The Plastic Hippo

May 13, 2011

Karen of the Rovers

Filed under: Sport,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 10:30 pm


At the conclusion of the football season, with Walsall only just surviving in League One and a few very wealthy clubs continuing to dominate the Premier League, perhaps the most significant victory of the season was for a pub landlady in Southsea.

Way back in 2005, Karen Murphy of the Red, White and Blue pub near to Fratton Park, home of Portsmouth FC, screened a live game between Wigan and Arsenal. Nothing unusual in that, but within days the full legal might of the Murdoch empire and the Premier League descended upon the back street boozer. Mrs Murphy had decided not to pay £7,200 a year to BSkyB and instead spent £800 on a decoder imported from Greece. Rupert was not amused.

There is much in the beautiful game that has become repellent. Racism on the terraces is still prevalent in spite of decades of anti-racist initiatives. The comments of Messrs Gray and Keys confirms an ingrained Neanderthal misogyny within the game and football fans have taken to sending a club manager letter bombs and a bullet and others have assaulted him on the touchline. You have to get your retaliation in first, as one old time manager observed. Imagine the crowd trouble if goal ace Jesus Christ transferred from Bayern Munich to FC Roma or, indeed, the other way round.

Violence and the threat of violence is not confined to “supporters” divided by minor theological differences in what is basically the same religious cult. Physical attacks by players on Sunday League refs and linespeople are on the increase and even some rather deranged dads and mums have been abusing match officials at games played by under 11`s. A passion for football is no excuse for a professional foul or even common assault.

Being competitive is integral to sport and a desire to win is part of human nature. But winning by any means devalues the very definition of competition. The actions of a shrill “soccer mom” in a local park are no different than the actions of Premier League club owners or the decisions of the men who rule over the game. The only difference is the size of the bank balance.

The extraordinary allegations made by my Lord Triesman against FIFA are worthy of a plot by Graham Greene. Shadowy south and central American potentates demanding knighthoods and vast amounts of cash in return for their favour would seem utterly preposterous if you believe that world sport is about playing the game rather than making money. Corruption, greed, money and anonymity make a formidable back four in world football’s defensive line-up.

Football seems to be awash with money, most of which is not generated by gate receipts. Television, merchandising and corporate sponsorship is the engine that drives success. BSkyB have paid an astonishing £1.6 billion for the rights to screen Premier League matches up to 2013 and they, as Karen Murphy is finding out, demand value for money. For owners of wealthy clubs, winning cups and titles is not about glory, but is a means to an end in getting their teams on television more nights per week than Coronation Street. To do so, big bucks have to be spent on “quality” players and the accompanying agents, lawyers, publicists, stylists, wives and street walkers. A global fan base does not come cheap.

The big four, or is it now five or six, have dominated the Premiership by having the resources and spending power to buy rather than play their way to the top. Backed by some rather unpleasant overseas adventurers bored by sub-prime banking and hedge funds, the power wielded by these clubs is ruining football, particularly in the lower leagues.

Walsall FC, having battled against the odds to avoid relegation, now face uncertainty over the hallowed turf at Bescot with money, once again, being the cause. The unfathomable financial dealings of the club may necessitate the sale of the freehold. The excellent Up The Saddlers blog gives the perspective of the die-hard, loyal supporters and reports on the proposal that Walsall Council should buy the freehold on behalf of the people of the borough. This seems a rather elegant idea that could safeguard the future of the club, restore some civic credibility and pride and make a bit of money. But true to form our council leader, now without an electoral mandate, said a firm and immediate “no”.

Upon reflection, the thought of council involvement with the Saddlers is probably a bad idea after all. Given the track record of closing things of value and the antics of those near to local power, the first home game of next season would be played on the car park against the bandit traffic wardens, hydroponics installed and the pitch dug up and replaced with a healthy crop of laughing lettuce.

It is unlikely that a Russian oligarch, an American venture capitalist, an oil sheik or a far eastern gangster is currently eyeing Walsall FC as the latest acquisition to an investment portfolio but hope may lie in the experience of Karen Murphy.

Having bought the decoder from the Greek broadcaster Nova to show Portsmouth away games that Sky were not screening, BSkyB took Mrs Murphy to court for breach of copyright in 2006. Sky lost the prosecution and Karen of the Rovers carried on showing the footy. But Sky came back for a replay and this time won. After being fined five grand, she appealed only to have the fine increased to eight grand. Murdoch must have thought that he had gotten his money after all.

However, he and the Premier League under estimated the tenacity of football’s most formidable central defender. She took her fight to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and had the convictions overturned. The implications of her victory is likely to shake the very foundations of televised football, the wallets of club owners and the reputation of the rapacious businessmen in charge of the Premier League. Her defence was simple but effective.

EU law provides for the free movement of people, goods and services, capital and labour across national borders within the EU. How delightful that legislation that brought star players to football stadia should also bring a decoder to a pub in Southsea. Lawyers will undoubtedly challenge the decision, but if upheld, the ruling could change football. BSkyB profits would nosedive, club broadcast revenues would fall and ridiculous transfer fees will be reduced to below the cost of building a new hospital. This can only be good for football, especially in the lower leagues.

On the eve of the FA Cup Final, a match once the high spot of the English season but now an irritation to the big clubs with more lucrative Champions League fixtures in Barce, Juve or Munich, big spenders Manchester City take on hard up Stoke. Whoever lifts the cup, we should all raise our glasses to Mrs Karen Murphy for the most important victory all season.

May 11, 2011

A vast expanse of grassland beginning with P

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 3:10 pm


Recently, in a lunchtime Walsall town centre pub, the hippo was asked by a fellow drinker for help with a crossword courtesy of The Sun. “15 across, a vast expanse of grassland, five letters beginning with P”.

Although the answer was plain, the hippo uncharacteristically shunned the opportunity to appear as a smart arse, feigned ignorance and went back to internally seething at the Guardian editorial. Undeterred, the puzzler sought further advice from another barely functioning alcoholic. After a moment of careful consideration, the shambling derelict delivered his judgement: “plateau”, he said.

“Spell it.”

“Plateau…P…L…A…T…O…plateau.”

The big, fat Greek grey beard would have smiled at this and although his political master-work, The Republic, is a bit thin on jokes, Plato was well liked on the stand-up circuit in Athens around 380 BC. Who can forget his hilarious Allegory of the Cave routine and the side-splitting Theory of Forms? However, the big man was not too keen on democracy, seeing it as the refuge of the idle and the drunk and the province of the demagogue. He might never have done a 20 minute spot at Chuckery Working Mens Club on a Saturday night, but he was bang on the money regarding democracy. Instead, he favoured the notion of the philosopher king; either a king that had learnt to be a philosopher or a philosopher being made king. He may have been a lovely little thinker, but he wasn’t short of ambition.

Sadly, philosopher kings are few and far between in Walsall or, indeed Westminster, and even rarer are philosophical king-makers. It would seem that Walsall Conservatives have decided to keep the loud Mike Bird as their leader and Walsall Labour have decided to keep the almost silent Tim Oliver. With a hung council and no overall control, it falls to Ian Shires, leader of five Liberal Democrat councillors having just lost some home ground in Willenhall North, to call the tune.

It is with delicious irony that the first past the post electoral system sees a party with a reduced vote and fewer councillors wielding more power that could have been dreamed of under AV or even PR. On a day when his glorious leader talks of “muscular liberalism” in government, councillor Shires will meet with his local party to decide the future of Walsall. The old joke about a Liberal opposition being able to hold meetings in the back of a taxi would be wholly inappropriate.

Unlike Nick Clegg, Ian Shires is at least attempting to display a modicum of candour and honesty. One of the very few local politicians that attempts to engage the electorate via the internet, his blog prior to the elections last week tended to be full of regurgitated fluff generated from central office and concentrated on bashing Labour. With the coalition in the commons attracting ridicule and derision in equal measure, councillor Shires now talks of the “dilemma” facing Walsall Liberal Democrats and asks for public opinion. One man, one vote, our future.

Bemoaning the autocratic nature of the leader and cabinet system of local government and justifiably asking for some clue as to Labour policy, our Willenhall Odysseus must decide whether to avoid the sea monsters Scylla or Charybdis, the rock or the hard place or the devil and the deep, blue sea. Witnessing Clegg`s moral capitulation when offered a sniff of power, could the councillor for Willenhall support a cabinet that rushed to dump Willenhall Leisure Centre and Sneyd school with such malicious haste? If he survives this Hobson`s Choice, it is worth remembering that the Liberal Democrat leader has to face his constituents in 12 months time.

With the departure of Democratic Labour’s only remaining councillor, the ghost of Labour’s troubled history in Walsall can finally be laid to rest and can no longer be evoked as an excuse for inaction. Pete Smith may have been a conscientious ward representative but he carried with him the baggage of division and acrimony that still haunts the council house. At times, he seemed like a one man opposition. It is time for the Labour group to do some joined up thinking and offer an alternative to the contemptuous slash and burn approach of Mike Bird and his cabinet chums.

So what price will councillor Shires demand for propping up a minority administration? A seat in cabinet, certainly and possibly the deputy leadership. But he should beware of the curse of Clegg. He has already suggested a review of the Tory budget for Walsall which, in harmony with national coalition butchery, targets the weakest in society. He may also wish to consider the exorbitant costs of outsourced PFI contracts to the likes of Tarmac, Amey, Serco and others. Securing profit for distant shareholders is no excuse for woeful local services that the previous executive was incapable of delivering.

Councillor Shires has also hinted at a “rainbow” coalition of all three parties. Yeah, right, but with no overall control proving that AV was a miserable little compromise for the Liberal Democrats, how long will it be before someone digs up the corpse of the elected mayor proposal, so carefully buried by the previous bunch of pea-brains.

As the savagery of national and local government cuts begin to bite, the last thing Walsall needs is a coalition of the purely self-interested or a non-philosopher king and by the onset of winter, we will be lucky if we escape serious civil unrest. If you wish to see into the future, consider the reaction of Maria Miller, now being described as the Minister Against Disabled People, to a protest by fellow human beings being targeted by her government. To compare people with profound disadvantage to alcoholics and drug addicts is utterly, utterly shameful.

So which way will Ian jump? We will find out in the fullness of time and he will find out if he made the right decision next May. Back at the crossword, the bar room philosopher seemed to have the puzzle cracked.

“So if 15 across is Plato, 12 down ends with D…A. Dutch cheese, five letters. Easy, Cheda.

22 across, Greek philosopher, five letters, ending in O. That’ll be Harpo, Harpo Marx.”

May 9, 2011

Hung, drawn and quartered

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 12:07 am


The term No Overall Control conjures up images of chaos, uncertainty and danger. Without a tiller-man lashed to the helm, the fate of the good ship Walsall would seem to be destined to crash onto the rocks beyond the reach of even Grace Darling. But following the local elections, and this being Walsall, no overall control has to be seen as an improvement.

Captain Ahab Bird might continue to strut around the poop deck looking through the wrong end of a telescope obsessively hunting for the great white elephant gigaport and will undoubtedly crack the whip against the backs of the galley slaves below decks. But his cut throat crew are already grumbling into their grog and discussing the relative advantages of keel hauling as opposed to walking the plank. First Mate Andrew and even cabin boys Mike and Marco have one hand on the cutlass and it looks like Pugwash may have plundered his last.

The Conservatives in Walsall lost five wards to Labour who took council seats in Bloxwich East and West, Palfrey, Pleck and St Matthews. Old hands like Able Seamen Beely, Pitt, Yasin and Ahmed will now be able to spend more time with their families on extended shore leave. The would-be Corsair of St Matthews and husband of ship-jumper Barbara, Gerry McCracken, will not be swinging in the rigging or dancing on the planking. Elsewhere, with the turn-out up on when these seats were last contested, Conservatives held on with reduced majorities. Even in the unassailable Pheasey Park Farm, Pugwash saw his own majority slashed by nearly 500. The crimson tide seems to be moving east.

Labour took a further three seats from the minnows in Blakenall, Willenhall North and Darlaston South and must have breathed a huge sigh of relief at finishing three short of an overall majority. Without any actual policies and an election campaign strategy worthy of Somali pirates, the Labour leadership must have looked at each other quizzically and asked “who?” as the names of their new councillors were announced. Imagine what could have been achieved if Walsall Labour had put a bit more shoulder to the wheel?

Apart from Short Heath, again with a reduced majority, the Liberal Democrat vote all but disappeared. This comes as no surprise as Nick Clegg has allowed himself to become the target of anger that should be directed at the Tories. Cameron’s game plan is the work of genius. The Libdems cannot now ignore the dead albatross hanging around their gullible necks and it cannot be long before Clegg sleeps with the fish.

Ironically, the referendum on introducing AV was soundly rejected by the electorate on the day that the Liberal Democrats were washed overboard in local elections. This was Clegg`s “miserable compromise” having caved in on tuition fees, EMA, the NHS and just about everything else. Unlike Jim Hawkins, the apple barrel or the Admiral Benbow Inn will not provide sanctuary when Captain Caroline Flint comes looking for her local government treasure.

In Walsall, with AV now off the sonar for a generation, further irony is to be enjoyed as the man leading just five councillors will be in charge of singing the sea shanty. Ian Shires, leader of the local Liberal Democrats, with a reduced vote will have to decide who gets to wear the big, funny hat in a hung, drawn and quartered council, Pugwash or Long Tim Silver. It is he who will deliver the black spot.

Which ever way he swings, he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And they call this democracy.

May 5, 2011

On the road

Filed under: Politics,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 1:30 am


On this election day, Thursday 5 May 2011, regular readers of this humble blog might have gained the impression that the author regards the majority of politicians, be they local, national or global, as being something less than paragons of virtue.

Being incapable of constructing a coherent political argument of his own and finding the antics of the main and fringe political parties repulsive, the hippo has been content to bray from the sidelines, hurling bile and invective into the ether much to the chagrin of those unfortunate to come into contact with these loathsome rants. But, so calamitous is the state of our nation, borough and future, the hippo decided to take to the streets.

Even given the churlish proclivities of political organisations, there are still some MPs and councillors, both incumbent and aspiring, who are good people and take the responsibility of elected representation seriously. Others, and this is true of all parties, would rather try to climb the greasy pole of power and embrace publicity rather than accountability. In the week leading up to today’s election, the nasty water horse dragged his lazy carcass out of Hatherton Lake and delivered election leaflets door-to-door for some of the good people.

The political affiliations of these candidates is immaterial and the party being peddled is of no significance. Actually doing something other than simply voting was and is, the motivation and as far as the local election is concerned, something better change. The rich boys in Westminster can fight it out amongst themselves.

Thus, loaded down with leaflets, a billy can of tea and sackfuls of apprehension, the latest political foot soldier set off for unfamiliar parts of Walsall armed only with rehearsed responses to possible aggression and an honest opinion on local issues. Hardly one of the epic road trips undertaken by Jack Kerouac but, as it turned out, just as informative.

With the sun shining, previously unseen corners of this town could only be enjoyed on foot. Over several days, delightful green spaces, beautifully kept gardens and immaculate houses large and small offered an insight into the very nature of this town. The sense of community was palpable. Driving through those areas, or even passing on the bus will never be the same again.

There is, though, a downside to being a delivery boy. Letterboxes, toilets, gravel and dogs. The industrial strength, double-brush letterbox draught excluder is the work of the devil. Designed to keep birds out of jet engines and jet engines inside wind tunnels, these devices serve to crumple and shred anything inserted before it hits the mat. Some of these finger choppers had accompanying stickers requesting that all mail should be fully inserted in the interests of crime prevention. Fair point, but when affixed to a full glass panel front door displaying a weeks worth pile of free papers, pizza leaflets, kebab shop offers and the final demand for council tax payments that can be seen from space, the sticker seems, at best, superfluous. Some residents wish to measure the efficiency of delivery by placing large tubs of cacti directly in front of their letterboxes. Some had no letterboxes at all.

By noon on the first day, the tea from the billy can necessitated a visit to the little hippos room. The paucity of public urinals in Walsall came as something of a shock. Once you realise that you are just feet away from someone’s downstairs loo, the image of a dripping tap is difficult to shift and the only course of action was to visit a local hostelry for relief. Upon reflection, ordering a pint of best bitter was probably not a good idea.

Back on the beat, long gravel drives became the object of loathing. Razor sharp shards of Wales cut into already tender feet and although they may look pretty from an incoming BMW, gravel drives test the training shoe makers art.

But, by far and away the most frightening aspect of being a political postman is man’s best friend. Having to spend 45 seconds shredding a leaflet into an industrial strength, double-brush letterbox draught excluder gives enough notice to attack Pekingese and Rottweilers to inform them that finger is on the lunch menu. Some households displayed “beware of the dog” notices and they tended to be peaceful and had nice letterboxes. Others issued no warnings and the worst was the silent approach of something so huge that it seemed that Cerberus was about to burst out of Hades. Mercifully, this monster had only one head and the door frame just about held out. If only the beat poet had been there. Quick Jack Kerouac, give the dog a bone, this old hippo is rolling home.

These self-induced hardships are, however, nothing compared to the humanity of the people encountered. From double garaged twin gated mansions to tiny ex-council housing stock with a sad looking horse tethered in the front garden and the shell of a rusting Ford Mondeo on bricks, the good folks of Walsall acknowledged a sweaty, foot-sore hippo with a smile, humour and great courtesy. There was not a trace of the feared aggression or even a hint of suspicion. The people of Walsall are wonderful and they deserve a local administration that will serve them and defend them against the national attack dogs and the impending madness.

Knackered, the hippo submerges back into the water, uplifted by the experience. But next time, candidates, would it be easier to send the electorate an e-mail of a text?

May 3, 2011

Ten years after

Filed under: History,World — theplastichippo @ 9:35 am


Osama bin Laden was and remains the sort of person most rational people would not want to share the planet with. One can only hope that he now realises the error of his ways when he discovers that heaven has run out of virgins.

Driven by a warped interpretation and corruption of one of the world’s greatest religions, the privileged son of a millionaire justified the slaughter of innocents by evoking God. God, however, is not available for comment but is, according to the world’s great religions, more than capable of passing judgement. Justice, though, seems to be a completely different faith system.

Waking up to a world without bin Laden, western politicians past and present were falling over themselves to get in front of a camera and talk about justice being done. Like Munchkins singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”, they danced along a yellow brick road of self-congratulation at the violent deaths of other human beings. Sadly, these expressions of righteous vengeance might not signal an end to evil times, but may herald a new dark age. This is not a case of all’s well that ends well.

The death of public enemy number one came exactly 66 years after Adolph Hitler bit down on the cyanide capsule and discharged his own Walther PPK into his skull, thereby escaping justice. Justice came to Osama bin Laden in the form of Black Hawk helicopters landing on the roof of his “mansion” in a posh part of up-state Islamabad in the dead of night. In this disturbing world, justice is not administered by due legal process, but by stun grenades and shooting off someone’s face using an automatic weapon. Just 24 hours earlier, an air strike on a residential area in Tripoli “took out” Gaddafi`s youngest son along with three of his grandchildren all reportedly under the age of 12. When your assets include F-16`s and cruise missiles, a judge and jury become superfluous.

Frustrated at long, drawn-out and expensive trials of war criminals who suddenly develop a serious illness when it is time to face the music, democratic western governments have taken to reading rejected Terminator scripts where capture and conviction do not even make it to the sub-plot. Even losing a helicopter in Abbotabad is cheaper than all those lawyers and the spontaneous outpourings of joy at ground zero and at the gates of the White House may have provided some sort of closure. But singing “God Bless America” at the news of further death and destruction may signal the start of the next phase of the war on terror.

The operation to eliminate Osama bin Laden raises questions that will probably never be answered. The role of Pakistan and his proximity to that nations military elite and the nature of the raid itself could result in further trouble. President Obama may have secured his re-election and the western alliance may have found a desperately needed exit strategy from Afghanistan, but Al-Qaeda will not now simply evaporate and the war between Islamist extremists and the oil hungry west is far from over. A dead “martyr” is a more effective recruiting sergeant than a live recluse.

The wanted dead or alive policy might provoke the tub-thumping patriotism of a royal wedding, but by shooting on sight, the west has handed the terrorists their final, if posthumous, victory. Descending into eye for an eye vengeance rather than the rule of law is a suicide bomb waiting to go off and can only result in further barbarism.

Civilisation lies rotting, wrapped in a sheet at the bottom of the Arabian Sea and in three small graves somewhere in Tripoli.

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