Monthly Archives: March 2012

Try everything once, except incest and Morris dancing

Britain's heritage - blacking up

Britain's heritage - weirdos blacking up

The incident is burned in my memory decades later; hurrying into the noisy classroom following dinner-break as I sat down next to my mate. Being a bit of a scally and in the knowledge I was the only boy in class not wearing long trousers (thanks Mum – seven-years-old and still in shorts) the little bastard pinched my leg. Due to the hubbub I was unaware of Miss Puddefoot’s presence in the room and let out a loud and prolonged scream – the sort you might holler in the recently vacated playground. She was a young teacher; kind and difficult to get on the wrong side of. Nonetheless, she stood up from whatever she was doing behind her desk and glared at me. No preamble, no telling off.  “Go!” she commanded, “And stand outside the class.”

This was possibly the worst moment in my life up until then. As a well-behaved and rather diffident boy used to coming top of the form I wasn’t at all accustomed to discipline in school. However, the punishment meted out by teacher was far from my mind. Worse, much worse than her admonishment was the reaction of the class – they were in fits at my ridiculous scream and hysterics I’d been caught. I trooped out of this hell and to the relative sanctuary of the corridor to the mocking of 30 or so compatriots.  Face burning red and with my heart attempting to pump its way through a Bri-Nylon shirt I had just enough self-respect remaining to save the tears for outside.

Some might find the incident amusing – I don’t and never have. All my life the very worst thing, worse than pain, worse even than death is embarrassment. Although an emotional response, I consider it a symptom of my own innate humanity this aversion applies not just to my own discomfort but anybody’s. I loathe the works of Woody Allen, am barely able to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and incredulous at the praise bestowed upon The Office. John Cleese may well have considered the writing of Fawlty Towers to have been good therapy for himself but for me it was the reverse.

As a rule, comedians in Working Man’s Clubs made a living embarrassing members of the audience while the alternative lot set about themselves. But when it comes people capable of humiliating everybody in sight you struggle to find a group more demeaned and demeaning than Morris dancers.

I’ve only met one person in my life who indulged in Morris. He and I both worked for a crisis-counselling charity and it was my misfortune to share a duty with him one Monday night. I must confess I didn’t think much of the chap even before he decided (much against any indication I might have given) to show me his “dance” technique. Out came a not-too-clean hanky as he pranced around the small room oblivious either to the impending need of the callers or my disgust.

Dressing up as a horse and poking your equine nose into ladies’ shopping bags is not “hilarious”, but “twattish”. Wearing a pair of cut-off cricket trousers, worn-out dress-shirt and white nylon football socks cannot under any terms represent “heritage”. And if this really is a fertility ritual, why are so many of the participants so old? Even leaving aside rumours of far-right memberships and allegiances I find it difficult to accept any group with even an ounce of nous would be proclaiming their right to black-up in the 21st Century.

But that’s rather the point isn’t it? Morris dancers have no self-awareness. With the exception of buskers  – who do it for money – I cannot think of another group so ready to foist their hobby on an unwilling public. You may not like football but at least we retire to an out-of-the-way pitch to indulge. Fishing, the most popular leisure activity in the country, is all but exclusively maintained away from the public gaze. Even trainspotting – the most reviled pastime – will usually take place tucked away at the end of a station platform. Not so Morris men who exhibit an almost fascistic lack of concern for right of access to civic spaces.

As anecdotal evidence I give you an example from my past which also demonstrates my belief nothing in life makes us as angry as others behaving in a manner we forbid ourselves: On my way to rugby training one evening a bit of a hold up in the main square led to me dipping down a side street in order get to the club on time. Having the same idea, a couple of other cars followed behind me only for us all to screech to a halt as we reached the pub at the bottom. For outside the Rose and Crown a bunch of social misfits complete with fancy dress, bells and sticks had commandeered the byway and were exercising their “right” to ponce about in the middle. It was reminiscent of a scene from The League of Gentlemen – only more sinister.

Already late and not in the best of moods I was furious their pastime was denying mine. At the front of a now lengthening queue there was no opportunity to back the car up even if we weren’t in a one-way street, so I revved the engine as something of indication to the assembled extras from Royston Vasey I really would rather like to get about my business. Instead of the anticipated polite parting of the ways and a wave of a hanky I received dark looks and an increase in the tempo of the “dance”.

A quick toot on the horn fared no better so I started inching forward only for the occupants of the road to do the same. The stand-off broke as the bumper of my car feathered the bells of one recalcitrant only for him to plunge to the floor via my bonnet in a dive well worthy of a yellow card for simulation. Fortunately his friends finally got the message as I dropped the clutch and belted towards them.

Watching (and hearing) them scatter was almost as amusing as the look on the Desk Sergeant’s face when I visited The Nick post-rugby to report them – apparently they had already rung me in. Rather reasonably I thought, I pointed out had it been myself and a load of mates organising a political protest without prior warning and blocking the public highway our feet would barely have touched. I never heard any more from the local constabulary – but am willing to bet the bloke who pinched my leg now plays the accordion.

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Barthes? Wasn’t he that bald keeper for the Mancs…

Roland Barthes relaxes at home

Roland Barthes relaxes at home

Surveys have long suggested men enjoy watching football as it is one of the few predominantly masculine pastimes that allows males to display a range of feelings otherwise deemed inappropriate. In particular it’s said men can bond at games and share a more gentle side. Admittedly I wasn’t looking all that hard – but I didn’t spot any psychologists at the 1-1 draw between West Ham and Middlesbrough on Tuesday evening. A good thing too; as Dorothy Parker unkindly said of Katharine Hepburn, “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” And so it was at the Boleyn Ground with attitudes as extreme as Angst-ridden discontent all the way through to Blazing fury. For the real men at Upton Park you see, it’s all about anger.

Despite a campaign during which the Hammers have seldom been out of contention for a promotion place the team have slipped to third in the table albeit by just two points and with a game in hand over second-placed Reading. That blip is largely as a result of a consecutive streak of five draws at home. No matter the team are on a nine-game unbeaten run and haven’t lost since a freezing January night at Ipswich, the levels of expectation are such this isn’t considered good enough.

Opposing clubs come to the East End fully briefed to “park the bus”, slow the game down as much as officials will allow and defend for their life in the knowledge home “supporters” will soon be bellowing abuse at their own side. The fans want to watch a winning side so they scream at their own players making them nervous, edgy and therefore less likely to emerge victorious. I decided to challenge such a strange set of behaviours and engaged with two of the disaffected seated near to me during the half-time interval.

I started off with a polite enquiry by asking them if they’d played much football. The reply came back in the negative so I suggested (as somebody who has) one of the most important aspects of all team games is confidence – players need to be in a state as Mike Brearley put it of “relaxed concentration” to perform at their peak. No reply was forthcoming to this so I pressed the point and asked why they continually criticise the team despite it clearly having an adverse effect on the players. (Our away performances this season where the more committed supporters have a well-deserved reputation for both turning out in numbers and getting behind the team eclipse our efforts in London).

Here we reached the nub of the matter. “Our football”, I was told, “is shit”. My new friends went on to inform me they had “Never seen such dire football in 30 years of coming here”, before adding “We want some entertainment”. We finished on good terms and with handshakes all round despite their clear puzzlement at my advice that should they require entertaining perhaps Robbie Williams would be a better use of their finances. So far this season West Ham have played 37 games and won 19, over half. Last term we won seven from 38 and the preceding campaign just eight from the same amount. So I’m sorry boys – but you’re talking garbage. And especially when it’s exactly your behaviour that results in opponents doing everything they can to prevent us playing. The parallels with historic and self-destructive working class attitudes towards the workplace, politics and politicians are not difficult to draw.

The common narrative is manager Sam Allardyce produces “boring” football and relies on “long-ball” tactics to win games. Neither is true. While at Bolton Big Sam allied his strong organisational skills and love of statistics to the use of flair players such as Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Nicolas Anelka. Anybody who has seen the Route One football of teams such as Wimbledon under Dave Bassett, Cambridge with John Beck at the helm or Lincoln under Graham Taylor would be shocked to watch Mark Noble take a free-kick on the half-way line and tap it short to a colleague. Even Stoke in the Premier League would lump it.

Post-match and very disappointed at the result I turned for solace to my old sociology mucker and the inventor of semiotics Roland Barthes. While not smoking himself to death the Frenchman spent much of his too-short life writing about myth and mythology. Not a flowing-haired virgin astride a unicorn plunging through a starlit forest you understand, but a study of how relatively common place objects can attain in public consciousness qualities over and above their actual form as ruling classes establish its values. Pertinently for us Barthes spoke of professional wrestling; believing it not a “real” sport but an acting out of universal themes such as life, death good and evil in a stage-managed “pantomime” where the protagonists project clichéd versions of human weakness.

I’m not for a second going to suggest professional footballers bear any relation to the manufactured “personalities” of wrestling, nor do I believe match-fixing to be anything but the smallest of fringe activities within the sport. But look to our mass media and it’s pretty clear where their priorities lie. Sky Sports routinely talk up matches beyond any reasonable expectation. Newspapers sell by means of fuelling perceived vendettas between managers and players, while live coverage will often concentrate on “issues” surrounding the game as much as the football itself. Style above substance, myth before reality.

Put in that light it is West Ham’s misfortune to possess a highly gifted manager portrayed as academic and dull while at the same time lacking in flair. Perhaps I should not have been alarmed to have heard choruses of “We want Di Canio” towards the conclusion of the match. Massively talented as a player, while at West Ham the now Swindon manager was prone to repeated fits of ill-discipline, notoriously disliked by team-mates and often invented injuries to get out of playing games (particularly up north) if he thought we’d get beaten. Paolo Di Canio’s egomania is considered evidence of a talented individual who despite hailing from Rome is “one of us” while Big Sam’s supreme confidence a negative from “the Northern fat-head.”

As they (too often) say around East 13, “That’s a terrible myth!”

The child that is born on the Sabbath day…

Did Jesus really die for the right to intolerance?

Did Jesus really die for the right to intolerance?

I come from a generation that grew up with little or no knowledge of homosexuality. Throughout my childhood and teens I certainly recognised the existence of gays – albeit mostly via what I’d read in the Sunday newspapers – even if I couldn’t believe anybody I knew actually was gay. I recall my resentment when girls flocked around one undeniably handsome but rather affected boy at school yet it wasn’t until years later it was pointed out to me just why that was.

I feel a fool now for not being more broad-minded, especially as he spent so much of his time away from class with one particular older lad. In this state of ignorance and just as I couldn’t imagine a teacher having any life away from the blackboard, nor did I think for a second there might be a real live poof in my school.

So when we liberals despair of the way society has become ever more intolerant it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come in accepting difference. In my late teens skinheads routinely went hunting out public toilets that they might go “queer-bashing”. (No coincidence in my mind so many of the knuckle-boys later left the closet). I can’t remember anyone ever being prosecuted, in fact it seemed the Old Bill were mostly on the same side as they engaged in their own campaigns of harassment.

Compare and contrast with a colleague of mine who took early retirement last year and came out to the entire factory via email on his last day. Despite an environment where the newspaper of choice is The Star the most usual comment I heard was, “So?” That’s not to say there isn’t massive room for improvement – I’m sure my friend Dan who works for a GLBT charity would be only too ready to point out the horrifying incidence of contemporary homophobic attacks both here and abroad.

Not that my first experiences of a gay couple were all that positive. Jak, an old friend blurted out to me over the phone one day that her life had changed dramatically for the better before informing me she was still living with her husband but had moved a woman into the family home and was in love with her. I soon met up with the pair of them and not long after came to realise that Karen, the new woman, hated not just me but all men.

I must confess to prolonging my friendship with the pair of them for far longer than I should in the vain notion being friends with a couple of lesbians gave my right-on credentials a bit of a boost. So it was I endured a substantial amount of abuse from Karen in the name of “honesty” before foolishly retaliating. Pointing out Jak should tell her children about the affair and the pair of them should end their reliance on the husband’s financial support was apparently not the sort of honesty they traded in. Fortunately that experience proved to be an exception, even if it disabused some of my silly and tokenistic notions.

Since that time I’ve learned Bury St Edmunds offers few in the way of interesting and intelligent people of my age that aren’t either gay or married – and I don’t really enjoy the “couples” thing. It is that inherent mistrust of pairs presenting themselves as one that led to my immediate and instinctive view marriage is a failing institution that gays are well out of. Of course, that’s not the point at all; it’s about equality and denial of same due to ones sexuality.

So it is with a sense of despair I hear the arguments against gay marriage in the current public debate. There seem to be two strands, both emanating from the Church. The “marriage is for procreation” stance is so easily picked apart I’m not even going to bother. The second thrust (am I allowed to  say thrust in a blog about gay marriage?) claims homosexuality to be a sin against God. Leaving aside the observation The Church has no monopoly on marriage it is instructive to hear what Jesus had to say on the issue. Ah, that would be absolutely nothing then – perhaps his big gay denunciation was pencilled in for the week after Easter?

When Cardinal Keith O’Brien claimed same-sex marriage to be a “grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” it’s easy to wonder if he possesses even the slightest sense of self-awareness. Does the Cardinal really not realise that tapping “catholic priest” into Google brings up “sex abuse”? And when the same official compared gay marriage to slavery it’s difficult to believe he hadn’t been at the Communion wine.

The despair I speak of comes not as you might imagine, from the paucity of the debate but the lack of more refined discussions about what it means to be gay in 2012. The gay people I’d call friends range in background, class and political views similarly to any sample of my straight friends, albeit the latter group tend to be loaded towards a support for West Ham United. I would hope I judge all of them good or bad not by their sexuality but as Martin Luther King famously said in another context, “By the content of their character.”

So why despite the reactionary view the arts have become all but a gay closed shop is there such a monotone representation of male gays in popular culture? With each appearance by Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady or Alan Carr I wonder if the role model hasn’t extended much beyond John Inman. Where are the bears and chubs on TV – albeit they are clichés too? And as much as I understand that for many men coming out is a process that involves disposing of an earlier character, the screaming queen is such a stereotype. As Michael Musto observed, “When I first came out I thought I would be entering a world of nonconformity and individuality and, au contraire, it turned out to be a world of clones.”

They say the things you dislike most in others are those you despise most in yourself, so before the hypocrisy of a straight man lecturing gays on their behaviour is pointed out to me I would observe this is a journey I’ve taken too – and not a particularly pleasant one either. Through my days at different times as a rugby player, drinker, doorman body-builder and so on, I only became comfortable with my own masculinity once I stopped pretending to be something I wasn’t. A lesson for all of us perhaps; gay, straight or clergy?

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part (Pierre de Coubertin)

Olympic Stadium under construction

Olympic Stadium under construction Pic: Terry Land

Along with the rest of the staff on The Sun’s editorial floor I was bent over a TV screen waiting for IOC President Jacques Rogge to announce who would be holding the 2012 Olympics. It was Wednesday the sixth of July, 2005 – and as I recall, overcast but warm. “The International Olympic Committee has the honour of announcing”, he said. “That the Games of the 30th Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the city of … LONDON!”

The British delegates in Singapore leapt up and down in jubilation. Kelly Holmes beat her fists on the table in celebration. At Wapping the tension broke just the same. Well, almost.

Due to the vagaries of the networking system at News International the TVs at the far end of the floor were wired to a receiver a second or two ahead of our technologically challenged loop that covered Online and Features. We heard the cheers from the Sport and News desks before Rogge had finished the word, “city”. No matter it meant a mountain of work for me for the rest of the afternoon (albeit I’d already prepared for much of it) this was London in 2005 and everything was perfect.

My career at The Sun was really beginning to take off as I was given increasing responsibility by my editor. Love was blossoming and I had not long returned from a great holiday on the beautiful island of Sveti Stefan in Montenegro with Jane. Tony Blair was in power and despite my instinctive distrust of the man the housing market was roaring. We all had cash in our pockets and even though his chancellor had declared an end to boom and bust it seemed like boom all the way.

Until, of course everything really did go boom.

And no, I wouldn’t be so callous as to be referring to the events of the very next morning when a tube train I’d been travelling on an hour or so earlier was blasted in two by a religious fanatic from a Leeds chip shop. (Eight people died including the bomber).

Four years later we lived in a post-credit crunch world. I was made redundant and used an amount of my pay-off on psychotherapy to try and understand why. Of course the truth, as Oscar Wilde didn’t say, was simple – as much as I had emotionally engaged with working for a newspaper I loathed they treated me as all corporations do, with complete disregard.

Blair had long since let me down, News International let me down – and the closer we came to the Olympics the more my initial optimism seemed unfounded. And not just because as a West Ham supporter the legacy of the stadium was wrapped in the labyrinthine complexities of finance, law and Tottenham Hotspur.

At least there was still Jane, now paying back my faith in her by proving to me to me just how kindness can be a strength, a notion I’d fought against all my life. Her recognition of the Olympics is important living as she does in east London just three or so miles and three stops on the Central Line from Stratford.

The borough of Newham where the stadium is being built is the third poorest in the country with children growing with a 27 per cent rate of “severe poverty”.  Yet the average price of a house in the borough is over £220,000. Jane lives in the relatively affluent Redbridge and works for a legal costs consultants yet cannot afford to buy a ticket to watch the Olympics. Nor can many of the locals despite them all paying for the event via their increased council tax.

The promised “legacy” from the Olympic Village, earmarked to be used as social housing seems to shrink by the day. Just how many of those homes, now owned by the Qatari Royal family do we think will actually serve the community and not scores of incoming businessmen eager to work closer to the financial centre of London?

At least there’s the “regeneration” provided by Westfield – a huge shopping complex to the east of the stadium. Jane and I visited a couple of Sundays ago and I must say we were as delighted as ever by the great food on offer at Busaba Eathai. But something strange was afoot, we left the restaurant to have a browse of the shops – admittedly never my favourite leisure activity – but could barely walk around the concourses for the sheer volume of shoppers.

Only they weren’t shoppers, they were spectators – if we wanted to avoid the crowds it was easy – just walk into a shop, they were invariably close to empty as nobody had any spending cash. So there it is, the Olympics, an event the people closest to it cannot partake in, live in or shop in despite all the lofty claims of “legacy”. All we can do is watch from afar via our TV screens as the tournament plays out to a grateful world.

Actually, I don’t think I’ll bother…

Anne triumphs as democracy continues to lose

Anne Hobbs wins Stafford Rowley for Labour

Independently verified - Anne Hobbs' win in black and white

Thursday night brought some lovely news as an excited Anne Hobbs rang my partner Jane to tell her she had won the Stafford Rowley seat for Labour in a council by-election. The two of them have known each other for over 30 years despite most of that time spent over 100 miles apart and Jane is Godmother to Anne’s oldest child Freya, now out of university.

For Anne this was a real triumph as along with husband Bob she initially lost when campaigning for the same seat two years ago. This time she managed to not only overturn a Tory majority but do so while facing the widow of the former councillor whose untimely death provided her with a second chance.

I suspect two things were behind this electoral success. Anne has devoted her entire working life to the NHS so it was easy to campaign against the Conservatives on health. Locally the Mid-Staffs NHS Trust has come under severe criticism for a failing service, management ineptitude and a “bullying culture” making Anne’s easy manner and cogent argument a reassuring presence in local politics. Secondly, the local party mobilised, never stopped knocking on doors and showed a heart-warming tenacity to succeed.

For my part I always enjoy meeting up with the Hobbs’. As rugby players (my career long finished, his still going strong despite being in his 50s) Bob and I would have plenty to talk about even if I didn’t enjoy his invariably hilarious anecdotes. Plus there’s family member Freddie the Jack Russell of whom I enjoyed three weeks of pup-sitting a couple of years ago.

All that being the case it was easy for me to go onto Anne’s Facebook page and offer my congratulations along with a link to a short story in the Independent that included a mention.

Then came the bombshell: In reply Anne rather generously suggested I should run a similar campaign.

Oh.

Not wishing to either disrupt the celebratory mood or appear churlish I made no reply. But as much as I can enjoy Anne’s win I cannot and could not ever join the Labour Party, never mind stand for them. Leaving aside the practical matters of living in Tory heartland Suffolk or being much too intemperate in character to ever be a successful politician I cannot support a party that speaks for capital not labour.

There is a schism in contemporary Western society between the needs and desires of ordinary people and the society we are actually getting. And the gap between the work of people like Anne and the leadership of the Labour Party reflects this perfectly. Even as Anne was working towards a Queen’s Award for Nursing Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was preparing the NHS to be sold off.

As yet we have received no guarantee from the Labour leadership they would repeal Andrew Lansley’s Health Bill should they gain power. I’m not expecting them to do so any time soon, either. The Lib-Dems while out of power promised a penny on Income tax to pay for the NHS but have caved to Andrew Lansley’s desire to reduce the service to a copy of the US system where the gap between cost and outcome is the largest in the world.

The three major political parties support not the population of this country but in varying degrees the seemingly unquenchable greed of financial services as they hoover up money surely better spent on social provision. None of them proposed selling off the NHS in their pre-election manifesto. There is no mandate for this process. In contrast to the hamstrung Ed Miliband who can only spout useless platitudes as he struggles to appease both markets and electorate it appears to me the real government opposition now lies with groups such as UK Uncut, Occupy, 38 Degrees and Avaaz.

I don’t think it should be difficult for a government in the seventh largest economy in the world to provide basic needs for its citizens. I believe they include a safe and affordable home, a job within which an individual can feel valued, access to good healthcare and education and an equitable justice system. Sadly most of us enjoy few of those “rights” as they are increasingly abandoned at the behest of neo-liberal market forces.

Since the September 11th bombings 11 years ago we have learned to accept the mantra that we the West are the good guys fighting for democracy against religious intolerance. Yet even leaving aside both the diminution of our own rights since the Twin Tower attacks and the seemingly hard-wired intolerance of our own clergy, what sort of democracy do we live in when the hard work, honesty and inclusive ideals of somebody like Anne Hobbs count for next to nothing?

Eight things we learned watching West Ham play Doncaster

Doncaster Rovers celebrate

Doncaster celebrate

1. While other teams seem to be able to “bank” good performances and keep their confidence high, West Ham don’t. And especially not when the players walk out at Upton Park. Doncaster used the spur of a good midweek result against Burnley yet our brilliant performance against Cardiff has been long forgotten. This I believe, is the legacy of the three years of crap we’ve seen at Upton Park. The crowd seem permanently on the edge of hostility while players look nervous.

2. After Ricardo Vaz Te limped off with a hamstring injury we lost attacking threat. Worse, we lost the ability to hold the ball in midfield.

3. I’ve no idea why Sam Allarcdyce replaced Vaz Te with Sam Baldock. Maybe he was looking for “Sammy” to cut in from the left and shoot with the right foot as they do in Italy. Maybe the manager was concerned at the thought of a right flank comprising Baldock and George McCartney. But based on the experience of his efforts on the right it seemed a slim hope he’d profit on the left. And so it proved with Baldock not only anonymous on the wing but more tellingly when we reverted to 4-4-2.

4. El Hadji Diouf was the best player on the pitch. I’d argue those who campaigned against his signing don’t have a right to criticise the result yesterday. Equally all the boos each time he received the ball were pathetic – like being at a pantomime with six-year-olds. Plus it obviously fired him up.

5. Robert Green may have saved us a point with a “worldy” from Diouf but Andy D’Urso cost us two. The same referee was terrible when we beat Blackpool 4-0 but didn’t affect the result. Yesterday he probably denied us a goal in the opening minute (I thought there was a push by Vaz Te prior to the finish but my mate working Final Score for the BBC said not – and he had the benefit of replays) and certainly denied us a clear-cut penalty at 1-0.

6. Whatever the question is, the answer’s not Ravel Morrison. Elevated to skipper of the Development Squad midweek and the bench yesterday it appears Allardyce is having to follow the same carrot and stick road Sir Alex Ferguson trod as strong rumours of Morrison missing several training sessions abound.

7. Losing all three right-backs in the squad hurt us. McCartney was forced into swapping flanks and looked uncomfortable – I don’t think he put in a right foot cross all game – while Matt Taylor looked less than effective at left-back. Allardyce relies on crosses into the box to score goals yet with Baldock and Jack Collison charged with that duty we lost all attacking threat.

8. We are unbeaten in seven and have won three of our last four away games. So long as we continue winning away we can afford draws at home. So long…