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Tuesday, March 9, 2021

JOHN HUMPHRYS: War of the Astroturf that sums up Boris Johnson’s dilemma over lockdown 

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JOHN HUMPHRYS (pictured): War of the Astroturf that sums up Boris Johnson's dilemma over lockdown

JOHN HUMPHRYS (pictured): War of the Astroturf that sums up Boris Johnson’s dilemma over lockdown

The Battle of the Astroturf will not claim a prominent place in the history books. Unlike Hastings or Trafalgar, the fate of our nation did not hang in the balance. The casualties were limited, the heroes unsung.

But it should not pass entirely unnoticed — especially by Boris Johnson. Indeed, he might do well to pay a visit to the battlefield before he rules on the post-Covid future awaiting us.

For 20 years the Astroturf pitch has been a massively popular feature of my local park — just as they are in towns and cities across the land. 

Never a day went by without fathers taking their small sons for a kick around or groups of children setting up impromptu matches. At weekends there were coaching sessions for children and more formal matches for the older ones.

It was the perfect social melting pot, too. It brought together poor kids from the tower blocks and rich kids from the prep schools.

Covid changed everything.

The local council’s first reaction was to lock the park gates. So people just climbed over them. The council caved in and opened the gates but locked the Astro instead. Some rebellious teenagers risked life and limb by climbing the 10ft fence but marshals threw them out. So they squeezed under the fence to get back in again.

The marshals came back, threw them out again and blocked any gaps. Parents got angry and the marshals retreated — only to come back the next day with contractors who reinforced the fence with strong steel wire.

And then the mysterious ‘man with the bolt cutters’ arrived. No one ever saw him but, night after night, he would cut a perfect square — just big enough for agile youngsters to crawl through.

For 20 years the Astroturf pitch (stock image) has been a massively popular feature of local park as well as in towns and cities across the land

For 20 years the Astroturf pitch (stock image) has been a massively popular feature of local park as well as in towns and cities across the land

You need stand for only five minutes watching the youngsters on the Astro to get the message that this is exactly what they need in this wretched lockdown. They can’t use the grass because it’s been either frozen or a mud bath. And if playing football is so risky why allow professionals to do it?

As I write, Mr Johnson is pondering how much freedom he is prepared to allow us when this phase of lockdown comes to an end. He promises to follow ‘the data not the dates’. But he should heed the Astro Army as well as his smart-Alec PR people with their tiresome, clever-clever phrases.

The lesson he should take away is simple. There is a delicate balance in a country like ours between consent and coercion.

We like to think of ourselves as a free country — and so we are, compared to an authoritarian regime like China’s. Yet there are limits.

Council's locked the gates to the Astro after Covid hit (above) but some rebellious teenagers risked life and limb by climbing the 10ft fences before marshals threw them out

Council’s locked the gates to the Astro after Covid hit (above) but some rebellious teenagers risked life and limb by climbing the 10ft fences before marshals threw them out

In a totally ‘free’ society we’d be able to do whatever we chose and government would let us get on with it. Think of America’s Wild West in the 19th century when the gunslingers and outlaws made their own laws. It did not last long. In a modern free society we elect governments to make the laws for us. But they need our consent and Covid has shown how unpredictable that can be.

When the first lockdown was announced many predicted the public would rebel. Lock us up in our homes for weeks or months on end? No way! Close the pubs? You’re kidding! Stop us hugging our dying parents? Unthinkable!

But we went along with it. Indeed, the polls suggested we wanted even stricter rules and we gave Johnson a bashing for not having acted soon enough.

In this complex dance between coercion and consent we, the public, expect the Government to lead. But we can be fickle partners. We reserve the right to change the tune when we detect that officialdom is overstepping the mark.

Boris Johnson (pictured) is currently pondering how much freedom he is prepared to allow us when this phase of lockdown comes to an end

Boris Johnson (pictured) is currently pondering how much freedom he is prepared to allow us when this phase of lockdown comes to an end

Hence the declaration of war over the Astro. Hence the rebellion on a local bus last week over a friend’s young daughter, a professional childminder, who was taking the toddlers in her care out for the day. The little boy had pulled her face mask out of her pocket and lost it in the street, but the bus driver had taken pity and allowed her aboard. But when a police squad performed a random spot check, she was hauled off and interrogated, her details taken down and threats of fines issued, while the other passengers hollered at them to stop being so heavy-handed.

Boris Johnson has a difficult judgment to make this weekend. He knows he got it wrong in the early stages of the pandemic. And if he doesn’t, he need only look at one single figure: 120,000 dead.

Now, it seems, he is moving in the opposite direction by downplaying expectations that we are about to be set free to go on holiday and generally resume life as we knew it. He might take some comfort from a couple of examples from our recent history where we, the public, have defied expectations.

Remember the rows over CCTV cameras a few decades ago? They were condemned as outrageous invasions of our privacy — straight from the pages of Orwell’s 1984. We could no longer stroll down the High Street without being snooped on.

Whatever happened to all that outrage? Now we are more likely to get cross if criminals escape justice because they were not caught on camera.

And what about smoking? If you’d told any regular he would one day be banned from enjoying a pint and a puff in his local he’d have said you were mad. It was one of his few pleasures, dammit! No government would dare. And anyway the pubs would go out of business.

Well they didn’t — or at least not for that reason — and I wonder if there is a soul left out there now who yearns for the good old days when we choked in the filth of a smoke-filled bar.

It was a classic case of government persisting with coercive measures in the face of powerful opposition and winning the argument. As with the imposition of seat belts. And breathalysers. And so on…I went into the park before settling down to write this column as the sun was rising this morning. And, yes, the phantom cutter had paid his nocturnal visit.

A new hole had appeared in the fence. The battle of the Astro continues.

And the Johnson dilemma remains.

Not always such a welcome in the Valleys

Last week Keith Hann had a good job, pulling in £102,000 a year. Today he’s out of work —with nobody to blame but himself.

Mr Hann was director of corporate affairs at the Iceland supermarket chain — a job that requires a pretty high level of sensitivity to the staff. Not in his case though.

He made a stream of anti-Welsh comments on his blog — even though the company’s headquarters is in Wales and they employ thousands of Welsh workers, many of whom speak Welsh.

Mr Hann does not approve. He called the language ‘gibberish’ and a ‘dead language that sounds uncannily like someone clearing his throat’.

Understandably he was handed his P45 quicker than a Welshman can say ‘iechyd da’. But I feel the tiniest twinge of sympathy — even though I am Welsh.

The fact is Wales is two countries: the Welsh-speaking bit and the English-speaking bit, including Cardiff where I was born. And, I’m ashamed to say, we regarded those who lived in the Valleys as socially inferior.

We were far ruder about them than even Mr Hann. They felt the same about us.

I remember my sister Anne coming home one day and announcing that she had a new boyfriend. He came from the Valleys.

My father was appalled.

I dare not repeat what he called him but it was not respectful.

Then she told Dad he was a rugby player. Not just any old rugby player. He was one of the Williams family of Taffs Well — by a mile the greatest rugby family in the world.

I swear my proud father bowed his head.

The ‘Taffs’ may have been ridiculed in Cardiff, but on the rugby field there was always only one real enemy.

The English.

This post was first published on DailyMail.

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