John Betjeman wanted more sex. I want more football

Sex doesn’t take up that much time, unlike football: you get 90 minutes, a chance to change ends, extra time and then often a penalty shoot-out. Football, it does put in your day.

I used to think that when I grow old and have got no more work and no one wants me any more – when I’ve fallen down all the divisions, work-wise, and been reduced to writing a book for some Division Three North publisher – at least I will have football. I can just lie back and enjoy it, all the time.
 
John Betjeman, on his deathbed, said his one regret was not having had enough sex. My fear was not having had enough football. Sex doesn’t take up that much time, unlike football: you get 90 minutes, a chance to change ends, extra time and then often a penalty shoot-out. Football, it does put in your day.
 
Now I am going to die happy. For not only do I know what I’ll be doing, work-wise, for the next four years – some Premiership projects – but something else I never expected to happen has happened: a surfeit of lampreys. I mean Lampards. I mean football.
 
This was the other week: let me see. There was Monday-night football – gawd, I can’t remember which game, give me a chance, it was ages ago. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Chelsea, Man United, Man City and Arsenal were all in the Champions League. The ones that clashed, as they were on at the same time, I copied and watched the next morning, making sure I didn’t know the scores.
 
On Thursday, there was Swansea in Europe at six o’clock, followed by Spurs in Europe. Both excellent games and good victories. Then two games on Saturday and Sunday, finishing with Man City stuffing Man United. My cup overfloweth.
 
A few years ago, I might not have bothered much with a team like Swansea but now, with all the money in the Prem, even the socalled lowly teams have good players, who have cost real money. I am fascinated by Michu and wonder how long Swansea can keep him – and by Brady at Hull, Benteke at Villa. Every team has one decent player worth watching.
 
The other big change is that all the Euro group games are on the telly, four at a time, so you can record the clashes and also the top leagues of Europe, such as Spain, Germany, Italy and France. It costs a fortune in subscriptions but, come on, think how much you spend on other, more short-lived and passing pleasures.
 
I reckon that week – which was a beezer of a week, a proper cracker – I spent 44 hours watching football over seven days. That’s more than the average person’s working week. In the UK, it’s 40.5 hours. The average for Europe is 39.7 hours. In France, where they are frightful slackers, the average is only 35.6 hours a week.
 
Is it gross, pathetic, reprehensible, stupid, selfish, self-indulgent? All of the above. Fortunately,
 
I don’t watch any other TV. Can’t fit it in. If I do happen to catch something non-football, I have no idea what is going on. The crime dramas are too clever and confusing. The costume dramas: risible. The soaps: too quick. The comedy is unfunny, though I did laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys. Just my level: obvious and vulgar, perfect for the average football fan. I like to think I do more work because of football. When I know something good is coming up, I rise extra early, work extra hard, in order to deserve it when finally I flop. I do cut corners all the time, never watching the preview stuff, the half-time chat, the studio discussions. I restrict myself to the game.
 
At half-time, I rush down to cut the grass or do some digging – or I totally surprise the family by talking to them. What a fright they get, having thought I’d passed away.
 
The coverage is so rich and so comprehensive these days that, even in a boring game, there is something to ponder. Especially the close-ups of the managers.
 
They are all actors, in that they know they are on show and every mannerism is captured. You see a hand go to pick a nose, then stop, realising. The ones that swig water all the time yet have not exerted themselves, sweated it out – surely they must need to go to the lavatory?
 
When it gets really, really boring, I start counting up the number of World Cups I might still live to see, given a good wind. I smile contentedly and sing to myself, “Heaven, I’m in heaven . . .”
John Betjeman, on his deathbed, said his one regret was not having had enough sex. Image: Getty

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.