issued an injunction on FIFA for it to have mandatory water breaks during matches played in high temperatures. This is really forcing FIFA to enforce its own norms. They seem to just be dysfunctional as functionaries!The breaks are now mandatory when temperatures reach 32 degrees Celsius (89.6 Fahrenheit) in the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature index, which takes into account factors such as time of day, cloud cover, wind, humidity and location. Anyway, FIFA must pay 200,000 reals (about US$90,000) for each match in which the ruling isn’t enforced.

We are reaching the point in the matches when caution gets you nowhere. That’s good for excitement. The albatross that is FIFA will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept that many things about football must change. It nearly died before and its revival is better sustained with regular massaging. Is being in Zurich really the reason FIFA is so dull? Maybe, they should move the HQ to Rio.