Saturday, 13 March 2021

Keeping Up

 I was never any good at doing keepy-uppies with a football. But I was reminded of someone I played football with who was a master at it when I read about David Moyes passing a bunch of Man City players doing their warm up before the premier league game between City and West Ham recently.

The journalist noted that the skill of the City players might have been daunting for Moyes as, not only were they keeping the ball off the ground between them in spectacular fashion, the group - which I think included Cancelo, Jesus, Bernardo Silva and Mahrez - were all on City's bench that day.

Leaving aside why Moyes would be intimidated (he wasn't playing after all) it made me reflect on a couple of things. The first is that people who can do tricks aren't necessarily the best at the real game. Golf "long drive" is a sport all of its own and the competitions aren't won by tour professionals for example. According to Wikipedia the "most famous" winner of these competitions is Jason Zuback, one of three people to win multiple World Long Drive Championships, with four consecutive wins from 1996–99 and a win in 2006. Sean "The Beast" Fister is another, winning in 1995, 2001, and 2005. Jamie Sadlowski had back to back wins in 2008–09. Ever heard of them? Exactly!

Now obviously those City players are quite handy at the real game. As, in his own way, was my buddy John, whose pre match warm up consisted of doing a stream of keepy-uppies off both feet, knees and his head. But his party piece, when he'd had enough (because he could keep the ball up almost  indefinitely) was to flick the ball up over his head, take half a step forward, dip his head, arch his shoulders and catch the ball on his back. After holding it there for any period he wished he would move his head up, letting the ball slowly roll down whereupon he was usually able to flick it up with his heel and resume keeping it up. Try this at home sometime!

John would often do this trick as a pre-match routine at a place where players of the opposing team would pass him. Clearly it was intended to impress and maybe intimidate them - we'd seen it all before. I remember one such opponent muttering to a colleague "blow me, he looks good" or something similar. "Yeh and he's our left back" we would say. Because John was only any good in the back four or, at a push, as a defensive midfielder and, like me, was a long way of being the best player at the club.

But he was a great guy and I played alongside him for the best part of a decade. John is pictured here with the Warrington League Division 5 champions from 1977. He's front left (I'm front right):

There are a few odd things about this photo. Yes, the first is the strange kit, a style we got a "deal" on (you can see why). It didn't catch on. The second is that several key players were, unfortunately, missing when the photo was taken after the end of the season (but at least we had the trophy). The third is that several of the taller players, including myself and Herbie the keeper are sitting on the front row instead of standing. This was because we hadn't come to train or play (it might have been an AGM). So the players who had appropriate footwear with them had to be at the front. And, yes, those 70s hairstyles. 

The best player, with the Rod Stewart barnett at back left, was only 17 and went on to play for Northwich Victoria, then famous for playing at the Drill Field in Northwich which was believed to be the oldest football ground in the world on which football had been continuously played. That was until 2002 when, having got into financial difficulties, they had to move out. The Vics are now in the North West Counties Premier League, the ninth tier* in the English pyramid. Back then they were founder members of what became the Conference, immediately below the Football League, i.e. the fifth tier. They had got to the fourth round of the FA Cup in 1977 and won the FA Trophy in 1984. Paul wasn't much good at keepy-uppies but he was a super no 10 with an eye for goal and a killer pass.

But back to the left back, John. I played many games at centre back with Herbie in goal and John at left back. We all had each others backs, we all had a lot to say for ourselves during a match and very little of it was negative (unless you count sarcasm). As you can see John was very much a red head with a temperament to match. Manager Brian would often say that John was one minute in an angry pushing and shoving match with the player he was marking and the next appeared to be his biggest chum. John was a decent player but, like me, played most of his matches in the reserves. Watching him in a match you would never have guessed he was a consummate ball juggler.

One of the things about moving around the country, as I did a lot from the 1980s on, is that you get to know a lot of people quite well. You also get to lose contact with most of them, or at least you did in the days before the social media revolution. Social media has benefits and many obvious downsides but one that I've often thought about is how much easier it is now to keep up with someone you haven't met in a while.

I lost touch with John but just a couple of years ago called Herbie - 6 house moves for me but he still lived where he did in the 70s. And he's been coaching football at one of Liverpool's best amateur sports clubs for many years. The news of John wasn't so good. He'd fallen on hard times and didn't even want old friends calling on him.

Best wishes, John old mate. I can still see you catching that ball between your shoulders. Bet you could still do it....

*Our team first team would have been in about the 13th and the reserves the 16th tiers, if anyone counted that far....

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

You'd think that people would have had enough of shaggy dog stories

Mrs H and I have both been finding ourselves singing Paul McCartney's Martha My Dear from the White Album for many days now after listening to side 2 for the first time in a while. This was prompted by Paul McCartney releasing a photo for Love Your Pet Day (apparently it's a thing in the US) showing him and his wife Nancy with their dog Rose. The dog had hitherto avoided publicity. It reminded several news sources of the story of McCartney and his old English sheepdog, Martha, which I hadn't realised was the inspiration for the lyric on Martha My Dear.

I should have twigged that a dog had something to do with it as one of my two most indispensible books, Ian McDonald's Revolution In The Head* calls the lyric "confused" saying  "it's author's old English sheepdog somehow gets muddled up in a recent love affair". At the time the song was said by some to be an indirect love message to  Jane Asher, who had recently broken off their engagement. The Beatles frequently changed names and threw in other obfuscations, Lennon in particular taking amusement from attempts to decipher their songs. And on the White Album there are such examples: the lyric "Sexy Sadie, what have you done, you've made a fool of everyone" was written as "Maharishi... etc"

And the lyric was never convincing as a love song. Although he sings "Take a good look around're bound to see, that you and me were meant for each other, silly girl" other sections like "Hold your head up, you silly girl, look what you've done" sound more dog-ish and "Hold your hand out, you silly girl, see what you've done" is exactly like Mrs H talks to pets, always referring to front paws as "hands" and rear paws as "feet". She likes the song much more since I told her the story.

Over the post-Beatles years lots of snippets have come out from McCartney in interviews, as it did with Lennon before he ran into Mark Chapman. McCartney co-operated with Barry Miles on an official biography, Many Years From Now for which there were many interviews over a 5 year period before the book was published in 1997. In it Macca said:

"When I taught myself piano I liked to see how far I could go, and this started life almost as a piece you’d learn as a piano lesson. It’s quite hard for me to play, it’s a two-handed thing, like a little set piece. In fact I remember one or two people being surprised that I’d played it because it’s slightly above my level of competence really, but I wrote it as that, something a bit more complex for me to play. Then while I was blocking out words – you just mouth out sounds and some things come – I found the words ‘Martha my dear’.… Martha was a dear pet of mine....It’s a communication of some sort of affection but in a slightly abstract way – ‘You silly girl, look what you’ve done,’ all that sort of stuff. These songs grow. Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it’s actually a dog, and our relationship was platonic, believe me."

Indeed the piano parts McCartney wrote were sufficiently testing that he was advised to let George Martin play it, but he persisted. But when McDonald says "Scintillatingly gifted as this song is, it's also virtually devoid of meaning" the second part of that at least isn't entirely right. One can easily imagine Macca telling Martha she was his "inspiration" and also, when off on his travels "Remember me, Martha my love, don't forget me, Martha my dear".

I also find it interesting that this song was constructed in much the same way as Yesterday with no concept for the lyric before the music was well advanced. 

Here is Martha with her "dad", back in the day:

(The feelnumb web link below has the story together with several more photos).

The White Album would come top in very few lists of the best Beatles albums by critics or fans. Personally I would always say Abbey Road. But the White Album is the one I have probably listened to most over the years and is certainly the one I return to most frequently in recent decades. I don't listen to it all the way through, of course - the double album has a few low spots, notably Lennon's lengthy avant garde Revolution 9. Other descriptors are available for this track. As that's buried away on side 4 I rarely got this far when listening to the album from the start day after day at lunchtime in the sixth form (I usually got part way through side 3). But I'm very fond of most of the rest and the first three sides remain very listenable for me.

Side 2, which we listened to recently, starts with Martha, which I'd always considered an OK track but actually it's a great little song. As are Macca's Blackbird (which none of us realised at the time was an opaque reference to civil rights) and the superb I Will, which is so gentle McCartney uses a sung bass line to go with his acoustic guitar; even an acoustic bass wasn't soft enough. And the side flows beautifully, starting when the descending sequence of notes at the end of Martha are mirrored by the ascending sequence at the start of the next track, I'm So Tired, a Lennon track that was one of his personal favourites from his own songs and which has it's own interesting, very Lennonesque lyric:

Although I'm so tired / I'll have another cigarette / And curse Sir Walter Raleigh / He was such a stupid get

Indeed the whole album is, according to McDonald, a "masterpiece of programming", and "a tribute to the sequencing skills of  Lennon, McCartney and Martin" who worked out the running order in "a continuous 24 hour effort". And while the individual tracks don't reach the heights of some other albums, there are many I listen to in preference to those rated best by the critics. I listened to Lennon's I Am The Walrus so many times in the 60s I don't really feel the need to any more, whereas Yer Blues still hits a spot for me. And for me Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps is one of his best tracks, though McDonald finds it "pedantically contrived" with "tiresome, browbeating self importance" and a "plodding sequence" and "dull grandiosity" predictive of the stadium music of the 70s and 80s. I just like it, especially Clapton's guitar parts.

I can think of several other artists where the album I listen to most is not the critics classic choice. Give 'Em Enough Rope or London Calling rather than the first Clash album, for example. And Stadium Arcadium rather than Blood Sugar Sex Magik  for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I guess it's partly that they are all  easier listening. But they all flow well and feature some great tracks. And they showcase some superb guitar playing, especially Stadium Arcadium. Which reminds me, I need to pick up my encomia on the best guitarists I've seen.....

* Revolution In The Head, Ian McDonald, Fourth Estate 1994. Very readable and a great reference book, the meat of which goes through every Beatles song in the order they were recorded. My other most indispensible book, Roy Harper's curated book of all his song lyrics Passions of Great Fortune, has many superb photos and lots of additional material about the songs. I'd have to be tortured to make me choose one or the other. They both get referred to many times a year. published in 2010 has the story as told by Macca to Barry Miles and with super photos of the Fab 4 with Martha and another dog (probably Ringo's), Martha at the location for the Strawberry Fields Forever video and Macca with Martha and a smaller dog. Martha had several puppies one of which is pictured in 1993 with Macca on the Abbey Road pedestrian crossing for the cover of his "Paul is Live" album. 

Yes of course the title of this post is taken from McCartney Silly Love Songs

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

On me head, son!

It's been clear for some time that all sports involving contact and risk of head trauma may have a safety problem. The phenomenon of the punch drunk boxer has been around so long it is part of folk lore and the risk of both short and long term injury has pretty much always been there. In comparison there is a much smaller risk of acute critical injury or death in high contact ball sports such as rugby and a very much smaller such risk in contact sports such as football. 

However, the risk of long term harm such as dementia, not really considered until recent years, may mean that both rugby and football - and others - may face ultimately having to make significant changes to the mode of play. While in both cases head injuries are the main concern, in rugby it's the contact between bodies and in football it seems to be primarily the issue of heading the ball that is the focus of current concern.

For me, at the moment some folk are barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps understandably the daughter of ex Man United and Scotland centre half Gordon McQueen is blaming his dementia on heading footballs, saying she didn't realise he headed it so much in training (eh??) But Gordon has vascular dementia. I sympathise: Mrs H's mum suffered from that awful, personality destroying disease. Vascular dementia is essentially caused by a lack of blood supply to the brain. The main causes are a narrowing of small blood vessels deep inside the brain, strokes or a series of mini-strokes. People with high blood pressure, smokers, the obese and people with high cholesterol and diabetics are at particular risk. The failure of the blood supply effectively kills off whole areas of the brain as shown in this sobering image:

There is more that is not known than is known about the causes of the many forms of dementia. But strokes or transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs) which are the prime causes of vascular dementia aren't associated with head trauma and therefore not with heading footballs. However, I suppose it is conceivable that repeated trauma could cause extensive damage to small blood vessels in the brain. Though why deep in the brain? Nevertheless, I wouldn't totally rule out a connection, especially since what little is understood about dementia includes the fact that victims can have brain changes that are associated with several different types of dementia, e.g. Alzheimer's and vascular dementia or CTE (see below) at the same time. But for me whether repeated heading of footballs using the forehead would produce the widespread impact on the brain shown in the picture above for the vascular and Alzheimer's forms must be doubtful. But there are plenty of other forms of dementia besides the one that Gordon McQueen is suffering from and it's hard to rule anything out on current knowledge.

Proving that a condition that affects many people had a particular cause in some victims, i.e. footballers, isn't straightforward. And my very non-scientific view is that professional football has never been one of the occupations linked to high longevity. But to me it's not an intuitively obvious connection in the case of vascular dementia. There is an excellent and very readable item on the Alzheimer's Association website (see below) on traumatic brain injury from head impacts which disrupt normal brain functions. That source reports that older adults with a history of moderate traumatic brain injury had a 2.3 times greater  risk of developing Alzheimer's while for those with a history of severe traumatic brain injury it was 4.5 times, so roughly double and then double again. There is no evidence that a single mild traumatic brain injury can cause dementia (phew!) but:

"emerging evidence does suggest that repeated mild traumatic brain injuries such as those that can occur in sports such as American Football, boxing, hockey and soccer may be linked to a greater risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia".

I wonder whether the omission of rugby and inclusion of hockey is in that list and the reference to "soccer" means they are quoting from an American source. After all you don't head the ball in hockey so I guess they mean ice hockey. But they do note that, in boxing, the link to CTE correlates with the number of rounds boxed, not the number of times knocked out, meaning that the repetitive nature of mild or very mild traumatic brain injuries may be the issue. 

With the overdue research initiatives in football and the court cases in the offing from rugby players as young as 42 year old World Cup winner Steve Thompson against World Rugby and the English and Welsh rugby football unions more information will slowly emerge on the risks.

So am I concerned about this prospect of a link between playing football and contracting dementia? Yes, but primarily as a spectator rather than an ex-centre back. Oh, I can recall suffering concussion playing football - so at least I have that recall! Neither was due to heading the ball but the result of collisions. The one I remember most clearly was when I'd been pressed into playing as an emergency centre forward, all available strikers being unavailable, in the case of the normal centre forward for a few weeks. So I got to play up front despite never being particularly happy (or useful) with my back to the direction of play. I think in three matches I got one goal - and that was an intercepted back pass. On a bare, dry and dusty pitch late in the season I chased a through ball with the keeper coming out quickly and going down to gather with his arms. Both of us thought we could get there first and neither gave way. I presumably didn't get there first as I went up in the air over the sprawling keeper and - I think - did a Tom Daley impersonation and came down head first into the dirt. I can remember being attended to with the game stopped and suspect I was out for more than a few seconds but I felt fine, not even particularly shaken up. My team mates seemed relieved and, after I'd suffered the cold, wet magic sponge and got back to my feet, one of them told me it was quite funny because I'd sat up looking like an extra from one of my parents' favourite TV shows - the Black and White Minstrels now seen, retrospectively but understandably, as the epitome of insensitivity and political incorrectness. Or, as they say now, wearing "black face", so I guess that's what I landed on.

The other time was a bit scarier because I didn't remember the incident at all, just coming round. It was usual in such situations for someone to hold up of fingers and ask the injured party "how many?" Apparently this is still part of the concussion protocol and it is normal to hold up one finger, I guess because that's the easiest way to spot double vision, though maybe also allowing for how well some footballers can count. I always held up two fingers in the traditional non-Churchillian manner because, if I got a ribald repsonse on the lines "you can eff off as well" then I knew not only could the victim count but also that they could think and hadn't lost their sense of humour.

Anyway I must have said I was fine and the game restarted. I was playing in midfield and as the game carried on and I jogged about  following the play up and down I realised that there was still quite a bit of fog that was slowly clearing. And then it slowly dawned on me that, if I got the ball, I had no idea which way my team was kicking. Following which more fog cleared, I figured it out, carried on jogging around and tried not to get involved in the actual action for a while longer.

That must only have been a mild concussion as it can't have lasted more than a few minutes and I don't remember any after effects at all. Oh, I often had a sore forehead the evening after a game with plenty of headers but that was from the skin being pushed back as I headed the ball, frequently leaving me with a sensitive area along my hairline (or at least where it was then, just above my forehead). But that doesn't give me any concerns, for several reasons. Firstly, there's nothing that can be done about it now if heading is proved to be dangerous. Secondly, I would have headed footballs a tiny fraction of the amount that the pros do. For a start we hardly ever headed the ball in our once or twice a week training sessions. Thirdly, I wouldn't prejudge the outcome of the studies that will now belatedly take place. Despite the smoking gun of the number of ex pros being diagnosed with dementia I've seen anecdotal evidence that that incidence amongst goalkeepers isn't much lower. Of course, they might have been joining in the habit of joining in general training -  I hardly ever met a keeper who didn't want to play out in training sessions. 

But I admit, despite the gathering circumstantial evidence, I still find it hard to believe that heading a modern football a modest number of times a week could pose much risk. You hardly notice the impact of a well-timed header. I was always much more concerned from the risk of clashing heads, which was a fairly frequent occurrence for centre backs and centre forwards. Sometimes with your own team mate going for the same ball. And then you can get impacts on the back and side of your head, not just the bony forehead. And, unlike when you head the ball, you aren't ready for the impact, the power in a header coming from the combination of the speed of the ball, the timing of the contact and the strength of the neck muscles. The "glass jaw" some boxers suffer from making them prone to knock outs is more to do with their neck not their jaw. The punches that harm boxers are the ones they don't see coming.

And anyway, I've had an irritating habit of banging my head quite hard and frequently. Up and over garage doors that slipped down slightly in the wind were an ongoing source of self inflicted injuries on many occasions.  I always thought motorised doors were for convenience but actually....

And sloping ceilings. After we had a house in the 90s with very sloping upstairs ceilings I swore we would never live in such a house again. Probably after standing looking out of a window and then turning walking briskly into the window reveal for the umpteenth time. And what do we have now? An upstairs with sloping ceilings after doing a loft conversion. On which I banged my head this very day. Indeed once, going rather briskly to catch a goal or wicket replay on the upstairs TV, my forehead hit the slope of the ceiling and my lower body's momentum left me, Tom and Jerry style, lying flat on my back groaning. For the life of me I struggle to see that a handful of headers a week for a decade could do as much damage.

No, my main concern is simply that, if it proved necessary to ban heading in football the game might become unwatchable. Oh I enjoyed playing in 5 and 6 a side games as much as anybody but they don't make for great watching. And the current fad of ultra short goal kicks often leads to an untidy scramble for the ball between a ruck of players between the penalty area and half way line, often penned in against the touchline. It looks for all the world like the under 8s before they have the strength to kick the ball far and before they have any positional appreciation or discipline.

You can just about watch this 5 a side style tripe with 22 players on a full size pitch on the TV without screaming (OK, Mrs H would say I can't) but what would be the point of going to the stadium to watch the match live?

I've seen it argued that heading on the pitch could be limited to the areas close to goal with a benefit being an onus on the skill in bringing the ball under control if it could not be headed in midfield. No it wouldn't. It would just increase the number of ugly tangles with the centre back trying to hook the ball away from the centre forward from behind, often resulting in a free kick randomly awarded to one side or the other by the referee.

It's one of the reasons I don't enjoy watching Manchester City. The brave clearance, followed by a quick long pass out of defence, a run down the wing and cross for a flying header, turning a defence under pressure to a goal in seconds makes for much more exciting watching.

If it has to go I'll miss it to the point I may well stop watching football. 

Meanwhile the game goes on and the current generation of pros get on with it and take the money. One thing they won't be able to say is that they didn't know there might be a risk.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Just get on with it

The "progress" on vaccination in the EU countries has gone from drama, to farce, tragedy then pathos. 

Drama as the EU tried to strong arm AstraZeneca into delivering vaccines it wasn't able to make and to halt the export (and re-export) of vaccines from EU countries, including briefly threatening to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol, while simultaneously President Micron dissed the AstraZeneca vaccine as "quasi-ineffective" and, along with Germany said it wouldn't be used on the over 65s. Meanwhile the UK proceeded vaccinating apace.

Farce as we watched on BBC news as one person sat waiting to be jabbed in a huge vaccination centre (in Holland I think) with a member of staff coyly saying they weren't able to confirm why so few people were being vaccinated. The Daily Mail reported that in Delmenhorst, a German town of 75,000 people near Bremen, a quarter of the vaccination capacity was being used. At that rate it would take three years to give the town's population a single jab - presumably six years if they stuck with the two dose strategy.

Tragedy as it was revealed that a large proportion of the vaccine AZ has been able to deliver to France and Germany is sitting unused. Figures published included 1.4 million doses in store in Germany, 240,000 having been given to people while yesterday we learned only 24% of France's stock of the AZ vaccine had been used. 

Pathos as von der Leyen plaintively said she would happily receive the AZ vaccine if offered it and Angela Merkel said there was an "acceptance problem" in the EU over the AZ vaccine but she could not have it because she is 66. Then  France u-turned on the AZ vaccine, its regulators deciding they will make the AZ jab available to over 65s while its doctors blamed scepticism of the vaccine on "bad press" including Micron's remarks. And the head of Germany's vaccination committee said "we never criticised the vaccine, just the lack of data for the over 65 age group"  but " the whole thing has somehow gone wrong" .  Well whose fault might that be?

Plenty of them were at it. The French Europe Minister Clement Beaune had said there was "nothing to envy" in the achievements of Israel and the UK and that the British were taking "many risks in this vaccination campaign". And his countryman Jean Quatremer wrote in the Guardian "The UK's 'success' is really an illusion because to be fully effective the vaccine requires two doses... and only 0.8% of the UK population has received both shots, less than that of France". In other words, ya boo, we're winning really. 

Oh yes? I wonder what he's saying now the "real world" data coming through is showing how spectacularly effective the vaccines are, with the AZ version performing every bit as well as the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine? And after a single shot, too.

Having said that we should just pause to recognise that the UK's decision to go for a 12 week interval to double the initial speed of the vaccination roll out looks to have been a spectacularly good call. I've written previously that it was a science and logic based decision. It wasn't a difficult bit of sums to do in your head to prove that it was likely to save lives (well I had a go, didn't you?) but this argument came from Whitty and co despite strong representations from the BMA to stick with the 3 week interval. It also went against the advice of the vaccine producers who would not go outside the regime tested in clinical trials. Or at least that was their public position, we don't know what was being said privately based on the fairly obvious scientific assumption that if immunity was building nicely over 3 weeks it wasn't likely to immediately plummet thereafter.

The 12 week call certainly involved a degree of risk, probably more political than scientific. When 84 year old broadcaster and Labour peer Joan Bakewell instructed solicitors to start proceedings against the government on the grounds that "to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is potentially unlawful and unsafe" we knew we could all rest comfortably. After all, when was she last right about anything?

But as far as the EU is concerned this started out silly and has got sillier. Just what did Micron and the German ministers think was going to happen when they damned the AZ vaccine with the opposite of any kind of praise? France already had a large issue with vaccine doubt amongst its population, so no wonder its citizens are taking the proverbial step backwards when they are invited to come forward for a jab.

There may well now be a large reservoir of infection just across the channel when our case rates get back to low levels. That's bad enough in terms of risk, but more seriously if you lot don't get on with it we won't be able to go on holiday to southern Europe later in the year and and help to bail out their economies. You might laugh but, other than sending tourists, their EU "partners" like the Germans and Dutch don't do much to help the likes of the Greeks. Oh they twist their arms to take repayable interest bearing loans but there is no mechanism for wealth transfer by tax from the richer north to the poorer south. 

Unlike the UK where the richer south subs the regions, including Scotland via the Barnett formula. Yet bizarrely, Nicola Sturgeon thinks an independent Scotland could find "solidarity" with the EU. 

You wouldn't have got your vaccines, Nicola and you wouldn't get the money either.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Is it prejudiced to think someone's hair or clothes look daft?

The Black Lives Matter campaign has caused me to think about prejudice and stereotyping. It's also caused me to reflect on how campaigns on important issues get hijacked by militants, thereby losing some of the sympathy and support which could have helped make real progress. More on that point on another day, perhaps, but for now here's an item on prejudice I found stuck in my drafts that I thought I'd published months ago.

I've confronted myself recently over whether - or maybe how much - I am prejudiced against Jews and Muslims. Especially after reading excerpts from David Baddiel's thought provoking book Jews Don't Count. I probably am so prejudiced to some degree, against both at once. Indeed at times I'm sceptical to the point of prejudice about almost all religions, then I have a word with myself about tolerance.

We have a Jewish maternity home somewhere near us which caters for the, to me, rather weird beliefs Orthodox Jews have about women who have just given birth being unclean. (And for twice as long if it's a baby girl than boy!) So it is not unusual here to see orthodox Jewish families with the males dressed in their traditional garb and with their rather odd looking hairstyles to match. We've seen such a family walking out in the Welsh hills, minus the presumably pregnant or just delivered mother, a good few miles from the nearest road, struggling with a buggy and several children in what is unarguably unsuitable clothing for the location. Not long ago we saw a similar family, the young father protecting his already bizarre headgear from the rain with a transparent plastic rainhood, rather like a shower cap. Mrs H and I snorted. Is that prejudiced, I wondered aloud? Whether it is or not we both thought it looked funny.

But then we know that funny hairstyles and strange clothes are funny, as evidenced by so many comedians down the years:

It's probably a response from deep in our evolved human psyche to laugh at something that strikes us as strange. And all of the above characters want to be noticed and found amusing - don't they? I assume, of course that the Jewish family we saw don't want to be considered "funny", or maybe don't care what I and others think, which is fair enough.

Nevertheless, I've decided that it's not prejudiced to think that a person looks daft, that's just a view I'm entitled to hold. Of course in the case of religion and culture other factors come into play. I also think I'm entitled to find the slaughtering animals to some religious practices inhumane and therefore objectionable. As I understand it kosher meat requires the animal to have its throat cut generally without stunning and many halal-certifying authorities agree, though some allow non-penetrative forms of stunning and 85% of halal meat in the UK does come from animals which have been stunned. Some countries, New Zealand and Denmark included, have made stunning a legal requirement, whatever the religious beliefs of their consumers. I'm with those countries and don't really understand why this hasn't become the case in the UK. I suppose, contrary to what the some handwringers would say, we are actually a very tolerant society, being tolerant of practices that many people would have reservations about.

However, on the dress code aspect, I would maintain to the last a person's right to dress how they wish. After all, I cling to some residual remnants of ageing hippiedom, including a person's right to look a berk. I know some Muslim women say it is their right to wear the veil but I think it is society's responsibility to protect such women from rationalising what I see as male hegemony over them into something they believe is their choice. So I would have backed a bar on covered faces for security and general humanity reasons, but that might be a debate and issue that covid19 has affected; we'll see the Asian-style wearing of masks by some folk now however the pandemic progresses.

I also support a person's right to their religious views provided they don't harm others or involve cruelty to people or animals. While also maintaining my right to find many religious beliefs and practices antedeluvian, some of them harmlessly so, but some not in my opinion.

Authorities taking action against individuals for their beliefs or appearance has never sat well with me. As an impressionable teenager during the 1960s Summer of Love I started to significantly increase the interval between haircuts.  I'd been the subject of some remarks I found tantamount to harassment from the woodwork teacher, a pervy bloke who was also a regional scout leader (yes, I know, very Stuart Hall/Jimmy Saville....). But one lad in our year who was well ahead of me in terms of hair length was summoned to the headmaster and told to get it cut or be suspended. He did look a bit of a berk with long hair, but then I became an expert at that - here I am photographed a couple of years later with my school football 1st XI. I don't think I need to tell you which pillock is me:

It didn't look as daft when it got a lot least that's what I thought.

Anyway, I didn't know this lad Paul well, but he became an anti-authoritarian hero for me when he turned up for assembly the next day after receiving the ultimatum having had the first skinhead cut seen in the school. Indeed the first seen by many of us anywhere. Totally shaved. To me he looked even dafter (and a bit sinister) with his skinhead. But the panic Paul induced in the school authorities, followed by the inevitable suspension while his hair grew back, was absolutely hilarious.

Just as I thought the Orthodox Jew looked hilarious in his traditional garb with a shower cap over his hat. I accept that the comedians pictured above want to be considered funny - and probably the politician - but it's still a natural reaction to find funny hair and clothes funny. Even if we stifle the laughter out of politeness, it's still conscious reaction. so I consider it my right to think the Orthodox Jew looked a pillock and (anonymously as far as he's concerned) to say so here. I wouldn't say it to his face because that would be rude and it's his right to go about his business peacefully, albeit looking a complete twerp in my opinion.

Just as I've done myself on many an occasion. These days usually on a golf course.

PS If you don't know him, the middle "comedian" above is Milton Jones. We  hired Milton for one of our annual CEO's "town hall" addresses to the staff one year, as it was just before Christmas and, having run workshops on safety, innovation and other topics in previous years we decided to do something different. The employees all turned up to the suite at the football stadium we traditionally hired, expecting a formal session before refreshments and a late afternoon into the evening Christmas disco/party. They certainly got a surprise when the CEO introduced Milton. His 20 minute set was a scream and I distinctly remember seeing him ruff his hair up to make sure it was sufficiently in disarray - and, yes, funny - immediately before going on. Straight after the gig it was neatly combed. I spent a lot of time in management meetings while I was with the company, but the one in which, after scratching our heads for a theme, we decided to hire a comedian and spent all morning throwing out ideas, checking out cost and availability was memorable. You wouldn't believe how much the marquee comedians can charge for a short set: Tim Vine, Jeremy's bro' and master of the one-liner, was eye wateringly expensive. Milton was super value and you should have seen the faces of the staff, sitting there expecting a dry powerpoint presentation!