Monday, March 10, 2008

First Ride of Spring

The winter this year was/has been (not clear yet as to which tense is appropriate) surprisingly stubborn, with night-time temperatures touching freezing as late as a week-and-a-half ago. This was among such indicators of Spring as the first kafun (cedar pollen) counts on the weather report and the first onslaught of kosa (aeolian dust) borne on the prevailing winds from China. The former does not affect me as much as it does many other people, red-eyed and sneezing their way to work on the train or bus, but the latter fine yellow sand settles everywhere including the back of the throat where it tends to impart a gravelly edge to the voice. In my occupation, EFL teaching, the voice gets used a lot--generally in exhortations to the students to use theirs, even just a little. As a result I have sucked, slurped and inhaled my way through several packs of Lotte throat lozenges in the past couple of weeks. Heap Good Medicine. The northern suburb of Akashi, known as Tamatsu, through which I travel by bus on a Tuesday & Thursday, is home to hundreds of used car dealers, and I have felt really sorry for their junior employees scurrying about with hosepipes, buckets, sponges and wash-leathers, trying to keep their automotive wares looking presentable. Last week saw some spring rains which had the effect of washing the muck out of the air for the time being. I keep an eye on the web at
where I can be forewarned, if not forearmed. There is no defence agains the blasted stuff.

Today, though, it is a beautiful Spring day and with no pressing chores to perform, I give Black Mariah her first outing of the season. She had a 4000-km oil-change and general service on the previous day, where I picked up brownie points from the mechanic who did the job. ‘Exceptional condition’ for a 5 1/2 year-old machine was his verdict. The drive-chain received only its second adjustment in 27,000 km which speaks well of my non-lunatic riding habits. I know of people who get only about 1000 km of use out of a drive-chain due to their penchant for drag-racing, wheelies and sundry daftness. NB* Such meatheads can be termed ‘bikers’ whereas I am a motorcyclist. There is a distinct difference in attitude.

The countryside to the north-west is smelling fresh and verdant and I feel a little sad that I am not with my regular riding partner who is incapacitated today with a hangover obtained in service of the company, ‘entertaining’ some new business associates on Saturday night. In the 1970s and 80s before the decade-long recession bit, it was a common revelation among Japanalysts in business rags that the yearly spend on corporate entertainment exceeded the National military budget. I’m not sure if that is still the case, but I’m sure it can’t be far off the mark. I still miss taxi-tickets though...

I was not exactly in perfect condition myself after enduring yet another football match via Internet text commentary, where Newcastle United were on the wrong end of another clattering. Not a small amount of Milk of Amnesia was imbibed, so as to make the pain more bearable. This match was at Anfield, home of Liverpool FC, and was not wholly unexpected as they are quite a handy side this season, while we are NOT. Far from it. Kevin Keegan returned in mid-January (aka The Second Coming of the Messiah) to manage the team, but has had a very lean time of it so far--mainly against far superior opposition, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. After yesterday’s results the team sit in 15th position in the Premier League—just three points away from the dreaded relegation zone and one above the deadly rivals Sunderland AFC. To be fair, in the last couple of matches, Lady Luck has deserted Newcastle, but the bottom line remains. ‘We’re Sh*T and we’re SICK OF IT!’ -- a recent terrace chant.

It is not unlike the season of 1966 – 67 when (for sins committed in a previous life) I first began to follow the fortunes of the black-and-whites at St James’s Park. The team was very fortunate to avoid relegation to the old Division 2 that season, and those of us who can remember it generally agree that it was due to the signing of a man-mountain centre-half from Hibernian (John McNamee) and an elegant midfielder from Sunderland (Dave Elliot) which tipped the balance in our favour.
It is McNamee whom I remember most fondly. A veritable giant of a man who seemed like he was hewn from granite, McNamee was a stopper, just like the man who signed him--Joe Harvey--had been a decade previously in a very successful NUFC side. As most of the action was usually in Newcastle’s half of the field during that desperate battle to avoid the drop, we saw a lot of Big John--as he is fondly remembered today. Subtle he was not, effective he was and most opposing centre-forwards were simply terrified of him. Some doggerel to illustrate my point...

John McNamee never wore gloves
Hi-lites in his hair
Or diamonds in his lugs
They used to feed him on raw meat
My old man used to say
Ah wish he was still wor centre half today.
John McNamee is in his Sixties now
Stooped, and walks with a limp
But ah would still pick him instead of Titus Bramble.
John Oliver

We fans were somewhat less eloquent at the time...

“E’s ’ere, ’e’s there, e’s every f*kkin’-where, McNamee-ee--McNamee!”

we would bellow at every successful body-check or slide-tackle. He was generally a clean player though, unlike the infamous Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris who played for Chelsea in the same era.

I only ever remember him scoring one goal, an equalizer against Sunderland, in the following season which, of course, was very important at the time. He put an end to United’s defensive frailties in no uncertain fashion, so any goals we managed to score were doubly important, many of them fashioned by Elliot. Would that a man of McNamee’s calibre were with us today...

HOWEVER.... The other day, the news from Barrack Road was that Kevin Keegan had managed to sign his first player since resuming his role as manager back in January. Here he is:

‘Lamine Diatta (born July 2, 1975 in Dakar) is a Senegalese footballer who currently plays for Newcastle United. Diatta moved to France when he was only 1 year old. He is the holding force in the centre of Senegal's defence, and is also tough in the air, which provides a threat in attacking set-pieces.’
(Quotation from Wikipedia.)

I sincerely hope that it is a case of ‘cometh the hour cometh the man’ as we are potentially in dire straits. He is certainly cut from the same type of physical cloth as McNamee was, but appears to have been hewn from obsidian in his imposing negritude. The remaining fixtures in the season include a home derby against Sunderland, but that is not till mid-April. We really need to be out of the relegation woods by then, so as not to be suffering from the jitters when taking the field versus the ‘auld enemy’. It could easily end up with one team sending the other one down...


The observant among you will notice a new link at the top right – to the blog of Stef the Engineer. Stef recently contacted me via this blog after not being in touch for nearly a decade. He used to work for the same Japanese company as me and one of the first things that happened to him and his new bride was the Great Hanshin Earthquake on Jan 17th 1995, when they lost almost everything they had. I’ll leave you to read about it yourself. Welcome aboard Stef!
* He needs to learn some manners though ;-)