Archive for September, 2012|Monthly archive page

Of Handshakes and Finger-Pointing

In Opinion, Sport on September 29, 2012 at 1:56 PM

So, John Terry is a racist… or said something ‘racist’… according to three people… but not another dozen or so. And inevitably, the papers and social media explode with righteous indignation and moral finger-pointing.

I’m not really going to jump on that bandwagon; not due to any moral objections, merely that everything that could be said kind of has been already – and, paradoxically, through all the unsavoury racial controversy in football recently, anyone with half a brain cell has got the point anyway that racism (at least not connected with tricky issues of crime, immigration etc.) is an unarguably Bad Thing.

What I do have a little bit of an issue with, though, is some of the muddle-headed hysteria surrounding it. By some unfortunate coincidence (or some Machiavellian plotting by football scriptwriters up in the sky), the first time after The Incident that John Terry and Anton Ferdinand met in a match with a pre-game handshake, the goalless draw at Loftus Road just over a fortnight ago, coincided with the shocking revelations of police corruption and cover-ups that tragically tarred the (now almost certainly clean) reputation of those who died in the Hillsborough tragedy.

This led to many, in the media or not, decrying the footballers’ (supposed) childish bickering in light of such sobering news. Such rash comparison is unsurprising in the red tops, but it’s in evidence elsewhere too, including in the putatively respectable Independent. In an opinion piece for the centre-left national, entitled ‘posturing would have shamed a schoolyard’, Michael Calvin claimed: “Searching questions about human nature have been asked in the aftermath of the Hillsborough panel’s report. The Premier League’s post-Olympic era began at Loftus Road with pettiness and theatrical vindictiveness. Business as usual, in other words.”

A reasonable comparison at first glance, perhaps, and certainly not malicious, but it’s not an altogether fair one. One is a case of police cronyism and misinformation; the other a case of racially inflammatory language – both abhorrent (especially if as clear-cut as typically alleged) of course, but completely different moral precedents. It’s not as if Terry called for the comparison – frankly, if he is as calculatedly self-serving as is supposed, he’d have more sense.

And James Lawton, the paper’s chief sports writer was also in on the act, suggesting in the headline of the piece ‘if in this of all weeks we are obsessed by a handshake, the game really is up’. He argued: “Yesterday’s furore over the quandary of whether to shake a hand or apply another measure of bitterness to the atmosphere of the national game seemed especially petty at the end of the week of Hillsborough, one in which so much old and apparently unbreakable anger had finally been recognised with unexpected honesty and regret.”

The point about the handshake is also somewhat illogical. Of course, in a sense it’s just a handshake, but it’s the symbolic value that’s important. Using the same logic, applause is merely a collision of hands; physical swearing merely the raising of a particular finger – rather than gestures which speak volumes about human relationships. Call me pretentious if you will, but I think the handshake in sport stands for a sincere acknowledgement that one’s opponent – while undoubtedly going for the same, singular victory – has an equal right to compete and has done/will do so in a fair manner; a very healthy lesson for life in general which must be lived with others but experienced alone.

Clearly Ferdinand has good reason to believe this doesn’t apply to Terry (even more in hindsight after the FA’s verdict, whatever the truth of the situation), because he probably felt Terry doesn’t think it applies to him. And clearly team mates of the respective players equally felt this. So why should they have shaken hands? And why is it ‘petty’ and ‘vindictive’ that they did not? Terry offering a conciliatory hand is decent – and surely Ferdinand took the most respectable course of his action for his grievance? Would it have seemed manly to sit the game out? Or was the ‘mature’ act for this tricky situation to knock Terry’s lights out? Somehow I don’t think so. There is a great irony in newspaper columnists, though undoubtedly Not Racist (as they seem so pleased to tell us), decrying the way players have dealt with the problem, as if they, and not the players themselves, have a monopoly on grandstanding over moral issues.

Of course, Ferdinand could have shaken Terry’s hand; but – if, as nearly everyone believes, he has good reason to suspect racism – why should he have? It would have probably only served to undermine the great strides football has taken to root racism out of the game, indeed society. Personally this would have been a bigger setback for race relations in football than the current system, as in a game played and watched by millions, two isolated incidents – one of which there is still significant doubt over* (Suarez/Evra the  other) – surely do not in and of themselves represent a return to the dark ages. Indeed, I’d argue the righteous indignation from nearly all is a sign of how far football has come since only around 30 years ago when bananas would be thrown from the stands at players like John Barnes.

(*All the FA statement conclusively stated was that Terry used “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour […] which included a reference to colour and/or race” – which Terry himself admitted in court, defending himself by saying he was using the words in question…in question. Perhaps this is a factor in the disparity between Terry’s four-game and Suarez’s eight-game ban)

For surely, for all the ills of the undoubted globalisation and increasingly ginormous amounts of money in football, this has only had a beneficial effect on race relations. In an extremely – sometimes brutally – measurable, meritocratic field, it makes pure business sense to support players from all over the world (especially if your club can take a player from a poor African club in return for next to nothing). To be blunt, teams and their fans are very unlikely to favour the less gifted white player over the more gifted Nigerian, Mexican or Russian because, all sensible social considerations aside, they won’t be as successful or lucrative if they do. It is not an ideal world where some people had to/have to see a person can manipulate a ball with his feet well to be a  respectable member of society, but, hey, it’s a means  to an end. But it’s by no means all just the almost accidental benefit of the free market; there has been a lot of very positive work in terms of bans and fines for offenders, the Kick It Out organisation endorsed by almost all if not all football league clubs, and community work organised by clubs.

None of this is to necessarily absolve Terry – or others – of culpability, just to ask for an end to the conflating of different issues and the rash jumping to conclusions. I think few would argue that Terry, at least from his media image, is a particularly nice, wholesome character, but this by no means necessarily makes him a racist, as it seems many think. There are loads of twats who aren’t racist (though I don’t think the reverse is true). Based on his childhood and career in which he has played with and against many black players, under intense media pressure and in many heated moments, it certainly seems unlikely that such an incident would only occur when he was 30 if he really was racist (italicised because it’s not necessarily a black and white issue, so to speak). As the football cliché goes, at the end of the day, two different investigations have returned opposing verdicts, so let’s just treat the situation as it is; with requisite uncertainty and free from extraneous character assassination, blanket statements on racism in football and comparisons to a police scandal.

But by all means, call Terry a heartless, adulterous, glory-grabbing cunt if you want…

Joel Durston

Mercury Prize 2012 – Runners & Riders

In Culture on September 12, 2012 at 6:47 PM

So, it’s that time of year again which brings out the inner muso in all of us – the announcement of the Mercury Prize shortlist. And as much as it may be decried it as worthless when the choices are ‘crap’, it’s rarely so when the choices are ‘right’. Never one to miss out throwing around my two cents’ worth on music, despite having nowhere near the requisite talent to make it, here’s my take on this year’s cast of nominees and the likely successes…

 First in the list alphabetically, and in the bookies’ books, is Alt-J (∆), with their album An Awesome Wave. The recently-graduated Leeds Uni students created a storm in critics’ circles in May with this debut – an idiosyncratic mix of indie by way of psychadelica and electronica described by some as “folk-wave” – and have been quickly gaining commercial awareness since. It’s certainly a very accomplished, and gently foot-tapping, but there’s something about it that prevents me loving it; from completely warming to it. Maybe it’s just a little too clever, too abstruse and studenty, as shown by the strange triangle in their name. And Joe Newman’s twee vocals can grate. But nonetheless, it’s an impressive album, which I’d tip for the big gong.

The consensus (judging from unscientific canvassing on Twitter and NME) seems to be that fellow bookish indie stars, The Maccabees, are the other frontrunners. And one can see why, as Given To The Wild is a bold leap from their nice but fairly unremarkable and twee indie to a bigger ‘stadium’ sound, while retaining some of their more personal appeal.

Ben Howard is another strong contender with his debut, Every Kingdom – a brilliant collection of indie folk that’s managed to sound distinct in the hardly sparse genre of sensitive-bloke-with-a-guitar, and succeeded in the even trickier task of sounding both intimate and universal. Poppy enough for Radio 1, yet (evidently) folky enough for the type of person who pays heed to the Mercury. Probably my favourite of the bunch, though not necessarily the one I think should win.

Jessie Ware’s Devotion is another debut gracing the shortlist. Making the strange move from journalism to singing (rather than the other way round, settling for merely writing about one’s passion), she earnt her chops touring with electronic producer, SBTRKT, whose influence is evident on this collection of nu-soul, along with echoes of Adele and Sade (intended as a compliment).

Plan B is an altogether angrier presence on the shortlist, having, since his soul-boy Strickland Banks crooning, been soured by the riots, recession and (supposedly) regressive Coalition politics. But no less worthy of being there for this fine, sign-of-the-times, snapshot of so-called ‘Broken Britain’ (just don’t say that to him). In fact, amidst all the anger, there is also a lot of soul too, just not in the frankly awful lead single and title track, which seems confused as to whether the ‘yobs on a council estate’ is a unfair stereotype or a rightful truth.

Michael Kiwanuka’s and Lianne La Havas’ respective oeuvres are somewhat less state-of-the-nation, despite the former being the son of Ugandan parents who came to London after escaping the brutal Idi Amin regime. No, Michael seems far more at home with his geographical surroundings than Ben Drew; it’s his emotional ones that cause more soul-searching. Similarly, Greek/Jamaican/British Lianne La Havas – the latest in the seemingly endless line of Adele-a-likes, though with more soul, even in places funk, and better songs than many of her peers. While they both possess great voices – La Havas’ a proper belter in the classic soul mould and Kiwanuka’s a rich sound that (to the generous observer) recalls the likes of Bill Withers, Randy Newman and Otis Redding – they should be a tad beige, too coffee table to win the Mercury outright.

Of the other contenders, Richard Hawley is a strong contender to win with his rocky, atmospheric (though arguably ponderous) Standing at the Sky’s Edge; Sam Lee’s some folkie who seems quite interesting; Django Django’s self-titled debut is a typically ‘Mercury’, left-field indie offering that’s easy to like, hard to love; Roller Trio are the obligatory jazz entry; and Field Music are nominated because they’ve made a hummable, pretty creative album (or because they’re, it seems, nice lads, who only earn about £5,000 a year so could do with the sales boost).

The sign of a decent Mercury selection is one that avoids people staring in disbelief at the NME website and thinking ‘how is [certain piece/s of supposed shit] in above [certain supposed musical god/s]?!’ The main offenders in the former category in last year’s selection being Katy B (deservingly, I think) and Tinie Tempah and Adele (undeservingly, I think). Of course, there are still notable absentees this year, notably the xx’s Coexist (a sublime collection of electro-soul), Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind of Fix (soulful, feel-good indie), and I’d add to the list of unlucky losers Florence & The Machine’s Ceremonials (no need for description) and Hot Chip’s In Our Heads (a glorious electronic/pop ode to staying young while growing up).

Maybe this is due to a tendency of the Mercury Prize to favour breakthrough albums, typically debuts from up-and-coming artists (eight of this year’s shortlist) but often ones that have maybe just taken a significant new direction (Plan B) or could do with a commercial leg-up (Field Music). Broadly speaking, this is a noble aim, as I’m sure the Florence Welchs and Romy Madley-Crofts (of the xx) of this world are happy enough basking in their relatively large sales and love from the fans/critics. But it can have the side effect of leaving out some very good albums, as I feel has happened here.

But this is a minor quibble, for this is a strong line-up in an often much-maligned prize. In a world, where pop music is often said to have lost in soul, with many music collections containing next to nothing actually physical, the Mercury is to be praised for honouring the form of the album and artists who put the effort into creating them, as opposed to mere collections of songs.

Joel Durston

Check out War Child’s site for details of forthcoming charity gigs from the nominees.