I’ve tried cynicism, but I still love the Lions

I’ve written before, at significant length about my love affair with the British & Irish Lions rugby team.

Something I’ve found new and interesting about the current tour has been driven by my addiction to social media. Since the last tour I’ve well and truly engaged with various social media portals, one of which almost got me fired, but that’s another story.

I follow and engage with a lot of Irish rugby fans on Twitter, given my love of Munster Rugby. I was initially surprised at their hostility to the Lions, both the concept and reality. From the rugby point of view, I can understand a certain amount of cynicism. Stepping back, it’s perhaps not so surprising.

The sport has become infinitely more complex since the turn to professionalism. It is nigh on impossible for a scratch team, no matter how good the players are, to play flowing, attractive, attacking rugby and win a test series against the best team in the world. The Lions therefore have to play a somewhat limited game if they want to be successful. This can lead to a certain level of cynicism about the enterprise and its ability to entertain,

However this tends to be a secondary argument from my fellow Munster / Irish loving tweeps. At the heart of the issue, is a feeling that the Lions is a colonial jaunt that wants to bring Ireland back into the British fold and pretend that 1917 never happened.

Or something like that. I may be simplifying for reasons of space, time and comedic effect.

This then leads to he argument that there’s no room for the Lions in modern rugby due to both this issue and the scratch team point mentioned above – and the fact that it weakens Irish rugby as the best players come back injured and knackered. Also, in years past there was an argument that Irish players might have learned new techniques from the process; however given the improvement in Irish provincial and national teams, this argument has far less weight, especially when balanced against the other negatives, especially the injury one. Munster can’t afford to loose any of its Lions.

At its heart however, I think that the general complaint against the Lions from my Munster / Irish following friends is that

1. This team does represent me

2. The aggressive marketing being shoved down my throats emphasises the fact that this team does not represent me

3. The British, but particularly English media coverage of past tours has emphasised the British nature of the Lions and has quickly turned on some Irish players. Ronan O’Gara is often cited as a player who got far more stick than he deserve by British media that opened historical wounds.

As an ethnically British / Irish onetime historian and COIN analyst I get all this. It’s entirely understandable. Of course there’s the complication that the Irish rugby team isn’t the team of the Republic; it’s an all island team. Some of the team will consider God Save the Queen as their anthem, not the Soldiers Song. Then there’s the point that proud Irishmen such as ROG, Keith Wood, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the Wallace brothers are entirely committed to the Lions concept, despite the pretty horrible treatment he got whilst wearing the shirt.

As a rugby fan, I’m not optimistic about the Lions’s chances in NZ. It’s statistically the hardest place to go for anyone, let alone a scratch team. The Lions shouldn’t have a chance. They should really lose every test and most of the provincial matches.

In fact, at the start of this tour, I might have shared some of these feelings, especially the naked commercialisation and money making drive that is a little bit too obvious for my liking. I don’t like sporting financial juggernauts. Of course everyone needs to make a living and the tour has to be paid for, but in he same way that Munster in combination with a willing media might have created something of a myth about the team as brand, the mythos of the Lions feels more and more artificial. I don’t like being sold to, and this is very aggressive selling.

Then there was the first few games where the Lions looked poor and I became more pessimistic and cynical. I was mentally preparing myself for the same disappointment I’d had last time the Lions toured NZ and trying not to care.

And then

I decided to stop being a cynic, around the time the Lions started looking like they might have become a team.

I revelled in some of the old stories being told about 89 and 97. I loved the fact that Munster scrum half Connor Murray was playing really well. Then there’s the story of Peter O Mahony. He’s gone from being on the bench for Ireland to the Lions test captain via a heart wrenching year for Munster. There’s a scriptwriter sitting down at his desks now to write the incredible conclusion.

The three provincial / Maori wins have given the Lions a sense of purpose and a roadmap of how they might be successful. A sickeningly suffocating and powerful pack will tie up opponents and put the All Blacks on the back foot, where their dazzling back line will not be as effective. Behind the pack, moves are beginning to work, passes are sticking and tries are being scored.

They probably won’t win but their odds are shifting every day they spend together.

Also, all that stuff I wrote about loving the Lions concept remains true. I treasure my memories of watching games with my Dad and now my wife. This will be the first series that Aidan knows what’s going on. For a committed romantic like me, lost causes like a rugby tour to NZ are perfect.

Then there’s my own identity. I’m a half English, half Irish rugby nut that has never felt entirely at home at Twickenham and the Barbour Brigade in the West Car Park. I own numerous rugby shirts. Two London Irish, one Munster, three Lions, one Team GB Olympics, one Biarritz. Note the one missing? I love the idea that centuries of bad shit can be put aside in an impossible dream of taking on the best in the world and making something better out of the best of four countries.

I’ve given up on cynicism until the tour is over. Come on lads, shove the blacks around the park and shoe the shit out of them if they lie over the ball.

“Lions, Lions, Lions, Lions”

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The Camberwell Arms

Sometimes you need to go back and try again.

The Camberwell Arms has become the Blewer family (Camberwell branch) HQ for birthday food and drink for about 2 years now. We’ve enjoyed probably five or more great afternoons there, but this story starts with me swearing I’d never go back.

Over the years, we did a bit of circling around, with numerous visits to the Anchor & Hope on the Cut, Pizarro in Bermondsey and Franklins in East Dulwich. All have their significant charms and have been reviewed here. However due in part to logistics (most of us live in Sutton), cost and the need to find a child friendly option, we tried the Camberwell Arms.

The first time we went, on the longish (if you have a toddler and a baby with you) walk back to Denmark Hill station I was pretty much set that I wasn’t going back, or if I did it would be adults only. Aidan & Hannah had both decided that day that they didn’t want to stay seated, didn’t really want any of the food and didn’t want to be there. The numerous adults took turns in distracting them so we could all eat but it remains my most stressful restaurant experience (apart from a night in Moscow that is best not mentioned in polite company).

We were in the secondary room with a very large party adjacent and there was a lot of coming and going, which meant the kids had to stay at the table. The large party meant the the waitress upstairs was hard to get hold of and the kitchen was under pressure and our food took a long time. Neither Kirsty or I had had much sleep for months, what with Hannah being so young and our patience was as thin as a spider’s thread. It snapped on the walk and then quite long journey home.

This has been pretty much the issue for all of the restaurants mentioned, due to where my part of the family lives (Sutton), a civilised lunch in SE1 or SE5 is pretty much in the middle of nap time. Driving sort of managed this but it meant no drink for one of us, which we’d agreed to knock on the head. Kirsty and I knew this, and knew what happened if the kids didn’t nap. No sleep for us that night.

I know all of this sounds like a spoiled middle class #firstworldproblem, but sleep deprivation is used as an interrogation. Any parents reading this will understand the challenge. You want to spend time with your family and have a nice time, but you’re so effing tired and stressed that the smallest things set you off.

Anyway, I wasn’t going back. Then it was booked again and Dad and my Uncle Mark were both really looking forward to it and I couldn’t suggest somewhere else. The best I could do was ask for as late a start as possible so that Hannah could sleep.

You’ve probably guessed now that it worked. Hannah fell asleep on the walk down from the Station. They serve passable Guinness and always have a local pale ale in hand pump. We all looked at the menus and as I now feel every time I walk in, I thought “yum”.

For many years the CA was part of the Anchor & Hope stable which had an an effective formula. Find a grotty boozer in a previously rough but now up and coming part of S London. Add a lick of paint & mismatching furniture. Decent if slightly odd wine list. The kitchen serves rustic, trencherman type food that is WAY above usual pub standards as what looks simple requires very high level sourcing and serious technique in the kitchen. All of the group were sort of hybrid pubs where you could just go for a beer but the reality is they made their names as places to eat in the shell of a former pub that retained the ambience of a London boozer without really being one.

Service is friendly and professional. These guys know their job, put you at ease and serve the food with no fuss whatsoever. They’re enthusiastic about the product without trying to be evangelists or your best mate. They’re very understanding of our needs with two small kids, for which we are always grateful.

The Camberwell Arms has recently exited the group but at the moment the style remains and I really hope this continues. Exceptional silky, porky home made charcuterie, including really lovely rich rillettes and home pickled cornichons is a statement of intent matched by the scotch bonnet and pork fat on sourdough toast. Big meaty flavour served by a kitchen at knows what it’s doing.

Starters tend to be rustically presented but actually are quite delicate at least compared to the mains. The house cured smoked salmon and crisp bead is sweet, salty, fatty and serious, with thick¬†slices, noseclearing horseraddish and again house pickles complementing it well. Babaganouj that is the equal of anywhere I’ve had in Levant, Gulf or Maghreb is served with griddled bread that’s like a bbqued pillow. I could eat about two kilos of this stuff.

Main courses tend to be big lumps of protein cooked perfectly with a sauce that demands good staff in the kitchen. Take my most recent main. A massive roast pork chop that had a big strip of crackling. Served on wilted greens with he best roast potato / chip type spuds you can find in London and a sauce based that was romanescoish that I want to buy in pots. I’ve had a similar but lighter dish with whole roast quail.

They do bigger dishes to share; a rabbit pie sticks in my mind from the first visit as a reason to come back. Spit roasted roast chicken and trimmings to be shared by groups of 2-4 depending on the size of bird. The fish always looks perfectly cooked, because this is an excellent kitchen that wouldn’t dream of serving anything other. Pearly flakes of white meaty fish, often with a buttery accompaniment are a staple of the menu. I’m a carnivore so tend to avoid but my mum regularly leaves a Top Cat style skeleton on an empty plate.

By the time you get to desert, you’re full, but they don’t let the side down. A short list of puds that are all made on site are always tempting and tasty. Home made ice creams normally do for me, often a tart and refreshing flavour, last time it was cherry and was great. They have calvados behind the bar that is young and apple-ey and pretty fiery. It’s calva not Somerset cider brandy so there’s enough velvet to dampen the fire but it delivers the big boozy hit that you want at the end of a great meal.

That’s what we’ve had every time. A great meal. Our kids have got older and we box clever on timings which has made the whole experience easier but at the heart of things this is a brilliant local restaurant that is more gastro than pub. I’d say I wished I lived closer but actually I quite like the fact we only go a few times a year as it gives the place a sense of occasion and makes it feel special.

The Camberwell Arms deserves this because that’s what it is, special.

I’m pleased we went back.

I have never been this angry at a political decision

Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a fairly standard middle class liberal leftie. A champagne (pinot noir heavy please) socialist.

I am very interested in politics but I’m not political because I cant find a party that I believe in enough to make concessions to my beliefs.

For instance, I was genuinely disturbed by corbyn’s long term dalliance with global revolutionary forces that he made sound like freedom fighters but are actually sickening and cynical murderers. Chavez, PIRA, Castro etc ¬†It’s a major reason I’m wary of Corbyn. I like a lot of his domestic policy but on foreign and defence his ideology driven position don’t work for me.

But now the Tories have outdone themselves. By doing a deal with the DUP, I’ve found a politicial situation that has made me so angry it makes me feel physically sick.

Forget the hypocrisy of the DUP deal. It’s frustrating but all politicians can be slippery and campaigning doesn’t mean telling the truth.

However the DUP deal is a moral obscenity for three reasosns.

1- it potentially breaks the Good Friday Agreement. The issues that drove decades long conflict have not been eradicated. It could start again. Anything that raises tension, especially given the failure of Stormomt should be very carefully considered. One of the reasons there’s been (more or less) stability in Ulster is that there is the perception that neither side has an advantage in Westminster. Whether the DUP gets an advantage or not, the optics are terrible.

2 – the DUP have some deeply illiberal policies that are founded in their religious beliefs which are fundamentally opposite to wider eng / Welsh & Scottish law. Religious morality has largely been removed from the UK’s political process for what I feel are good liberal reasons. In a multi cultural liberal democracy, basing legislation on religious dogma feel like a dangerous timewarp.

3- finally the DUP is inextricably connected to odious paramilitary groups such as the UDA. These groups still exist, remain well organised and armed and are funded by the proceeds of organised crime such as drug dealing. There are suggestions that UDA men are instrumental in getting the DUP vote out and making sure the community votes DUP not UUP or god forbid Alliance.

Through my MA I developed a fair understanding of the different combatant parties in Ulster during operation Bannner. All parties did horrendous things. It would be wtong to think of the Loyalist Paramilitaries as anything other than brutal and ruthless people who did truly appalling things.

Considering these issues, the thought that any party would use an alliance with the DUP to prop up a minority government for a short time is frankly sickening.

I’ve never been as angry about anything on UK politics as I am about this. I’m seething that for what can only be a short term hold on power, the Tories are putting so much at risk.

I don’t know what the solution is or when I will calm down but for now I’m finding it an interesting sensation; actually caring about UK politics.