Israel, you rascals

In recent years most of humanity has become proudly more tolerant of groups who once seemed to be on the margins of society. But until now it’s still been seen as acceptable to be offensive about one minority, which is the child murdering community.

At last it seems the mood is changing, and finally we’re beginning to hear the child murderers’ point of view.

For example one brave soul, prepared to speak out, is spokesman Uri Drome, who explained on Radio 4 yesterday that although the Israeli government bombed a school that several children died in, the deaths are clearly the fault of the people who live in the areas being bombed.

What a refreshing change from that tired old thinking that always blames murder on the murderer.

Mister Drome, once a spokesman for the Israeli government said the Israelis were “lured into a trap, now Hamas sheds crocodile tears about the dead.”

If only more of us understood bombed schools in this way. We always rush to judge some poor kid in an American town who mows down his classmates, without even pausing to consider the dead kids probably tricked him into it, and now to make it worse their parents are all pretending to cry.

Even more imaginative was Michael Oren, ex-Israeli ambassador In Washington, on Channel 4 News. He explained that Hamas was to blame for all this death, because “They are booby-trapping toasters and fridges in their houses.”

It goes to show you should never make up your mind too quickly. Many of us see pictures of buildings reduced to rubble with a bomb sticking out, and hastily conclude the bomb had something to do with the explosion. But look carefully and it becomes obvious the cause was the silly sods have blown themselves up with an exploding toaster.

I bet if we went back to Hiroshima and checked what happened more thoroughly, we’d discover the blast was nothing to do with an atom bomb, and was caused by a booby-trapped kettle.

I hope consumer programmes in Gaza cover this issue, to warn people of the dangers. The Gaza edition of Watchdog this week should start “We’ve received several complaints from those of you who bought one of these toasters from Hamas, and were surprised when it caused your entire street to explode.”

Benjamin Netanyahu spoke out for child murderers’ civil rights by informing us the Palestinians deliberately arrange the “telegenically dead” to be filmed, to attract sympathy. So it seems Hamas stroll round bomb sites, placing the prettiest corpses on view for film crews, otherwise we’d all think ‘it doesn’t matter that the Israelis killed that kid, he was an ugly little bastard anyway’.

Other spokesman have repeated this line, and maybe soon they’ll take it to the next stage, claiming the Palestinians we see howling with anguish about their dead children have been trained at a special Hamas acting school. Directors yell ‘One more rehearsal everyone, now as soon as we’ve blown up our toaster we want all the cast kneeling and sobbing, give it everything loves, everything, then we’ll go for a take’.

As the bombing continues I expect we’ll hear more reasons why the Palestinians are to blame for being bombed. An Israeli minister will say “These people in Gaza are always complaining that they live in a densely populated area, so we’re trying to help them out by reducing the population as much as we can to give them more space. But they’re STILL not happy. Some people are never satisfied.”

The Israelis insist they give warnings before bombing somewhere, and in general we all forgive someone bombing a school as long as they let you know they’re doing it five minutes in advance. Given how crowded the area is, and the scale of the bombing, any warning might seem fairly useless unless it gives you instructions on how to fly or escape into another dimension like Doctor Who, but at least the intention is there.

Now they’re calling up another 16,000 reservists, but if they don’t think they’re managing to do enough damage already, a better strategy might be to scrap their F16 bombers that clearly aren’t up to the job, and replace them with some booby-trapped toasters as apparently they’re far more effective.

In less enlightened times, those responsible for such murder would be snarled at in the street and their pictures displayed on newspapers under inflammatory headlines. But thankfully we’re growing more liberal, and can only regret that more thought wasn’t given to treating murderers kindly in the past.

Poor Fred West, for example, instead of barely being given a chance to make his case, could have sat in TV studios saying “Of course I regret the deaths of civilians. But you have to understand these people I murdered could be a bloody nuisance. I was lured into killing them, and I’m not even sure I did kill them until I’ve carried out my own investigation. Some of them kill themselves to get sympathy by booby-trapping their ironing boards you know.”

As times change, maybe Netanyahu and his spokesmen will become even more forthright, and organise ‘Child Murderer Pride’ in which child murderers can get together for a procession and carnival, where they can at last feel safe, and no longer feel looked down on, for carrying out their basic human right to bomb a school to bits.

BANBURY

 

Here’s a town that’s an idyllic cocktail, of stunning Cotswold soothing stoniness, and yet reviled by much of Oxfordshire as its ‘chav’ town. It fuses its two images with attention to detail embodied by its shopping centre –

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It even has a canal, with a lock and everything, that goes through the middle of the pedestrianised shopping centre.

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Travelling at one mile an hour on a pretty green canal boat past WH Smiths in Banbury is such a splendidly pointless activity that everyone should be made to it once, like a pilgrimage.

But it’s also famous for its role in a nursery rhyme, on account of Banbury Cross not quite rhyming with riding a white horse.

But Banbury is much more than this, which is why it doesn’t make a scene about its place in the rhyme. Apart from this statue in the middle of the town

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And tiny references to it in the museum, such as here

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And here

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They hardly mention it.

But Banbury has much more to offer than this. For example there’s the beautiful scent, mentioned recently on the BBC news website –

“A bad smell in Banbury will be discussed at a public meeting this week after residents kicked up a stink. Pam Driscoll, who lives nearby, described it like a ‘tomcat had sprayed’ saying: ‘It really reeks. It makes your throat sore; it makes your eyes water’.

Not everyone agrees, and on a forum called ‘Trucknet’ for lorry drivers, one of them wrote “My favourite smells on the road are the Weetabix factory on the A14, and a smell from Banbury that I’m not sure what it is.”

But Banbury has a rebellious tradition, in the heart of sixteenth century rebellion, when small farmers and tradesmen rejected the religion that justified a natural hierarchy, for a Puritan one that insisted we are all equal before GOD.

Out of context this can sometimes appear to be slightly mental, such as when Banbury’s Puritan preacher was in full preaching flow as a fire began to destroy the town, and proclaimed “The fire rides in triumph due to God’s displeasure for our sinners.”

In his defence, by sinners he meant the nobility rather than gays, as suggested by a certain UKIP councillor, though while he may be excused from homophobia it would be hard to back him up on grounds of rational thought.

Banbury was so gripped by Puritanism a poem of the time went “To Banbury came I, O prophane one, where I saw a Puritan hanging a cat on a Monday, for killing a mouse on a Sunday.”

However smug the Puritans were, and if they had a flaw it is that they could be a little Puritan at times, there’s no doubting their selfless commitment. Oliver Cromwell once boasted (I think at the battle of Cropredy Bridge, just next to Banbury, though I’m not sure)  “Our army has the virtues of prayer, godliness, integrity, solemnity and honesty, whereas the King’s army can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

Surely at least a few Puritan soldiers must have heard that speech and gone “Really? Do you mind all that much if I swap sides, just for a weekend.”

Something must remain of these fiery times. There’s the Cromwell pub, a huge stone hostelry in the centre of town, though remembering him with a pub suggests maybe they haven’t grasped all the Puritan’s policies. And the football team is known as the Puritans. Presumably when they’re in a huddle at the start of the game the captain reminds them “Remember, our side has the virtues of prayer and godliness, whereas Aylsebury Rovers can offer only vice, drinking and wenching.”

But not in Banbury, which is now relegated in the league of politically important towns behind Chipping Norton, home to such nationally important statespeople as David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and Jeremy Clarkson.

But the Cotswolds is never one-dimensional, so author Dominic Sandbrook, who lives in Chipping Norton, wrote in reply to someone who suggested it was power-hungry, amoral and louche,

“You want louche? Try Stow-on-the-Wold. Amoral? Then go to Bourton-on-the-Water. Power-hungry? You don’t know power-hungry until you’ve been to Moreton-on-the-Marsh.”

DIDCOT

At first glance Didcot isn’t easy to love.

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In a way it’s Oxfordshire’s grubby neighbour, and you can imagine Abingdon pops round at the weekend to say “Would you mind popping down to Berkshire for the night, only we’ve some very important guests coming round and they’d rather not hear your racket.”

But one of the most lovable sides of Didcot is that so many people love it. Local historians wrote a book called “A History of the Railway in Didcot”, and while it’s marvellous that anyone should write a book with that title, even better is that the opening line reads “This book is in no way a history of the railway in Didcot.”

Even that was trumped, when I mentioned in the show that I’d come across a book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.”

I asked if it was possible that anyone had ever read that, presumably thinking ‘I prefer the obscure years of Didcot. 1841-1867 Didcot is a bit too pacy for me’. And someone called out that they were reading it at the moment, and even said “Is that the one by BF Lingham”, which it is, unless there are two book called “The Long Years of Obscurity. A History of Didcot, Volume One – to 1841.” And the two authors are no doubt bitter rivals, like the two groups that still go under the name of Bucks Fizz.

Didcot is fascinating because it was created by the railway, as a site for a junction between the line to the west of England and one heading to the Midlands. Hundreds of labourers arrived in the 1840s to build the junction, and this didn’t endear the place to travellers.

A chap called JE Vincent, in ‘The Highways and Byways of Berkshire’, wrote “Except for some mining villages in South Wales, there is nowhere as bare and depressing as Didcot. Its scenery is as dreary and monotonous as anywhere, and it is unlikely to become a popular resort, as it is so ugly.”

All these years later it’s reputation hasn’t improved. One of the messages I was sent on twitter read “You can always tell on a train to Oxford who’s from Didcot, from their morose demeanour.”

It also turns out there was once a character in Eastenders who ‘confessed’ to being from Didcot. That isn’t flattering, to be considered a subject of trauma in Eastenders, presumably with dialogue that went “We’ve gotta talk.”

“What is it doll?”

“Look, this ain’t gonna be easy, but I’ll come aht wiv it, I’m from Didcot.”

“Oh no, that explains your morose demeanour you slag.”

But Didcot isn’t morose. Despite it appearing to be a cluster of houses nestled beneath the cooling towers of a power station, as it’s been built as the set for a remake of The Hills Have Eyes, it seems to be one of the cheeriest towns in the country. Comics love playing there, and the local pride embodied in the books about the place was matched once by someone calling out to me “I can’t believe you haven’t mentioned this was where someone first marketed watercress.”

So I’d vote for Didcot to be made capital of Oxfordshire, maybe by royal decree, though from the other messages I was sent on twitter, maybe not everyone would agree.

Dylan Mitchell wrote “It wasn’t originally meant to have a train station, but the snobby twats in Abingdon didn’t want one.”

Alphonso Mango added “When I lived in Abingdon 30 years ago, Didcot was rumoured to have the highest per capita STD infection in UK.”

Noposhsports said “The locals think the power station is actually a dragon.”

Then the comic Paul Sinha informed me “I have frequently taken my boyfriend up the Didcot Parkway,” before a local person, Alan Flanagan, completed the comment with a perfect Didcot outlook, asking “Did you Park and Ride?”

Bless Didcot, I say.

IVYBRIDGE

Ivybridge is as aptly named a place as you’re likely to find in South Devon.

Because its main bridge is covered in ivy. This displays an almost Germanic level of linguistic efficiency, as if Birmingham was called Unfathomableunderpasses or Grantham was named Dragonbirth.

 

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But Ivybridge has other charms. As well as streams and hills that smell of wet grass even when it’s not rained for a year, it has a slightly industrial corner, with a couple of pubs that seem like on certain nights they can be heard in Plymouth. And it has a boast, which several people mentioned and is also on its website. It goes “Ivybridge was recently the fastest growing town in Europe.

I considered this claim as I was walking down its High Street, and took this photo, to confirm it is indeed a place that’s hurtling towards the size and bustling chaos of Tokyo.

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Even when you go out of the centre of town, as much as a whole mile away from the High Street, there are still the sprawling shanty towns you find in any rapidly growing city, and the residents of this ghetto permitted me to take this picture there.

 

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As you would expect, Ivybridge’s stunning growth has become a magnet for youth, and some days there are as many as five young people seen in the city centre, with their youthful catchphrase ‘we got on the wrong bus, we meant to go to Plymouth’.

Inevitably this has led to an increase in crime, which is why the police station has a charming notice on the door that says “There is no reception at this police station. Access is by appointment only.”

This is a much more efficient method of policing than the normal one, as you can book an appointment for when you think you’re going to be burgled, saving time all round.

 

Amongst its other boasts are that “Ivybridge has ‘Walkers are Welcome’ status”, which is such an improvement on the old system in which they’d shoot the bastards with an arrow.

The ‘Community of Ivybridge’ project informs us “Ivybridge now has apopulation of 15,000, brought about by this rapid growth and change in population. The town council held an open day, unfortunately only one person turned up and they were not from our town.

But despite all this, I shall always remember Ivybridge because I was there on the night Crystal Palace were playing Liverpool. It was the first home game I’d missing for seven months, and didn’t seem to matter all that much, as Palace were safe from relegation. It did matter to Liverpool though, as they need to win to still have a good chance of winning the Premier League.

Palace were at the end of an unimaginably glorious season, predicted by everyone to come bottom but finishing in eleventh place, and every home game was played through a volcanic roar, borne of a combination of jubilation and disbelief.

During the interval I put my radio on, to hear Palace were 3-0 down, and the commentators were suggesting Liverpool should try and score six or seven. I turned it off so I could concentrate on writing bits for the second half. But when I turned it back on it was 3-1, then it became 3-2.

A lad from the theatre popped in to say we were ready for the second half, so I waited at the side of the stage, radio pressed against my ear, and as I was about to go on I heard a shrieking voice squeal ‘And it’s 3-3’.

I walked on, and could only splutter ‘Palace have come back from 3-0 down to Liverpool’, and to my delight a good section of the audience gasped. I said “I can pretend to concentrate on the show but we all know we’d all be living a lie”, so I fetched the radio and placed it next to the microphone, just in time for the full time whistle to go, completing what is now hailed as one of the greatest ever nights at Selhurst Park.

So I will be forever grateful to Ivybridge, for being not only a delightful town prone to absurd exaggeration about its status, but also for indulging my emotions regarding easily the fastest rising football club in the history of the universe.

Much Wenlock

MUCH WENLOCK
It doesn’t matter how meticulously you travel round Britain, carefully picking off every single town, you’ll still to be sent to places that make you think ‘where the bloody hell’s that’?
It turns out Much Wenlock is in Shropshire, but not the bit of Shropshire you go to every day like Nantwich, it’s past Telford and down a lot of lanes, and no one has ever said about Much Wenlock ‘you can’t miss it’.
It’s a place of such size, it has a sign telling you how many shops it’s got.

 

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There must be people who live there who assume this is normal for every town, and as you approach Berlin there’s a sign that says “24,540 quality shops.”
As there are ‘only’ or ‘blimey as many as’ 30 shops, depending on perspective, they have to cover all the essentials between them, which must be why almost all of them sell jars of chutney with pieces of cloth wrapped round the lid.
There is a square, that has a plaque informing you “This square highlights Much Wenlock’s modern status as a tourist destination.”

 

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And it’s hard to believe so much can be packed into one square that will attract the modern tourist. You can spend a morning admiring the clock, then in the afternoon enjoy one of over three quality benches, before going on a stroll to admire a different face of the clock.
Another claim made by the tourist website says “It’s possible to do all your weekly shopping here, although sadly there is only one remaining blacksmith.”
So if your weekly shop includes two sets of horseshoes, each made by separate blacksmiths, it’s not quite true that it’s possible at all is it?
Much Wenlock seems to combine its idyllic setting and quaintness, with an attitude that it’s not going to creep and fawn over you. The Guild Hall boasts a collection of Tudor paintings, but when I tried to go in, a man with a bdge told me he was shutting early and shut a vast wooden door on me, before closing nine or ten vast bolts, as if he was worried I might try to scale the place with an army of Saxons.
But Much Wenlock has had an immense global on the life of almost everyone in the world.

Because a Victorian Much Wenlockian, called William Penny Brookes, in the spirit of self-improvement of the time, organised an early version of the Olympic Games there.

 

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It’s hard to imagine how you could have an Olympics in a place of this size, as the 200 metres would involve three laps of the entire town, and the discus would almost certainly go through someone’s window.
But the events were so successful they attracted athletes from around the country, and only a few of the sports, such as wife-carrying, seeming a bit dated.
They then came to the attention of Pierre de Coubertin, who met Brookes, and they discussed setting an international Olympic Games on the Much Wenlock model. In honour of this, the mascot for the London Olympics was called Wenlock, and one day it’s hoped the modern Olympic Games could almost reach the size of the event that took place in Shropshire.

 

CRANLEIGH

I’m sure everyone in the world is as ridiculously fascinated by the quirks of towns as I am, so here are the tales of my most recent journey around Britain. Because Captain Scott and Marco Polo may have got about a bit, but they never went to Much Wenlock or Coalville did they?

CRANLEIGH

The first night of my latest tour was in Cranleigh, between Guildford and Horsham in Surrey, that claims to be the ‘largest village in England’.

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As a village it’s a perfect, with parish notice boards and a community notice board in the High Street and it’s probably permanently ‘in bloom’, and you can get tea and scones but not a kebab, and half way through my scone, I noticed a man of about seventy with a very straight back, making tutting noises while reading a newspaper. Eventually he harrumphed, which is to say he didn’t make a harrumph noise, he actually said “Harumph”, and disgustedly put the paper down. Then said out loud to the room “Hah. The Daily Mirror, I might have known.”

That’s how perfect a village Cranleigh is.

But its finest qualities, like anywhere that perfect, are its glorious imperfections. For example, the BBC website reported recently “Smash-and-grab raid at Cranleigh furriers. A large quantity of fur clothing has been stolen from a specialist retailer in the second such raid in four months.”

This seems a fitting heist for Britain’s largest village, and the Town Guild is probably delighted that local thieves have the taste to rob fur and not hold up an off licence like the common Labour-voting villains you get in Woking.

More impressively, there are one or two hotels in the village, and one of them has as scathing a set of reviews on Trip Advisor as you can imagine, culminating in this splendid prose: “Stayed here for one night on business as everywhere else in Cranleigh area was fully booked. Well, no wonder. It was a dirty, dank and smelly room, the sheets had a blood stain on them and there were pubic hairs in the sink.”

The big issue currently agitating the village, I was told by everyone I spoke to, was the opening of a branch of Betfred in the High Street. I can only imagine this was done as a joke, as no one would dare be seen going in, and in any case Betfred would have to train the locals, such as the man with the straight back, to shout ‘GO ON GO ON GO ON GO ON BAAAA FUCKING NAG’ then screw up the betting slip and complain ‘That’s the tip from the Daily Mirror, I might have known’.

And Cranleigh has a hidden radical past. According to ‘The History of Cranleigh’, In 1829 the villages around Guildford such as Cranleigh witnessed the spread of riotous marches and destruction of machinery. The mill at Allbury was burned to the ground.”

Then in 1838 “A great many of the labouring men are apt to get drunk. They go into the street and do things they are ashamed of and fall out of the wagon and sometimes kill themselves.”

But their finest moment was maybe in the weeks prior to the 2012 Olympics, when the nearby roads were set to stage part of the road cycling event. Because the local paper had to report that, to the village’s shame, this graffiti appeared one morning on the route -

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The crime was seen as so serious it attracted the following comments on the paper’s website:

Great! Now I know what I have to do get some of the local roads resurfaced, although I’m sure my artistic talents don’t match up to those in the picture!

CCSmith

 

Right now I’m actually welling up slightly at the sheer level of patriotism and national pride shown here for the 2012 Olympic Games. The artist’s daring juxtaposition of raw human sexuality and the thrill of competitive sport implores all of us to look deep within ourselves. Stevie Wonder

 

Note to Surrey Police: This was definitely done by a man. If a woman had done this it would have been much smaller!

Mike B, Epsom

 

In any case, it seems to me the whole raison d’etre of Cranleigh is founded on a marvellous fraud, as it’s only the largest village in England because they’ve called themselves a village. There’s no definitive way of telling one from the other, so Manchester could declare itself a village and Cranleigh’s claim would be in ruins.

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Among the comments sent to me about Cranleigh on twitter were -

“Cranleigh wants to be Godalming, but it doesn’t know how.” Sadly I lost the name of the person who sent that, then

 

“For bonfire night they have a torch lit “march” down the Main Street. It looks like they are going to start burning crosses.” From Martyn Hutchby

 

“Snotty public school. Played S African side at rugby. RFU sent black referee. Look on SA faces when he set scrum priceless.” From Charlie Addiman.

 

And “Massive local scandal, Bet Fred opened in the high street, locals fuming it was not sushi bar.” From Richard Hillery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comedy is Rarely as Funny as When it Goes Wrong

Sometimes a comic will have a dream, in which they’re doing a show but not only is the audience not laughing, they’re looking at you with utter bewilderment, a mass of expressions proclaiming ‘what IS this?, as if someone had placed an octopus on the stage. Then you notice surreally notable figures in the crowd, such as Terry Venables and Mike Atherton, and the audience mutters, reads their texts, their indifferent bemusement so thorough it would be progress if the bald man in a bow tie in the second row launched a kung fu kick at your chest.

This week I can declare I’ve been living the dream.

I was asked to do a show during the Sports Journalist of the Year Awards, in the Grand Connaught Rooms in Covent Garden. Gigs like these are always tricky, as the audience isn’t there to see you, so you’re an interruption, and they all share a profession in common making you the outsider.

John Inverdale was presenting the awards, so I decided my first line would be “What a marvellous presenter John Inverdale has been this last twenty years. And it must have helped to motivate him that he isn’t much of a looker.”

Clink clink went the cups and saucers.

I suggested theirs was an odd profession, where they’re allowed to be twenty-three stone, half way through a third bottle of wine and write “The trouble is they simply weren’t fit enough.”

I heard a cough, and saw Sir Clive Woodward get up to go to the toilet.

I carried on with material about cricket, tennis, football, as if eventually I might find the right sport and exclaim ‘ah, so it’s fencing you want to hear jokes about’, before doing twenty minutes on those ridiculous epees from the seventies.

It occurred to me that Mike Atherton, interviewed briefly in the moments before I went on, had got a bigger laugh than me. Mike bloody Atherton, not only a cricketer but a batsman known for a dour dogged style almost deliberately resistant to displaying any shot containing a whisker of flamboyance, a man who sets out on a mission not to entertain and he’d got more fucking laughs than me.

I noted that Terry Venables was in the room, adding “So I hope someone’s keeping an eye on the cutlery, or that’ll be in Ilford Market by tomorrow afternoon.”

I could hear an individual slurp of coffee.

16 minutes I was on apparently, and there’s not one of those minutes
I wouldn’t gladly swap for a week in Guantanamo Bay. If I’d been made to carry on for another 10 minutes, by then there’d have been a delegation from Amnesty International stood outside with placards and pleading for my release.

There all sorts of reasons why a comedy gig becomes a disaster, some of which are beyond your control and some of which aren’t. It can’t have helped that John Inverdale introduced me with the words “He’s just completed a sell-out tour of Croydon.”

But maybe it’s fitting that sport, with its inbuilt uncertainties and fluctuations, should provide such a stinking 16 minutes.

And just as the most viewed sporting clips on youtube are disastrous goalkeeping errors, shambolic run-outs, and athletes tripping over, in its way this night was funnier than if it had gone to plan. The image of Terry Venables frowning with part derision and part extreme bafflement is comedy at its purest.

So I suppose afterwards I should have done an interview in which I apologised to my fans, promised I would get back to the training ground to prepare for the next gig, insist I wasn’t even considering resigning, and then blame everything on the referee.

Tributes have flooded in

I wonder if it was like this two thousand years ago. If it was, when Jesus died, Pontius Pilate would have appeared on Sky News moments after the cross was taken down and said “The world mourns today a man of great integrity. It was an honour to have known him, and even when I sentenced him to crucifixion, he showed great forgiveness, and that shows what a great figure he was.”

On the BBC the newsreader would say “With me here is one of his closest associates. Judas, what memories do you have of Jesus?”

And Judas would say he always displayed dignity and humility, and most importantly forgave those that betrayed him, and finish with an amusing anecdote, about how pernickety he could be about which bread to break at supper.

On Radio 5 live the moneylenders at the temple would say he was a heroic figure, who may have thrown over the moneylenders’ tables in the temple, but said he was sorry for the mess that was caused, which is the main thing, then every newspaper would tell us “Tributes have flooded in from across the Roman Empire, led by King Herod who said ‘It is a sad day for Nazareth, and a sad day for Rome’.”

Many of the official tributes to Nelson Mandela, such as the one from David Cameron, have emphasised his ability to forgive, and his apparent rejection of bitterness is part of what made him extraordinary. But the reason his capacity for forgiveness towards the rulers of apartheid mattered, was that he’d organised opposition to it, took up arms against it and overthrew it. If he hadn’t, if his notable side was forgiveness, he would simply have been a kindly chap who’d passed away with no one outside his family taking much notice.

Few people now defend apartheid, but someone must have liked it at the time or it wouldn’t have been such a nuisance to destroy. Margaret Thatcher, idol of many who made tributes to Mandela, bragged with a fervour that actually made her look drunk, that she’d rejected sanctions against the regime, as the ANC was a “typical terrorist organisation.” Many sportsmen and musicians broke the boycott, repeating the sentiments of Dennis Thatcher who said “we play our rugby where we like”. There were the ‘Hang Mandela’ t-shirts, and countless commentators and politicians who belittled the demonstrations and boycotts.

I visited Robben Island prison, where Mandela had been incarcerated, in 2003. To get my ticket I visited an office in Cape Town, with glossy posters on the wall, covered in flowery lower case jolly African writing, exclaiming your trip to South Africa wasn’t complete without taking the unique opportunity of a trip to the famous island. I got on a catamaran with Americans and Germans, who smothered themselves in sun cream and took pictures of each other as they held out their arms and giggled.

Had they turned the prison into a theme park, I wondered, maybe with a water-canon-slide, and a helter skelter shaped like a giant Desmond Tutu?

But tours of the prisons are conducted by ex-prisoners. As we wandered round the cells our guide explained how he and fellow convicts had been allotted different amounts of bread according to their race, and how they were made to work sixteen hours a day on the land.

“One day”, he said, “As I was digging, on the day of the month my father was due to visit, a guard called my name. I stood before him on that spot there and he said ‘Your father won’t be visiting today as he’s been shot. Now get back to work’.”

His father lived, it turned out, but never walked again, and the guide told us the three responsible for the attempted murder were free under the rules of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and were now wealthy businessmen.

To my left a woman in shorts and a bright silk top, put her camera away and started sobbing onto her sun cream.

On another day I was taken around Soweto, by a friend of the family I was staying with. We toured the roads from which its residents hadn’t been allowed to leave without a pass, met countless children running along dusty tracks selling water, as if auditioning for a film that Morgan Freeman will probably be in, and went round the museum built where the schoolchildren were massacred.

My host was fascinated by England and cricket and the Premier League, and overflowing with tales of his youth, of plantains and preachers, and pondering why after apartheid there were still hundreds of thousands living in squalor, in the camps outside each town.
“What a memorable day”, I said when I got back to the people I was staying with. “Marvellous”, they said, “but you were lucky today. That lad you were with was arrested in the 1980s, and tortured by the police in the station at John Foster Square. He made such a noise they called him The Screamer, and whenever they brought in new prisoners, they would torture him again, so his screams would terrify them and make them talk. Sometimes he’s still a bit jittery but he was on good form today.”

So it was indeed remarkable that Nelson Mandela endured this regime and yet displayed no malice. But the real reason he was remarkable is that he took on its wealth and weaponry and brutality, its distinguished friends and its air of impregnable authority, he became the figure of a global movement and he beat it. The kids of Soweto not legally allowed past their street, the protestor throwing flour at rugby players, the student taking their twenty quid out of Barclays, the pensioner leaving South African grapes at the checkout, The Specials, the prisoners and the screamers and Nelson Mandela were united in opposition to this heavily armed barbarity and they won.

During the campaign against apartheid Nelson Mandela was a distant figure, locked away but a name on mugs, posters and student union halls, barely more real than Batman. But the De Klerks and Bothas were alarmingly real, an air of menace in their presence, like the bouncer that orders around the other bouncers.

Now the hazy figure is revered above all, and the defenders of apartheid have to scramble in his shadow for a space to declare that really they admired him, and the people they helped to torture.

The precise nature of his legacy will be debated for centuries. His capacity for forgiveness was impressive, and perhaps it isn’t surprising if that’s emphasised by some paying tribute, rather than his role in overturning inequality, as they’re now arranging inequality of their own.

Because surely his most important achievement was to prove that bastards and their bastard regimes can be overthrown, against seemingly impossible odds, by all of us, as no one knows which unsold grape was the one that finally brought down a tyranny.

MAYBE MY FOURTH BEST DAY

I can understand why some people don’t entirely accept this, but Crystal Palace’s win over Watford at Wembley was one of the greatest moments in human history.

Palace fans spent the days after the match unable to think of anything apart from the subject of their affection, like a lovesick teenager. If a tornado had ripped up their house, they’d have swept up the rubble with a soppy grin, thinking “Amazing – we got promoted.”

It seemed extraordinary that the rest of the world was carrying on as normal. For the first two days after the match I would put the news on, and shout “Never mind poxy Syria, when are you showing Ian Holloway’s post-match interview?”

How could people discuss trivia like their kids’ exam results or their forthcoming operation? Why were the television channels carrying on like in any other week? Surely the History Channel should go “In place of the programme about the Battle of Jutland, here’s some footage of Wilfred Zaha and Julian Speroni dancing with the play-off trophy.”

And so the week went on, work deadlines disappearing as I watched the winning goal on youtube from every angle, filmed on shaky ipads, and one on Mexican television with a commentator screaming “GOOOOAAaaaaaaaaaaaaaAAAAAaaaaAAAlllllllLLLLLL Keveeenn Pheeeeleeeepsss una zero Creeestal Palaaaace.”

Supporting a team in the play-off for the Premier League must take, in my medical opinion, a year off your life. And this was my sixth time. If I have a check-up, doctors will be baffled as to why their results showed I was six years older than on their records, until they factor in their play-off statistics and we all laugh with everything explained.

How can this behaviour be rational? The most common suggestion is that the play-off final, as every headline reminded us, was worth £120 million. But it’s a reflection of modern football that the prize money for winning is assumed to be more important than the winning.

Even the lure of the Premier League leaves many fans ambivalent. We know that every week we’ll face a team who have one player who cost more than our entire squad. We’ll have Alan Hansen sneering on Match of the Day, having learned the names of our players that afternoon so he can complain how hopeless they are. Alan Shearer won’t even bother with that and will inform viewers “If Jillian Spinetti stops any goals going in, the opposition will find it hard to score.”

And matches will be rescheduled to 5.30 on a Tuesday morning, so Sky can bill it as a warm-up for Norwich v Everton at 9.15.

Now we’ll be surrounded by teams whose angry fans expect to win, as if that’s any way to watch sport. So they call the phone-ins on Saturday afternoons snarling “That manager’s got to go Alan, I mean NIL-NIL, with SPURS, he should be boiled Alan, boiled in molten lead, then SQUASHED Alan, in one of those things that crushes cars, that’s TWO DRAWS IN A ROW ALAN.”

The ecstasy of Wembley was about none of this. Three years earlier the club was in administration, its best players and manager sold or sent away to cover a couple of months’ bills, needing a draw to avoid relegation to the third division which may well have led to liquidation.

After a summer of frantic rumours and protests outside Lloyds bank the club was rescued by a management that insisted soberly there would be very limited funds, and the fans accepted we might have to expect a relegation or two, but that was fine because we hadn’t gone bust.

We were resigned to struggle. The following season we were playing another team near the bottom, when we let in a goal through a defender’s legs. Then we scored as their defence stood and watched the ball trickle over the line. And the man right behind me exclaimed “THIS is better. I’ve always said football’s much more enjoyable when BOTH teams are shit.”

At the start of the 2012/13 season Palace were second favourites to be relegated. But we were unexpectedly flamboyantly brilliant, our manager left, we went top, then fell to bits, then rallied and got into the play-offs, with a semi-final against Brighton. And Brighton are Palace’s fierce rivals, for having the audacity to be fifty miles away.

This must be the most unfathomable rivalry in football. We’re not in the same city, or county, or vicinity. It’s as if Southampton decided their rivals were Caracas Athletic from Venezuela, or if our rivalry was with Worcestershire Cricket Club, or with AA Gill the restaurant critic.

Brighton were the form team and it felt they were certain to win. The Brighton Argus published instructions on how to get to the Wembley final, the club announced they’d consulted a psychic llama who assured them they’d win, and on the day of the second leg they asked Brighton fans not to invade the pitch at the end of the game. To be fair to their fans they complied, none of them invading the pitch, with many of them so polite and helpful they left before the end of Palace’s 2-0 win.

The player who scored both goals was Wilfred Zaha, a 20-year-old brought up within walking distance from the Palace ground, who’d joined the club when he was eight. All season, whenever he got the ball, everyone in the ground shuffled, as he skipped and twisted, dipped and pirouetted, while his opponents lined up like baddies queuing up to be battered in a kung fu film, and rarely got the ball off him. Sometimes you didn’t want him to pass or score, just carry on baffling everyone, and once he obliged, taking the ball from his own goalmouth round the whole team to the other goal, then turning round and beating them all again before arriving back where he started.

So 27th May 2013 was a day punctuated by a series of gulps, each more gulpy than the last. We got on the train and there were other Palace fans, which confirmed the match was really happening. Until that point it seemed likely we would get to Wembley and find it deserted, or being prepared for a Muse concert, then I’d check the league tables and realise I must have got confused as we ended the season fourteenth.

At Victoria station the odd traveller who wasn’t a Palace fan seemed lost, like an old person who’s wandered out of their care home and into a nightclub, amidst the red and blue that oozed across every corner. Hundreds gathered to drink and sing and chant, becoming slightly more South London with each minute. Middle-aged greying types who arrived saying ‘Let’s hope for a keen contest’, after fifteen minutes would scream “Sarf lundun’s NUMber one, oo-oo oo-oooo”, with a pumping growl that, if it was caught on CCTV would get them struck off the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

It seemed a shame there had to be a match later on to spoil the occasion.

There was the gulp, the saliva-stopping gulp that threatens to choke as you turn the corner and see the arch of Wembley. And then the asphyxiating rasping clamminess as you take your seat, like being strapped into the world’s biggest roller coaster, that the jolly lad from the fairground tells you may or may not crash, it’s about fifty-fifty.

But all of this was meditative tranquillity, compared to the fizzing electrifying thumping moment, when no one dared make a sound but the collective silence created a hum like a nearby Spitfire preparing to take off, the distant under-the-breath squeals, the twenty minutes minute before Kevin Philips took the penalty awarded to Palace half way through extra time.

The story of 35,000 lives, belonging to the Palace end of Wembley, and many more who weren’t there, would be altered by this kick. In 30 years those still alive would recount the magical moment when Philips scored, or the dejection of him missing. To have no chance is disappointing, but is nothing to the misery of having a chance and blowing it. Some turned their backs, as if this might spare them from ever discovering how it had turned out. In one clip I saw later you can hear a woman’s quivering voice crying ‘Oh my God, oh my God please please oh my God’, so you’d think she was watching her son dangling from the top of a lighthouse on a length of sellotape.

He struck the ball in the top corner, and we could get on with clutching seats and squeezing strangers in an effort to make the last fifteen minutes disappear.

At the final whistle I don’t remember cheering. I recall gasping like an actress that’s won an Oscar. I remember that after a few minutes it felt as if singing and cheering wasn’t enough, as you sing and cheer for any normal win, and this warranted some sort of new special noise.

And I recall the stadium imposing its mode of celebrations on us, so rather than sing Palace songs we were fed ‘Ain’t no Stopping us Now’ and ‘Let it Be’ and speeches by npower sponsors, and it wouldn’t have been surprising if Palace manager Ian Holloway was ordered to announce “What a win! And now we’re in the Premier League there’s never been a better time to consider that npower supplies electricity as well as gas, with special springtime deals that heat your home for lots of extra time with no penalties!”

Lives can be charted through the play-offs. For the 2004 final win against West Ham, my son was seven, staying awake until we arrived back from Cardiff at midnight, then running down the road to wave his flag with jubilant innocence. For the 2013 final win against Watford, my son was sixteen, staying awake until he arrived back from Wembley with his mates at five in the morning, then depositing a shopping trolley and men at work sign on the lawn, with no memory of where he’d found them.

The strange equation of following a football team is that status and joy are barely connected. The day after the win against Brighton, Manchester City sacked their manager, for coming 2nd in the Premier League and losing the FA cup final, and their fans were interviewed in a state of despair.

The fans of hundreds of clubs, down to the League I found called the Ian Hart Funeral Services Worthing and District West Sussex League, must have been happier than Manchester City fans at that moment.

And we were euphoric, not because we’d been promoted, but because the players seemed like our mates we might bump into around Croydon, because we’d been at the point of extinction, because we expected so little, because I’d agreed with a bunch of fans before the game that if we lost, we’d definitely go to next season’s away game in Bournemouth, and I was slightly disappointed that trip was now cancelled. And for just this moment we had unexpected unbelievable glory.

Watford fans ambled outside Wembley, their dejection the price of our jubilation. But many of them shook our hands and congratulated us, as I hope but can’t be sure I’d have done to them if they’d won. Because for all the rivalry that supporting a team entails by definition, somehow the opposition brings people together.

We’d won £120 million apparently. You’re supposed to spend it on players who might give you a chance against Chelsea, but right then, if a vote had been held amongst the Palace fans, I reckon we’d have decided to spend half of it on fixing the Selhurst Park toilets, and the rest to take the 35,000 of us to Paris and get hammered.

The next day, while in a cafe studying the article about the game in the Financial Times, not even getting annoyed by Phil Collins on Magic FM, I tried to rate the occasion in my all-time list of great days. “At the top, obviously, are the births of my two children and my wedding”, I thought. But then I pondered, that magical as my wedding day was, I had known for certain at the start of the day that by the end of it I would be married. Before the play-off final the outcome was far from guaranteed, so there was a case to be made I thought…..

And then I judged it might be best not to pursue that line of thought. But it definitely has a decent claim to be fourth.

Oh Good Lord what has the SWP gone and done NOW?

It shouldn’t matter. It really shouldn’t matter, should it, what goes on in the Socialist Workers Party. Their membership is roughly the average home gate at Mansfield Town. By the time I left them, in 2007, the most common comment I heard about them was ‘Oh. Are they still going?’ the way you might refer to Bernard Cribbins.

But somehow they’ve got themselves in such a mess that thousands of people have been gripped by it, as if it’s a real life Trotskyite soap opera, with onlookers settling before the internet with a tub of ice cream for the latest episode and gasping “Oh my God they’ve called the faction leader a disgraceful liberal moralist, I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow.”

Articles, forums and comment sections on their travails have reached beyond the political sections of online-land; at one point Mumsnet was among the sites discussing it. There are probably discussions on winemaking forums, in which someone has written “These allegations against a leading member of the SWP have made me reconsider when to crush this year’s crop of elderberries.”

I’ve wasted whole periods of a day reading this stuff, until feeling the shamed sense of over-indulgence you get after eating an entire Swiss roll in the morning.

Part of my excuse is that I was a member for loads of years, and know many of the people at the centre of this pickle. But also, it does matter, for a whole pile of reasons.

The immediate cause is that in 2012 the party leaders reported a complaint had been made by a teenage woman, who alleged that during an affair she’d been having with one of the most senior members, a man of almost 50, he had raped her.

There had been rumours of ‘an incident’ at the previous year’s conference, but the members weren’t told the details, and after a brief mention of him being involved in ‘difficulties’, a standing ovation was orchestrated for the man concerned.

The woman was somewhat less than satisfied with this outcome, and as more members heard the full story the party decided to refer the ‘complaint’ to their Disputes Committee, to ‘investigate’ the matter. All eight people on this committee had worked with the accused for several years, most were his friends, and would you believe it, they decided the case was ‘Not proven’, so no action was to be taken against him (although the chair of the committee dissented, declaring the accused had behaved inappropriately).

At the party conference in January 2012 the members were asked to approve the Disputes Committee report. During the discussion, it was revealed by a witness to the investigation that in its course the woman had been asked about another relationship she’d been in, and about her drinking habits. It also turned out she had asked to speak at the conference, but was told she wouldn’t be allowed in, and was now in a state of distress, as it’s not hard to imagine.

And it became known that SWP members who knew about the issue, and were uneasy about it, had been expelled from the party for discussing it on Facebook. Members who objected to any of this were told they were guilty of “bourgeois morality” and accused of capitulating to feminism.

The conference voted, narrowly, to accept the report. But someone who was there leaked a transcript of the discussion onto the internet.

The reaction amongst almost anyone who saw this was of bewildered horror, so at this point, and this took guile and dedication, SWP leaders managed to make things even worse.

The leading body, the Central Committee, declared the issue was closed, and no debate or discussion amongst members would be permitted. Presumably at this point, if an SWP member was asked how they could justify dealing with a rape allegation by arranging an investigation run by mates of the accused, they were supposed to change the subject, or to really earn points with the leadership, start playing a harmonica.

Unsurprisingly, the discussions did continue, with hundreds of members professing outrage. So Alex Callinicos, a leading figure in the SWP, wrote an article condemning the critics, humbly titled In Defence of Leninism.

It begins, and this is an article written to defend their medieval handling of a rape allegation, remember, with a series of sentences such as “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

To his credit, no one’s likely to say ‘Ah, that old cliché. That’s always wheeled out in cases of sexual abuse’.

Maybe if a leading SWP member was accused of battering a pensioner to rob her purse, he’d reply “Marx was adamant that the 1848 revolutions in Europe represented a final break between the emergent working class and capitalism. Can I go now?”

In 3,500 words the central incident is barely referred to, except as a “Difficult disciplinary case,” in which “Scandalously, a minority inside the SWP are refusing to accept the democratically reached conference decisions.”

Now trade unionists who had participated in SWP activities wrote a joint letter, to explain they wouldn’t align with them again. Many of the SWP’s international groups declared their fury, and dozens of speakers who had appeared at their events declared they would no longer do so. A website that had been run for years by a prominent SWP member complained that critics of the Central Committee were being subjected to “Bullying, intimidation, and threats of violence.”

To which the SWP’s leaders replied “There is no evidence of damage to the party.” And with a magnificent sense of perspective, Alex Callinicos said that SWP members who opposed the leaders would face “lynch-mobs.” Presumably, if someone tried to drag him away from lynching some poor sod he’d scream “Leave me alone, can’t you see I’m deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

Almost the entire student section of the SWP left, or joined the faction against the leaders, to which those leaders declared this was a sign of how SWP students felt demoralised following the introduction of tuition fees. Other people who’ve been accused of sexual abuse must envy how the party gets away with these explanations. Jonathan King must think ‘I should have said people were only upset with me as they were demoralised following an increase in the rate of VAT’.

Most people, who have little awareness of the SWP, may conclude that the leaders and their loyal followers are simply psychotic, and not in a good way. So just stay well away. Others may feel this is all so predictable to not be worth stating, as Trotskyite groups are, by their nature, nuts. So you might as well write an account of the Mafia, gasping “You’ll never guess what, they turned out quite violent.”

There’s certainly a part of me that thinks the SWP has become so adept and successful at demoralising and antagonising everyone in their own party, if they really want to help the cause of socialism they should join the Conservatives.

But they’re not all crazy, and that’s more chilling than if they were. My own initial instincts were that they can’t really be doing this, these people I used to know and drink with, and laughed with and did fund-raising benefits all over the bloody place for. I went to Telford once for the SWP. Surely I wouldn’t have done that if they were mad.

Now many of those I knew from those times are publicly backing this peculiar behaviour. The SWP produced a list of 500 of its members who supported the party’s conduct. I scrolled down this list gingerly edging towards the parts where, alphabetically, names I knew might appear, and I willed the Hs or Ns past in the hope they wouldn’t be there. Some weren’t but several were, people whose settees I’d drunk beer on and whose kids had played with my kids popping up, next to a declaration that proved they’d say or do anything, defend any act no matter how appalling, to protect one of their ‘leaders’, in a manner approaching that of a cult.

Yet the people behaving in this irrational way did start out rational. I recall when it was an education being in the SWP, not in how to be at war with everyone but because you found imaginative ways to engage with the outside world, which was fairly important as this was by some distance bigger than the world inside the SWP.

The names on that list belonged to people who became socialists because they were enraged by war or poverty or racism, or maybe by the way women are treated in society, and they wished to combat those injustices. Many were instrumental in the Anti-Nazi-League, Stop the War and countless local campaigns.

So how could this change have happened? Maybe it started in the 1990s, when the SWP began to shrink, probably due to socialism becoming a harder product to sell. But it refused to acknowledge it was shrinking, preferring to insist it was constantly growing. Then, if anyone pointed out this clearly wasn’t true, they were told sharply that they were mistaken.

Like Basil Fawlty, rather than admit to telling small lies, they decided to protect them, by telling bigger and more ridiculous lies. And once that happens, internal democracy is under threat. Contest the distortions and you have to be denounced as an enemy.

Or maybe it came from such a determination to defend socialist ideas, against all orthodox thinking, that they became impervious to any criticism at all. They became so defensive that any suggestion of doing things differently was met with the phrase that this would “Betray the tradition.” Even the internet was treated with heavy suspicion, with blogs and websites set up or contributed to by members frowned upon or banned.

Whatever the reasons, debate with people outside the party was replaced with vitriol. A trade unionist who usually backed the SWP disagreed with them on an issue, so a story was invented that they’d rigged the vote to get their union position. Often when people left the SWP, it was announced that they’d never been members in the first place.

The organisation which, whatever its faults, had once been a cauldron of exuberance, debate and enthusiasm, was edging towards becoming a cult. And that’s the most alarming aspect of this story, that cults aren’t circles of people who took too much acid and dance naked in the woods, they’re people who took one small decision to forego independence of thought for the defence of their group, and once they started couldn’t stop.

SWP members who have taken a stand on the current issue seem bewildered as to why their leaders behave in this illogical way. But the reason may be that the debate isn’t really about the allegations, or attitudes towards feminism, it’s about accepting that you do as you’re told, that the party is under attack at all times so you defend the leaders no matter what, that if the party’s pronouncement doesn’t match reality, it must be reality that’s wrong. Dissent on an issue and your crime is not to be wrong about the issue, it’s that you dissented at all.

So it does matter, because the end result of this process is that many bright eloquent fighters against bullying have become the bullies, and many potential bright eloquent fighters against bullying may be put off from participating in that fight, if they think it will end with behaviour like this.

And it matters to me, because I can’t claim to be entirely innocent. I was in this party for 28 years. I must have accepted claims that didn’t make sense, and ignored accounts of appalling behaviour, or sighed and hoped the tricky issue I heard about would go away of its own accord. Somehow the critical faculties that led me to join a socialist group deserted me with regard to the group itself.

It matters because anyone considering taking part in the activities of the left is entitled to ask how we can ensure that abuse of women won’t be dismissed as ‘moralism’.

And because there’s now an enduring sense of uneasy rage against the injustices of the free market, which encompasses a brilliant array of diverse characters, and between us we have to work out how to turn that into an effective opposition, without making the same mistakes. Surely we can establish movements and forums in which we can debate our aims and differences, in a spirit that inspires and invigorates all who take part, rather than berating anyone who disagrees.

There’s a mass of disparate individuals, committed to opposing the values of the bankers, the tax exiles and the sneering face of free market authority. Surely we can embrace that enthusiasm and energy, and encourage it rather than demoralise it.

We can’t ensure that no one in our ranks will behave appallingly, but we can ensure that everyone is accountable, so that no one is allowed special protection because they have a place on a committee.

Over the last few weeks I’ve almost dared to be optimistic. Effective characters such as Owen Jones, Salma Yaqoob, Caroline Lucas, Laurie Penny, along with Unite and other unions, and organisers of UK Uncut are launching the People’s Assembly, which could represent the most encouraging attempt for years, to create a movement that can attract the heaps of people appalled by the current order that’s running society.

So we have to follow the same rules as anyone who wants to win the support of a wide layer of people, by creating an atmosphere that attracts rather than repels, in which everyone who contributes feels a sense of accomplishment, where differences are celebrated rather than sneered at, and in which the many inevitable mistakes are part of the glorious chaos of building a genuine movement.

That movement will be the product of all who take part in it, and won’t be an end in itself to be protected no matter how it behaves, but a means to an end, which is a world less cruel, more exhilarating, less bullying and more fun, that it was when we found it.

PS Since writing the start of this I’ve looked up the average home attendance of Mansfield Town, and this season it’s been 2,389, which is much higher than the SWP membership. After all this I’d guess they’ll be close to Braintree, on 624.