Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Southern Road Relays 2016

This year's Southern Road Relays Championships took place last Sunday (25 September). Shifting from the traditional Aldershot venue, they were held at Bedford Autodrome near Thurleigh in Beds, probably as far north as you can go before you're in the Midlands region (the Midland Area Road Relays were held the same weekend at Sutton Park).

After six junior races, there were two main events - the Senior and Veterans women's competitions run together with four legs of 4500m; and the Senior and Veterans men's races starting together but with the Seniors being a six stage relay and the Vets a four stage affair,  each with 6000m legs.

start of women's race
Bedford Autodrome occupies part of the site of RAF Thurleigh, built in 1940 for RAF Bomber Command and also used by the US Eighth Air Force in the Second World War. After the war it became an aircraft research site, Royal Aircraft Establishment  Bedford, which closed in 1994. Today Bedford Autodrome, established by former Formula One driver Jonathan Palmer, is mainly used for Motorsports though it has previously hosted Duathlon events.

Jess Judd (Chelmsford) leads the first leg in the women's race
There were some justifiable gripes about facilities - portaloos were a long way from the start- and it wasn't great for spectators, with runners heading off into the distance to return twenty minutes or so later. But nobody can complain that it wasn't a suitably challenging course. The long, flat motor circuit on the wide, open expanse of an airfield was exposed to a wind which was tough to run into for the first half of the single lap course. As the field became very spread out after the first leg, it felt quite bleak and lonely out there sometimes with nobody around to judge yourself against. 

The Pits signs signalling the last few hundred metres 

Aldershot, Farnham & District AC won both the men's and women's senior champs, with their Andy Vernon and Emily Hosker Thornhill running the fastest legs on the day for men and women,

My club, Kent AC, did well. Men's A and B teams both qualified for national champs, finishing in 11th and 23rd place, the women's team  came in 9th place, the  M40 men won the vets champs, and the M60s won silver in category.

It was my first road relay, obviously my fear running the second leg was that I would be overtaken by waves of people but that didn't happen - I lost a couple of places, but overall was in pretty much the median position in age category (19th fastest time out of 36 in M50 - 24.09). In an event of this standard, I was happy enough to be Mr Average for Age.

Kent AC M40 team with vets trophy

rally handover point - Amy Clements (Kent AC) heads off

Adrian Lowther's excellent short film about Kent AC's day - in which I feature briefly:

Video of men's race from Tonbridge AC's Mark Hookway (more from other races here):

Friday, 16 September 2016

Great North Run - South London/North East musicial diaspora

It's common now for major running events like the London Marathon and the various 'Great....' runs to highlight the participation of  Celebrity runners and the Great North Run last Sunday was no exception.  The official list only mentioned one musician that I could see - the Kaiser Chiefs keyboardist Nick 'Peanut' Baines ran a very respectable 1:34.

I would like to mention though a couple of runners too cool to be celebrities but with musical kudos and, as it happens, both part of the North East diaspora in London with a connection to my New Cross neighbourhood.

Johny Brown hails from Newcastle area, but it was in New Cross in the 1980s that he and friends started the great Band of Holy Joy. They released a series of albums in that period including 'More Tales of the City' and 'Manic, Magic, Majestic' (the latter on Rough Trade) before splitting up, but have reformed more recently and are still producing some really good material. I last saw them in the Montague Arms in New Cross a couple of years ago and I thought they were at least as strong as when I saw them at the Town and Country Club and other places back in the day. They are also responsible for the Resonance FM Bad Punk show.

Anyway lead singer Johny Brown ran the Great North Run for Mencap. He says: 'It was a great day and the run was immense, two hours and twenty minutes was my time, though I never got going due to the sheer mass of people. Wow, what an atmosphere, on a glorious Indian Summer afternoon. The hardest bit was the wait for the ferry and the best bit was the two pints of lager in the Wooden Dolly when we hit the Northern Bank of the river'. Still time to sponsor him retrospectively here.

Emma Jackson is  now a Sociologist at Goldsmiths in New Cross, and the author of a book on 'Young Homeless People and Urban Space' among other interesting work. In her former incarnation as Emmy-Kate  Montrose she was bass guitarist for legendary Sunderland Britpop/punk band Kenickie. Her latest research project, 'The Choreography of Everyday Multiculture: Bowling together?' sounds right up my street, looking at  a'seemingly ordinary place, a bowling alley, used by a diverse population in terms of age, class and ethnicity and standing on a busy crossroads in a fast changing neighbourhood at the intersection of three London boroughs'. Last time I went bowling upstairs at the Elephant and Castle shopping centre ('The London Palace Superbowl'), I thought somebody should write about this place before it disappears, all life is here. Now it seems somebody is, or at least about somewhere similar. Here's Emma at the end of the Great North Run last week:

Incidentally Emma's sometime bandmate Lauren Laverne wrote an interesting piece earlier this year on 'Why women need to start calling themselves sporty' which talked about how for 15 years running was 'the bedrock of my health and sanity. Joyful, exhausting, exhilarating, essential. I never once actually wanted to go, of course. You never do. But, every time, I came back glad I did. I ran from confusion to clarity, to a new career, London, into motherhood. I had to stop during both my pregnancies and, at night, I dreamt about it'. More recently she 'decided to start running again because it shouldn’t be the preserve of those who are already good at it. Sport does not belong to fit people any more than karaoke belongs to those who can actually sing'

Some other musicians in motion...

Dexys Midnight Runners, Running

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Cycling on Islay

On the Isle of Islay last month, I did something I haven't done for quite a few years - go out on a decent bike ride. I have never been a serious cyclist, but did used to cycle into work in London until my friend Paul Hendrich was killed on his bike and another friend seriously injured within a short period of time. I gave it a rest and never really started again. Well I've been too busy running...

Islay is a great place for cycling, with fairly good roads, nothing too challenging in the hill department, and of course many great places to see, some of which are easier to access by bike or on foot than by car.  There's not a lot of traffic and most of the drivers are fairly friendly and accommodating - certainly by London standards. Though as I mentioned in my Islay running advice, most of the roads are single lane and you can encounter some large farming and distillery vehicles - so whether cycling or running, etiquette and safety dictate you pull over and let them pass.

Islay has a good cycling infrastructure, starting with plentiful information. Prolific cycling blogger Brian Palmer (The Washing Machine Post) lives on Islay, so go to his blog and click on his 'cycling on Islay' link for everything you need to get you started.

I guess most serious cyclists bring their own bikes, unless visiting from far off shores, but it's easy enough to hire a bike on the island. We hired a couple for the day from Jim Lutomski's  Islay Cycles in Port Ellen.

There's an active cycling group on Islay - known as the Velo Club d'Ardbeg, you can claim your membership by the simple act of buying one of their fine cycling jerseys from Ardbeg distillery (or from

They meet for a Sunday morning ride at around 9:30 at Bruichladdich Mini-market (known as Debbie's), and welcome visitors to ride with them. Me and (my son) Billy joined them for a circuit from Bruichladdich taking in Loch Gorm with plentiful vistas of green, grassy Islay. We did around 18 miles in an 80 minute session, with the ride to and from Bowmore to the start/finish I did around 35 miles in total. My physical endurance is OK from running so I didn't have any problems with the distance, but my roadcraft was a bit rusty, as was my ability to sit on a saddle for a long period. Ouch.

The previous weekend had seen 'The Ride of the Falling Rain', a 100 mile or so ride around Islay's roads (that must cover pretty much all of Islay's roads). Apparently it lived up to its name and only a handful of cyclists completed the full distance in appalling weather conditions - in August! Let's just say the weather can be rather variable in the Hebrides, but in the week we were there the sun shone every day.

The ride finished back in Bruichladdich, where the Mini-Market serves good coffee and also doubles as cycling club HQ with memorabilia on the wall.

I guess the key learning point  from this adventure was... I need to get a new bike.

See also:

Friday, 2 September 2016

Wilfredo Prieto - Walk (2000)

Cuban-born artist Wilfredo Prieto made 'Walk' (2000) during a residency on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. The artist put a plant in a wheelbarrow filled with soil and took it on a five-kilometer walking tour. According to the programme, 'While there is a comic absurdity to this gesture, Prieto’s work connects to a long tradition of walking in twentieth-century art, its precursors including the Situationists’ dérive (drift), the Surrealists’ unconscious explorations of Paris, Robert Smithson’s forays into the ruins of Passaic, New Jersey, and Francis Alÿs’s treks around Mexico City'.

The work is included in 'Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today' at South London Gallery until September 11th. Lots of other interesting work in the exhibition too.

Tear down the fences - a warning before the Hillsborough disaster

Earlier this year a jury finally confirmed what many had been arguing for years - that the 96 Liverpool FC fans who died in the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster were 'unlawfully killed' as a result of action and inaction by the police and football authorities. I wrote about this in a previous post, looking at how the events were viewed by fans at the time.

The following article is also from that period, but what makes it particularly significant is that it was written in the year before Hillsborough. Its warning that fences around pitches prevented spectators escaping from crushes, fires and other dangers was sadly proved all too correct. It is doubtful if anyone would have died in Sheffield if they hadn't been penned in behind fences.
The article was written by later BBC radio journalist Adrian Goldberg for the football fanzine Off the Ball in February 1988, and was reprinted in Reclaim the Game, newsletter of the  Football Supporters Association in May 1989, immediately after Hillsborough (Goldberg was the West Midlands Chair of the FSA).

Monstrous Erections

The 1971 Ibrox disaster was the fourth serious incident in ten years on the stadium's Stairway 13. Only the deaths of 66 people could prod the authorities into action, leading to the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act.

The effectiveness of that legislation can be measured by the 56 deaths at Valley Parade just ten years later; as at Ibrox, warnings about the state of the ground were ignored until it was too late.

Further regulations have followed, promoting the multitude of metal detectors, hooligans, video cameras, dogs, horses, escorts, iron gates, pans, grilles,  lock-ins and lock-outs that now characterise that special matchday experience.

But the lessons of the past leave no room for complacency. Common sense and the evidence of previous tragedies tells us that at least one element of modern safety measures - the increasingly prevalent fencing-off of crowds from pitches - actually puts supporters at considerable risk.

This dangerous practice could have been fatal once already this season, at Grimsby's Blundell Park. During the home side's Cup tie against Halifax a fire warning was announced in the Osmond Stand (part seats, part terrace). Supporters evacuated in an orderly way, but squeezing them all through the gates in the ‘safety' fence took about eight minutes.

Survivors of the Bradford fire commented that if there had been fences in front of their burning stand fatalities would have been even higher; so it's hardly scaremongering to suggest that another disaster could have occurred at Grimsby. Fortunately, on this occasion, the fire was not serious; but if a tragedy had taken place, ignorance would have been no defence. In the “Green Guide' which accompanied the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act, it clearly states that the best place to evacuate everyone is the pitch, so there should be no security fences in front of seats.

The good sense of that advice was amply proved again at this seasons Notts County v Preston match where a generator overheated behind the main stand. Fearing fire, fans streamed quickly onto the fence-free pitch and were immediately safe.

Indeed, the only mystery is why the authorities' advice about fences should be restricted to seats; for the dangers of entrapment are just as great for terrace fans.

In the 1984 League Cup semi between Walsall and Liverpool, for example, a safety barrier collapsed in the Liverpool end. As the terrace was so packed, fans had only one way to fall- forward. Fortunately,  there were no fences and they spilled harmlessly onto the playing area. Without that safety valve fans would have either been crushed or pushed into other areas of the crowd, leading to undue pressure on the remaining barriers. If, in turn, one of these had collapsed, a deadly domino effect could have been set in motion; just as happened at lbrox.

More recently the debacle at the QPR v West Ham Cup tie emphasised the value of unobstructed access from standing areas.

Heysel's Block Z

Much of the problem lies in the authorities' refusal to act on the evidence before them. The Popplewell report of ’86 noted that when Liverpool followers charged Heysel's Block Z “it resulted in the ltalian supporters...who were seeking to escape towards the perimeter being squashed and suffocated by the press of large numbers."

Many of these deaths may have been avoided had the perimeter fence not caused such a formidable obstacle - wire mesh over six feet high, which could only be opened from the pitch side,  with a brick wall beyond that. Psychologically as well as physically fans were being warned off entering the playing area.from recommending the complete abolition of such fences.

Fortunately, most English and Scottish League grounds are sturdier than Heysel and many have been improved since 1985. One of the more logical recent innovations has been ‘penning' whereby relatively large areas of terracing are divided into smaller sections. This ensures that if a stanchion collapses or violence occurs its effects are limited.

Small wonder that supporters panicked, and brought the wall down; yet Popplewell shyed away

So far so good; but the actual practice of penning, especially at grounds with cages, only exacerbates the problems fans face. Take the example of Stoke City. Their allocation to standing away fans is an enclosure in two sections running hall the length of the pitch. Each of these caged-in pens holds about
1,200 fans, but normally only one is open. Thus when West Brom. took about 1,500 terrace followers to the Victoria Ground this season, there was a period of potentially dangerous overcrowding. Under fence-free conditions, Albion fans could have escaped onto the pitch; at Stoke they just got crushed until the second section was opened.


Many clubs ape these tactics, utterly defeating the ‘safety' aspect of penning which is meant to prevent a dangerous concentration of fans in any one area. In these circumstances fences make a bad situation worse.

The nature of their construction also contributes to the danger. Stoke, like many other grounds, has fencing which obstructs the game to such an extent that fans straining to catch a glimpse of the action can’t help but push the person in front of them.

Oxford United, realising the dangers inherent in allowing fans half a glimpse of the game, have taken 'safety' fencing to its logical limit, obscuring all parts of the field for many customers for the full 90 minutes.

A Portsmouth fan who'd brought four £10 tickets had the cheek to think he and his family were entitled to a decent sight of the match - so he took Oxford to court. He was completely outwitted by the brilliant defence put forward by Oxford's Managing Director, Bernard Dalton who explained. “If I did not sell seats which have a difficult view, 8,000 would have to be withdrawn.”

In other words a rip-off is alright, so long as it's a big rip-off. The argument found favour with the judge, who accepted that the Pompey fans' view had been substantially impaired, but awarded the case to Oxford on the grounds that fences were a necessary safety precaution. (An opinion obviously shared by the local authority, since they had insisted on these monstrous erections in the first place).

CS Gas

But whose safety? When some idiot let off a CS gas canister at Easter Road this season,  were fleeing Celtic fans endangered by being able to run on the pitch? Would they have been safer panicking i n a space confined by fences? Of course not. Yet the FA’s choice of Villa Park(rather than Highbury) for last season's Spurs v Watford Cup semi-final was justified thus by Ted Croker: "Villa Park has exceptionally good facilities....Highbury has no fencing.”

But that should be no surprise; the FA's own family section for Wembley internationals is obscured by mesh. Taking their lead from the top, clubs such as Chelsea and Millwall are busily educating the next generation of armchair supporters by placing similar blights in front of their junior members’ areas.

And for what? Certainly not supporters’ safety as we have seen. Nor can it really be for crowd control. Many grounds at the highest level - Arsenal, West Ham,  and virtually all of Scotland’s Premier Division - are fence-free. Yet the clubs concerned don‘t find that assaults on players or pitched battles are a weekly occurrence.


Indeed, many of the worst incidents of recent times at English grounds have taken place in spite of perimeter fencing: Millwall at Luton, Birmingham v Leeds, Chelsea v Sunderland. Fences which are formidable barriers at times of panic and confusion proved to be little deterrent to the determined hooligan.

To be sure, pulling down the fences might lead to more pitch invasions, and even fighting - which is bad publicity for football. But at least the aggro usually involves only those who want to be involved. The mania for fencing, on the other hand, is most dangerous of all to those whom it is presumably meant to protect; the innocent, peaceful football fan.

Tear them down now, before another club has to echo the words of Bradford‘s Stafford Heginbotham: “There are a number of things we all wish had been done prior to this terrible tragedy."