OUT IN THE COLD

VladWhen a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.

A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.

Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.

The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.

Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.

Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.

Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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A SPORTING CHARACTER

GreavsieI can’t say I’ve noticed policemen are getting younger, though the fact they’re certainly fatter than they used to be is perhaps the contemporary pointer to a generation gap between them and me. If anything, the passing of years seems more accurately measured by the passing of childhood characters that once personified the physical benefits of the sporting life and are now either withered old men diminished by dementia or have already sunk six feet under. Barely a week goes by without one former cover star of ‘Shoot’ magazine in the 1970s being revealed as struggling in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; recently, the likes of Denis Law and Gordon McQueen have joined the lengthening ranks of former footballers who illuminated the game during my formative years and are now feeling the belated after-effects of all those seasons heading heavy balls into the back of the net decades ago. But even more unsettling than the sad, shambling squad of ex-players reduced to shrunken shadows of their past healthy selves is the expanding roll-call of footballers to have had their boots hung up by the Grim Reaper of late. The latest casualty of an alarming list is someone whose time as one of English football’s all-time great goal-scorers predates my memory, yet whose unexpected second shot at fame turned him into a household name all over again.

Every once in a while a prodigious footballing talent emerges whose skills appear to belie their tender years; the teenage sensation appearing out of the blue and unleashed on an unsuspecting opposition like some secret weapon launched without warning is a recurring story in the sport and in 1957 its representative was 17-year-old striker Jimmy Greaves. The press wasn’t averse to generating hype even back then, and the success of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ inspired the less-well remembered ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, a tag coined to described the young players under the management of Ted Drake at Chelsea. Greaves made the biggest impact of all the Ducklings, scoring on his debut (as he did at every club he turned out for) and ending his first season as Chelsea’s top scorer. When a generation of English football’s bright young things were cut down in their prime by the Munich air crash of 1958, Greaves then became the focus of the future, though he was plying his trade in a team unworthy of his talents and at a time when the fruits of his labours were limited by a maximum wage and the status of virtual serfdom where football’s governing body was concerned.

The exodus of top British footballers to the riches of Italy’s Serie A at the end of the 1950s was robbing the Football League of its brightest stars, so it was perhaps inevitable something had to give. The abolition of the maximum wage was lengthy and hard-fought, but by the time Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became Britain’s first £100-a-week player in 1961, Jimmy Greaves had already been sold to A.C. Milan. It was an unhappy move for Greavsie and he played barely a dozen games for the Italians before Milan accepted a bid from double winners Tottenham Hotspur to bring him back home. The sudden improvement of a top footballer’s financial lot in England also affected transfer fees, though Spurs manager Bill Nicholson spared Greaves from the burden of being the country’s first £100,000 player by signing him for the unusual fee of £99,999.

Bill Nicholson needn’t have worried that the big bucks spent to sign Greaves might affect the player’s performance. Greavsie carried on at Spurs where he’d left off at Chelsea, but playing in a far superior side; he ended his first season at White Hart Lane by lifting the FA Cup and his second saw Spurs become the first British team to win a European trophy by beating Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. He scored in both Finals. By this time, Greavsie was well-established at international level as England’s first choice striker and his tally of 35 goals in an England shirt, reached in 1964, set a new record; he played in all four games England took part in at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and with his domestic goal-scoring remaining amongst the best in the League, his was one of the first names on Alf Ramsey’s team-sheet for the 1966 World Cup. Indeed, he played up front in all three of England’s group games at Wembley and understandably imagined it was his destiny to win the competition on home soil, a crowning glory written in the stars. Alas, an injury ruled Greavsie out of the Quarter Final, and his replacement Geoff Hurst kept the job thereafter; although Greaves was fit for the Final, Ramsey decided to stick with the same side and as this was an era before substitutes, Jimmy Greaves played no part on the pitch, forced to sit and watch from the sidelines with no prospect of participating.

Greaves himself often denied his descent into alcoholism was a consequence of the immense personal disappointment he felt at being denied his destiny in 1966; but by the time he joined West Ham in 1970, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to be waning as his fondness for alcohol appeared to be on the rise. Temptation was hardly hard to come by, however. Off the field of play there was a long-standing, hard-drinking culture within English football, and it was only really with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s – and the new strict fitness regimes introduced via the influx of Continental coaches – that excessive boozing gradually began to be frowned upon. The rise and fall of George Best is routinely highlighted as football’s cautionary tale when it comes to alcohol, though Best’s pop star profile kept him in the public eye even when he prematurely retired. After Jimmy Greaves quit in 1971 and quickly slid from post-match boozer to professional pisshead, he vanished from sight for several years, only occasionally surfacing to turn out for non-league teams in the mid-to-late 70s before finally slipping out of the game.

Unlike George Best – who never really conquered the bottle – Jimmy Greaves did eventually succeed where Best couldn’t and overcame his demons in a remarkable fashion. By the beginning of the 1980s, Greavsie had become permanently sober and this was the point at which his second career began to take off. After impressing viewers as a pundit on ATV’s regional soccer show on a Sunday afternoon, he was recruited to the ITV team for the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup, introducing the whole nation to a sharp-witted middle-aged man at odds with the sad drunken has-been who’d periodically popped-up in the Sunday papers throughout the previous decade. In today’s media landscape of post-modern punditry, where a light-hearted and jokey approach to discussing the game is commonplace, it’s easy to forget how stiff and formal football presentation on television often was at the time Greavsie gatecrashed it in 1982. It could be argued he singlehandedly changed the way in which punditry was presented as an ingredient of the formula, and when he began to appear alongside ex-player Ian St John in the ‘On the Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ every Saturday lunchtime, the spark between the two prompted a spin-off.

For seven years, ‘Saint and Greavsie’ was a lynchpin in terrestrial TV’s football schedule, though it’s telling the ending of the series coincided with the arrival of the Premier League and Sky coverage. Perhaps it did seem a bit tired by then, and Greavsie himself was regularly ribbed on the far hipper likes of ‘Fantasy Football League’ from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jimmy Greaves remained one of football’s true success stories from an era when there were few – if any – safety nets for players who’d fallen on hard times; he clawed his way back without the aid of any high-profile programme or campaign backed by the virtuous signalling of the FA, and a generation who’d never known him as a player came to know him as an entertainer. A funny old life when all’s said and done, but an admirable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

© The Editor

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THE FINAL WHISTLE

BorisThe Bank Holiday Monday that never was – not unlike the airport that never was or the garden bridge that never was; it’s not as if Boris Johnson doesn’t have a history when it comes to grandiose promises he fails to deliver on. I suspect his numerous wives and mistresses could testify to that. Mind you, in this particular case his promise proved to be wishful thinking, probably made when he slipped an England football shirt over his normal clothes – as you do. This was a promise dependent upon England winning Euro 2020 and, as everyone no doubt knows by now, we didn’t. I suppose it could be seen as an addition to the ‘we’re all in this together’ narrative that has run through the government response to the pandemic ever since the PM’s historic television address to the nation. Incidentally, that particular broadcast famously gatecrashed the long-held list of most-watched TV broadcasts ever in the UK when it was seen by almost 28 million viewers in March last year, and it’s now been joined in the top ten by the Euros final, coming straight in at No.4 with only the 1969 ‘Royal Family’ documentary, Diana’s funeral and (of course) the 1966 World Cup Final ahead of it. Seems the boys of ’66 will forever be the unsurpassable yardstick.

As every politician does when seeking to be seen as being at one with ‘the people’, Boris enthusiastically embraced the excitement stirred by Gareth Southgate’s team going one step further than any England side in 55 years. And who can blame him? It was the briefest of breathers as society came up for air before resuming the drowning-by-division that has characterised the past five years. And, as crassly opportunistic as Boris’s attempts to exploit a rare ‘feel-good factor’ have been, he was beaten to the finishing post in the toe-curling stakes yet again by the hilariously hapless Keir Starmer. The leader of the Opposition posed for several photos where he was pictured ‘enjoying the match’ with a pint strategically placed in front of him; the pint had been initially absent, then mysteriously appeared, and then when Starmer’s aides belatedly realised it was full, one of them no doubt took a sip (probably provoking the same appalled expression a child wears when given its first taste of bitter) and placed it back on the table to prove what a real man Sir Keir is. Mate, you’re a middle-class London lawyer who’d much rather be at Glyndebourne than Wembley; pretending otherwise just makes you look an even more disingenuous prat than you already are.

The fragile sense of togetherness marked by a great sporting occasion that captures the public’s imagination is never destined to last, and the swift resumption of where we were following the defeat of England by Italy on Sunday was swift even by the low standards we’ve come to expect. General Southgate’s baffling tactical decision to send the youngsters over the top at the climax of the penalty shootout was especially strange considering his own youthful exposure to the pressure of the spot-kick; but the way in which the failure of the trio in question to convert the vital penalties then saw the deflation of some manifested as depressingly predictable racist abuse aimed at the players has been exceptionally unpleasant. Of course, it has also curtailed the suspension of hostilities towards football’s fan-base from the chattering classes; quietly genteel empty stadiums, knee-taking and rainbow flags created the perfect environment for the middle-class dilettante to pose as a lover of the beautiful game, but then the barbarians that were greeted with similar horror when they descended on the Oval for the very first FA Cup Final in 1872 were let in again and look what happened!

Those that are fond of bracketing all genuine working-class football fans as frothing-at-the-mouth racist bigots and Brexiteers had the perfect excuse to rant as a tiny handful of brain-dead trolls took out their frustration on England’s black players. There has always been a small section of football followers who think this way, though let’s not pretend football has the copyright on them. Grafting the ideological cancer of Identity Politics onto the sport, with its incessant emphasis on race as the single most important characteristic of any individual, is something that stokes instant division by highlighting a factor that most decent people don’t even think about. In the build-up to the final on Sunday, social media was awash with statements pointing out how many members of the England team had ‘immigrant’ backgrounds, as though this not only somehow vindicated the divisive immigration policies of the past 20 years but was also responsible for the players being able to kick a ball in the first place; as long as the latter skill is good enough to warrant selection for the team, that’s all that matters. Attempting to portray a football team as ambassadors for free movement within the EU is hardly something that will inspire unity; the Left once again turning on the daughter of immigrants who has actually achieved her own success story by becoming Home Secretary just seems to show the hypocritical cant at the heart of this mindset is as toxic as any online racist halfwit throwing a virtual banana in the direction of Marcus Rashford.

So, ‘unity’ via an impressive run in a football tournament is over, so where does that leave us? Well, whilst there may have been a brief moment of genuine unity amongst the population when the first lockdown took place – back in those innocent, halcyon days when we trusted our elected leaders to do the right thing in a situation few of us then understood – that unity has subsequently dissolved and dissipated as warring factions and rival camps have asserted their opposing stances on the Covid issue. Pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine, pro-mask/anti-mask, pro-lifting of restrictions/anti-lifting of restrictions – the new frontline causes stepping into the space temporarily vacated by the Leave/Remain debacle. The Covid unity – if indeed it can be called that – fractured fairly early, probably at the point when lockdown was breached by BLM marches that seemingly had cart-blanche to break all restrictions without any of the over-officious response from the police that ordinary law-abiding folk were being exposed to on a daily basis.

The hypocritical activities of Dominic Cummings, Neil Ferguson and Matt Hancock lifted the lid on the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to restrictions by the powers-that-be as much as the supine reaction by the forces of law and order to rule-breakers sharing the same ideology as them. As the restrictions that came with the initial lockdown have been extended way beyond the projected timeframe we were originally promised and the goalposts keep being moved in a manner many wished had been the case on Sunday night, people’s frustrations with the situation are perfectly understandable. Earlier on Sunday, I watched the men’s singles final at Wimbledon. After winning before an audience of non-socially distanced and largely unmasked multitudes in the stands on Centre Court, Novak Djokovic was then interviewed by Sue Barker, who appeared to be standing half-a-mile away. I couldn’t help but think of the Python sketch when a TV presenter interviews someone on the street with a hand-held microphone, pointing the mic at the interviewee when asking a question and then pointing it at himself when receiving the reply. Am I the only person whose increasing exasperation with the ludicrous rules and regulations still governing interaction with others makes me feel as though I’m now living in a permanent Python sketch?

Despite desperate pressure from the SAGE soothsayers and their media cohorts, the PM is to be commended for standing his ground and insisting all restrictions will end as of next Monday. Even if caveats keep being inserted into the promise – whether pub passports intended to coerce the young into submitting to the vaccine or the threat of continued mask-wearing – this is still the one promise Boris cannot shirk from delivering. If he doesn’t deliver, the fear is we’ll be living this way forever – and, let’s be honest, some have been so successfully conditioned they’d be quite happy with that. When divisions over the vaccine and mask-wearing run so deep that they are creating schisms between families and friends reminiscent of the Miners’ Strike, you know it’s time to curtail this social experiment. If only it were that simple to do so just by ending restrictions. They may think it’s all over, but sadly, it isn’t.

© The Editor

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PLAYING FIELDS OF GOLD

MurrayFor years, sport in the summer months was an annual (or bi-annual) exercise in national humiliation for either England or the UK as a whole. How many Ashes defeats? How many Wimbledon whimpers? And how many deflating exits from either the World Cup or the European Championships? Most of us were raised in the shadows of legends and were taught that once upon a time we used to be the best at sports we invented, before the colonies and other countries we exported those sports to at the end of the Imperial era gradually overtook us and turned the teacher/pupil relationship upside down. A decline on the playing fields we’d laid out in the first place appeared to mirror a decline in our overall global standing, as though one was inexorably related to the other, and the past was somewhere we’d always been world champions. For endless decades, the last Brit to have won the men’s singles crown in SW19 had been before the Second World War; the name Fred Perry was once an ubiquitous yardstick TV viewers grew tired of being referenced year-after-year, yet it seemed he’d always be mentioned to remind us of our collective ineptitude at a game we become obsessed with for a solitary fortnight whenever June bleeds into July.

The England cricket team had the tables turned on it by the Aussies quite early, losing its first Test match to the uppity Antipodeans as far back as 1882; this prompted the infamous mock obituary that proclaimed ‘the death of English cricket’ following the defeat at the Oval, and gave birth to the Ashes series. The England football team managed to sustain the illusion a little longer, until overconfidence was punctured by two severe lessons in the early 1950s – a 1-0 loss to the amateurs of the USA at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and the 6-3 thrashing by Hungary at Wembley in 1953 (which was England’s first defeat on home soil by Continental opposition since 1066). The latter result coming in the wake of the morale-boosting conquest of Everest served as a telling reminder that our spell on top of the world wasn’t destined to last long.

Of course, the England football team recovered and eventually did the business in 1966; but thereafter it was a slow slide back into international ignominy – the 3-2 loss to the West Germans in the 1970 World Cup after being 2-0 up; being outclassed by an even better German side 3-1 at Wembley in the 1972 European Championships; and then the ultimate humiliation, failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Poland in 1973, a result that cost Sir Alf his job. To make matters worse, that World Cup was to be held in West Germany, and even worse (from an English perspective) the Scots had qualified. Yet, the whole country having to drape itself in tartan then became the new narrative of national failure. Despite having an abundance of talent at its disposal in terms of players who had lifted every club trophy north and south of the border (as well as in Europe), the Scotland teams we had little choice but to support in 1974 and 1978 heaped further humiliation on the nation, failing to get past the group stage on both occasions and producing some memorably embarrassing score-lines in the process.

My childhood exposure to summer sport on a national level was one characterised by bewilderment and questions. I wondered why England never qualified for the World Cup, why only British women occasionally won Wimbledon (though even that ended with Virginia Wade in 1977), and why the Aussies always won the Ashes. It was probably a good life lesson, actually, to realise that you can’t always get what you want – even if it would’ve been nice to have got it every once in a while. Any tiny sign that we might have sired a world-beater was grabbed with gusto. Although the tally of Great British gold medals at the first few Olympic Games I saw was pretty pitiful (never exceeding more than 5 from Munich in 1972 and plunging to a nadir of just the one at Atlanta in 1996), it probably helped propel the elite athletes who did get their hands on gold to levels of fame they’d otherwise have evaded – even if it also contributed towards the risible comedy cult of Eddie ‘The Eagle’, who was celebrated for being crap and accelerated the tedious ‘Plucky Brit’ narrative.

In sports not associated with the summer months we seemed to do better. We were always good at Formula One, for example, with the likes of Jackie Stewart and James Hunt crowned world champions during my formative years; and in boxing we appeared to have several champs in different weights, even if the one everybody wanted – the heavyweight – remained impervious to our efforts, despite the likes of Joe Bugner, Richard Dunn and Frank Bruno all having a shot. We were no better come the time of year when strawberries & cream were the delicacy of choice. After Roger Taylor reached three Wimbledon semis between 1967 and 1973, there then followed an interminably lengthy period in which futile hopes rested with the likes of John Lloyd or Jeremy Bates, both of whom the viewer knew would wilt when confronted by a genuine world-beater – and they always did. And then Tim Henman appeared out of nowhere.

Despite looking and sounding like a member of the Shadow Cabinet from the years when the Tories were cast out into Opposition, and despite attracting the kind of unhinged granny fan-base that camps outside London hospitals for days when a royal birth is imminent, on court Henman exceeded every expectation bar one. Four Wimbledon semis between 1998 and 2002 was undoubtedly impressive considering what had preceded him, yet he just couldn’t cross that line into the final. What Britain needed at Wimbledon was the kind of figure that had given English cricket a kick up the arse in the 80s, Ian Botham. The immortal Ashes turnaround of 1981 made ‘Beefy’ an old-fashioned ‘Boys Own’ national hero, with Botham not only socking it to the Aussies but the stuffy old MCC fossils as well; his off-the-field antics also played their part in his legend, and it was a long time before English cricket again came close to the heights it had scaled with its best all-rounder leading the charge. It was hard to imagine an Englishman bringing that to the refined arena of Wimbledon, so perhaps it took a Scot to do it.

A contrast with gentleman Henman’s Home Counties niceness, Andy Murray’s rages at himself when a shot went astray was a joy to behold as a Brit. Here was a player with fire in his belly and a will to win none of us had ever seen before. His progress up the world rankings was rapid, reaching his first Grand Slam final in 2008 (the US Open) and the first of three consecutive Wimbledon semis the following year. In 2012, he went one better and became the first post-war male Brit to reach the singles final, though couldn’t make it past the immovable object of Roger Federer; however, that same year he did achieve a unique double of the US Open and Olympic gold. A year later, the British hoodoo was smashed when Murray won Wimbledon, beating the mighty Novak Djokovic in straight sets; a second Wimbledon win followed in 2016, with Murray’s glorious battles becoming intrinsic to the Great British Summer for a good few years in the 2010s.

The 2012 Olympics in London was a pretty qualified success for this country on many levels, not least the amount of medals won (including 29 gold) that placed us third on the final board; investment in British athletics from the Olympic low of 1996 onwards had paid off. The England cricket team’s memorably dramatic 2019 World Cup win (reminiscent of that edge-of-the-seat Ashes triumph in 2005), when placed alongside the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and Murray’s achievements, could put forward the argument that the 2010s were British summer sport’s golden age. The one area in which we continued to struggle on the global stage was football. Anyone who witnessed the atrocious capitulation to the minnows of Iceland at the 2016 Euros cannot fail to be impressed at the transformation overseen by Gareth Southgate’s management since then. A World Cup semi in 2018 and now one step closer to completing something my generation (the first with no memory of 1966) has had to live without longer than any other. And all we have to do is beat Italy…

© The Editor

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EXORCISING GHOSTS

Sterling20 years ago this September, England’s footballers lined-up to play Germany in Munich for a World Cup Qualifier and the omens weren’t great. The corresponding home fixture had taken place almost a year earlier and was memorable for all the wrong reasons – it was the last-ever game played beneath the old Wembley twin towers, England manager Kevin Keegan quit after the game, and the Germans won 1-0; oh, and it also pissed it down. The occasion was a far-from fitting send-off for the Empire Stadium. By contrast, Germany hadn’t lost a match at Munich’s Olympic Stadium for almost 30 years, and they’d only suffered defeat once in their previous sixty qualifiers – and that had been for the distant 1986 World Cup. With the exception of a 1-0 win in the group stages of Euro 2000, England’s competitive record against their old rivals since 1966 was pitiful and few anticipated anything other than a hammering for the visitors. However, in one of the all-time great England performances, Germany were blown away 5-1 in their own backyard.

This unexpected result raised expectations for England supporters beyond anything resembling realism for the forthcoming World Cup and also elevated relatively new manager Sven-Göran Eriksson to a lofty status he didn’t entirely warrant. So euphoric was the response to the 5-1 victory that it even inspired a dire hit record by ‘comedy’ duo Bell & Spurling; but at least the inaccurate line in the song that Eriksson ‘looks like Jimmy Savile’ should secure its place in permanent oldie oblivion. The 5-1 score-line was regarded by some as a national morale-booster, but just ten days after the fixture 9/11 happened and all the optimism for the future the result had generated evaporated overnight. Suddenly, the future didn’t seem such a great place after all.

Fast forward to yesterday’s England Vs Germany game in the delayed Euro 2020 tournament and the 2-0 win for the home team against the old enemy was again viewed in some quarters as precisely the tonic the country needed. The situation now is very different from 2001, however. One wonders why the nation required a morale-booster 20 years ago. What did we have to complain about? Nobody bar a few trainee pilots knew what was just around the corner, the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq (and their endless ramifications) hadn’t yet happened, and – best of all – there was no coronavirus pandemic. To employ a well-worn line beloved of the elderly, we didn’t know when we were well-off. Yet, after the kind of twelve months and-a-bit we’ve just endured, a victory by the England national team over a country that has pooped so many English parties over the past half-century – 1970, 1990 and 1996 in particular – probably was a good thing, if only because it meant those that care had something to cheer about again.

That last week before the War on Terror kicked-off and ushered in the modern age was the closing chapter of a decade of relative global stability and general optimism. It seemed to be the point at which the trend of each successive generation being better off than the one preceding it ground to a halt. Various unrelated elements were gradually conspiring to bring about this state of affairs – and it’s fair to speculate the good life was living on borrowed time for the second half of the 90s; but the single horrific incident of 9/11 now retrospectively feels like the symbolic full stop that ended one epoch and began another. Nothing that has happened since then has been worth celebrating in the way the demolition of the Berlin Wall or the end of Apartheid was – there’s been nothing comparable to what those events represented. Instead, what Adam Curtis labelled ‘the politics of fear’ has become the ongoing pessimistic narrative. Two decades of relentlessly negative headlines concerning Islamic terrorism and a climate apocalypse have combined with the establishment of battle-lines in which issues such as Brexit, Trump and Identity Politics are the divisive ammunition the entrenched sides hurl at each other. And then we get Covid, lockdowns and the imposition of a Communist Chinese design for life on the West.

In this respect, a trivial breather such as the England football team inflicting a well-deserved defeat on one of its oldest international rivals is bound to be embraced as a sign that things can only get better. Indeed, with more fans at Wembley than we have so far seen in this competition and some even engaging in communal celebrations without masks, things looked almost ‘normal’ yesterday. But, of course, they’re not. Even if England were to defy the odds and go on to win the tournament, it will only be a joyous respite from what we’re living through. Lest we forget, the executive boxes at Wembley will have been crammed with dignitaries for whom the restrictions the rest of us are still being forced to endure were quietly waived. Exemptions for the wealthy and powerful aren’t merely exclusive to UEFA bigwigs either.

The inevitable resignation of Matt Hancock – a man who could (and should) have been fired for far more damaging crimes than indulging in a bit of how’s-your-father with one of his taxpayer-funded aides – highlighted how some are being spared that which they preach to the plebs. New rules regarding ‘senior executives bringing economic benefit to the UK’ were sneakily announced by the Government this week. For all Sajid Javid’s efforts at making an instant impact in his new job by declaring all restrictions should be lifted by the middle of next month, until then those of us who don’t hold VIP status should be made aware that those who do are already enjoying the kind of freedoms that we all took for granted and shouldn’t by rights be denied us in a supposedly-free society.

According to these two-tier rules, ‘you may be permitted temporarily to leave quarantine for coronavirus in England if you are a senior executive in a business’. These include ‘multinational executives – executives based overseas who are part of multinational firms and visiting their UK subsidiaries or branches’ and ‘international executives – executives of overseas companies normally based overseas who are seeking to undertake exempt activity in England related to either making a financial investment in UK based business or establishing a new business within the UK’. So, that’s thee and me excluded, then. Any mention of the word ‘executive’ instantly evokes a certain loathsome type who would describe himself as such, and that type was best represented in a Fry & Laurie sketch around 30 years ago when Hugh Laurie played a smarmy businessman insistent on referring to the breakfast lounge of the hotel he was staying at as ‘the executive breakfast lounge’ simply because it made him sound more important than he actually was. As satire, I think it retains remarkable relevance.

The doom-mongering Mekon of SAGE Prof. Chris Whitty, fresh from his unsettling encounter with members of the public who – depending on which source you believe – either heckled him or simply requested a selfie, is now safely back in his bubble and issuing pessimistic predictions of autumnal lockdowns, so we’d best enjoy this little moment of permitted euphoria while we can. However, as much as politicians may like to hitch a ride on the England football bandwagon in the hope some feelgood vibes might rub off on them – and as removed from the terraces as the whole corporate carnival of Euro 2020 (21?) might be – the joy many feel at the win over the Germans is a purely spontaneous celebration born of hereditary national pride utterly detached from knee-taking and rainbow flag-waving and all the other officially-sanctioned gestures granted by a ruling elite who actually despise such simple, non-ideological patriotism. So, whether you give a shit or not, make the most of it while it lasts. And hopefully it will last longer than Saturday’s Quarter Final against Ukraine in Rome.

© The Editor

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KEEPING THE BRITISH END UP

Postcard 3Well done, Matt Hancock. Credit where credit’s due; the Health Secretary has at least publicly apologised for breaking social distancing rules, even if he hasn’t done likewise for breaking his marriage vows. Considering his way of spurning social distancing was to snog and grab the arse of his ‘close aide’, I would’ve personally thought the ramifications for his marital status mattered more. Mind you, he’s a Tory Cabinet Minister and it’s fair to say that strange breed do have something of a history when it comes to this sort of thing. And, of course, he’s not any old Tory Cabinet Minster; he’s one of Boris Johnson’s Tory Cabinet Ministers, which means pretty much anything goes except your job. It was evident from the recently-released private messages between Dominic Cummings and the PM that Hancock had been nominated as the patsy for any failures associated with the Government’s pandemic policy; he will carry the can come the day of judgement, and the longer he stays in his post the likelihood of another f**k-up is fairly strong, so I guess the Health Secretary can sleep a little easier tonight – in the spare room, naturally.

Boris has apparently accepted Hancock’s apology, and whilst this could be viewed as akin to the kind of public backing under-fire football managers receive from their club chairman on the eve of being sacked, if the plan is for Hancock to shoulder the majority of the Covid blame then the PM is not likely to dismiss him just yet. Not that Boris himself has much of a moral leg to stand on considering his own extramarital track record, nor in his ‘flexible’ approach to social distancing as seen at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. Photos of the gathered world leaders not exactly adhering to the ridiculous rules and regulations us plebs are still honour bound to observe in the name of ‘safety’ hammered home the difference between VIPs and me & thee, if it even needed to be hammered home. It’s not as if we didn’t already know it.

Hot on the heels of Michael Gove being spared post-foreign travel isolation, the bigwigs from UEFA and FIFA flown in to gorge on prawn cocktails in the Wembley executive boxes haven’t had to jump through any of the myriad hoops any ‘un-important person’ has to endure when arriving from abroad; but we’re told the Euros will be abruptly relocated to the land of the free that is mainland Europe if we don’t bend the rules for football’s international dignitaries – and they’re all renowned for their virtue and probity, anyway, so it’s not as if we shouldn’t receive them with the red carpet and accompanying grovelling. No, we don’t really need to see shots of mask-free FIFA gangsters quaffing champers as the England players deliver their latest lecture on how racist we all are to be reminded of our place in the scheme of things, I suppose.

Any Brit hoping to travel in the opposite direction to said dignitaries won’t be welcomed in quite the same way. In a move absolutely not remotely related to any ongoing punitive punishment by European leaders for Brexit, Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron have demanded the EU impose quarantine restrictions on British visitors in order to prevent the potential spread of the Narnia Variant on the Continent. Brits can actually set foot on French soil at the moment free from self-isolation as long as they have the double vaccine passport on account of our place on France’s amber list, though Germany has quarantine restrictions for British tourists and wants the rest of Europe to fall in line. However, the likes of Greece and Spain – which have always been favoured destinations for Brits due to their ownership of the sun – are less likely to follow suit if they want to continue having a tourism industry. Either way, crossing the Channel this summer hardly seems worth the effort, so why not holiday at home, eh? Fine – if you can afford it.

Back when the worst night of the week for the television schedule always seemed to be Sunday – reflecting the unique boredom of the day of rest, I guess – one of the main offenders for me was the BBC’s long-running ‘Holiday’ programme. The period of the show I most remember is the one when comb-over king Cliff Michelmore presented and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was used as the theme tune; indeed, it took a good few years before George Harrison’s joyous ditty finally shook off its drab Sunday teatime associations in my head as a consequence. The programme aired in the winter months for the same reason travel agent ads suddenly bombarded every ITV commercial break as soon as New Year’s Day was out of the way; the aim was to look ahead (and book ahead) to the summer, but reports on exotic climes the majority of viewers wouldn’t be able to afford somehow seemed to emphasise the chasm between sun-kissed beaches and chilly January Blightly even more. For most of my childhood, holidays equated with home soil, and every permutation from caravanning to camping and from Butlin’s to B&B’s was sampled for a week – or two, if it was a particularly lousy summer.

For obvious reasons, holidaying at home is one of the few remaining options open to those who don’t happen to be VIPs yet still feel entitled to a break again after a year off in 2020. It’s no great surprise, however, that an industry no different from many others in that it suffered financial meltdown during lockdown has capitalised on circumstances by raising its prices way beyond what holiday-makers would ordinarily expect. A week for a family of four at Center Parcs apparently costs more than a Caribbean vacation this year; a holiday let in Cornwall is up 30% on 2019, whilst Skegness has increased its prices by 40%; even the traditionally cheap choice of the caravan park will charge a family of four an average of around £1,800 for a week. Donna Brunton, a nurse from County Durham, had booked an all-in holiday for her family at a four-star beach hotel in Malta for the princely sum of £2,500 and was then forced to look closer to home as an alternative. ‘A holiday park in north Cornwall was quoting £3,699 for the four of us to stay seven nights, self-catering in what looks like an upmarket caravan,’ she said in a Guardian exposé on the economic realities of ‘Staycation’.

Ever since taking one’s child out of the classroom during term-time for a holiday became a crime, owners of cottages, campsites and hotels in coastal resorts have become accustomed to hiking prices during the school summer holidays; added to that routine this year is an additional increase making the most of the fact that fewer families will be leaving the country in July or August. Having said that, avoiding the obvious tourist spots is as useful a tip in the UK as it would be were overseas restrictions not in place. One can’t really blame the travel industry for exploiting the climate after a fairly fallow year (to put it mildly), and if people are not going to use their imaginations by flocking to the same old locations, it’s inevitable the prices are going to rise considerably – and it seems most of them are already fully booked-up for the school’s out season.

Whether or not father of three Matt Hancock will be enjoying a family holiday this year is not something the Health Secretary mentioned in his statement earlier today; I suspect that decision will be down to Mrs Hancock. But the fact he followed in the footsteps of the SAGE soothsayer Neil Ferguson in sacrificing social distancing for a spot of hanky-panky with a married woman at least shows he’s human. Someone needs to tell him we are too.

© The Editor

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THE PEOPLE’S SHAME

FansBack in the 1990s, Professor Rogan Taylor – a Liverpudlian cultural commentator whose appearance as a talking head was once compulsory on documentaries about football – made a simple but telling point on the origins of the national sport. Around the time football was becoming fashionable again in the wake of Gazza’s tears and the birth of the glamorous Premier League, he reminded everyone that football clubs are not named after people, but places. So familiar are the names of clubs dotted around these islands via years of subliminal exposure to the football results, we can easily forget how such institutions were founded to represent their community, not some prominent individual within it. It’s West Bromwich Albion, not West Maurice Albion; West Ham United, not West Stan United; Peterborough United, not Peter United. The Industrial Revolution created the modern metropolis, but if industry turned little provincial hamlets into big, bolshie cities that quickly demanded parliamentary representation, the codification and formation of association football in the late 19th century gave those towns and cities something that would eventually outlast the industries that initially defined them.

The vital branding that a football club brought to so many corners of the country previously only known for what they manufactured was something that still lingers beyond the lush emerald carpets of the Premier League. This is why when a club such as Bury FC goes to the wall, as happened a couple of seasons ago, the town it belongs to suffers the kind of existential trauma that reflects how deeply engrained in its very DNA the club is. Take away Bury’s football club – no matter how under-achieving it might be – and what else does a small, one-time mill-town long ago swallowed up by Greater Manchester have going for it in terms of identity and sense of belonging? This is the very ‘grass-roots’ that football pundits and commentators are prone to uttering with the same token tone applied to buzzwords such as ‘global warming’ or ‘diversity’ when they emerge from the mouths of politicians.

As a term, grass-roots is often casually bandied about by wealthy clubs raking it in at the pinnacle of the precarious pyramid – as though the pennies that trickle down to the bottom are contractual charitable contributions for which the recipients should be grateful; but so cosseted are the global brand mega-clubs from everything outside of their own jet-setting bubble, they can no more relate to the realities of the clubs propping-up the rest at the foot of the old Fourth Division than the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation would recognise the goat he purchased for some distant African village as a means of signalling his virtue. Most of the men in whose ownership such clubs sit would struggle to recognise their own supporters, never mind those who congregate at Carlisle United on a dank November evening.

Once upon a time, the majority of clubs used to be in the hands of small-pond big fish who were the characteristic self-made men born of the Industrial Revolution; you might remember the guys I’m talking about. These civic dignitaries were fond of reminding their detractors how they once ran around without shoes on their feet, but now ran the local council, rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls and were probably Master of their branch of the Freemasons; they were the regional money-men depicted in ‘kitchen sink’ novels of the 50s like ‘Room at the Top’. They may have been intolerably pompous, avaricious egotists full of their own self-importance, but they were inexorably bound to the locations they sprang from; being chairman of the town’s football club was the ultimate feather in their capitalist caps. It said they, and their town, amounted to something.

Foreign ownership of a football club changes that dynamic completely, and at its most seemingly superficial it can be seen both in the way an outsider makes his purchase and instantly decides to change the colours a club has always played in or rename the ground after a corporate sponsor – acts that instantly rouse the fury of the lifelong supporters who intrinsically understand how each separate, historical component of a club is crucial to what it really adds up to. These incidents have routinely been written off as little more than isolated storms in parochial teacups. What does it matter what colour strip the players are wearing? What does it matter if the home stadium is now named after a Japanese phone manufacturer? Well, down in the football basement, it matters quite a lot – and scratch beneath the surface of the glamour clubs who court the fair-weather fan with no geographical attachment to his chosen team and you’ll find a hardcore of supporters for whom it also matters.

When I think of some foreign owners of football clubs, I can’t help but recall those lines from ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd – ‘New car, caviar, four-star daydream/think I’ll buy me a football team’. To them, a football club is indistinguishable from a diamond ring or a Picasso original; they come to it with no knowledge of (or affinity with) the club’s back-story or the town it belongs to, so we shouldn’t be surprised when these bloodsuckers put their heads together and devise a fresh way to maximise their investment. In a sporting weekend that saw the cautious return of spectators to several high-profile events after a year of fixtures being played behind closed doors, the so-called ‘Big Six’ football clubs decided to announce something that detaches them even further from the actual fan-base that they’ve managed without during this strange knee-taking, crowd-free spell. A new European ‘super league’ comprising Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from England, along with Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, as well as Spanish titans Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has been mooted as a way forward for these greedy, overblown corporations whose craving for the cake they can already claim sizeable chunks of is apparently insatiable.

Lest we forget, the global brands whose arrogant entitlement as founding members of a grotesque European elite implies they’re the cream of the crop aren’t all setting their respective leagues alight at the moment. As things stand, the two Manchester clubs may hold the leading spots in England, but as for the other contenders, Chelsea are fifth, Liverpool are sixth, Spurs are seventh (on the day they’ve sacked their manager) and Arsenal are ninth. On merit this season, Leicester, West Ham and Everton rank higher than some of those included in this breakaway proposal, so what are their rewards? Condemnation has been universal across Europe, with notable German clubs such as Bayern Munich rejecting the proposal, whereas the game’s birthplace has seen an impassioned evisceration of the idea, with divisive ex-player and current pundit Gary Neville earning overnight admiration for his diatribe against the entire concept. Even someone whose playing career was spent in the privileged cocoon of Old Trafford recognises the disastrous consequences of the game’s leading lights abandoning the ‘lesser teams’ to indulge in a soulless competition based solely on the prospect of financial gain, with the kind of annual giant-killing thrill thrown up by the FA Cup or the possibility of a shock championship snatch like Leicester managed five years ago being rendered redundant.

If a once-great club like Bolton Wanderers can be confronted by points deduction, relegation and possible expulsion from the league after simply struggling to make ends meet, I doubt few would dispute Gary Neville’s suggestion that the clubs seeking to line their fatted pockets further by throwing their lot in with this hideous idea deserve the same treatment. Let’s see how long they all last with their players barred from international football and their glorified Harlem Globetrotters brand of the beautiful game boring the pants off TV subscribers the world over. They might finally realise they didn’t come into existence in 1992, but have always been ultimately dependent on the faithful whose faces they have farted in with such cavalier contempt.

© The Editor

WE COULD BE HEROES

FrankWhen the death was announced last week of Frank Worthington, it was the latest passing in a disconcerting recent run of former footballers who were more or less all gracing the field of play at the same time forty-fifty years ago. The fantastically flamboyant Worthington was one of the great entertainers of the game when football’s great entertainers were Nureyev on the pitch and Robin Askwith off it – a generation inspired to express their extrovert personalities by following the trail blazed by George Best, those for whom giving punters their money’s worth mattered more than winning at all costs. Perhaps not entirely unconnected to this attitude was the fact Worthington never played for a club challenging for honours; his best years were at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers in the 1970s, though he came within a whisker of signing for Shankly’s Liverpool. Perhaps his reluctance to moderate his appetite for extracurricular excesses cost him there, but Frank Worthington’s often-breathtaking skills at least earned him a small handful of England caps, even if he was one of those players for whom anecdotes in the bank rated higher than trophies in the cabinet.

Like most famous faces admired from afar and never listed in one’s own personal address book, I didn’t actually know Frank Worthington; I’ve a feeling I may have once asked for (and received) his autograph when he was playing for a struggling Leeds United side en route to relegation in the early 80s, but that would’ve been the closest I came to sharing his space. Otherwise, he and I occupied very different worlds. However, his death – coming so soon after the passing of other greats from the same footballing era such as Peter Lorimer and Colin Bell – nevertheless resonates beyond the online obituary or 30-second news headline followed by the weather forecast. Why? Well, he and they were Gods of youth, walking tall at a time when I was small. An impressionable kid saw these guys in the pages of ‘Shoot’, watched them exhibit their talents on TV, attempted to replicate those talents with jumpers for goalposts, and sometimes pinned their pictures to his wall. They were partners in a childhood contract that nobody who’s risen to prominence in the last 30 years could ever enter into.

Such glamorous luminaries were in their prime when eyes were wide and in need of an exciting alternative to adult role models whose austere authoritarianism hardly worked as a great PR campaign for the grownup world that kid would one day have no choice but to belong to. They had a head start over later members of the household name fraternity, in possession of a sentimental seniority that will always place them in a very special elite constellation of stars. They were pivotal to a period in which they were the key ambassadors of the future, representing a wholly positive and inspirational idea of the future as a land of limitless possibilities. Sometimes it’s often hard to recall a moment when the future wasn’t an ominous spectre hovering over the present, a malignant shadow suggesting more of the same but even worse; yet, the autumnal adult perspective hasn’t always been the sole viewpoint. It just feels that way. No, there was once another concept of tomorrow, one that every personality to drift into one’s nascent vision during formative years pointed the way towards.

As a child, you are quickly made aware you are not the finished article, that you will eventually be the same height (or even higher) than the parent towering over you, that you won’t be at school forever (thank God), and that – on paper, at least – you could become anything you want to; you just need someone somewhere to present you with a range of tantalising options. Yes, you too may one day juggle a ball like Frank Worthington or play guitar like Ziggy played guitar; you may climb Nelson’s Column without a harness like John Noakes or wander around quarries in Surrey, escaping alien life-forms with a mini-skirted sidekick and dressed in a velvet jacket-and-cape ensemble – like Jon Pertwee. These guys made you believe the future was worth waiting for as long as it was their future and not the dull, workmanlike future of the teacher or the parent or the priest, or whichever everyday adult figure dispensed discipline and attempted to indoctrinate the child with a dreary design for life that had no appeal at all. These colourful characters were vital as living, breathing, indisputable evidence that the adult world didn’t necessarily equate with mortgages and insurance policies and a dozen other fatal attractions. They planted a seed that we continue to carry around inside us even if we’re not always aware it’s there. Whatever destiny lay in wait for us once we graduate from the University of Life at which they were our tutors, the interior imprint they left behind remains a precious, indelible stamp reminding us who we once were when they were helping to mould us in the most benign of fashions.

Often I see the individual on his or her path through life as a giant Airfix kit in the process of being put together by a team of people over time; the team is an ever-changing unit – as one person leaves, they’re replaced by another; and whilst some drift in and contribute one piece to the kit before drifting out again, others stick to the job at hand for several years. And, of course, the kit is never finished; new bits are constantly being added and other bits that used to fit but no longer do are removed. Sometimes people can enter our lives, dramatically reshape it, and are then gone in a blink; yet they have often altered us far deeper than someone who studiously stuck around much longer. Similarly, those we never met and simply observed from a distance can exert a significant influence by hovering over us for decades, with their point of entry enhanced for life if it came early enough in proceedings.

I think this is why we occasionally feel deeply affected when a person of note we never personally knew passes away, especially if they’ve been an omnipotent fixture that has always been there and always should be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the passing of a huge pop cultural figure whose influence was undeniable – a David Bowie, for example; sometimes we’re caught by surprise when it’s somebody we didn’t even realise meant something to us; sometimes it can be a minor character we never imagined was as intrinsic to that tapestry as the characters dominating the foreground – an actor, a TV presenter, a comedian, and even a politician. As long as they were present at our birth or in the room as we began to explore it, they count, whether we know it or not; indeed, we often only know it when we hear they’ve gone, because when they’ve gone that little piece of them inside us is gone too – and that was part of us.

It’s bad enough watching those who are still around get old. We don’t want them to age; we want them to always be at the peak of their powers; we want to them to remain frozen in their prime, even if that means we’ll gradually catch up with them and eventually overtake them. Their dismaying deterioration acts as an uncomfortable mirror on our own and their fate serves as a depressing premonition; if they didn’t wrinkle and wither, maybe we wouldn’t either. I don’t want Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan to be pushing 80; it just doesn’t seem right. And when a character like Frank Worthington leaves the pitch, the childhood XI loses another irreplaceable player at a time when the sub’s bench is noticeably empty. I dunno. I guess the best we can hope for is extra-time – and maybe a replay. It’s a game of two halves, after all.

© The Editor

GRAVE NEW WORLD

‘Suppose that, for one reason or another, all the propaganda was in the hands of one or very few agencies, you would have an extraordinarily powerful force.’ No, not a contemporary observation on the small handful of corporations that control the flow of information to the western masses in 2020, but a snippet of an interview with the eloquent visionary Aldous Huxley from US TV in 1958. I stumbled upon this 62 year-old gem the other day on YT whilst that very medium was no doubt logging my ‘like’ in order to suggest something else in its vast archive that might appeal to me based on the information already accumulated. Huxley – along with CS Lewis – died the same day as JFK, so only had five years left to live when this interview was filmed; but he referenced ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ in it, a work written by a former pupil of his (Orwell – as Eric Blair – was at Eton when Huxley briefly taught French there at the end of the 1910s).

There’s something of the torch being passed on here; as well as his association with the future George Orwell, Huxley was also friend to a literary giant from a previous generation – DH Lawrence – during the 1920s, though he himself outlived Orwell by more than a decade. He championed ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ upon its publication, but astutely foresaw that governments would eventually rely less on the intimidating threat of terror in the form of physical violence to suppress their rebels, viz. the methods that characterise Orwell’s novel; Huxley envisaged a more sinister development whereby totalitarian regimes rule by consent, having seduced their slaves into inertia with trivial pleasures that persuade them to accept their servitude with a shrug of the shoulders; they might even grow to love it. The brutal tactics of the Nazis and the Soviets would be superseded by a subtle illusion of democratic freedom, utilising the techniques of advertising to convince man his oppression is not oppression at all and is instead being done with the best of intentions for his own long-term good. State-sponsored chemicals would also play their part in this mass deception; and as someone who requested (and received) the administration of LSD on his deathbed, Huxley knew all about the potency of drugs.

Huxley had outlined the principles of this future society in 1932’s ‘Brave New World’, a society he himself described as a ‘negative Utopia’. Prior to the Great War, writers like HG Wells had predicted humanity possessed the capacity to ultimately resolve its outstanding problems and would emerge triumphant in the end; the generation that lived through the carnage of 1914-18 was less optimistic, and the soulless society portrayed in ‘Brave New World’ – which seems to have anticipated so many of the scientific and sociological advances we have subsequently been persuaded are for mankind’s benefit – is a far more dystopian vision of how the state presents its lethal weapons as must-have luxuries to keep the populace in line. Huxley’s prophesies of the direction the world might take in his absence didn’t involve one of the 1960s’ more erudite rock bands taking their name from his chronicle of mescaline use, ‘The Doors of Perception’, but 2020 in particular often feels like a world to which Huxley and Orwell were joint midwives.

When Huxley wrote to Orwell following the publication of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, he said ‘Within the next generation, I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient as instruments of government than clubs and prisons’. That said, a combination of the two can be effective. As the curriculum of Britain’s primary schools is gradually immersed in a ‘Janet and John’ version of Critical Race Theory, the indoctrinated grownups recite the oven-ready dogma courtesy of their abundant mouthpieces and the state’s storm troopers turn to Orwell for tips on how to police dissent. Then the spirit of Huxley re-emerges as, following months of clubbing and imprisoning should anyone dare question the wisdom of the programme, we are informed via a media fanfare and crocodile tears from a thoroughly incompetent Health Minister that a wonder drug has arrived to deliver us from evil. It’s not called Soma, the hallucinogenic antidepressant which is a compulsory panacea for the population in ‘Brave New World’, but one of its first ‘volunteers’ was a Mr William Shakespeare. Rumours he was followed by a Miss Austen and a Mr Dickens remain unconfirmed.

As if the first shots of a vaccine wasn’t enough of a Covid-related story to get the MSM excited this week, it’s also been able to indulge in the perennial habit of rounding on one of its own – in this case, Sky’s veteran broadcaster Kay Burley. Most people probably couldn’t care less if Burley celebrated her 60th birthday with a few chums; but perhaps the main reason the event has caused such an uproar and led to a temporary suspension is the fact Burley has been one of the guilty parties in whipping up the hysteria that has accompanied Covid-19 ever since the first lockdown. The same double standards and hypocrisy she relished accusing Dominic Cummings of back in the summer obviously didn’t apply to her restaurant-hopping, tier-breaking birthday bash; yes, it’s yet another case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. One of television’s prime lockdown cheerleaders and serial demander of ever-tighter restrictions clearly doesn’t believe she should practice what she preaches; now, there’s a surprise.

In a media landscape that seems to require fresh sensation on a daily basis, Kay Burley’s birthday party swiftly usurped the story that opened the week, and that one managed to combine the year’s two favourite subjects. When footballers began the eye-rolling ritual of taking the knee before kick-off a few months ago, the shrewd cultural commentator Douglas Murray suggested one reason they went unchallenged was due to the ceremony being enacted in empty stadiums; he wondered if their narcissistic virtue signalling would be tolerated once fans were allowed back. Well, no – it turns out voluntary submission to a political organisation not exactly overflowing with tolerance itself isn’t actually regarded as being part of the game by those who fork-out for the privilege of watching it. Ah, yes, football fans – the hardcore support that kept the game going during the hooligan decades, when polite society regarded football as being about as cool as cock-fighting or bear-baiting. How refreshing it was to not have them at the ground for once, so the authorities could impose the Woke agenda on sport as well as every other facet of pop culture.

I guess it was unfortunate that Millwall FC – a club with something of a ‘history’ – should be one of the first to let fans back in; the boos that greeted the players’ BLM homage were immediately seized upon by the outraged free-ticket brigade who naturally put the inexplicable opposition to this noble gesture down to racism. What else? Let’s not mention the findings of a recent poll whereby 55% said they believed BLM have increased racial tensions in the UK – and 44% of BAME Brits agreed. No, far easier to stick to the narrative and ignore the fact that taking the knee no more belongs in one of this country’s genuine multiracial success stories than the Nazi salute did when England players were forced to give it in Berlin in 1938. Let’s leave the pat Identitarian lectures to the Vicar of bloody Dibley, eh? Millwall players have already announced they won’t be kneeling before their next fixture; hopefully, the rest will follow suit and this ridiculous charade can leave the field of play. If not, more boos until it does, please – for silence isn’t so much violence as surrender. As Aldous Huxley said, ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’.

© The Editor

ROBBERY WITH VIOLENCE

In the absence of any volunteers to blow it on my behalf, I again raise my own trumpet and embark upon a tune. It’s a familiar melody, one that I’ve played many times before here; but it’s my party and I’ll blow my own trumpet if I want to. Anyway, the fact that publishing houses have closed their doors along with all other businesses happily doesn’t stifle the creative or publishing process for the independent artist; and knowing one’s endeavours will be available to anyone interested within weeks of the last word hitting the page is a nice benefit of being ignored by the mainstream industry. The removal of alternatives courtesy of Covid-19 has had one personal positive for your humble narrator in that it has channelled 99% of my energies into my art, and it has certainly proven to be the next best thing to compensation. I’ve written and published (via Amazon) three books this year so far – my first collection of short stories; my fifth collection of poetry; and my first book on a facet of pop culture I’ve previously written about on here but never before in book form.

The fact that all three books are completely different – fiction, verse and non-fiction – not only reflects my restlessness and reluctance to repeat myself, but that I was able to have them on sale ASAP also highlights one of the bonuses of not being dependent on the lumbering monolith of the publishing industry. In fact, were I signed up to one of those prestigious houses, I have a feeling I’d currently be promoting something I wrote over a year ago instead of something I finished a month ago. The disadvantage to self-publishing, as ever, is the limited means by which the writer can alert the world to his work; I don’t get reviewed in the press, on the radio or on TV, and I’m not bombarded with requests for interviews or invites to literary festivals; and, of course, I sell very few copies, which means I make very little money. But, hell, at least the work is out there and it’s ‘Instant Karma’, as it were.

I appreciate my prolific work-rate might give the impression I’m something of a hack, but the reason I can write so much in such a short space of time is simple: I haven’t got anything else going on in my life. That has never been truer since March; accustomed as I am to necessary isolation, the sudden absence of the usual periodic (and welcome) breaks from it has meant there haven’t been any distractions; no excuse not to work when there ain’t nothing else is why this year has seen me maintain my work-rate without breaking sweat. Yes, there have been times when I’ve wondered if all this flows out of me because I’ve not got long left and it’s a subconscious way of leaving the only legacy behind me I can; but I guess morbid thoughts have room to breathe when one goes months without speaking to another human being in person. Anyway, I’m pretty sure now the same fate that awaited the likes of Van Gogh and Nick Drake is to be my probable destiny – if I’m lucky. We shall see. And, even if I don’t get to enjoy the material fruits of my labour, at least I haven’t wasted all my life; plenty do.

The latest title to be added to ‘Solitaire’ (the short stories) and ‘Year Zero’ (the poetry) is called ‘No Place for Boys’; it’s a non-partisan celebration of a pop cultural event that took place fifty years ago this year, the 1970 FA Cup Final. Now, this just wasn’t yer average game of football. I place the event in the context of other things that happened to be happening around the same time. For example, the day before the game, news broke that The Beatles had split; pretty big news story. The same day as the game, Apollo 13 launched; again, pretty big news story. And between these two stories, another unfolded at the old Empire Stadium, Wembley. Yes, one could argue the same story had unfolded there every year once a year since 1923; but 1970 was different.

Thanks to the impact of George Best, the national game was undergoing something of a facelift at the beginning of the 1970s. The traditional followers of the sport, whose Saturdays were devoted to forking out five bob to pass through the turnstiles and huddle together on the terraces, had been confronted by a challenge to the short-back-and-sides hegemony as 60s pop culture began to infiltrate the last bastion of old-school masculinity. Increased television coverage and the influence of the Belfast Boy had a particular impact on one football club situated in the epicentre of Swinging London, Chelsea FC; with Stamford Bridge a stone’s throw from the hip boutiques lining the King’s Road, it was no real surprise the team should embody the spirit of their neighbourhood. They played an especially attractive and flamboyant form of football that contrasted sharply with a club that had competed with them in particularly combative fashion over the previous five years, Don Revie’s Leeds United.

When both sides reached the FA Cup Final that year, it felt like the footballing equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo, the deciding clash of two rival powers. Yet to slip into clichéd stereotypes of Hard Northerners Vs Flash Cockneys is to overlook how well-matched Leeds and Chelsea were; the London boys could be as ruthlessly brutal as the Yorkshiremen on the pitch, whereas Leeds could be as creatively attacking as Chelsea. It made for a fascinating encounter, and the Final at Wembley has rightly gone down as a classic, even if it was played on a surface reminiscent of Aintree the day after the Grand National. At the end of 90 minutes, the score was stuck at 2-2, and the sides couldn’t be separated after extra-time. Never before had an FA Cup Final at Wembley had to go to a Replay, but it did in 1970. The end of the season that year had been brought forward to accommodate England’s preparations for the World Cup in Mexico; with a congested schedule of League and European campaigns to conclude the pair had to wait two and-a-half weeks before they met again, this time up at Old Trafford.

The delay built up anticipation on the part of the public for the rematch, and when it eventually came round over 28 million viewers watched on TV. It remains the fifth most-viewed programme in British television history, and the only football match to have attracted a larger audience was the 1966 World Cup Final. The game itself was officiated by a retiring referee who allowed play to run unimpeded by interference on his part; as a result, the viewers were witness to a remarkably uncensored exercise in physical play as five years of intense rivalry culminated in a memorably visceral 120 minutes of football unlike any seen before or since. The title of the book is lifted from the BBC commentary of Kenneth Wolstenholme; confronted by the carnage on the Old Trafford battlefield, he declared it was ‘no place for boys’. In the end, Chelsea eventually beat an exhausted Leeds (playing their 62nd game of the season) 2-1.

The way in which the two-legged battle between Leeds and Chelsea captured the attention of the nation transcended the normal level of attention the game attracted and helped cement the sport’s union with the zeitgeist for the first half of the 70s – until the scourge of hooliganism forced the wider public to fall out of love with it for a good decade or more. Of course, 1970 is a million miles from 2020 in many ways, not least football. What my book hopefully does is show how the Leeds and Chelsea players of 1970, for all their differences, had far more in common with each other (and their respective supporters) than they do with the tattooed millionaires playing to the prawn sandwich brigade of today. I’ve tried to tell the story of 1970 in a way that might even appeal to those who wouldn’t regard themselves as football followers but who maybe find that era in British pop culture intriguing and interesting. I believe I’ve succeeding in doing so, but as I am the one blowing the trumpet, I would, wouldn’t I? If I’ve piqued your curiosity, check out the trailer…

No Place for Boys Trailer from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08F6QNP21

© The Editor