Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Corrosion of Trust

In the summer of 2000 I spent three weeks staying with friends  in Texas. While there I shared their excitement  as we crowded round the TV to watch  their fellow Texan, Lance Armstrong, win the Tour de France. It was his second win and this time he beat his two principal challengers, Ullrich and Pantani, who had both  been missing from the Tour he won the previous  year.  In winning against a full field  he established himself as unquestionably the most gifted Tour rider of his generation. 

The two challengers from 2000 were later  to suffer disgrace and tragedy.  Jan Ullrich was found guilty of blood doping, which he eventually admitted. All his results from 2005 onwards  were annulled. Marco Pantani faced persistent allegations of doping, sunk into depression and died in 2004 of acute cocaine poisoning.

In 2005 I was just a few metres from Armstrong as he sped by on stage 14 of the Tour, on his way to his seventh and final victory while achieving the fastest average pace in the Tour's history. At the side of the road my small holiday hire car was proudly draped with the saltire and the `lonestar'  flag of Texas, firmly adopted now as my `home'  US state.

My view of Armstrong in 2005.

Despite the persistent allegations, Armstrong's vigorous self-defence was persuasive and his victories seemed untainted. In 2001 he published "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life".  I read it and was convinced.  The cancer that brought him close to death, he argued, had conferred such a strong moral sense that the idea of cheating his way to fraudulent  glory was simply unthinkable. Like many others, I bought the line. If this turned out to be a lie, could I ever believe anyone again?

Now we know that Armstrong was a long-term cheat, possibly from as early as 1995, and a ringleader in the doping culture that permeated cycling in the early 2000s.  In a judgement from one of the many legal actions against him, his behaviour was described as "almost certainly the most devious sustained deception ever perpetrated in world sporting history". It was painful to accept that I had naively underestimated the depth of deceit of which a ruthlessly ambitious man was capable.

In the spring of 2003 Pantani was still alive, Ullrich and Armstrong were preparing for another titanic battle in the Tour - Ullrich would finish second to Armstrong for the third time. And Tony Blair was about to make the biggest decision of his political career, or - perhaps more accurately as it turns out - he was seeking approval from the House of Commons for a decision he had already made, in cahoots with US President George  W. Bush, whom he had pledged to support "whatever".   

Blair was fond of saying, "I think I'm a pretty straight kind of guy."  And, yes, I bought that line too.  So when he told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which he could train on the UK, to arrive in 40 minutes, I was inclined to believe him. I was sceptical, yes, but in the end my judgement  - on balance - was that he was trustworthy. Had I been an M.P. I would have voted - albeit with a heavy heart - to invade Iraq. 

But Blair turned out to be the Lance Armstrong of politics. Drugged by his own sense of infallibility and his lust to make history, he discounted the warnings, manipulated the intelligence, and nailed his colours to the mast of Dubya's cause.

Nobody died as a result of Lance Armstrong's lies. The same cannot be said for Tony Blair. Their programmes of deception are not on the same level.  And Armstrong has finally expressed contrition.  But Blair's `apology' : `I express more sorrow, regret and apology than you can ever believe.' is an evasive and vacuous  mangling of the English language. He expresses more apology than we can ever believe? Too right, we can never believe it. Or him. Or perhaps any powerful politician.

Because I had believed they were pure, I was devastated by the deceptions of both men. I revised my understanding of human nature. I am wiser now, but much, much more cynical.
And now the next chapter is upon us. The corrosion of trust has become endemic. When no-one can be believed, all arguments have equal weight. The EU referendum could have been a vote to choose between evolution and creationism. It would probably have had the same lamentable result.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Warren Brothers - a Family Legend

Season 1912-13 was a great one for Glasgow Academicals, crowned Scottish champions with 17 wins from their 19 championship matches. Two Warren brothers were in that team. Jack, at 24 the oldest of the five - a cultured and fearless centre -  was approaching his peak and starting to interest the Scotland selectors.  George, a year younger and known to all as `Pudge', played outside his brother on the wing. With a devastating turn of pace, he too was rapidly building his reputation. The mesmerising passages of interplay between these two were memorably described by one contemporary observer as `scientific shows'. Off the field, they were polar opposites in personality: Pudge known for his irrepressible bonhomie and sense of mischief; Jack the classic stong, silent type.

Meanwhile, nineteen year old Thomas (`Tam'), the middle brother, was a promising full-back, turning our regularly for the Academicals' 2nd XV in his first year out of school, and already pushing for promotion to the firsts. His place at full-back in the school team had been inherited by the next of the brothers, Alistair.

The celebrated Academy (and, later, Academicals) rugby coach, J C Scott, had great hopes for Alistair. Having nurtured all the brothers through the early years of their rugby careers, in clubroom chat he was often urged to judge their respective merits. Jack has courage and strength, he would say, while George has got speed, and the youngest, Ronald, can turn on a sixpence; but Alistair has all of these gifts. It was his firm opionion that Alistair would have a long Scotland career and most likely be with the British Lions on their next visit to the antipodes.
Legendary coach J.C.Scott

Jack was the first of the brothers to be capped for Scotland. On a grey February day in 1914 he made his debut in a closely contested match against Ireland at Landsdowne Road in Dublin. Ireland won by two tries to nil (6-0 by the scoring convention of the times.). Ironically, Jack played on the wing that day, winning his place against stiff competition from - amongst others -  Pudge.

The Scotland team v Ireland at Landsdowne Road 28 Feb 1914. J.R.Warren back row, 2nd from right.

Scotland and Ireland would not meet each other again until 1920. Jack returned from the Great War with the rank of Major and a Military Cross to his name - the ultimate expression of the courage he had earlier shown on the rugby field. He had been wounded three times and gassed three times, injuries that took a lifelong toll on his health and ended any thoughts of a return to rugby.

Only Ronald, the youngest (and smallest) of the five, and too young to see war service, was to play rugby after 1914. Alistair was killed in 1916, on the first day of the first battle of the Somme. Pudge and Tam survived the war, but were not to return to the game they loved. So was born a great family legend of what might have been. It had at one time seemed very likely that at least four of the brothers would have been capped by their country. But Ronald was the only one to follow in Jack's footsteps. Remarkably in view of his size his international career was to span nine seasons.

My memory of Ronald in his 80s is of a tiny man, barely more than five feet tall. Gentle and courteous, he lived a quiet life with his equally tiny wife, Jean, who fussed around him like a hyperactive sparrow in their large house in Glasgow's Jordanhill. But even in old age he showed signs of the fierce determination that had seen him achieve his goal of international rugby. An experienced and skilled yachtsman, in his 70s he had taken his yacht out of dry berth for one final trip with Jean  - to St.Kilda no less!

No doubt with age Ronald had shrunk in stature.  But I have one of his Scotland jerseys, which has a chest measurement of 36". In the Scottish borders he was affectionately known as `the wee reed yin' on account of his ruddy complexion and ginger hair; but he was also feared for his elusive running, which brought him many spectacular tries - unusually in those days, from full-back. It requires quite a feat of imagination, by comparison with the physicality of today's professional players, to conceive of quite such a small man having played international rugby.  The game has changed a great deal since the 1920s, and not all for the better I would suggest. I can remember matches at school and club level in the 70s and 80s that were greatly enlivened by diminutive players who were slippery and elusive - the `demented ferret up a wee drainpipe' in the lingo of Bill McLaren. In the 1920s there was still room for such players at international level; sadly not now. Even back then the selectors must have had their doubts - Ronald was capped twice in 1922 and - although remaining a stalwart of Glasgow Academicals during the most successful period in their  history - did not return for his three further caps until 1930.

Ronald is pictured here with the Scottish championship winning team of 1925-26.  In this season they won all 19 championship matches. The photo includes eight Scottish internationalists.

The only Warren rugby player of note in the next generation was my father, Alastair. He returned from another war to form part of a new Glasgow Academicals team, and played several seasons. A hooker, allegedly once rated as the third best in Scotland, he remains the family's only forward.

Oli, David and Michael Warren at Murrayfield on 28 February 2015. (Photo: Margaret Warren)

To more recent times, and the photo above shows three latter-day Warrens gathering at Murrayfield on 28 February 2015. Oli (great-grandson of Jack Warren) and my brother David (grandson of JRW) both enjoyed rugby success at school. As for me, I lacked the family rugby gene, but enjoyed a few seasons and a few beers with Dumfries 4th XV. I would have liked to have had something good to say about the 101st anniversary match itself;  circumstances dictate otherwise. But the fact that it took place 101 years to the day since Jack's Scotland cap provided sufficient excuse for celebration, and a grand weekend was enjoyed by all.

Michael Warren

Notes,Trivia and Speculation

  • On 28th February 1914 Scotland also played an international football match. The result was Scotland 0 Wales 0.
  • I have a copy of a letter sent in 1960 from my father, AK Warren, son of Jack Warren, to his grandfather, 100-year old John Alexander Warren (`Old John'). He signs the letter `Alistair', not `Alastair'. I can only assume this is in recognition of his having been named after his late uncle Alistair.
  • Jack Warren was invited to take part in a trial for England, on account of his English mother. He politely declined.
  • The only instance of four brothers representing Scotland at rugby were the four Nielson brothers (William, George, Walter and Robert) in the 1890s. William played for London Scottish, George and Robert for West of Scotland and Walter for Merchistonians.)
  • Current English internationalist Manu Tuilagi has four brothers who have been capped by Samoa, and a fifth who has represented Samoa at under-20 level.)  Yet another brother, Olotuli, while sharing the imposing physique of his rugby-playing siblings, is well-known as a cross-dresser in Samoa and likes to be known as `Julie'. 
  • Between seasons 1921-22 and 1925-26, Glasgow Academicals were Scottish rugby club champions four times. Their only lapse was 1922-23, when they came a dismal second. During this 5-year period they won 111 out of 123 matches.
  • Four members of that great Academicals team of the 1920s, J.C.Dykes, J.B.Nelson, W.M.Simmers and H.Waddell gained 88 caps between them. This was a prodigious total at a time when there were typically only 4 international matches per season. 
  • Ronald Warren was also known in his playing days as `turkey', probably on account both of his ruddy complexion and pronounced proboscis, a common Warren feature.
  • The Scotland team on 28 February 2015 included one Glasgow Academical, Johnnie Beattie. Johnnie's father, John, also played for Scotland and was no.8 for Glasgow Academy when T. David Warren was scrum-half.
  • Timothy David Warren has always been known as David in the family, but at school was mostly known as Tim. The reason for this was that when younger brother David started at the Academy, I was called to see the headmistress, Miss Mackintosh. I was asked what he was normally called at home - was it Timothy or David? I replied with youthful indifference, "It doesn't really matter what you call him." So he became Tim. I apologise.
  • Guy Warren, a third cousin of Michael and David Warren, emigrated to New Zealand as a young man, where he played rugby at a high level, including - it is believed - representing South Island.
  • Scotland's try on 28 February 2015 was the first for his country scored by a very promising young centre, Mark Bennett. Expect more to follow - he has been likened to a young Brian O'Driscoll. (Update: this prediction was proved correct sooner than I expected - Bennett scored Scotland's try in their next match, against England at Twickenham on 14 March.)
  • Thanks to Sue Hopkins, one of Jack's three grand-daughters, for finding this remarkably well-informed account of the Warren brothers. I am happy to acknowledge this as the source of some of what I have written.
  • Other sources include "The Glasgow Academy 1846-1946" by Professor C.A.Campbell (Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow, 1946) and unpublished essays of A.K.Warren
  • Edinburgh recommendations: characterful village inn within easy reach of the city; trams to get you to Murrayfield; good beer; good scottish food, including best venison ever; amazing range of malts.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

An Apology

On behalf of the people of Scotland I would like to apologise for Johann Lamont.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Here goes then. You've probably figured it out by now. It's `courage' of course! If the Scottish Parliament's mace had had room for a fifth word, alongside the worthy foursome of wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, that's what designer Michael Lloyd would have gone for, as he told me in a recent conversation.

I think I see where Michael is coming from.

Here's a practical example of the contribution courage might have made.

As ever more doubt is cast on the conviction of  `Lockerbie bomber' Abdulbaset al Megrahi, the Scottish Government's capacity for displaying wisdom, justice, compasion and integrity is (at the time of writing at least) completely nullified by the lack of courage to do something about it.

I for one would be proud to be a citizen of an independent Scotland that had shown the braveheart spirit needed to face up to and deal with this issue, but ashamed if we are to be a nation prepared to live with the stain.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The 5th Word

Mace designer Michael Lloyd told me he would have liked to include a fifth word, alongside wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, but there was no room for it.

I mentioned this in an earlier blog but did not reveal the word.

The word is contained in my last posting - the Lockerbie Test. I think I see where Michael was coming from because wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity - fine as they are - can lose their power without the fifth ingredient.

The campaign of the Glasgow Girls, iconic of Scottish values, was not short on this!

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Lockerbie Tests the Scottish Government

The mace in the Scottish Parliament is inscribed with the four words `Wisdom, Justice, Compassion, Integrity'. Sadly none of these most worthy aspirations has been conspicuous in the Scottish Government's inaction over  the Lockerbie problem.

Where is the wisdom in simply refusing to acknowledge the body of evidence suggesting the Megrahi conviction may have been unsafe? How is justice for the victims served by failing to pursue the truth? Where is the compassion for the bereaved relatives? And if there is fear of reputational damage to the Scottish justice system , would it not show more integrity to have the courage to face this possibility honestly and then, if necessary, put it right?

Arguably, Lockerbie is the litmus test of whether this government has the character the Scottish people aspire to in the four words on the mace. With the world watching, it may also be the test that determines whether Scotland has the confidence to stand proud as an independent nation.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Where's Werrity?

The Fox-Werrity thing. Fox resigned. Werrity disappeared, not that he had ever really been in view in the first place. Fox took the rap for getting into a bit of a muddle about where the line was between his friendships and his political duties. And that was it. A line drawn, so to speak,  and the media moved on.

Only, it can't really be that simple can it? I mean Mr Fox isn't really that simple, is he? So what was really going on? And why have the media dropped the whole thing like a well-fired tuber?

I think we need some answers. And not the tired old lifestyle insinuations, it's the political deimension to this story that just doesn't smell right.