Friday, 18 January 2013

New website...

Right. In an effort to organize the various abortive on-line stuff I have attempted in the last couple of years, I have started a new site which is going to have my blog posts, writing news, events and everything else on it...

It will be found here.

I have uploaded a couple of posts from this month on there, and I'll keep this blog up for a while for anyone reading the older stuff.

I can still be contacted at


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

What do They Know of Michael Johnson...

Perhaps it is an indictment of what football, or more pertinently footballers, have become that when I read about Michael Johnson in the press yesterday, about how he has "squandered" his career, his life, his gift (NO, NOT HIS GOD-GIVEN GIFT, FOR CRISSAKES!), instead of feeling sadness, or as the Guardian put it, "deflation", I felt damn good. I liked the guy more than ever. Shit, he looked just like I did at 24. The Guardian article by Daniel Taylor was a classic piece of sports non-writing, full of badly taped together logic, spurious morality and the same kind of self-referential, narrow world-view that serves merely to alienate more and more people from both sportsmen and sports journalism. The only moral compass deployed in building Taylor's argument was one that simply reinforced the myths of SPORT™ in what must surely be its most insipid, colourless age - namely, that caps, cups and stats make the man. Bullshit. There are countless players who never won a thing, that were fat or useless or brilliant or drunks or mad or all of these things. And twenty years ago, they were footballers in much the same as you or I are whatever the hell it is we are. I guess human beings would be a good start.

I personally felt a sense of pride in a young man described by that human monument to stoic professionalism Mark Hughes as not having "the personality for professional football". Perhaps "Sparky" (ha!) means that here was a kid who actually had a personality. From what I can see more and more often, it appears to be a near catastrophic attribute in the modern game, where the monolithic egos of former players-turned-managers demand that their young charges live, breath, eat and shit the same myopic bullshit propping up their own Xanadu-ian house of cards.

Taylor's article starts with a pretty unsubtle contrasting of the careers of Gary Neville and Lee Sharpe, quoting some stories Sharpe tells about Neville's dedication to the game, the implication (although maybe implication is the wrong word, seeing as Taylor is happy to drop in the fact that Sharpe's Wikipedia entry currently describes him as being best known for appearing on Celebrity Love Island) being that we must accept that Neville as success incarnate, and Sharpe as failure. Leaving aside the use by a professional journalist of a Wikipedia entry as basis for an argument, or the petty sneering at Sharpe's post-football career, let us ask ourselves why we must see this contrast in the terms set out in this article? Why can we not take a more philosophical view? In any other walk of life, we would want balance. We would want perspective. We would want broad horizons. This is not to say that balance, perspective or broad horizons will help a young footballer when he will need every ounce of everything he can give in an arena that has become so elite and rarified as to become, frankly, freakish. Nor is it to say that someone like Gary Neville does not have as wide or rich a life as anyone else. I hear he is an excellent golfer, for example.

My point is not really about the player. Players will make what they make of what they are or have. There will be a whole spectrum of achievements, and achievements of wildly differing types. But I want more from sports writing than this. Turning in an article that renders Michael Johnson's story as a watered down parable of squandered gifts is passing up an opportunity to really rip open the heart of what the game has become and ask what it could be. Why is there no room for someone like Michael Johnson? I find Mark Hughes' use of the word "personality" fascinating. Why not dig deeper into it? I want journalists to stop praying at the altars of their sports, devoid of critical faculty, to stop regurgitating simple ideas and trading platitudes with ex-pros, or tugging their forelocks in deference to the quasi-mythic ego-maniacs that blight sport and have removed it from any semblance of a relationship with real life. Because as CLR James said, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?"

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The first day of the rest of our life...

Another day, another cultural shit-storm of confused ideologies and mixed up, nostalgic nonsense. This morning we woke up to a life without HMV, and while I know plenty of people whose work, and by extension life in general, will be adversely affected by this sudden commercial black hole, I won't be mourning the loss. There are some consequences of HMV's closing that will be profound, not least of which will be the impact on bands at a certain level who might be looking at an immediate future in which a retailer that accounted for anywhere between 20% and 60% of their record sales is no more. This is a real worry for those artists, and not to be dismissed out of hand. The idea that one can genuinely make a living out of creating art is a beautiful one and a cultural ideal to be guarded, but to mistakenly ally a capitalist monolith like HMV to such lofty and noble heights is folly.
This is where so many people's reactions today appear confused and muddled. Firstly they are conflating commerce and culture. HMV was a huge, faceless corporate chain. It was Costa, Tesco, Superdrug. I can just about understand the nostalgia people feel about small, independent shops. I love book shops, comic shops, little craft shops and record shops. But they are just shops, in the final reckoning. And even these small, independent entities have nothing in common with HMV. In fact the reason there is so much misplaced nostalgia out there for the passing of this monstrous juggernaut is an irony in itself, an irony built on the fact that over the last twenty years the HMV chain marched across British high streets chewing up and spitting out the independent record shops that formerly proliferated in just about very town of reasonable size. Oven Ready Records in Aylesbury was ours, but if you were any younger than about 26 today, you wouldn't recall it. HMV was your only contact with record buying, and a shallow, pale approximation of record buying it was too.
An appropriate phrase here is hoisted by your own petard. HMV shat on plenty of smaller retailers without a second thought, and the labels and distributors snuggled up in bed with them and lazily accepted the drips from the table. They are all culpable today and guess what? They are the flabby dinosaurs waking up to a new dawn and wailing about it. But the new model rolls out today, and all those sales reps and sales managers will have to start getting back to work to find those missing sales. Good. Good for the artists that they can't cosy up to the shitheads anymore. Good for the labels that they'll need to work fewer, better artists. And good for the distributors that they'll need to help out the smaller shops, cut their own slice of the cake a bit smaller and eat less of it.
No-one will stop making ART because of today's news. That is a fact. There might be people who have to make changes, to tighten belts or maybe lose their jobs, people who will experience sorrow because of it, and hardship. But that is the way of things anyway, and HMV's closure is not any kind of cultural nadir. It is the monster eating its baby, the necessary death of the castrated father. And I will not mourn it.

Friday, 11 January 2013

For all you January De-toxers...

"Only around a table with a plate of food and a few bottles can you settle down properly and talk about things."

Keith Floyd

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Riddles in the Dark...

Sam Harris' article on The Riddle of the Gun, a strange title for an article in which there is no ambivalence suggestive of any riddle, is full of dubious logic. Of course it is, it's an article suggesting that violent weapons are a method by which one can defend one's culture/populace/children from what? Oh yes, violent weapons. One doesn't have to be a philosopher to deconstruct the flaws in this tired line of reasoning. Indeed, despite claims to the contrary, one doesn't need to be a philosopher to be Sam Harris, it would seem, as some of the logic deployed in this curiously simple piece illustrates.

Harris quickly and continually falls into the use of vague value judgements such as "a good person", "bad people" and "deranged and/or evil person". The kind of banal and half-arsed interrogation of human motivation that has allowed Harris to forge a career from making fatuous points about everything from Islam to, well...  Islam, mostly. Also, as luck would have it, it is the same kind of ethics-by-numbers that has led to his books selling by the hundreds of thousands.

Once into the swing of things, and having first described himself as "standing on both sides of the debate", Harris describes how he owns a number of guns, shoots them regularly, and has a relationship with guns going back "decades". The "both sides" he mentions quickly turn out to be merely WE WILL HAVE GUNS, or WE WILL HAVE MORE GUNS. With a bit of added POLICE WITH GUNS, and NORMAL DUDES ON THE STREET WITH GUNS.

Harris goes on to justify his position, (which is on both sides, remember. Even if he sounds remarkably like someone justifying how and why the American love affair with guns must continue...) with some hilarious machismo. A personal favourite of ours was the following quote, "I have always wanted to be able to protect myself and my family". What strange use of the word "want". I am imagining Harris' fantasy - the intellectual giant dons his dirty white vest and mounts the heroic, singlehanded, ultra-violent defence of his family that has hitherto existed merely on HBO or, presumably, Harris' DVD collection.

Surely, a more desirable state of affairs would be to never have to defend one's family?

Fantasy is a dominant principal in analyzing Harris' argument in fact, as he deploys the idea almost at will throughout, "A world without guns is one in which the most aggressive men can do more or less anything they want" Not only inflammatory conjecture, but also the groundwork for another important theme in Harris' argument; self-contradiction. The world Harris talks of sounds suspiciously similar to the world we see today. The world with guns. The history of the West, and its obsession with armaments could easily be described as a history of compounded brutality... an irony that seems entirely lost on Harris in his essay,

"It is no exaggeration to say that if we merely had 300 million vintage revolvers in this country, we would still have a terrible problem with gun violence, with no solution in sight."

Key word here? Still. Harris allows that there is a "terrible problem". And one that would not even be assuaged if America only contained 300 million revolvers. So how can he continue to espouse the More Guns Are Not The Answer - Until They Are logic? Simple. He invents an army of "good, trustworthy" and "well-trained" security guards to monitor all these "evil", "bad people" roaming the country wielding the weapons he is so at pains to defend. Here comes one of those fantasy dream-sequences again. I think Mr. Harris needs to spend some time away from the XBox,

"And any person entering a school with a revolver for the purpose of killing kids would most likely be able to keep killing them until he ran out of ammunition, or until good people arrived with guns of their own to stop him."

Towards the end of what is a long and, in fairness, very thorough article, Harris makes salient points about the need to resist fixation on symbols of violence, which low frequency mass shootings, with their blanket media coverage and attendant media reactions so easily become. But by the time he makes these points, his own logic has already rendered them largely worthless, mainly due to his previous one-dimensional rhetoric and frequent contradictions. For example, having previously asserted, "But I am under no illusions that such restrictions would make it difficult for bad people to acquire guns illegally." he goes on to decorate his final paragraph in the garb of enlightenment, with a token nod to compassion - "Clearly, we need more resources in the areas of childhood and teenage mental health, and we need protocols for parents, teachers, and fellow students to follow when a young man in their midst begins to worry them."

A capacity to shift from broad brush nonsense that supports Harris' argument, like "bad people", to what feels like a bit of a counter-argumentative after-thought is characteristic of the weak rhetoric at work here.

Harris does hint at the real truth behind his argument - that he himself loves guns, and more importantly that he loves the myth of American machismo and how that myth drip feeds into ideas of self-defence and self-reliance, and also that his position is emblematic of so many Americans. There can be no under-estimating the power of myth. But he stops short of the ultimate reveal, because it would betray the truth that gun culture, and perhaps a culture of violence itself is so rooted in the American, or Western, or even human psyche itself as to be impossible to worm out. That we might as well (there is a distinct whiff of the "might-as-well" about Harris' case) pile gun-on-gun, body-on-body, war-on-war. And this is what Harris needs, intellectually, anyway. War. The notion of humanity in a permanent state of conflict. Ideologies violently rubbing each other out.

Perhaps, as the atheist he is, he might ruminate on a passage from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and ask himself if he has not merely replaced one kind of fictitious dogma for another...

"This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification.  Seen so, war is the truest form of divination.  It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence.  War is god."

Monday, 7 January 2013

To Rage and Rage Not...

An interesting line in outrage and counter-outrage across the press today regarding Luis Suarez's latest attempts to alienate every non-Liverpool fan in the country. But it seems to me that there is a point being missed on both sides of the argument, at least as I have seen it put forward. Firstly, there are the ex players and current players, the Liverpool fans, Brendan Rogers himself and, to be fair, many more, who trot out the age old defence of the pragmatist; that Suarez is a striker, and therefore a mere slave to his instincts; that it is the referee's job, and his alone, to uphold the laws of the game; that it was (most laughable of all) pure accident that the ball hit his hand... and so on. So far, so Monday-morning-reading-the-sports-pages.

But the opposite side, it strikes me, have missed the real nub of why this actually matters. Of course, if it were anyone else, the apologists argue, we wouldn't have heard any more about it. And while that might be true enough, it is a facile and frankly inconsequential point. It wasn't anyone else that did it. It was Suarez... a player, and more importantly (as we shall find out later, dear reader), a man, who has consistently cheated, dived, conned, argued, racially abused and niggled his way through a career that has nonetheless established him in the firing line of the press and football following masses due to its undeniable sporting merits. And here is exactly where the rub is. If we stop asking more of football and its cast of heroes, if we merely shrug our shoulders and continue the tacit acceptance that everything about the game is tawdry, that the players involved are cynical, materialistic, professional to the point of detached disloyalty, ego-maniacal and too stupid or unimaginative to maybe try and improve their own culture and habits, then we are destined to descend to that very low as participants ourselves. We as fans, or more accurately in the economic culture that we find ourselves in, as consumers, are the true stake holders in the game. In the culture of the game and in the spirit in which we want to see these people uphold the game.

This is a metaphor for the cynicism that blights our society. Low election turn-outs, no trust in our Government, in the banks, the media, the police. Our systems and institutions sit rotting in front of our eyes while the rats that have managed to salvage a crumb escape the sinking ship in all directions (Dubai, the Cayman Islands, Switzerland...   Manchester City.)

But let's lose the righteous indignation. And let's up the humour and the intellect in the way we talk about football and about sport in general. But most importantly, let's demand the same high standards of everyone involved. Let's demand integrity in the players. And let's demand intelligence in the writers. And let's demand insight from the pundits. These are the people involved in making money out of the game. The game we all love. The game we want back, please.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Illustrated Ape...

... I have a poem in the new issue of the much-lauded Illustrated Ape magazine which came out yesterday. There was a little launch in Orbital Comics, with whiskey and some of the art on the walls. It's a great object, full of wit and ideas and brilliant drawings and I'm honoured to be a part of it. Thank you, Christian.