The Bug House Files

Len Goodman, Joost van der Westhuizen and the Tyneside Irish

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Doomed: the Tyneside Irish advancing on Contalmaison, July 1 1916

Doomed: the Tyneside Irish advancing on Contalmaison, July 1 1916

Every Saturday night, when the rest of the household is watching Strictly Come Dancing, I invariably escape to my office to self-righteously contemplate my navel.

And tonight,  as Len Goodman and Co hand out the marks, I find myself thinking about the Tyneside Irish and Joost van der Westhuizen.

One was a “lads’ brigade” from Newcastle who were largely slaughtered at the Battle of the Somme in 1916; the other a brilliant South African scrum half who is dying of motor neurone disease diagnosed in 2011.

The common denominator is the Wales versus South Africa rugby international which took place this evening in Cardiff and which I watched briefly before being kicked out of the sitting room*.

Prior to the kick-off the announcer called for silence to remember the fallen in advance of Remembrance Sunday. Typically of rugby crowds, you could have heard a pin drop as a lone bugler played the Last Post.

I am not by nature a sentimental man, but having researched the Tyneside Irish for an as yet unwritten book I could not help but think of them. These were a battalion of mostly ill-educated and desperately young pitmen and labourers who, like thousands of others, cheerfully signed up in 1914 and were shipped off to France to fight the good fight.

Superstar: Joost van der Westhuizen in his pomp

Superstar: Joost van der Westhuizen in his pomp

At 7am on July 1, 1916 they were on the Tara-Usna Line near La Boisselle as the whistles blew to signal the charge over the top.  Their mission was to secure the German-held village of Contalmaison, but within a few minutes most of them had been mown down by unrelenting machine-gun fire.

Midway through the rugby match, meanwhile, the camera homed in on Joost van der Westhuizen in his wheelchair. As an enthusiastic follower of the sport, I remembered van der Westhuizen as a superbly combative and skilful player. I was not aware of his illness, even less its severity.  Doctors have told him that he has between two and five years to live.

There is no deeper meaning to this particular entry; it is not meant as an existentialist treatise about life and death. These are simply random ruminations sparked by the time of the year and by a rugby match.

Anyway Strictly Come Dancing is ending now. My spies tell me Dave Myers is for the chop this week. Not before time, I hear.

* Wales lost.


Author: Jim Ford

I'm an author and journalist. "The Bug House" series of Tyneside-based crime novels is published in 2014

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