The threat to the Labour party, Tom.

The threat to the Labour party Tom (Tom Watson on Labour’s rift, G2 interview by Decca Aitkenhead, 10 08 2016), is not a handful of ‘Totskyite entryists’, but the wedge of aggressive, recalcitrant neoliberals in the PLP, clinging to an economic orthodoxy that cannot ever deliver economic or social Labour values and purposes (see Stiglitz, The Guardian 06 08 2016).

To admit this fact at this stage in their political careers is no doubt difficult, as it would be tantamount to admitting incompetence, not just political irresponsibility. But, even at this late stage, if they would listen and learn from the victims of systematic Tory cruelty and pillage; if they would listen and learn from the economists and commentators who have documented and analysed the current crisis and Labour’s potential role in returning society to some degree of humanity, via a progressive politics and new economics that could deliver social and cultural benefits, along with an effective economy rooted in environmental as well as social justice values, they could perhaps re-invent their own ‘expertise’ with dignity, and redefine their role, as part of the solution, not the problem.

Post the EU referendum vote, and Thatcher’s would-be ‘reincarnation’ at the head of government, there is no virtuous or safe fence for Labour MPs to sit on. Nor should they seek that safety for themselves. This is a moment for Labour MPs to answer that old call: ‘Which side are you on? Which side are you on?’

val walsh / 11 08 2016

 

 

 

 

 

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Troubling Labour: the Labour leadership contest.

Expanded version of letter published in The Guardian (04 08 2016).

  • Preamble.
  • More than mere words.
  • Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
  • Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
  • Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.

Preamble.
Angela Eagle approves Labour MP, Owen Smith’s apology for his recent, aggressive, sexist comments about prime minister, Theresa May (Guardian, 30 07 2016), when he suggested Labour should “smash” the prime minister “back on her heals”. This was described as “his recent slip-up” and as “a clumsy promise” (Anushka Asthana interview, ‘There’s no point being sore’, The Guardian Journal, 30 07 2016). In this interview, Angela recommends “sensitive use of language” and comments: “Owen has shown a capacity to recognise and apologise for insensitivity, and that’s important”.

More than mere words.
But this is not, as her stance implies, a question of rude, unkind or cruel language, or even language that offends. Her own language about Smith’s “slip-up” is distinctly cautious, conservative and apolitical: uninformed by years of theory and research (especially feminist and post colonial), which has reframed and extended politics in terms of the politics of, e.g. food, violence, sexuality, health, housing, multiculturalism and language. I suspect she is concerned not to be identified with the idea of ‘political correctness’, within which issues of language and behaviour have played such a big part; a label used by politicians and the media to rubbish and ridicule equality and social justice initiatives, especially those pertaining to gender issues, racism, homophobia and misogyny.

Angela’s stance fails to acknowledge that the issue is about language as a function of and constitutive of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and incitement to hatred. It is about language as social power and as an abuse of power and privilege, which in turn contaminate the body politic and public spaces, rendering these less safe for their targeted constituencies, and making society and individuals less welcoming and accepting of difference and diversity, and more fearful of each other.

The recent EU Referendum campaign exemplified how months of public figures, including politicians, relentlessly demonising ‘foreigners’, and/or those whose difference was visible (skin colour, facial features, dress), as the enemy within, as Other, have consequences. Recklessly racialising political discourse resulted in an overnight change after the Brexit vote, in terms of what was seen as allowable speech and behaviour. People of colour and others suddenly felt less safe, less accepted, more at risk as citizens, even if they had lived and worked here for many years.

Owen Smith’s reaction to Theresa May on this occasion, like previous ‘gaffes’ by Cameron (“Calm down dear!” to Angela Eagle herself), Boris Johnson, Farage, et al, was no mere linguistic misdemeanor. Such behaviour exposes the inner workings of these men’s minds: their lingering heterosexism, racism, homophobia and/or misogyny; who they are as men. For the Labour party to think an MP who exhibits such attitudes is fit for office, never mind being considered as leadership material, is beyond belief. As reported in the New Statesman, the Independent and elsewhere online, this man has form. www.newstatesman.com/2016/07/four-times-owensmith-has-made-sexist-comments
27 Jul 2016 –
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-owen-smith-labour-leadership-dodgy-copy-theresa-may-smash-her-back-on-her-heels-a7159621.html

Desperation, futility, duplicity. What a shameful mess.
The acceptance of Owen Smith as a leadership candidate confirms that the entwined issues of racism/misogyny/homophobia as both legitimate political targets for Labour (as important as social class and poverty) and as serious issues for the culture of the Labour party and the trade unions, still have a way to go. In the unseemly rush by the PLP to support any MP prepared to stand against the current elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the Parliamentary Labour Party has exposed its lack of commitment to equality and social justice issues, and democratic values, in particular regarding misogyny and homophobia. The sight of prominent Labour women embracing (literally) a candidate whose back story and political conduct display ignorance of and/or unconcern for those hard fought historical campaigns and political issues and values, made me catch my breath in disbelief.

It’s 2016, but these values are clearly not part of his personal and political identity and practice as a man. Citing Owen’s track record so far, David Wearing doubts that Owen Smith is “the man to drive through root-and-branch reform of British capitalism, and to challenge majority views on issues including welfare and immigration” (see David Wearing, ‘Labour’s bitter battle isn’t about Corbyn – it’s a fight for change’.The Guardian, 27 07 2016).

So, at Saturday’s Liverpool Pride (30 07 2016), there was Owen swinging along, busy with damage limitation: having his smiling photo taken with as many women as he could fling his arm around (it looked as if he had brought his own photographer). In view of his leadership bid, he really needed to be seen mingling with gay activists and other non “normals” (having previously described himself as the “normal” candidate – heterosexual, married with kids – as opposed to Angela, ‘the gay candidate’). Meanwhile, Wallasey CLP members were out in force behind their banner, but there was no sign of Angela, their MP, who this year presumably felt she couldn’t afford to be seen with them, given her complicity in the accusations of homophobia and intimidation in the LP and by Wallasey CLP members.

She has been reported as saying that “Jeremy Corbyn had created a ‘permissive environment’ in which Labour MPs who opposed him faced abuse, on and offline” (Hadley Freeman, The Guardian Weekend, 30 07 2016). And she has said that “Corbyn’s failure to deal with bigotry and intimidation had ‘tarnished the party’s reputation”’ (cited Peter Walker & Rowena Mason, ‘Up to 50,000 new Labour supporters face vote bar’. The Guardian, 03 08 2016). By contrast, there are Wallasey CLP members who see things very differently (see www.newstatesman.com/…/homophobic-slurs-against-angela-eagle-wallasey-ive-only…

Crushing Labour’s progressive potential: the neoliberal mindset that is Blair’s legacy.
The latest smear against Jeremy Corbyn, the claim that before he became leader there were no such problems, is laughable (but not funny), mendacious and vindictive. Those MPs (and Guardian journalists) adopting this stance, could do with reading some evidence to the contrary, posted in October 2012: ‘Sexism and Activism: What’s the problem?’ and ‘Thinking Through and Beyond “sexism”. Reflections on the challenge for the “Left” (and willing others)’ at togetherfornow.wordpress.com in the Category ‘Essays’.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, Corbyn supporters / Momentum, have been variously demonised as the ‘hard left’, as ‘extremists’, and more recently, akin to Donald Trump as a “fringe group” and “cult” (Hadley Freeman, ibid.). Hadley ties Corbyn and Trump together as heading “cults of personality”. This is quite nasty stuff, not least from a journalist I have previously respected. But I suspect that Labour MP, Diane Abbott, is better informed, as she describes a scenario I recognise from these last months of my involvement with Merseyside Momentum (public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, conversations, debates, and great warmth and good humour between us):

Like (Bernie) Sanders, the left insurgency Corbyn is associated with is not about one man or a cult of personality. The insurgency on both sides of the Atlantic is about millions of people realising that ‘a better way is possible’ and wanting to move beyond neoliberalism. That realisation is not going away (cited Walker & Mason, 03 08 2016). Emphasis added.

Similarly, Wearing argues that:

Jeremy Corbyn’s support unites around clear basic principles: the need to break decisively with neoliberalism, in favour of a new egalitarian economic model, and to defend migrants, minority-ethnic people and those on social security from the rising tide of bigotry and the effects of spending cuts (Wearing, ibid.). Emphasis added.

“A burning rage at New Labour’s politics of inequality widens a divide that goes well beyond the leadership” (ibid.) Wearing notes that New Labour’s agenda was never transformative, but was “primarily about deference to the established order (ibid.).” He cites an illuminating example from a Fabian society conference in 2010, when:

A pitch for a Green New Deal to provide a Keynesian stimulus, create good jobs and    decarbonise the economy was greeted enthusiastically by delegates but rejected by Gordon Brown’s pollster, Deborah Mattinson, who said that while climate change was ‘the biggest issue facing humanity” this was not an idea she could sell to voters (Wearing, ibid.).

Wearing describes this as the essence of Labour’s current civil war:

On one side a grassroots bursting with ideas, determined to tackle the most urgent    issues; on the other a party establishment so deferential to ‘political reality’ that the             survival of human civilisation has to take a back seat (ibid.).

This, he says, is the struggle between small-c conservatives and progressives, and Corbyn “represents a head-on challenge to a status quo that a broad swath of left-progressive opinion now considers intolerable” (ibid.).

Reviving Labour’s progressive purpose.
The fact that Owen Smith is 46 would seem to have disadvantaged him, in as much as he was pretty much born into neoliberalism, and appears untouched by critical feminist and social justice values, for example. By contrast, like many longstanding Labour supporters, or those returning to the fold, 67 year old Jeremy has lived through and been part of many of the liberatory political campaigns of the past 40 or 50 years. He has been that relatively rare being: an activist, as well as a politician.

At the same time, the unprecedented, burgeoning support from young people, their wild enthusiasm for Jeremy as Labour leader and what he stands for, suggests that, even despite the power of consumerism, they have not internalised the neoliberal mantra (TINA – there is no alternative), that pits us against each other, dismantles the public sector and its values of service rather than competition and exploitation. For them TINA makes no sense and is a call of despair, an invitation to accept powerlessness.

When Angela and Owen publicly agree that Austerity is the right way, perhaps they should pause and reflect on how Austerity politics positions, not just young people, but the majority; and the contempt for them that adopting even an Austerity-lite position conveys. Labour can never be the party that deploys poverty as social control and as a political strategy. That’s the Tory way.

Born into a period shaped by feminist and environmental activism, multiculturalism, heightened LGBTU and disability awareness and confidence, and improved understanding of mental health issues, for these young people (and oldies who have stayed awake and sentient during these cruel neoliberal years), climate change, the importance of gender power relations, multiculturalism, racism and public health issues, for example, are no longer niche political abstractions but lived realities: a new ‘normal’ that nonetheless needs defending, not rolling back.

And after 6 years of first the Tory coalition, now full blown Tory war on the very idea of society, including human rights legislation, and post the EU referendum result, there is surely more urgency in working towards proportional representation, and the strategic building of alliances between anti Austerity social democratic parliamentary parties, if the Tories are not to be left (with their tiny majority) to settle in for the long, foreseeable future (which is no future for the majority).

This is not the 1980s and this is not a journey back to what has gone before. It is a movement to create a different and better future, rooted in the contemporary realities and social movements cited above, starting by changing how we do politics now, together, for example by democratising the Labour party. Peer process, not hierarchy: all ages, all backgrounds, all circumstances.

(See also ‘”The trouble is . . .  ” Economists, economics, and the UK Left.’ Posted 07 02 2016 in Commentary 2016 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com. And ‘A “shared somatic crisis”: enough common ground?’ Posted in Conference Presentations 2014 category at togetherfornow.wordpress.com)

val walsh / 04 08 2016

 

 

Wandering hands letters (The Guardian, 14 04 2016)

These were letters from women sharing their experiences of sexual harassment.
This is an extended version of my unpublished letter.

At 19, my first visit to France was 6 weeks en famille with my French pen pal. (We had corresponded since I started learning French at school @ the age of 11.) One day, before we travelled to Lyons city centre on our own, her father volunteered advice on how to deal with any men’s ‘misbehaviour’ on the train. So, when standing in the crowded carriage, I felt a man rubbing his hard penis and his torso against me, I turned, visibly shocked, and shouted, in my best French, the words my friend’s father had provided: “Ça suffit! Non?” The perpetrator jumped back, and other passengers turned to stare

Thus I learnt the value of explicit confrontation, which turns innocent bystanders into witnesses. I have continued to use this French expression, not just in France; it has shock value, and makes clear that a sexual offence has been committed, and that my words are a public termination of abusive behaviour.

A month later, my friend’s father, finding us alone, tried to grab me and kiss me, chasing me around the dining table, as I tried to escape his clutches. No words could protect me, nor was I ever able to tell anyone. His daughter? His wife? My parents? How could I justify the consequences of such a disclosure for them and their relationships? Who would believe me? He would deny any accusation, and could even protest that I had come on to him, and be believed.

For the remaining week of my stay with the French family, I had to behave as if nothing unpleasant or unnerving had happened. And when I got home to my family in England, that pretence had to be sustained: I had to perform a wholly convincing lie, and keep the secret to myself alone. Forever. After all, what could my parents do with the information? What action could they take? And how would it make them feel?

Thus I learned the fragility of a girl’s/woman’s reputation; years before I set about acquiring tools of analysis to understand the roots and impact of sexism and misogyny, and a public voice to challenge these enduring features of personal and public life.

14 04 2016

Postcript: No longer young but still a target.
Years later, during my time in France as an unattached adult and mother, I again had to fend off predatory ‘advances’ (mainly from married men), remain silent and carry on as if no offence or violation had been committed. Then, after 20 years, when the friendly local butcher (a husband and father) effected a lightening strike in my own kitchen, and thrust his hand down the front of my (loose) blouse, squeezing my breast, my silence broke. (I broke. And knew it was time to leave the village and leave France.)

When I raged to local women about what he had done, they all had stories about him. He was a repeat offender. He had a reputation. It was known and accepted. I was unhesitatingly believed. English women friends said, “Go public. Pursue him”. French women neighbours offered support, but advised against taking public action. And my heart cringed for his disparaged, long suffering wife, who I knew. It was clear this was not a marriage she could escape from, and for me to take public action against him would humiliate her (further).

val walsh / 15 04 2016

See also poem in Category ‘Poems 2016’ this blog.

 

See title in Category ‘Poems 2016’.

Why white working-class pupils fail at school (Guardian letters, 08 04 2016). Industrialisation, notably mining, shipping and steelworks, produced gender-segregated paid employment for working-class men, which shaped a culture of working-class masculinity dependent on those all-male working environments. Sons followed fathers. When those industries shrunk or collapsed, it wasn’t just jobs and livelihoods that were lost, but manly dignity, status and power; and for working-class sons, fathers as role models were fatefully diminished. The break up of industrial working-class masculinity as a site of both economic and gender ‘certainty’, would mean many men would never recover, and families and communities would suffer under the pressure, not just of economic deprivation, but ensuing shame, social stigma and psychological crisis. Yet, as five Guardian letters (08 04 2016) show, personal testimony and political analysis generally ignore the consequences of de-industrialisation for working-class men and their sons, in terms of their ‘damaged’ masculinity. The gender-neutral language used, of “kids”, “children”, “youth”, “pupils”, masks the fact that the concern is about the ‘failure’ of working-class boys. This stance also glosses over why education, and especially H.E., was not seen as particularly relevant to white working-class aspirations, lives and communities. In ‘Playlist’ (09 04 2016) reader Ruth Harvey cheerfully remembers “the anarchic theme” of her childhood, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd, and quotes the key lines: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”, which roars out a distinctly hostile view of education as a system. For white working-class boys and their parents, formal education can present itself as difference, as rupture, even as attack on working-class values and culture, and there may be scant support for a boy’s masculine identity and diverse aspirations. By contrast, poet Andrew Motion’s personal testimony (09 04 2016), as a working-class boy from a family with no time for books, tells of how his inspirational English teacher, Peter Way (1924-2016), facilitated his reading and writing, and more: “In certain ways he gave me my life” (Andrew Motion, ‘My hero’. 09 04 2016). Human rights lawyer, and former directpr of public prosecutions, now shadow home office minister, Keir Starmer, values his working-class background. His Labour-supporting parents “gave him his values and his socialist name”, and “the lessons imbibed at home have never left him”. (Saturday interview: “If we don’t capture the ambitions of a generation, it won’t matter who’s leading us”, 09 04 2016). These are two examples of adults acting as a catalyst for a working-class boy’s learning , personal development and professional ambition. Without gender awareness and feminist analysis, the underachieving of white working-class boys will remain a ‘mystery’, or be ‘explained’ as a result of an area’s “poor gene pool” (John Gaskin letter). Whereas, for privately educated boys, whatever else it does, education constitutes social continuity and an intensive training in elite masculinity / manliness, framed in terms of an inherited entitlement to ‘succeed’, to become powerful in their chosen field. David Kynaston‘s letter (09 04 2016) notes: “You devote an editorial to social mobility (08 04 2016), yet those two crucial words ‘private education’ are absent from your analysis. A serious left-of-centre paper cannot go on ducking the issue”. But for The Guardian to critically confront the role and consequence of private education for boys (and society) requires auto/biographical self reflexivity on the part of its own journalists, as well as engagement with the academic and political testimony and analysis of diverse other men, as well as feminists. Ducking the issue counts as evidence, but does nothing, intellectually or politically, to the public conversation needed to increase understanding and political will, and take action to halt the underachievement of white working-class boys. In 2016, privately educated boys appear to be off limits as a serious gender and social class issue, as much as state educated working-class boys. 09 04 2016

Why white working-class pupils fail at school (Guardian letters, 08 04 2016).

Industrialisation, notably mining, shipping and steelworks, produced gender-segregated paid employment for working-class men, which shaped a culture of working-class masculinity dependent on those all-male working environments. Sons followed fathers. When those industries shrunk or collapsed, it wasn’t just jobs and livelihoods that were lost, but manly dignity, status and power; and for working-class sons, fathers as role models were fatefully diminished. The break up of industrial working-class masculinity as a site of both economic and gender ‘certainty’, would mean many men would never recover, and families and communities would suffer under the pressure, not just of economic deprivation, but ensuing shame, social stigma and psychological crisis.

Yet, as five Guardian letters (08 04 2016) show, personal testimony and political analysis generally ignore the consequences of de-industrialisation for working-class men and their sons, in terms of their ‘damaged’ masculinity. The gender-neutral language used, of “kids”, “children”, “youth”, “pupils”, masks the fact that the concern is about the ‘failure’ of working-class boys. This stance also glosses over why education, and especially H.E., was not seen as particularly relevant to white working-class aspirations, lives and communities.

In ‘Playlist’ (09 04 2016) reader Ruth Harvey cheerfully remembers “the anarchic theme” of her childhood, ‘Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) by Pink Floyd, and quotes the key lines: “We don’t need no education / We don’t need no thought control”, which roars out a distinctly hostile view of education as a system. For white working-class boys and their parents, formal education can present itself as difference, as rupture, even as attack on working-class values and culture, and there may be scant support for a boy’s masculine identity and diverse aspirations.

By contrast, poet Andrew Motion’s personal testimony (09 04 2016), as a working-class boy from a family with no time for books, tells of how his inspirational English teacher, Peter Way (1924-2016), facilitated his reading and writing, and more: “In certain ways he gave me my life” (Andrew Motion, ‘My hero’. 09 04 2016). Human rights lawyer, and former directpr of public prosecutions, now shadow home office minister, Keir Starmer, values his working-class background. His Labour-supporting parents “gave him his values and his socialist name”, and “the lessons imbibed at home have never left him”. (Saturday interview: “If we don’t capture the ambitions of a generation, it won’t matter who’s leading us”, 09 04 2016). These are two examples of adults acting as a catalyst for a working-class boy’s learning , personal development and professional ambition.

Without gender awareness and feminist analysis, the underachieving of white working-class boys will remain a ‘mystery’, or be ‘explained’ as a result of an area’s “poor gene pool” (John Gaskin letter). Whereas, for privately educated boys, whatever else it does, education constitutes social continuity and an intensive training in elite masculinity / manliness, framed in terms of an inherited entitlement to ‘succeed’, to become powerful in their chosen field. David Kynaston‘s letter (09 04 2016) notes: “You devote an editorial to social mobility (08 04 2016), yet those two crucial words ‘private education’ are absent from your analysis. A serious left-of-centre paper cannot go on ducking the issue”.

But for The Guardian to critically confront the role and consequence of private education for boys (and society) requires auto/biographical self reflexivity on the part of its own journalists, as well as engagement with the academic and political testimony and analysis of diverse other men, as well as feminists. Ducking the issue counts as evidence, but adds nothing, intellectually or politically, to the public conversation needed to increase understanding and political will, and take action to halt the underachievement of white working-class boys.

In 2016, privately educated boys appear to be off limits as a serious gender and social class issue, as much as state-educated working-class boys.

val walsh / 09 04 2016

 

The song ‘DELILAH’ and Tom Jones, the Welsh singer.

[This is an expanded version of unpublished letter to The Guardian.]

The lyrics, describing a knife crime, the murder of a prostitute, are indisputably ugly. I once caught part of a Tom Jones concert on TV. He was singing ‘Delilah’, his 1968 hit. I couldn’t believe my ears; thought I had misheard. I turned it off. Wondered whether anyone else had noticed, ever.

Turns out Dafydd Iwan, a folk singer and former Plaid Cymru president, had raised concerns about the ballad in 2014 (that’s 46 years after Jones’s hit), saying it was “a song about murder and it does tend to trivialize the idea of murdering a woman” (cited Nadia Khomami, “Bye, bye, bye, Delilah? Rugby fans urged to ditch Tom Jones’s song over “dark lyrics”’. The Guardian, 06 02 2016). Tend to trivialise? You can feel Iwan’s caution in even broaching the subject. So, to go a bit deeper:

Someone (male and heterosexual?) writes the lyric in the 1960s and puts it to music that masks the gendered violence portrayed, turning it into an ‘anthem’, a sing-along. Misogyny dressed up as entertainment has not been uncommon in the music industry.

Tom Jones selects the song, and performs it regularly for 48 years. It has a special place in his heart and repertoire, not least because he hears it sung at Welsh rugby games. He explains: ”The woman is unfaithful to him and [the narrator] loses it . . . It’s something that happens in life”. Notice he doesn’t say, “It’s something that men do”. But he gets pretty close to implying the man’s act of violence is ‘only natural’ in the circumstances. And it’s the woman who has done wrong after all. Jones sings: “Forgive me Delilah, I just couldn’t take any more. I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more”.

Yes, Tom, men do murder women, usually their intimates (lovers, prostitutes, wives, daughters). The stats on sexual violence against women and girls are horrifically high and the murder of women is not a crime that is decreasing nationally. Also, as the shadow leader of the House of Commons, and Rhondda MP, Chris Bryant, points out, “It is a simple fact that when there are big international rugby matches on, and sometimes football matches as well, the number of domestic violence incidents rises dramatically” (cited Khomami).

In an attempt to defend the singing of the song at rugby games, the Welsh Rugby Union lauds the song’s musicality as more important than the lyrics (cited Khomami), not understanding that that is precisely what makes the song so obscene. The song’s musicality functions to fetishise sex as power: male power and male violence against women. Jones implicates his singers in his effort to defend performing the song: “I don’t think the singers are really thinking about it . . . “ (ibid.) The musicality the WRU highlight as the song’s value/beauty, aestheticises the violence, the murder of a woman, and thereby renders it subordinate and incidental, of no real concern. Delilah becomes both the narrator’s and the singer’s muse. The two men share a voice, share a story. And without her body, there is no story, no performance. No way of proving heterosexual masculinity.

Jones objects to the lyrics being taken “literally” – as opposed to what? Sexual fantasy? Entertainment? Banter? Poetry? “If it’s going to be taken literally, I think it takes the fun out of it”, he says. This may leave you speechless. So three questions:

  • Where’s the fun in VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls), Tom?
  • What does the resistance to giving up the song as a “secondary national anthem” (Dafydd Iwan) say about Wales, rugby culture, men’s attitudes to women in 2016?
  • And can anyone say why the song should ever be performed publicly again? Never mind as a sing-along celebrating national identity in a rugby stadium.

08 02 2016 / val walsh