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Window of Opportunity

SLAVEN BILIC ... in the hotseat

SLAVEN BILIC … in the hotseat

At the stroke of midnight on Wednesday 31st of August many West Ham fans might have breathed a sigh of relief with the close of the transfer window. Despite nagging rumours to the contrary Dimitri Payet stayed at the club, 10 new first-teamers had signed and only a couple of players departed. However, doubts remain – following successful summer business the previous two seasons this window felt less than spectacular with questions being raised regarding the overall strength of the squad.

Before going any further three things need to be acknowledged in mitigation; firstly the inflation in transfer fees brought about by the most recent TV deals – when a striker as limited as Christian Benteke is fetching a £32million transfer fee it’s not easy find value in the market. Likewise the threat of Britain leaving the EU has resulted in sterling (no, not Raheem) taking a bit of a buffeting on the international markets, effectively making foreign transfers around 10 per cent more expensive. And finally the club could not have anticipated the second successive early elimination from the Europa League at the hands of Romanian side Astra Giurgiu – with a potentially long campaign in the offing it was easy to see how volume in player trading may have taken precedence over quality.

Once manager Slaven Bilic’s tactics are examined it becomes even more difficult to detect a unity or coherence around summer purchases and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to know what sort of team the Croat’s West Ham are. Lacking resilience at the back the squad lacks the pace in midfield and quality at full-back to play a counter-attacking style. A quick glance at match statistics would dispel any thoughts of them being a possession side either. In conclusion, the Hammers seem little more than a Payet side (with a sideways nod to the abilities of Manuel Lanzini). Take those two out of the team, as has been the case so far this season, and the first XI looks decidedly average.

STAYING PUT ...Dimitri Payet

STAYING PUT … Dimitri Payet

Other sides have bought well, meaning it will be difficult to better last year’s seventh place especially if the results against the better sides (as they already appear to be) dry up. A feature of Bilic’s side is how seldom they dominate inferior opponents and just two wins against the bottom three last season points to some potential banana skins this term.

The area of least concern is between the sticks. Despite the occasional histrionics and a weakness off his line Adrian has proved himself a good quality goalkeeper and has deservedly been handed a call-up into the Spanish squad. Darren Randolph is a competent if not brilliant deputy and currently an Ireland regular. Likewise, at left-back Arthur Makuasu appears to offer the injured Aaron Cresswell real competition and the team greater defensive solidity in an area hitherto lacking both.

At centre-back James Tomkins has left his boyhood club for a very reasonable £10m – especially bearing in mind he was a fourth choice behind Angelo Ogbonna, Winston Reid and James Collins. However, Reid hasn’t yet returned to his pre-injury form of last season and is looking hurried and out of touch. The signing on a free from Mönchengladbach of Håvard Nordtveit as a utility defender/holding midfielder is an expression of the foolhardiness of aiming for a bigger squad at the expense of quality. Although technically good, two-footed and decent in the air the Norwegian international lacks the pace for a midfield spot and the defending ability to challenge the regular centre-halves. Unkind comparisons with former Hammer Radoslav Kováč won’t be long coming.

NORSEMAN ... Havard Nordtveit

NORSEMAN … Håvard Nordtveit

The situation up front has been some way less than ideal. Enner Valencia lost form and confidence and has been shipped off to Everton on a season’s loan. Although the Ecuadorian never for a moment stopped giving his all, his pace and fierce shot never made up for a lack of footballing nous. Diafra Sakho has embarked on a huge strop and can be considered persona non grata. A real shame as his form when first at the club alongside Valencia and supported by Stewart Downing was nothing short of sensational. One way or another Bilic has rid the club of all three – on the face of it an odd judgement.

Andy Carroll is a limited player despite an underrated left foot. But his lack of link-up play doesn’t suit Bilic at all. And yet another in a seemingly endless run of injuries could be a positive as it pushed the club into the market. Nothing sums up the transfer window better than Chairman David Sullivan’s earlier pledge to buy a £30m striker before finding nobody wanted to play for The Irons and finally paying Swansea £20m for a right winger-cum-forward only for André Ayew to rupture a thigh muscle half an hour into his debut. A reciprocal axiom to the one about fortune favouring the brave?

Jonathan “Julian” Calleri seems a punt for the future and little can be read into his form. Yet the signing of Simone Zaza from Juventus on a loan-to-buy move for £28m if not a full-scale panic buy certainly displayed signs of the jitters. Despite being a full Italian international Zaza only scores at a rate of one in three, lacks blinding pace, isn’t dominant in the air but works hard. Sound familiar? Yes, if it wasn’t for the £20m plus disparity in transfer fee it’s difficult to distinguish him from Sakho.

RECORD SIGNING ... Simone Zaza

RECORD SIGNING … Simone Zaza

Perhaps the brightest signings are Swiss midfielder Edmilson Fernandes from Sion and French-born Algerian international Sofiane Feghouli from Valencia. Although a relative unknown Fernandes is expected to go straight into the side to supplement the attacking strength of Payet and Lanzini. Feghouli is lightning quick, has a good touch and as proved against FK Domžale an eye for goal from wide.

Which brings us to the most vexing area of the pitch, the right side. Following injuries to on-loan Carl Jenkinson and young signing Sam Byram last season the right-back position was filled by Michail Antonio, a natural winger. Even the least educated football brain could see the former Forest player was positionally all over the place in defence. All except Bilic who insisted he could convert the player and concentrated on filling the squad with right wingers. Some sympathy should be extended to the manager – it is one of the less appealing traits of the Premier League players are bought and sold as seen, with little attempt at development.

BADLY TREATED ... Michail Antonio

BADLY TREATED … Michail Antonio

Meanwhile Fegholi was followed by both Ayew and perplexingly the woeful Gökhan Töre – the squad began to resemble a Theresa May cabinet so full was it of right-wingers. The Turk wasn’t bought but arrived on loan due to Bilic being the only person in the club to rate his former player. Three league games into the season and the penny dropped for Bilic as a series of poor defensive performances from Antonio culminated in the acquisition of Alvaro Arbeloa from Real Madrid. So there we are, one inexperienced and one over-the-hill right back, four right-wingers.

This all taps into the abrasive personality of Bilic. Ever the idealist he doesn’t appear able to tolerate deficiencies in his players even if they are of his own creation. Antonio and Ogbonna have been ruthlessly and humiliatingly withdrawn during games (the latter before half-time on his full debut) while Morgan Amalfitano and Sakho have suffered from off-field fallings-out. Each may be acceptable but taken together they appear less the acts of a manager and more of a dictator.

Let’s hope our manager turns out more Josip Tito than Slobodan Milošević.

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Boston bombings

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The images beamed around the world following the explosions in Boston are repugnant. Blood spattered on streets, people missing limbs and onlookers suffering awful emotional trauma. I lack the immediacy of knowing anybody likely to be there giving me at once a detachment from the emotional impact yet heightening my own sense of voyeuristic disgust.

I watched a trickle of feeds became a tidal wave with an increasing sense of foreboding. A background in journalism enabled me to accurately predict newsrooms seeking an exclusive, politicians keen to grab a monopoly on outrage and everybody else determined to “have their say” (I count myself among their number).

Amid a fury of cliché  (in a masterpiece of oxymoron today’s Thought For The Day on Radio 4 claimed both “calculated evil” and “impossible madness”) I have yet to read or hear anybody fully engaging with the most obvious question. This is a time for us all to look within and ask why.

I’m not holding my breath.

Race to the bottom (the trouble between West Ham and Tottenham)

Yossi Benayoun of West Ham and Israel

Yossi Benayoun of West Ham and Israel

A couple of seasons ago an altercation broke out a few rows in front of my seat in the Bobby Moore Lower Stand at West Ham. The cheapest section of the ground, it is largely populated by shaven-headed, overweight, middle-aged men not dissimilar to myself, but on this occasion a mother had forsaken the Family Enclosure at the other end of the ground, turned up with a young son and was railing against the language around her.

Never one to miss the opportunity of making my opinions known I informed the poor lady I had been sitting in the same seat for years and wasn’t to be lectured on football etiquette by somebody attending their first game. Repenting at leisure I felt uneasy over whose rights were being most infringed as my views as both a football supporter and social liberal clashed.

That conflict came to the fore again this weekend following West Ham’s 3-1 defeat at Tottenham with reports of the away fans taunting their rivals with jibes about a Spurs fan stabbed before a recent Europa tie against Lazio as well as anti-Semitic chants at the home side’s Jewish element. I wasn’t at the game and am not about to pass judgement. But just as I’ve spent fruitless hours attempting to persuade keyboard warriors on various websites who inform me “black bastard” is no more offensive than “white bastard” and that context is all, so it may be useful to offer a historical perspective on the Tottenham/West Ham antagonism.

The social history and enmity between the clubs’ supporters goes back to inter-war times and the docks and sweatshops of East London. As a demographic, Hammers fans drew from the Royal Docks – men who were both tough and working class, taking pride in both. Many of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters worked as seamstresses for low pay in the employ of entrepreneurial Jewish families. Having made their money, bit by bit those owners moved away from the area, decamped in North London and started supporting a football team that better matched their aspirations than the grubby proletarian outfit in E13.

My contention is the rivalry between the two clubs isn’t like that of West Ham and Millwall (who also draw upon a dockland history) but based on class. Whereas Spurs fans I know would routinely describe our support as “Chav” or “unwashed”, the middle-class “Glory, glory” fanbase at Tottenham was evident long before the post-Sky gentrification of the game.

Obviously this is a generalised observation and ignores a significant number of West Ham supporters I know who are Jewish. Supporting a club like West Ham is never easy – but for them it is surely a constant trial maintaining a sense of belonging. One of the favourite chants around the ground even when we’re not even in the same division is the “I’ve got a foreskin, haven’t you” adaptation of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain. Mildly amusing on it’s own (this is football don’t forget) the occasionally added “Fucking Jew” suffix is nasty, offensive, designed to offend and about as far from funny as you can get. Since Sunday I have watched an initial despair among Jewish acquaintances morph into first anger, then rage – and frankly I’m not surprised.

The movement from a working class to embourgeoised sport has overtaken West Ham and left much of the fanbase in its wake. A presence of great black players wearing the shirt has led to a massive diminution of that form of abuse – the reaction of all parts of the ground to Orient winger John Chiedozie in the early 80s made me feel physically sick – but Len Goulden, Eyal Berkovic and Yossi Benayoun among others seem not to have struck the same chord. Even if Avram Grant was probably the least liked manager ever, David Gold is a personable co-owner with an obvious love for West Ham who has pumped much of his own money into rescuing the club from its post-Icelander woes. It appears their “Jewishness” isn’t recognised in the same way say, Rio Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair and Carlton Cole are immediately identified black. Maybe the racist mind isn’t well enough equipped to process anything but the most obvious physical characteristic?

The attitude of Tottenham fans is where I’m most uncomfortable. It’s easy to condemn West Ham fans (and many have) even if it seems likely the hissing noises claimed to represent gas chambers were actually a comment on the lack of volume from home fans. Talking of which, noises have recently been made over Spurs referring to themselves as “Yids”. As much as liberals would want to believe this behaviour to be a reclaiming of offence similar to gays using the word “queer” that is errant nonsense. Far from London Jewry standing loud and proud behind the Yid Army banner (I strongly suspect many doing the chanting have little if any Jewish ancestry) this is little more than a terrace tactic of, “We dare you … How dare you!” Would I “ban” fans from using the Y word? Of course not, any more than I would say, Nigga Army or Poof Army.  Yet inviting abuse to grab a moral high ground demeans all parties. West Ham readily and recklessly jumped into the bear trap – but no moral argument is ever won by metaphorically or literally calling in the cops.

The way forward must surely be members within the crowd calling others to account – it’s surprisingly easy to say to somebody, “Mate, that’s not on” even if you’re not as physically imposing as me. In the Championship last season not one West Ham supporter was charged with racism – the only club in the division with a spotless record. The East End fought off the fascists in the depression of the 30s, so now couldn’t be a better time to once again define our club and our community.

My London 2012: A new beginning or fleeting moment?

Park life: The Orbit and Olympic Stadium: Pic: Terry Land

Park life: The Orbit and Olympic Stadium: Pic: Terry Land

All my Olympics misgivings were reinforced by the torch relays across the country. Invented for the 1936 Olympics by Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis PR man, the present incarnation did its best to live up to its unpleasant cultural roots. A nasty emphasis on security by the Metropolitan Police’s grey-clad compliance-bots resulted in a young lad being dragged off his BMX bike just down the road from me in Haverhill in a ridiculously disproportionate security operation. This lack of sensitivity was repeated during the actual games when Mark Worsfold, a former soldier suffering from Parkinson’s was arrested for “not smiling” during a cycle race.

My direct experience  was little better even if it was lovely seeing families enjoying parties in their front gardens  as I walked to some friends to watch it together. A rather bemused-looking middle-aged woman waited torch aloft for the oncoming circus. And circus it was, the Coca-Cola bus threw small bottles of their product at us and the Samsung bus dispensed clappers while screaming exhortations through a loudspeaker (they might have been shouting, Consume! Consume! but I couldn’t be sure). The Lloyds Bank bus as is popular with their trade, did nothing but demand our attention. On my return home the families were thankfully still there and in true British style supping beer and sipping tea.

If the narrative of the torch was a grubby disconnect from real people with individual enjoyment and the avaricious desires of corporation at odds with one another, then the pre-Games behaviour of the Olympic organising committee LOCOG was even worse. Their role seemed to be as henchmen for corporations scouring the country for the smallest signs of deviation from semiotic monopoly. Infamous and ridiculous in equal measure a butcher in Weymouth with the temerity to display sausages in the shape of the five rings was subject to their attention as was a café offering a “Flaming Torch Baguette”.

With private company G4S making such a massive Horlicks of security provision the British Army needed to cover the shortfall with 4,500 troops the run-up to the events themselves suggested a re-run of the 1996 Atlanta Games blighted by corporate prominence and logistical incompetence.  Then everything changed. Somehow a chippy yet chipper Lancastrian of working-class Irish Catholic stock had been allowed to direct the Opening Ceremony just as he had his grimy classics Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire. I believe Danny Boyle began the process of a fortnight of reinventing what it is to be British and reclaiming the Union Flag from the far right.

Wild things: Flowers in bloom on the Park pic: Terry Land

Wild things: Flowers in bloom on the Park. Pic: Terry Land

In the space of 24 hours my Olympics opinion was turned 180 degrees from cynicism to strong attachment. I’ve never been a fan of Games ceremonies consisting as they do of either expressions of totalitarian regiment or state ideas of what represents “entertainment” and would not have watched the opening extravaganza had I not been at work. Boyle gloriously redefined the genre by eschewing the traditional model and focusing instead on a social history of modernism in Britain through the industrial revolution until the present.

People were represented doing what they do; working, playing, sharing relationships and caring for each other. It was a cultural performance only this country of world nations could have managed to pull off either in concept or execution. Most significantly he didn’t forget a Great British tradition – taking the piss out of ourselves. Inserting internationally known icons James Bond and Mr Bean into the show was genius, as was getting the reigning monarch to participate in the joke – even if that appeared the limit of her engagement.

In contrast my engagement was growing by the hour. The next morning I had tickets for the Olympic Park along with a trip up the Orbit, the red steel tower designed by artist Anish Kapoor. Along with partner Jane and a couple of friends we spent four happy hours marvelling at the facilities and enjoying the atmosphere. Particularly impressive were the swathes of landscaping covered not on manicured grass but meadows of wild flowers in bloom. Access was easy, soldiers friendly, volunteers helpful and other visitors chatty – an underestimated virtue in London. Even if the catering facilities were poorly stocked, of doubtful quality yet expensively priced the four of us exited the park enthused.

Table-topping: Picnic benches as seen from The Orbit. Pic: Terry Land

Table-topping: Picnic benches as seen from The Orbit. Pic: Terry Land

That excitement grew over the next week as the British team collected medal after medal culminating in Day Eight, nicknamed Super Saturday, which included a haul of six golds including a celebratory evening of track and field success. Jessica Ennis won the Heptathlon, Greg Rutherford the Long Jump and Mo Farah the 10,000 metres to prompt the Twitter joke, “A mixed-race woman, ginger man and Islamic refugee walk into a pub – and everyone buys them a drink!” For those of us who find multiculturalism a thing to be enjoyed not feared it was a triumph. In contrast Tory MP Aidan Burley’s Tweets following the Opening Ceremony seemed to sum up another Britain; the churlish and out-dated attitudes of the Little Englander. Never mind, he was probably worth a medal for his subsequent performance in the 1,500 metres backpedalling.

Work was a joy as I watched, wrote up and live-blogged ordinary people performing extraordinary feats. In contrast to the usual diet of saturation reality shows and soaps on television here was a different narrative. Style had been replaced by substance as the BBC joined the mood, put aside the soaked-to-the-bone misery of the Diamond Jubilee and provided some stunning reporting and punditry. Gabby Logan, Clare Balding and Michael Johnson were interesting, knowledgeable and professional – attitudes we seldom think of in connection with football coverage – and the true to form lazy efforts of Lineker, Hansen and Lawrenson shouldn’t detract from the overall stellar level.

Politically the big losers were the Conservative party even if London Mayor Boris Johnson’s star continues to rise. The success of Team GB (a term I loathe by the way) was a reverse of the current fashion for austerity and proved just how useful public spending is in promoting excellence. The lamentable efforts of private corporation G4S to provide a service stood in contrast. In particular Prime Minister David Cameron took a hiding. From an Opening Ceremony that hailed the NHS, an organisation currently being dismembered by his coalition, to a series of public appearances that coincided with GB sporting failure and a magnificently ill-timed announcement the government were to scrap the compulsory two hours a week of PE in schools the Tories took a hit. No wonder the PM’s exasperated and anxious advisors recommended he stay away from events.

Sadly the Olympics feeling appears to be evaporating as quickly as it grew with the Closing Ceremony a return to pre-Games cynicism. The “Now That’s What I Call 90s” extravaganza shared no narrative and offered little promise beyond stultifying Saturday nights in front of the TV being “entertained” by talentless celebrities re-hashing past moments of vague achievement. From Jessica Ennis to Jessie J at the twitch of a remote control. Beyond all reason I hope the metaphorical Olympic flame stays lit in our consciousness beyond the actual tournament. More prosaically I wonder if the last fortnight is doomed to be another Princess Di moment; a huge emotional jolt to our collective psyche at the time but forgotten in a blink.

Joint concerns

Poreč, Croatia. Pic: Terry Land

Poreč, Croatia. Pic: Terry Land

Last August partner Jane and I enjoyed a relaxing holiday in a Croatian resort near the town of Poreč. The weather was hot, hotel excellent and scenery stunning. After a summer of shift work for me and an arduous if exciting holiday earlier in the year travelling around northern India we felt we owed it to each other to slob out for a week reading and eating ice cream. The only slight dampener on an otherwise great week was Jane complaining over a toe that was hurting her.

We laughed it off as a touch of gout due to the plentiful supply of free wine with our meals, or maybe, as I joked while we celebrated her birthday on the Tuesday, a touch of old-age arthritis. Arriving back in Blighty suitably refreshed Jane did the right thing by seeing her GP who in turn sent her for tests. It turned out it wasn’t gout, or osteoarthritis but something potentially nastier. The bloods revealed a high reading for rheumatoid factor. Jane was going to live the rest of her life battling rheumatoid arthritis.

Like many people I’ve spoken with since I had no idea what RA is (beyond thinking it a popular Scouse expression denoting the user feels hard done by). A quick bit of research and I learned while osteoarthritis is a wear and tear disease related to ageing and mechanical trauma, rheumatoid (there’s a growing movement towards dropping the arthritis) is an auto immune disease that as well as degrading skeletal joints can also affect eyes, heart and lungs. Similar to lupus, Crohn’s Disease and Guillain Barré syndrome the body recognises its own tissue as pathogens and attacks them.

My initial reaction on receiving the news was fear. Selfishly I considered how I would cope with Jane’s emotional needs and her increased and increasing physical difficulties. Most worrying was my own revulsion toward disability although a more subtle concern (and with more cause as it has turned out) was the disease would over-ride all other considerations within our relationship. Aware of my subconscious belief that to be strong is to deal with something, Jane soon supported me by hiding the full extent of her symptoms – a reaction that owed much to years of dealing with and comparing herself against her emotionally erratic valetudinarian mother. Fortunately over the intervening time, I’ve regained my senses and attempted to persuade her that if she’s feeling sorry for herself it really is ok to express it, especially to me.

Jane on holiday in India. Pic: Terry Land

Jane on holiday in India. Pic: Terry Land

The deterioration in Jane’s condition over the past 10 months has been terrifying – with her hands suffering most. Now she can find it hard to grip, particularly in the morning. I attempt every support although sometimes this is difficult. When for instance she rang and told me how she’d sat on the side of the bath in tears because she couldn’t wash her hair, once alone I was weeping my own tears – mainly of fury at the injustice of it all. Fortunately a right knee so swollen it was severely restricting her mobility has calmed down following an uncomfortable procedure drawing fluid out of the knee before firing a corticosteroid back in. Not so happily, support groups on the internet have provided little help, with Jane unready and/or unwilling to read other people’s horror stories.

All of life involves learning and the role I’ve slipped into is that of trying to maintain an evenness of emotional response. That means attempting to prevent the lows becoming unbearable but also the highs mountainous. And there have been plenty of peaks, even if some of them are relative. An early boost was a very good friend of Jane’s meeting socially with an experienced nurse working on a clinical trial unit at the nearest hospital. Through the contact Jane signed up for a drug trial and was able to temporarily avoid methotrexate, the standard treatment for RA. Known as a DMARD (disease-modifying antirheumatic drug) this drug is used in stronger doses for chemotherapy and is obviously best avoided if possible. Although a double blind trial we know Jane is taking fostamatinib due to some small but distinct side-effects.

As an example of the fluctuating nature of life these days the biggest low so far was immediately followed by a high. The care Jane receives on the trial is second to none. And because the disease can affect the lungs one of the myriad tests she took was a chest X-Ray. Checked by an outside agency the results immediately came back “suspected interstitial lung disease”. Following a very distressed phone call at home a quick tap into Google and I was horrified to read an article claiming the main treatment for ILD is transplant. My mum, dad and I rushed down to London from Suffolk on a Tuesday to provide what support we could.

We need not have bothered. Another even more tearful phone call the next day revealed the agency had cocked up their analysis. Jane’s team had pored over the scans and could find nothing at all untoward. I couldn’t be angry about the situation, and do understand why it’s always better to give a positive reading when there is nothing wrong rather than the other way around. As with many of these moments (the joy of finding your mislaid car keys can sometimes outweigh the frustration at losing them in the first place) the emotional positives emerge triumphant. After further research as well as some good advice from my nurse sister I later discovered ILD can be not much worse than the asthma I’ve suffered for all of my life and is in fact a generic term to cover many diseases.

And I suppose that is the point; my asthma isn’t something that bothers me any more than being short-sighted or suffering from migraines and so on. It’s quite likely Jane will have massive remissions between flare-ups and cope quite well. She still has employment at the same job in front of a keyboard and can continue walking both to work and for leisure. Most important however, is the growing realisation of just how much love and support we have around us. Several people have quietly come to me and expressed their concern I might be suffering from a lack of support – but as kind as their words are (and they are massively appreciated) I don’t feel like I need much at all. It’s Jane’s disease. As I’ve said in previous blogs, Jane taught me the value of kindness – now I can repay her.

Don’t bring Harry … Redknapp

We've got Harry, Harry, Harry, Harry Redknapp on the wing, on the wing

Slim pickings: Harry Redknapp on the wing

I was standing in the away end at the Valley, Charlton, and it was simply hosing it down as West Ham attempted to hold onto a 2-1 lead with a bit over a quarter of an hour on the clock. Despite an arthritic knee and what pace he ever possessed forever gone former Hammers hero Julian Dicks had been asked to play in an unfamiliar wingback role and was taking a chasing from Addicks right-back Danny Mills. Worse still Charlton boss Alan Curbishley, along with everybody else in the stadium, spotted Dicks’ distress and doubled up on him by bringing on substitute winger John Robinson. When I say “everybody” I mean all bar the West Ham manager. Despite having the useful French wide player Marc Keller on the bench he failed to act – Mills banged one in and Andy Hunt and Neil Redfearn grabbed a late goal each to give our South London cousins a 4-2 victory. I walked back to the car in Anchor and Hope Lane unable to believe any manager worth his name could have been so tactically inept. Soaked to the bone, angry and confused – that Saturday in October 1998 was the day I stopped believing in Harry Redknapp.

My journey with the man began almost 30 years earlier with a match at Upton Park against Stoke City. Seated with Dad in the recently opened East Stand two memories from my first ever visit to the Boleyn Ground remain. A dull 0-0 draw closed with a woman running onto the pitch to attack the referee. Off the pitch my spectator experience, as it would no doubt be called today, was enhanced by the mainly good-natured but relentless barracking of West Ham’s spindly right-winger. “Oi Redknapp! Stick yer tongue out – you’ll look like a zip”, they chortled, “How about starching that number seven on yer shirt – give yer some backbone”, they laughed. For me, versed only in primary school banter it was inexplicable how fans might not treat players as heroes. But even at nine-years-old the truth was as obvious to me as it was them. Harry was chicken.

Redknapp hung around the club for a couple of years more before coming to the same conclusion as all his “admirers” and leaving for Division Three side Bournemouth. His return came from the same club – this time in a coaching capacity and following a spell in the United States – as understudy to manager Billy Bonds while the club languished in the second tier. Following an initial struggle Harry’s presence revived the side as they played with energy and enjoyment, gained promotion and consolidated their position with a 13th place finish in the new Premier League. Bonds jumped/was pushed, Harry took over and the club established itself as a mid-table side over the next few seasons.

Even if there were obvious faults to be rectified (our away form and propensity to fall apart under pressure, for instance) Redknapp appeared to be doing a good job. His buys were astute and our home form remained solid. But Harry’s profile in the media seemed to bear an inverse relationship with his ability to manage the club. Journalists loved the crafty Cockney rent-a-quote even if in person he could be extremely brusque and quick to anger. Along with the fame came a biography and a telling insight into the man – but not in a good way. Ghosted by Derek McGovern it was little more than a series of justifications for a host of allegations many of which were never made in the first place. It was also rather, shall we say, slippery with the facts. Despite claiming to have made “no money out of football” and leaving Bournemouth £2.5million in debt he arrived at West Ham living out of Sandbanks on Poole Harbour, one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the country.

Fortunately the book also went a long way to confirming personality traits I would argue define his subsequent career. As yellow as he may have been on the pitch, Redknapp is ruthless on an interpersonal level and extremely difficult to deal with. Examples from the book include spats with friends Barry Fry and Peter Storrie. Even Sir Clive Woodward, author of the England rugby side’s 2003 World Cup win, found him impossible to work with as he attempted a role as Performance Director while both were at Southampton.

Club Chairman at the time Terry Brown claims in Brian Belton’s biography Brown Out Harry was tactically illiterate and relied heavily on first Frank Burrows then brother-in-law Frank Lampard. As somebody who went to a lot of away games over that period I’d echo those sentiments. Time upon time we would travel with a 3-5-2 formation – used ostensibly to accommodate a playmaker such as Eyal Berkovic or Joe Cole only for it to quickly become 5-3-2 with three static centre-halves as soon as we came under pressure. After yet another heavy defeat Harry would brush off questions about the performance with claims such as, “These lads wouldn’t know how to defend” and expect nobody to question why he had first bought then selected them. Perhaps his behaviour when “accused” of being “a wheeler and a dealer” by a Sky reporter gives us a clue?

As a motivator Harry employed a pretty simple technique. Build a large squad before dividing it into pariahs and teacher’s pets. Given his force of personality nobody would want to be on the wrong end of a Redknapp tongue-lashing. For the huge majority of players there’s nothing worse than being dropped and I’ve heard several top flight managers observe the only way to motivate them is with the threat of not playing. Multiply that by the knowledge falling out with your boss would ensure you’d never be picked and it’s a pretty useful if ruthless model. A case in point was the previously mentioned Keller – who never enjoyed a run in the team despite some very good one-off performances. Jermain Defoe would no doubt sympathise too.

Perhaps Harry’s vague association with truthfulness was a concern for the FA regarding the England manager’s appointment. When appointed West Ham boss following Redknapp’s sacking, relative unknown Glenn Roeder was asked which attribute he could bring to his new job. “Honesty” was the immediate reply, a declaration that in true Harry fashion led to a series of putdowns in the press. In reality, it was easy to see Roeder’s point, after a nasty training ground fight between Berkovic and John Hartson denied by Redknapp but filmed by Sky a case in point. From my vantage I was interested to witness a TV appearance where Redknapp claimed a whole series of events during a game against Bradford that simply never happened. A former colleague of mine worked for the Newham Recorder and shared a good relationship with H. Post-presser the cub reporter would be summoned to Harry’s office to be told. “What I said out there was a load of bollocks, this is what’s really going on…” An indication perhaps, the man is less the cheerful duffer the press would have us believe but more of a ruthless operator.

It surely can’t be coincidence that every club H has departed have been left in severe financial distress. I’m going to have to be very careful what I say here, especially as a recent court case brought by HMRC absolved Redknapp of any tax misdeeds. Suffice to say, the more money H spent at West Ham the less value we seemed to receive from it. Great signings such as Trevor Sinclair from QPR declined and were outweighed by washed-up rubbish like Titi Camara and Gary Charles. As time went by players appeared to be bought to serve not the team but agents. As an inveterate gambler Harry didn’t seem able to develop from a punt to purchasing solid players. In Tom Bower’s tome Broken Dreams Brown is said to become increasingly frustrated with his signings and offers Redknapp a proportion of any money gained above £15million for the sale of Rio Ferdinand if he would stop buying players. All of which begs the question who was signing the cheques? Scriptwriter and director Tony Grounds is a good mate and pre-match drinking buddy (not that I drink that much) I met through football and would no doubt say his Channel Four film All In The Game about a corrupt football manager had nothing to do with our West Ham. I’d merely invite you to watch it and make up your own mind.

One of Harry’s proudest boasts concerns the players he “brought through” at West Ham. Happy to claim credit for the development of Ferdinand, Frank Lampard jnr, Joe Cole and Michael Carrick – even Defoe – who played exactly 13 minutes for Redknapp – the sad truth is those players were moulded into what they were by the West Ham Academy Director Tony Carr and with the possible exception of Lampard all needed a different manager to develop.

All these things and more are known by FA committee member Trevor Brooking who was a non-executive director of the club for much of Redknapp’s tenure. So it’s hardly likely he would have been an advocate when it came to the Three Lions job. Privately Harry will be fuming. But I rather wonder if there isn’t a tiny part of him that’s glad. For the truth is, stripped of the day-to-day involvement of a football club Redknapp may well have been exposed at the top level – especially as to misquote Enoch Powell, “All managerial careers end in failure.” His honeymoon period would undoubtedly have been longer than Roy Hodgson – the man who got the job – but by God Harry wouldn’t want to lose the people who’ve been his best ally all these years – the press.

West Ham United: loud, proud and … wrong

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

An ex-colleague for whom I have the highest regard is a strongly active member of the Labour Party and I read her Tweets with great interest. Not so much for details of her personal life – as amusing as they often are – but for the clinical precision with which she will dissect the latest idiocy coming from either Parliamentary or grassroots members. I empathise with her undoubted frustration at believing in a cause so strongly yet being hampered at every turn by disunity, arrogance or stupidity. As trite as it may appear her travails as a political animal mirror mine as a football follower. You see, the truth is I often struggle not to despise people who would no doubt call themselves fellow West Ham supporters.

According to a longitudinal study by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester West Ham season ticket holders are some of the wealthiest around (probably a function of the smallish ground and high demand which has led to relatively expensive ticket prices) yet at the same time among the poorest educated with a low proportion having attended tertiary education compared to other clubs.

As many other fans observe, Hammers are a bit “chavvy” – or to put it another way, working class-made-good. Living as I do in Suffolk the obvious comparison to make is with Ipswich whose supporters tend to be polite, respectful and a lot less raucous. Few self-respecting Irons would be seen dead wearing facepaint or many other symbols of the Sky corporate definition of what it is to follow “footy” even if replica shirts now abound. Town fans are much more volatile in their support – full of bravado when they win the same people disappear upon defeat. Most of all I don’t notice any shared sense of what it is to be a Tractor Boy.

To be West Ham is to be loud, proud and obnoxious. It’s no coincidence one of the most enduring chants over the years has been, “Same old West Ham, taking the piss” Throughout the 70s and 80s the feared ICF (Inter City Firm) came to define the support. Although a mate of mine who ran with them denies any tactical command, “We weren’t organised, we just set our clocks early” there is little doubt the proud boast “30 years undefeated” has some substance.

Contemporary football hooliganism has been all but eradicated but that legacy survives. Unfortunately with a median age over 50 it’s clear the same season ticket holders are still attending with a lost generation of 25-40 year-olds having missed out. Equally regrettably the previous aggression and sense of pride has been turned inwards into a sulky blanket disapproval of easy targets, principally the players and coaching staff. Meaningful protest has been forgotten as fans starved of considered media comment fail to make any connection between events on and off the pitch.

I strongly maintain the best thing about supporting a team, my team, are the people I meet and interact with – they’re the reason I keep going. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the club West Ham supporters seem to invariably choose the wrong option.

Former manager Harry Redknapp was adored by fans despite tactical illiteracy and a hold over then Chairman Terence Brown that allowed him to purchase and sell players not in the best interests of the club but for the betterment of  his own bank balance. Admittedly protests were held against Brown – not least during several stormy AGMs. Far more damaging to the club however, were the subsequent Icelandic owners who all but propelled the club into liquidation but were saved any serious disquiet by canny PR. There’s a current revisionist platform that hails Alan Pardew’s reign as manager – particularly as under his stewardship Newcastle are having a good season – but the truth is he was disliked for most of his time at the club too despite taking us to our first domestic final in 25 years.

Although from the same background as the club’s support current co-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold are treated with at best mistrust and worst outright hostility despite being the first owners in the club’s 117 year history to put significant sums of their own money into the club (unfortunately the Icelanders investment turned out to be underwritten by Monopoly money). Current manager Sam Allardyce has the best win record of any manager but appears to be engaging an all-out PR war with his own support.

So it is with unease I view current plans among fan groups to demand a ballot on any proposed move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium in a mirror of the current fashion for TV viewers to ” have their say” in regard to reality shows. Leaving aside arguments over why non-shareholders might believe themselves worthy of representation only the most blinkered could possibly argue against a move on financial grounds. Club revenue will rise and ticket prices drop – hence Orient Chairman Barry Hearn’s antipathy to the move. Players would be more attracted to join the club and the sponsorship profile would rise. For spectators journey times to and from games would be slashed and pre and post-match comfort much improved from the dingy and derelict pubs surrounding Upton Park. Most importantly the increased capacity would enable the club to welcome back the lost fans I speak of.

Objections to the move are ostensibly based on the potential distance from stands to pitch with fans fearful of a diminution of atmosphere. Frankly this is hogwash, the current ground bears no relation to the dark, hostile and intimidating arena I first watched a game from in 1969. I’d suggest the real legitimation – and I’d have a lot more sympathy with this view – is the quite natural fear of change.

Sadly boys and girls, I believe our time is gone and a new generation of support is long overdue. If the club are to maintain traditions perhaps it’s time to ditch ours.

Panic on the streets of London

Terror on the horizon - the Dom Luís Bridge, Porto. Pic: Terry Land

Terror on the horizon - the Dom Luís Bridge, Porto. Pic: Terry Land

For the past few days Britain has seen itself gripped in the jaws of the worst mass panic since, well, since the last. Following comments that ranged from calculated to outright dangerous (I won’t use the word inflammatory out of respect for poor Diane Hill, the York woman who suffered 40 per cent burns to her body and as this blog is written remains in a critical condition in hospital) the country have been filling cars with petrol in a consumer frenzy only matched by the most recent iPad launch. The irony of “Keep calm and carry on” being the meme du jour is not lost on me.

The mood is best summed up by a woman I was speaking to last Friday who claimed, “This whole thing is ridiculous – there’s no need for people to panic at all.” Before adding, “But I only had half a tank of petrol left so I went out and filled up this morning”. This despite any fuel strike at least a week and probably further away and the pumps not about to run out any time soon. Hers is the schism between what people say and do, nothing inspires a panic like others panicking.

US lawyer and author Christian Nevell Bovee claimed, “Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.” Or put another way, panic is acting out the emotion of fear – and as such is one of the most primitive of reactions. With that in mind it is incredibly easy for those in public life of a malevolent cast to provoke a strong reaction using nothing but fear.

Tony Blair and George Bush used the fear of terrorist attacks to keep entire nations in check and instigate swathes of law that reduced civil liberties. Of course the effect of their pronouncements were not confined to merely us the public but also gave hawkish military leaders all the justification required to embark on their favourite pastime, slaughter.

Newspapers have long profited from selling panic, and just as I was once extremely perceptively informed by a psychotherapist, “The things we fear the most have already happened to us” so those that lap up stories about the latest housing crisis or cancer scare are paradoxically those feeling most threatened.

There is nothing to scare the newly wealthy like a return to frugality. No coincidence for me The Mail is widely read among the aspirational classes. These are the very same people who could not trust comprehensive schools to deliver. Instead they collectively wrecked the nation’s education system by fretting so badly over Ollie and Chloe’s “future” we sleepwalked via a self-fulfilling prophecy into two tiers of provision.

Sociologist Stan Cohen described this behaviour in his classic 1972 text Folk Devils and Moral Panics even if the term itself was first coined by colleague Jock Young. Cohen wonderfully referred to those who benefited from public fear as “moral entrepreneurs”, a brand of creatures brilliantly parodied by the TV programme Brass Eye. So effective was Chris Morris’ parody of the hysteria surrounding paedophilia his efforts turned full circle and the programme was banned, largely due to the efforts of Home Secretary David Blunkett who later confessed he hadn’t watched. Never mind the man is blind, it gave us the viewers the chance to pour scorn on Gary Lineker endorsing the fictional charity Nonce Sense.

If I sound judgemental on the issue then perhaps I shouldn’t. My great fear is a mixture of heights and exposure so debilitating I will never be persuaded onto a roller-coaster. Bridges are a particular struggle with at different times Queen Elizabeth II at Dartford  and Brunel at Clifton proving impassable. On a long weekend in Porto such was my terror of the Dom Luís over the river Douro I bellowed Is This The Way To Amarillo to keep my mind off the walk across. Whether the current fuel crisis or my choice and execution of song is more pathetic and demeaning for those involved is for others to decide, even if visits to the wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia proved an effective antidote for the journey back.

Nominating panic a symptom of fear the disease is all well and good until we start thinking about a remedy. I’ve heard it said the opposite of fear is courage or even love but would dismiss both of them. Nor would I suggest the public singing of novelty records is any panacea. No, if we look at fear in its most basic form it seems to me it boils down to one primitive cry – “I want my mum!” When viewed in that light the antidote to panic is surely nurturing.

Even though it was a panicking woman who expressed her desire to grab all the petrol she could and despite The Mail relying on female approval to maintain sales I wonder if women’s most basic instinct is the answer to the fuel crisis and its base instinct. Or is that a bridge too far?

Try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing

Britain's heritage - blacking up

Britain's heritage - weirdos blacking up

The incident is burned in my memory decades later; hurrying into the noisy classroom following dinner-break as I sat down next to my mate. Being a bit of a scally and in the knowledge I was the only boy in class not wearing long trousers (thanks Mum – seven-years-old and still in shorts) the little bastard pinched my leg. Due to the hubbub I was unaware of Miss Puddefoot’s presence in the room and let out a loud and prolonged scream – the sort you might holler in the recently vacated playground. She was a young teacher; kind and difficult to get on the wrong side of. Nonetheless, she stood up from whatever she was doing behind her desk and glared at me. No preamble, no telling off.  “Go!” she commanded, “And stand outside the class.”

This was possibly the worst moment in my life up until then. As a well-behaved and rather diffident boy used to coming top of the form I wasn’t at all accustomed to discipline in school. However, the punishment meted out by teacher was far from my mind. Worse, much worse than her admonishment was the reaction of the class – they were in fits at my ridiculous scream and hysterics I’d been caught. I trooped out of this hell and to the relative sanctuary of the corridor to the mocking of 30 or so compatriots.  Face burning red and with my heart attempting to pump its way through a Bri-Nylon shirt I had just enough self-respect remaining to save the tears for outside.

Some might find the incident amusing – I don’t and never have. All my life the very worst thing, worse than pain, worse even than death is embarrassment. Although an emotional response, I consider it a symptom of my own innate humanity this aversion applies not just to my own discomfort but anybody’s. I loathe the works of Woody Allen, am barely able to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and incredulous at the praise bestowed upon The Office. John Cleese may well have considered the writing of Fawlty Towers to have been good therapy for himself but for me it was the reverse.

As a rule, comedians in Working Man’s Clubs made a living embarrassing members of the audience while the alternative lot set about themselves. But when it comes people capable of humiliating everybody in sight you struggle to find a group more demeaned and demeaning than Morris dancers.

I’ve only met one person in my life who indulged in Morris. He and I both worked for a crisis-counselling charity and it was my misfortune to share a duty with him one Monday night. I must confess I didn’t think much of the chap even before he decided (much against any indication I might have given) to show me his “dance” technique. Out came a not-too-clean hanky as he pranced around the small room oblivious either to the impending need of the callers or my disgust.

Dressing up as a horse and poking your equine nose into ladies’ shopping bags is not “hilarious”, but “twattish”. Wearing a pair of cut-off cricket trousers, worn-out dress-shirt and white nylon football socks cannot under any terms represent “heritage”. And if this really is a fertility ritual, why are so many of the participants so old? Even leaving aside rumours of far-right memberships and allegiances I find it difficult to accept any group with even an ounce of nous would be proclaiming their right to black-up in the 21st Century.

But that’s rather the point isn’t it? Morris dancers have no self-awareness. With the exception of buskers  – who do it for money – I cannot think of another group so ready to foist their hobby on an unwilling public. You may not like football but at least we retire to an out-of-the-way pitch to indulge. Fishing, the most popular leisure activity in the country, is all but exclusively maintained away from the public gaze. Even trainspotting – the most reviled pastime – will usually take place tucked away at the end of a station platform. Not so Morris men who exhibit an almost fascistic lack of concern for right of access to civic spaces.

As anecdotal evidence I give you an example from my past which also demonstrates my belief nothing in life makes us as angry as others behaving in a manner we forbid ourselves: On my way to rugby training one evening a bit of a hold up in the main square led to me dipping down a side street in order get to the club on time. Having the same idea, a couple of other cars followed behind me only for us all to screech to a halt as we reached the pub at the bottom. For outside the Rose and Crown a bunch of social misfits complete with fancy dress, bells and sticks had commandeered the byway and were exercising their “right” to ponce about in the middle. It was reminiscent of a scene from The League of Gentlemen – only more sinister.

Already late and not in the best of moods I was furious their pastime was denying mine. At the front of a now lengthening queue there was no opportunity to back the car up even if we weren’t in a one-way street, so I revved the engine as something of indication to the assembled extras from Royston Vasey I really would rather like to get about my business. Instead of the anticipated polite parting of the ways and a wave of a hanky I received dark looks and an increase in the tempo of the “dance”.

A quick toot on the horn fared no better so I started inching forward only for the occupants of the road to do the same. The stand-off broke as the bumper of my car feathered the bells of one recalcitrant only for him to plunge to the floor via my bonnet in a dive well worthy of a yellow card for simulation. Fortunately his friends finally got the message as I dropped the clutch and belted towards them.

Watching (and hearing) them scatter was almost as amusing as the look on the Desk Sergeant’s face when I visited The Nick post-rugby to report them – apparently they had already rung me in. Rather reasonably I thought, I pointed out had it been myself and a load of mates organising a political protest without prior warning and blocking the public highway our feet would barely have touched. I never heard any more from the local constabulary – but am willing to bet the bloke who pinched my leg now plays the accordion.

The child that is born on the Sabbath day…

Did Jesus really die for the right to intolerance?

Did Jesus really die for the right to intolerance?

I come from a generation that grew up with little or no knowledge of homosexuality. Throughout my childhood and teens I certainly recognised the existence of gays – albeit mostly via what I’d read in the Sunday newspapers – even if I couldn’t believe anybody I knew actually was gay. I recall my resentment when girls flocked around one undeniably handsome but rather affected boy at school yet it wasn’t until years later it was pointed out to me just why that was.

I feel a fool now for not being more broad-minded, especially as he spent so much of his time away from class with one particular older lad. In this state of ignorance and just as I couldn’t imagine a teacher having any life away from the blackboard, nor did I think for a second there might be a real live poof in my school.

So when we liberals despair of the way society has become ever more intolerant it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in accepting difference. In my late teens skinheads routinely went hunting out public toilets that they might go “queer-bashing”. (No coincidence in my mind so many of the knuckle-boys later left the closet). I can’t remember anyone ever being prosecuted, in fact it seemed the Old Bill were mostly on the same side as they engaged in their own campaigns of harassment.

Compare and contrast with a colleague of mine who took early retirement last year and came out to the entire factory via email on his last day. Despite an environment where the newspaper of choice is The Star the most usual comment I heard was, “So?” That’s not to say there isn’t massive room for improvement – I’m sure my friend Dan who works for a GLBT charity would be only too ready to point out the horrifying incidence of contemporary homophobic attacks both here and abroad.

Not that my first experiences of a gay couple were all that positive. Jak, an old friend blurted out to me over the phone one day that her life had changed dramatically for the better before informing me she was still living with her husband but had moved a woman into the family home and was in love with her. I soon met up with the pair of them and not long after came to realise that Karen, the new woman, hated not just me but all men.

I must confess to prolonging my friendship with the pair of them for far longer than I should in the vain notion being friends with a couple of lesbians gave my right-on credentials a bit of a boost. So it was I endured a substantial amount of abuse from Karen in the name of “honesty” before foolishly retaliating. Pointing out Jak should tell her children about the affair and the pair of them should end their reliance on the husband’s financial support was apparently not the sort of honesty they traded in. Fortunately that experience proved to be an exception, even if it disabused some of my silly and tokenistic notions.

Since that time I’ve learned Bury St Edmunds offers few in the way of interesting and intelligent people of my age that aren’t either gay or married – and I don’t really enjoy the “couples” thing. It is that inherent mistrust of pairs presenting themselves as one that led to my immediate and instinctive view marriage is a failing institution that gays are well out of. Of course, that’s not the point at all; it’s about equality and denial of same due to ones sexuality.

So it is with a sense of despair I hear the arguments against gay marriage in the current public debate. There seem to be two strands, both emanating from the Church. The “marriage is for procreation” stance is so easily picked apart I’m not even going to bother. The second thrust (am I allowed to  say thrust in a blog about gay marriage?) claims homosexuality to be a sin against God. Leaving aside the observation The Church has no monopoly on marriage it is instructive to hear what Jesus had to say on the issue. Ah, that would be absolutely nothing then – perhaps his big gay denunciation was pencilled in for the week after Easter?

When Cardinal Keith O’Brien claimed same-sex marriage to be a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” it’s easy to wonder if he possesses even the slightest sense of self-awareness. Does the Cardinal really not realise that tapping “catholic priest” into Google brings up “sex abuse”? And when the same official compared gay marriage to slavery it’s difficult to believe he hadn’t been at the Communion wine.

The despair I speak of comes not as you might imagine, from the paucity of the debate but the lack of more refined discussions about what it means to be gay in 2012. The gay people I’d call friends range in background, class and political views similarly to any sample of my straight friends, albeit the latter group tend to be loaded towards a support for West Ham United. I would hope I judge all of them good or bad not by their sexuality but as Martin Luther King famously said in another context, “By the content of their character.”

So why despite the reactionary view the arts have become all but a gay closed shop is there such a monotone representation of male gays in popular culture? With each appearance by Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady or Alan Carr I wonder if the role model hasn’t extended much beyond John Inman. Where are the bears and chubs on TV – albeit they are clichés too? And as much as I understand that for many men coming out is a process that involves disposing of an earlier character, the screaming queen is such a stereotype. As Michael Musto observed, “When I first came out I thought I would be entering a world of nonconformity and individuality and, au contraire, it turned out to be a world of clones.”

They say the things you dislike most in others are those you despise most in yourself, so before the hypocrisy of a straight man lecturing gays on their behaviour is pointed out to me I would observe this is a journey I’ve taken too – and not a particularly pleasant one either. Through my days at different times as a rugby player, drinker, doorman body-builder and so on, I only became comfortable with my own masculinity once I stopped pretending to be something I wasn’t. A lesson for all of us perhaps; gay, straight or clergy?