Thursday, 19 November 2009


This is going to be a post about football. I know that's not necessarily an interesting thing to talk about, but to be fair I haven't done it before, and one post in a year is quite forgivable I think. Whilst my passion for football has become a subtler, quieter one in recent years, in many ways it burns at least as brightly as it ever did. For some reason the sport retains the ability to generate within me an enthusiasm that I've found impossible to recreate elsewhere. That's not to say it's the most important thing in my life, but it's certainly where I feel most free, most expressive, most competitive, yet paradoxically, most in control. The absurdity of attaching meaning to anything in life is never more heightened than in the pursuit of a small round leather-coated balloon, yet somehow it's that knowledge that none of it matters that makes it matter so much, that allows me to lose myself almost completely in the immediacy of two teams on a medium-sized patch of grass.

I'm talking there specifically about playing the game, but I still watch a reasonable amount of football too, and can identify somewhat with the tribalism that supporting a club or national side tends to engender. I have a favourite team, and sound reasons for favouring them. My bias at times knows fairly distant limits, but it is by no means an unconscious bias, and my partisanship is never without at least a trace of irony.

Characteristically, I find myself two paragraphs into a post without having come close to the specific issue I set out to discuss, which is Thierry Henry's 'controversial' handball versus Ireland. To summarise the incident, the game was decided by a goal precipitated directly by this clear example of foul play, and allowed France, the home side, to qualify for the World Cup Finals in South Africa next summer at the expense of The Republic of Ireland. Had the goal been disallowed, either team would have had the remainder of extra time to score and win the game outright, or failing that, emerge victorious through the relative lottery of a penalty shootout. Instead there was anti-climax, disappointment, outrage, vitriol, a formal complaint, shrugging of shoulders, and general disillusionment.

There are several facets of this debate which seem to demand comment. Firstly, on a cheatingness scale of 1 to 10, Henry's act probably rated around 4. There are a couple of such incidents in most games. I don't think it was premeditated. It is unfortunate that it was allowed to go unpunished in such an advanced area of the pitch at such a vital moment, but in itself as an isolated occurrence of law transgressance it was neither malicious nor dangerous nor petulant.

Secondly, I do not believe that this injustice strengthens the case for using video replays to assist refereeing decisions. There are many incidents in matches which can be interpreted questionably by a match official, or missed by a match official. Offsides, foul tackles, shirt pulling, handballs, ball in or out of play, foul throws, the whole obstruction vs shielding the ball debate, the list goes on. Any of these can lead directly to a goal. I cannot see how it would be fairer to treat selected categories of these differently from the remainder by allowing an extra official, located in front of a TV screen, to tell the referee what his decision should be. To complicate matters, many such incidents can be interpreted in quite different ways even upon second and third viewings, in slow motion, from multiple angles. There is a real danger that an incident could be referred only to result in a delay of two or three minutes whilst the TV referee ponders over inconclusive footage, under unbearable pressure to come up with a decision which cannot reasonably be reached. Surely, the least unsatisfactory way forward, and fairest way forward, is to allow the on-field officials to retain total control of what goes on between the white lines?

Nextly, there is scope for improvement. Micro-chip technology may soon be used to notify a referee immediately when the ball crosses the goal line. No delay; no controversy; no problem. We may see additional officials behind each goal in selected competitions before too long. This should all but eliminate goalmouth incidents where the referee's view is obscured (though I maintain the linesman should have seen Henry's misdemeanour in this instance). There is certainly a case for younger, fitter match officials. We currently have men in their forties trying to keep up with professional athletes half their age. I appreciate that life experience may bring with it greater calmness and objectivity, but this is of limited use if you are 60 yards away with an obscured view. In this country, all top-level officials are now fully professional, but all the FA did to achieve this was to pay the existing, amateur referees more. An intensive, fast-track system is required to train promising young referees to officiate in top level games within 2-3 years.

And finally, isn't injustice exhilarating? Football, and (reluctant though I am to use a ball game as an analogy for life), perhaps life, would be very dull indeed if everyone got exactly what they deserved, all the time. If the virtuous people always won out, and the lazy, selfish, rule-breaking, deceiving, scheming, cowardly, jealous, greedy people were always found out, punished, and corrected. A large part of football's appeal, to me at least, is the opportunity to triumph in unfavourable circumstances, to pick myself up off the floor and hurtle into the next tackle, to chase an unlikely dream in spite of a muddy pitch, a howling wind, a dirty kit, a cheating opponent, and an incompetent bloody referee.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


I'd like to state at the very top of this post that I did donate to Children in Need the other week, and I did buy a poppy earlier in the month. I also bought a raffle ticket in aid of RNIB only this morning.

In general, however, and particularly where people are concerned, I don't regard myself as a very charitable person. It's not compassion fatigue (love that phrase) either. If I'm completely honest with myself, I'm not sure that charities that help people are great causes. Try as I might, and believe it or not I really am trying not to sound utterly heartless, I think there are far too many human beings in the world, and we've become a bit of a nuisance. It seems more worthwhile to me to contribute to organisations who make it their business to clean up the mess we as a species have made, and continue to make, in the name of covering the face of the Earth with yet more of us.

It's important, yet somewhat difficult, to separate the real compassion I feel for people around the globe who suffer from various types and severities of physical and/or mental impairment, and for those whose lives have been blighted by war, famine, drought, crime, extremist political regimes and natural disasters, from my belief that there are more serious issues for this planet and its inhabitants. Whilst I accept that there is a vast number of people with no option but to exist in horrific conditions, it's clear that Homo Sapiens is not about to die out. Quite the opposite - the latest estimates are that there are 6.9 billion of us, and by 2050 this is due to increase to approaching 9 billion. Set against no more than 200,000 gorillas (in the wild), around 20,000 rhinos, and fewer than 5,000 tigers, this hardly seems fair.

It's quite a philosophical wrestling match. Whilst indivuals may well merit and deserve our help and love, as a species we're fairly obnoxious. On a personal level, whilst I would certainly accept charity were I to find myself in need, how should I reconcile this with believing that we/I are/am not a worthwhile cause?

Furthermore, when should I put up my Christmas Tree?

Monday, 16 November 2009


Last evening I and the man who continues to defy logic by loving me and living with me went to see the new show of Mr Stewart Lee: "If you prefer a milder comedian, please ask for one". Having enjoyed his recent BBC2 series, I was expecting something quite special, and I was not disappointed.

There are three or four basic themes in the show, skilfully interwoven and layered with callback references, pointed comments on current affairs, some improvised elements and a great deal of irony. Whilst this is week 6 or so of the tour proper, and the bulk of the material has been kicking around for 6 months or more, it's obvious that the performance itself is a living organism, flexing and developing according to the dynamic between Lee and each audience. This freshness of delivery is vital to good stand-up, and can at times result in the routine suddenly darting down an obscure and apparently unconnected rabbit warren. Lee basically allows himself to go wherever he feels is necessary in order to drive home a point. Read interviews with him and it's evident that he's conscious of his at times repetitive style. The decision he seems to have made to indulge this side of his performance speaks volumes for his maturity as a performer, for it is in these passages of absurdity that Lee shines brightest. It takes a certain level of confidence to repeatedly (I'm talking about twenty times) shout the phrase "MASSIVE PRAWNS" at the climax to a rant against people who emigrate from the UK for a better quality of life. Never, ever, ever have I laughed harder. Ever.

The real beauty of the set is the way it allows for these excursions of varying lengths from the basic script, yet still comfortably sits within a framework of just that handful of overall themes. The thought which must have gone into the construction of the routine is evident throughout. Changes of pace, volume and tone - some subtle, some abrupt - put me in mind of Dave Allen, in style if not content. Most of all the slow and elaborately detailed build-ups to climactic outbursts give the show a tremendous sense of connectedness, despite a myriad of asides.

We were barely ten feet from the stage. And all for well under £20 apiece too. A resounding 10/10 rating from me. SEE THIS SHOW!

ps - Richard Hammond fans, it may not be for you.