Saturday, February 25, 2017

Falling out with Football

Some of my earliest memories are of Sunday mornings. There was one which seemed to involve being in a big hall colouring pictures, but I didn’t much like that, so the memories that have stuck are of sitting outside. Now, I love outside, it calms me, so pretty much any outdoor activity would have held some thrall for my turbulent child self. But the family Sunday activity was football.

When I was very small my Dad played. He was past his glory days by the time I can remember. The cartilage in his knees had run out before the rest of his body- and so much of my memory of him was as he “ran the line”.  I’m pretty sure he sometimes did that in wellies, but its been a long time.

Sunday football was part of our life. We would go to the game and then mum would join us as we had drinks at the social club next door. It’s why I drank beer from the age of eight and could snaffle my way through about a thousand calories of crisps in a sitting.

And then we would go home, have a massive roast and waddle to see grandparents- where if we were lucky- there would be some Sunday football on the television.

When Monday came round, the kit, heavy, ugly, big collared seventies kit- was all over the kitchen. Sometimes the mud would win and mum would curse as the washing machine groaned. Sometimes the weather wouldn’t play ball- and there was damp kit around for longer than might be necessary.

Dad’s friends were football people too. They ran clubs, and coached and loved the game. Ours was not the only garden with twelve matching shirts and a uniformly green Keeper’s jersey on the line each Monday.

By the time I was thirteen I was going to Luton Town home games with just my sister. Sometimes we would get dropped off, other times we would catch the bus. Now, these were the days of the away fan ban and the plastic pitch. It was a safer place than most grounds, but it was still football- top tier football. We stood, as Luton had their best season ever.  We stood in cold and rain, in sun and laughter. We stood on the same day that Hillsborough unfolded and we stood in silence in following weeks,  the sizzle of the burgers the only sound as we remembered the lost.

Football provided my emotional outlet. For all sorts of reasons I had decided that crying was for other people and that I would be strong no matter what.  So when I cut to the shin bone, no tears. When I tore an Achilles, no tears. But when it came to relegation and promotion days there would be choked voices and leaky eyes. As David Pleat ran on the pitch our emotionally stilted family allowed the feelings to run more freely than the man in the beige suit.

And then there was playing. When I was about four, I had a little net of goodies that I had declared to be my football kit. It included a tennis ball and a spare pair of big pants that would be my shorts. Fret not, they were soon replaced with a proper kit- none of your replica stuff at sixty quid a pop. This was a BHS special, but I loved it.

Unusually for a seventies girl, I was allowed to play football all through primary school. I will ever be grateful for having avoided the odious nemesis of true sport that is netball. I will also always be fearful of those stippled plastic balls that used to bring up welts on a bare leg on a February day. 

I played at home, I played down the park with friends- only stopping when the social conformity of pre pubescence dictated that I should be doing something else. I wish I’d never stopped.  I picked up again at uni and have dabbled ever since.

In the last few years though, I have had a love hate relationship with the sport. The money, the paucity of our national team, the associated greed, violence and depression of being an England fan. They all put you off. That and the realisation that actually footballers are not the fittest, most dedicated, most well disciplined and trained sports people you can get. And yet, on a Saturday afternoon in early May, you will still find me with tears running down my face as I hear the stories of who has scrapped their way to survival in their chosen league.

Just this week I found myself gulping with pride as Lincoln City made it into the FA Cup Sixth Round. It brought up memories of my second cousin, an avid Imp who would attend every home game. He had learning difficulties, but Sincil Bank was a place of safety for him. The club and the fans would always look out for him, keep him safe and send him back home with his Pink Un.

But the rest of the week has just made me sad.

This week has served as a painful reminder that the game that I love is now a big business that, with a few exceptions, is about profit and power, over and against pride and passion. The tale of Sutton United, with their plastic pitch and their fill the goal reserve keeper. Their FA Cup run was marred when said keeper- who also kept the place safe, put up the nets, cared for the pitch, resigned because eating a pie may have broken some betting rules.

I’m not sure anyone even stopped to question if we haven’t got it a bit wrong if football is about betting on pie eating.

And then Claudio.

We don’t know if it was “senior” player revolt, or sheer greed that pushed the Board to sack him. We know it wasn’t the fans. Was the fiscal drama of a relegation really too much to bear? Had Claudio lost his touch with the players, or had they lost touch with reality- rueing their loyalty as others achieve more (money)? Whatever it was, it was desperately sad- a lack of loyalty to a man who could have walked away.

Some might say that the word has moved on, that football is a big industry and one of our greatest exports- and maybe that’s true. But if the big money and the global brand leads to what I have seen this week, I am not sure I want a part of it.

I don’t like what it does to big clubs and I don’t like what it does to children and young people. I grew up trying to perfect Zico’s scissor kick (I never did, though nearly took a chunk out of my head on the rockery). The kids I work with now are more proud of their ability to roll around in mock agony. I dreamt of lifting the FA Cup- the kids I talk to now dream of making a lot of money.

I know I sound nostalgic- but for me sport is culture. Its something that brings out our better selves, helps us to believe that there is more than what we experience in the every day, and brings us together in wonder and delight. And I am not sure I see that any more.

And so football I am done with you.


Apart from maybe the 11th March from 5.30.. and maybe May 6th and 7th. .





Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What sort of day has it been?

Hello from a grey and somewhat subdued New York City. It's about twelve hours since we've known the outcome of the election cycle, and I don't entirely know what to think. So, what follows are mumblings- inspired by the things we have been up to for the last week.

It's a big place
We drove about a thousand miles and barely left New York State. The USA is huge and has vast swathes of natural resource and so I think I am beginning to understand why it doesn't have an international narrative like much of Europe.  In that big space we definitely saw more Trump signs than Clinton ones, more conservatism than liberalism.  In eight days we saw three minutes of news about affairs overseas (and no, we were not watching Fox News). Anyone you mention Brexit to looks at you like you are asking about a new drug- so the frame of international reference is negligible outside of the Beltway,.

It's lost a lot
One of the things about looking at a map rather than a guidebook when you plan, is that you end up in places like Binghamton. Over breakfast on Monday our server was telling us about all the things that "used" to be there. Mainly defence related but now in California or overseas. This place sits just at the edge of the rust belt, feeling like it is struggling to know why it is there. Enter stage right someone with a compelling answer to the question (if not the problem)

It's a manly place
I am tall: so I have a weirdly adjusted masculinity radar (this requires a long other blog post). But the American version of masculinity feels a bit different to the UK one. I'm not sure it was ready to be led by a woman. It's a narrative that very few are owning. "That" woman, maybe, but not any woman,  For what it's worth, I have long felt that the USA would accept leadership from an African American woman before a white one. Also evangelical Christians generally think women should only lead children and women (broad but not altogether untrue brush stroke). Lest I let my Catholic brethren get away with it, we went to Mass on Monday and the priest there preached that corruption will get worse, be more Catholic... I'll let you look at the Latino vote and draw your own conclusions.

A Lot of people didn't vote
We stopped to get coffee from a Tim Hortons (oh the irony) on the way into Manhattan this morning. The lady who served us hasn't got her citizenship yet so couldn't vote but was saying that lots of people hadn't voted.  The assistant in Macy's simply said she "wasn't into politics" (In a society which puts its children into cliques at school does it mean that politics is a niche thing?).  Weirdly the most engaged person I saw today was a homeless guy asking on Madison Avenue if Wall Street had picked up.

America believes in democracy
This is a nation which believes in its systems I think. The politicos like what they have system wise.. So they will bounce. Do this weird result in the UK and we talk about PR and gerrymandering. Here it is what it is and is believed to be a good system. Will that last for four years?

And it's not over yet
It's possible that President Elect Trump could be on trial before January 20th. We should perhaps all do a bit of revision on Mike Pence.

It's subdued here: but by this afternoon people were a little more chatty than this morning and as Brits we need to remember that it will now torpor until January.. Watch this space.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What's Next? 8 ways to move on..

It is still early, only twenty four hours since many of us woke up to find that what we had hoped did not happen. The referendum, for many is lost, and the reaction is fierce. What follows are a few ideas of how to navigate the next wee while.

Be Real
If this hurts, hurt. If it make us feel scared, be scared. Anger and blame are great displacements- and they have their moment (which is still now, don’t just squash it) - but get as close to the real feelings as you can. And take that moment to acknowledge that for many of us part of the challenge is that we are not used to getting our own way.

Be Kind
If you are reading this, the outcome is worse for many other people. They may have voted for it, but they will suffer. Be kind. And be kind to those who are very fearful. Being an EU worker at this moment must feel pretty grim. Be kind.

Switch Off
How many of us have run our phone batteries dry in the last 24 hours? The urge to check social media and keep abreast of what s going on is huge. But it will drive us to more fear and worry. Limit the interaction, not to stick our heads in the sand, but to remember that life is more than this. Put your phone down, give someone a hug and play some frisby.

Stay Engaged
A lot of young people voted in the referendum. If we walk away from the political process now we will miss an opportunity. The last few elections have been won because of an older vote that has been pandered to.  Don’t ever let that happen again.

Put Some Skin in the Game
Every successful social movement has had self-control and has been prepared to put bodies on the line. Be ready to protest. Be polite and don’t be angry in it, but be prepared to be treated badly anyway. But it will work. And be ready to flier and protest and write and march. Just signing an online petition won’t do this.

Put Some More Skin in the Game
It seems that whilst the vote does not imply a universal racism, those who were racist before the vote are emboldened.  Don’t believe everything you see on social media, but if you see someone being obnoxious, challenge it. Stand in the way of hatred, physically if you have to.

Be Around People Who Aren’t Like You
Andy Flannagan has written much more eloquently about this: but people will be influenced by the things around them. So be around them. Time will tell that white working class voters will not get what they voted for. That’s a powerful alliance that could grow to get a better outcome.

Read the Story

If you are a Christian, we have to remember that our hope is not in the EU; its in Jesus. The story of God and his people has always been that He is faithful with our unfaithfulness. He loves us, he loves people who voted to leave, sit in that, however uncomfortable it feels.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Week Today

A week today, when all the furore has ebbed and the markets have bottomed out, our nation will awake to the sounds of bugles and church bells as we commemorate 100 years from the start of the Battle of The Somme.  I am an historian by background, and the Somme for me is emblematic of a human tragedy that need never have happened. My reading of it is this: we began a war from a variety of odd alliances and murky motivations, capped off finally by a sense that no-one had the will to stop it.  In order to give the war effort impetus, posters, propaganda began to be bandied around about the enemy, about what they would do to children and how they needed to be stopped. It worked as a recruiting effort- young men, boys, and women all joined the war effort. They joined as an act of patriotism, tinged yes with fear, but also a sense that it might be the right thing to do. They joined from across the country- but at the heart of the front line forces were thousands and ten of thousands of working class men.


As the war went on, the effort to recruit had to continue at a more accelerated pace- hard when you began to people come back from war scarred in body, mind and spirit.  But an added fervour against the enemy helped in the recruitment of pals battalions. And for many the prospect of miltary service over poor working conditions was a real and relevant choice. Groups of me all from the same place, given the chance to fight together against the common enemy.

And so they joined, they trained and they prepared.

And far from them a group of men of an entirely different class prepared for war. They desired a victory and drew from all that they had learned of war to implement a strategy which they felt could not fail.  Integral to that strategy was a battle in the Somme region that would begin with a long shelling assault before the infantry went over the top of trenches and calmly walked towards an already vulnerable enemy.

They believed that a decisive victory here would bring Britain victory over all.

Next week we commemorate the start of that conflict.

And we remember that they were wrong. Shells do not cut barbed wire. Trenches can be dug deep and keep people safe. And walking towards machine gun fire inflicts heavy casualties. On July 1st there were 57,000 British casualties, of whom 19,000 died.

The tactics of that fight were predicated on ideas that were out of date, that denied empirical evidence and that ultimately killed or injured 420,000 UK soldiers and advanced all of a mile.

One hundred years later, hard working men signed up for a cause that they have believed is patriotic. I was both proud and terrified that very time I walked past my local polling station people were going in , Early yesterday evening Ian Duncan Smith said that as many as 85% of “council estate” (his words) residents were voting. That is unprecedented. My anecdotal experience is that they voted on the basis of immigration and a perceived injustice of limited opportunities for their own families. This instinct, coming from real experience of stretched services and lowered prospects, was manipulated by posters and propaganda. It was heighted by print media and disproportionate TV time, all contributing to the idea that immigration was the problem to be solved and the battle to be won.

And so when referendum came the pals battalions of 2016 were offered by the Vote Leave campaign.  You can be with your people, you can take back control.

And so in their thousands and ten of thousands men and women who were not being listened to by those in charge, who felt that they nothing to lose, joined the Leave campaign.

And far from them a group of men of an entirely different class prepared for victory. They drew from all they knew of politics to dream of a Britain that with its mighty strength would depart from the EU into a glorious return to how things ought to be.  Their vision is outdated and I fear their modo bello (forgive my Latin if its wrong) is too- it seeks a Britain which no longer exists in a world that has moved on. It also seeks a Britain that has nothing to do with the vision of the working classes.

I spoke with a much loved Leave voter early this morning who said “I’m so glad that we don’t have to use guns and bombs to get what we want, we just have to put a cross in a box”.  I rejoice with her that on day one no-one has perished.

But I fear, I fear that many people who have voted to leave, out of honest and sincere motives, will end up as casualties. Brexit as won by Generals Johnson and Gove does not intend to deal with immigration. Working class people, already beset with poor job security, may be the first sent out, calmly walking towards the machine gun laden market, like pals battalions sent into needless slaughter.

Some have suggested that British social fabric was forever changed at the Somme. Authority was finally seen for what it was, out of touch and profoundly not ‘for us’. The established church certainly never recovered, having been so very much part of the establishment that effected a slaughter on its own people.

Our social fabric may be forever changed after Brexit. It is a good thing that so many people engaged, that they felt like they could do something.  I am glad and I pray that the age of apathy may be over. But I also pray that the working classes do not find themselves let down like Pals Battalions, the first casualties in a senseless campaign that serves the ego needs of the few. And I pray for the church, my employer (today) that we will not be so embroiled with the establishment that we lose our people forever.