Monthly Archives: April 2012

We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty

Scott Parker. Pic: Terry Land

Scott Parker. Pic: Terry Land

Although well into middle-age I still receive a little childish thrill every time I receive an email. It doesn’t matter that many of them are subscriptions I’ve retained solely in order accomplish this reward, the frisson of excitement is just the same each time I hear the chime on my inbox – or trill from the dog and bone. And so it is when the postman pushes something through the mailbox – subconsciously an invitation from Domino’s Pizza to enjoy free boneless ribs with any stuffed crust retains the small but significant soupçon of intoxication I enjoyed from birthdays cards as a six-year-old.

Every other Wednesday the joy is doubled as my subscription to Private Eye flutters into the porch. Having the failings of corporate and political governance demonstrated in black and white keeps me on my toes. Of course my adherence to the brand is in no way diminished by bagging myself a mention in only the second Pseudo Names list. Somebody once said the joy of music is a balanced combination of the expected and unexpected and so it is with Lord Gnome’s finest. A case in point is the running gag of readers requesting ever more ridiculous if relevant excuses to get Ian Hislop to reprint a picture of Andrew Neil sporting a baseball cap and threadbare vest while cuddled up to former Miss India Pamella Bordes.

One of my favourite occasional features is the Solutions item which details the lengths (mainly) small businesses will go to appear contemporary and urbane via the simple technique of describing their business as a solution – usually to a problem which never existed in the first place. As an example while walking through Wanstead a few days ago I spotted a van proclaiming “Mobile Refreshment Solutions”. Phew! What a relief – a sandwich vendor right here and now solving ALL of my cold lunch requirements – even if you can’t spit out your chewing gum in E11 without hitting a snack bar.

If solutions are a waning fashion – hence the decreasing prominence in The Eye – then perhaps they might take up today’s catch-all buzzword – passion. Unlike solutions which ascribe mythical attributes to vulgar operations, passion lowers the status of intangibles such as ability or aptitude and insists perspiration to be an acceptable substitute for inspiration. I used to work for a firm one of whose corporate values (in itself a debatable concept) was a passion to excel – or in common English, a seeming imprecation to work hard rather than work well.

So pernicious, so all-encompassing is the trend it has spread to football where any meaning it once had has so long departed I use it as a flag to denote the user hasn’t a clue what they’re talking about. As US journo Mignon McLaughlin said, “We welcome passion, for the mind is briefly let off duty.” That’s not to say I cast any judgement on the person concerned – there are plenty of people playing the game, never mind watching it, unable to comprehend which tactics are being employed or why. No, when it comes to blame for the passion fashion I reckon I need to look much closer to home. Sports journalists are trained to pick and write a story and with some notable exceptions have little understanding of the game they cover. And to be honest they don’t need to – editors want headlines not information.

Nonetheless, I retain the right to criticise those paid vast sums to appear on Match of the Day as they fall some way short of Lord Reith’s claim the BBC’s remit is to educate, inform and entertain. When Mark Lawrenson is given full reign to offer the opinion the next English manager should display passion he’s displaying none of those qualities. Especially when Kevin Keegan – the most passionate of recent men at the Three Lions’ helm – was embarrassingly short of aptitude. You’ll already be tired of my appreciation for Roland Barthes but when he claimed, “What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself” he could easily have been talking about a permed striker from Doncaster.

Even before 1953 when goalkeeper captain Gyula Grosics led his Mighty Magyars onto the Wembley turf and proceeded to trounce England 6-3 there’s been a steadfast media belief (ironically reinforced by failure) that states English passion can make up for and conquer foreign artistry. That despite Hungary’s abject lesson reinforced by a 7-1 victory in Budapest a year later. No matter Alf Ramsey – an England full-back that November evening – learned the lessons so well his tactical innovation of removing wingers in a subsequent role as manager led to victory in a World Cup just 13 years later. Of course he was slated by the English press for doing so. No matter either, a throwback to a Victorian ethos of Captain Scott bungling his way into two Antarctic expeditions has led to the England football team in specific and English football in general metaphorically choosing horses over dogs.

As flies to dung the England passionistas will look to players such as John Terry and Scott Parker as best representing the up-and-at-em values of a colonial past. And what could be more apt given these two particular players so obviously belong to a game played decades ago. Brutally exposed without a centre-half of athleticism and defensive quality alongside him Terry’s fist-waving ebullience is alleged to make up for his lack of aptitude. But while good defenders make the game look easy JT relentlessly ensures it appears heroic.

Parker too, adheres to the judgement of Manchester United’s former defender Jaap Stam who while no shrinking violet himself was so incredulous at the dominance of work ethic over ability he famously referred to Gary and Phil Neville (solid pros both) as “busy cunts”. I can’t think of a better description for the type of player most revered in this country. Despite a very good first touch and love for a tackle Parker can barely pass a ball 15 yards and struggles to adapt tactically or technically to any instruction beyond, “Go out and play your game son.” Yet the midfielder was adored at Upton Park and bought by England manager-elect Harry Redknapp as a linchpin for his Tottenham side.

Theologically The Passion refers to the privations of Christ up to and including his execution. Appropriate then the game in England should suffer so badly on the cross of those who desire passion above aptitude.

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West Ham United: loud, proud and … wrong

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

We're not the North Bank, we're not the South Bank... Pic: Terry Land

An ex-colleague for whom I have the highest regard is a strongly active member of the Labour Party and I read her Tweets with great interest. Not so much for details of her personal life – as amusing as they often are – but for the clinical precision with which she will dissect the latest idiocy coming from either Parliamentary or grassroots members. I empathise with her undoubted frustration at believing in a cause so strongly yet being hampered at every turn by disunity, arrogance or stupidity. As trite as it may appear her travails as a political animal mirror mine as a football follower. You see, the truth is I often struggle not to despise people who would no doubt call themselves fellow West Ham supporters.

According to a longitudinal study by the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at the University of Leicester West Ham season ticket holders are some of the wealthiest around (probably a function of the smallish ground and high demand which has led to relatively expensive ticket prices) yet at the same time among the poorest educated with a low proportion having attended tertiary education compared to other clubs.

As many other fans observe, Hammers are a bit “chavvy” – or to put it another way, working class-made-good. Living as I do in Suffolk the obvious comparison to make is with Ipswich whose supporters tend to be polite, respectful and a lot less raucous. Few self-respecting Irons would be seen dead wearing facepaint or many other symbols of the Sky corporate definition of what it is to follow “footy” even if replica shirts now abound. Town fans are much more volatile in their support – full of bravado when they win the same people disappear upon defeat. Most of all I don’t notice any shared sense of what it is to be a Tractor Boy.

To be West Ham is to be loud, proud and obnoxious. It’s no coincidence one of the most enduring chants over the years has been, “Same old West Ham, taking the piss” Throughout the 70s and 80s the feared ICF (Inter City Firm) came to define the support. Although a mate of mine who ran with them denies any tactical command, “We weren’t organised, we just set our clocks early” there is little doubt the proud boast “30 years undefeated” has some substance.

Contemporary football hooliganism has been all but eradicated but that legacy survives. Unfortunately with a median age over 50 it’s clear the same season ticket holders are still attending with a lost generation of 25-40 year-olds having missed out. Equally regrettably the previous aggression and sense of pride has been turned inwards into a sulky blanket disapproval of easy targets, principally the players and coaching staff. Meaningful protest has been forgotten as fans starved of considered media comment fail to make any connection between events on and off the pitch.

I strongly maintain the best thing about supporting a team, my team, are the people I meet and interact with – they’re the reason I keep going. But when it comes to doing the right thing for the club West Ham supporters seem to invariably choose the wrong option.

Former manager Harry Redknapp was adored by fans despite tactical illiteracy and a hold over then Chairman Terence Brown that allowed him to purchase and sell players not in the best interests of the club but for the betterment of  his own bank balance. Admittedly protests were held against Brown – not least during several stormy AGMs. Far more damaging to the club however, were the subsequent Icelandic owners who all but propelled the club into liquidation but were saved any serious disquiet by canny PR. There’s a current revisionist platform that hails Alan Pardew’s reign as manager – particularly as under his stewardship Newcastle are having a good season – but the truth is he was disliked for most of his time at the club too despite taking us to our first domestic final in 25 years.

Although from the same background as the club’s support current co-Chairmen David Sullivan and David Gold are treated with at best mistrust and worst outright hostility despite being the first owners in the club’s 117 year history to put significant sums of their own money into the club (unfortunately the Icelanders investment turned out to be underwritten by Monopoly money). Current manager Sam Allardyce has the best win record of any manager but appears to be engaging an all-out PR war with his own support.

So it is with unease I view current plans among fan groups to demand a ballot on any proposed move from the Boleyn Ground to the Olympic Stadium in a mirror of the current fashion for TV viewers to ” have their say” in regard to reality shows. Leaving aside arguments over why non-shareholders might believe themselves worthy of representation only the most blinkered could possibly argue against a move on financial grounds. Club revenue will rise and ticket prices drop – hence Orient Chairman Barry Hearn’s antipathy to the move. Players would be more attracted to join the club and the sponsorship profile would rise. For spectators journey times to and from games would be slashed and pre and post-match comfort much improved from the dingy and derelict pubs surrounding Upton Park. Most importantly the increased capacity would enable the club to welcome back the lost fans I speak of.

Objections to the move are ostensibly based on the potential distance from stands to pitch with fans fearful of a diminution of atmosphere. Frankly this is hogwash, the current ground bears no relation to the dark, hostile and intimidating arena I first watched a game from in 1969. I’d suggest the real legitimation – and I’d have a lot more sympathy with this view – is the quite natural fear of change.

Sadly boys and girls, I believe our time is gone and a new generation of support is long overdue. If the club are to maintain traditions perhaps it’s time to ditch ours.

Panic on the streets of London

Terror on the horizon - the Dom Luís Bridge, Porto. Pic: Terry Land

Terror on the horizon - the Dom Luís Bridge, Porto. Pic: Terry Land

For the past few days Britain has seen itself gripped in the jaws of the worst mass panic since, well, since the last. Following comments that ranged from calculated to outright dangerous (I won’t use the word inflammatory out of respect for poor Diane Hill, the York woman who suffered 40 per cent burns to her body and as this blog is written remains in a critical condition in hospital) the country have been filling cars with petrol in a consumer frenzy only matched by the most recent iPad launch. The irony of “Keep calm and carry on” being the meme du jour is not lost on me.

The mood is best summed up by a woman I was speaking to last Friday who claimed, “This whole thing is ridiculous – there’s no need for people to panic at all.” Before adding, “But I only had half a tank of petrol left so I went out and filled up this morning”. This despite any fuel strike at least a week and probably further away and the pumps not about to run out any time soon. Hers is the schism between what people say and do, nothing inspires a panic like others panicking.

US lawyer and author Christian Nevell Bovee claimed, “Panic is a sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination.” Or put another way, panic is acting out the emotion of fear – and as such is one of the most primitive of reactions. With that in mind it is incredibly easy for those in public life of a malevolent cast to provoke a strong reaction using nothing but fear.

Tony Blair and George Bush used the fear of terrorist attacks to keep entire nations in check and instigate swathes of law that reduced civil liberties. Of course the effect of their pronouncements were not confined to merely us the public but also gave hawkish military leaders all the justification required to embark on their favourite pastime, slaughter.

Newspapers have long profited from selling panic, and just as I was once extremely perceptively informed by a psychotherapist, “The things we fear the most have already happened to us” so those that lap up stories about the latest housing crisis or cancer scare are paradoxically those feeling most threatened.

There is nothing to scare the newly wealthy like a return to frugality. No coincidence for me The Mail is widely read among the aspirational classes. These are the very same people who could not trust comprehensive schools to deliver. Instead they collectively wrecked the nation’s education system by fretting so badly over Ollie and Chloe’s “future” we sleepwalked via a self-fulfilling prophecy into two tiers of provision.

Sociologist Stan Cohen described this behaviour in his classic 1972 text Folk Devils and Moral Panics even if the term itself was first coined by colleague Jock Young. Cohen wonderfully referred to those who benefited from public fear as “moral entrepreneurs”, a brand of creatures brilliantly parodied by the TV programme Brass Eye. So effective was Chris Morris’ parody of the hysteria surrounding paedophilia his efforts turned full circle and the programme was banned, largely due to the efforts of Home Secretary David Blunkett who later confessed he hadn’t watched. Never mind the man is blind, it gave us the viewers the chance to pour scorn on Gary Lineker endorsing the fictional charity Nonce Sense.

If I sound judgemental on the issue then perhaps I shouldn’t. My great fear is a mixture of heights and exposure so debilitating I will never be persuaded onto a roller-coaster. Bridges are a particular struggle with at different times Queen Elizabeth II at Dartford  and Brunel at Clifton proving impassable. On a long weekend in Porto such was my terror of the Dom Luís over the river Douro I bellowed Is This The Way To Amarillo to keep my mind off the walk across. Whether the current fuel crisis or my choice and execution of song is more pathetic and demeaning for those involved is for others to decide, even if visits to the wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia proved an effective antidote for the journey back.

Nominating panic a symptom of fear the disease is all well and good until we start thinking about a remedy. I’ve heard it said the opposite of fear is courage or even love but would dismiss both of them. Nor would I suggest the public singing of novelty records is any panacea. No, if we look at fear in its most basic form it seems to me it boils down to one primitive cry – “I want my mum!” When viewed in that light the antidote to panic is surely nurturing.

Even though it was a panicking woman who expressed her desire to grab all the petrol she could and despite The Mail relying on female approval to maintain sales I wonder if women’s most basic instinct is the answer to the fuel crisis and its base instinct. Or is that a bridge too far?