Thursday, 25 April 2013

Maggie and the Bombers

Before I launch into this, just so you know, I'm calling dibs on that as a band name. "Maggie and the Bombers." Pretty epic.

Right, now that that caveat is out of the way: here goes.

On the eighth day of the fourth month of the year 2013, Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, died at the age of 87. Okay then.

One week later, two men detonated bombs made out of pressure cookers, nails, and ball bearings at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and severely injuring almost three hundred others.

Neither event has anything to do with the other apart from temporal proximity, but it's that which has led me to write this blog post that will try to ham-fistedly link the two. Isn't blogging fun? Isn't coincidence convenient? Hold onto your hats, people. Onwards!

Margaret Thatcher once famously said, "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours." In the modern era, when often it's difficult to figure out what a politician actually believes as you stare through the fog of bullshit that he or she is desperately spewing forth from his or her mouth, just saying virtually anything to be elected, there's no doubt that Margaret Thatcher fully believed what she said, with every ounce of her cold, every-man-for-himself heart.

It's a quote that perfectly sums up why, at every turn (heh) and every opportunity, she dismantled the state in favour of private enterprise. The state is not there to help you or support you, she told the people of Britain, many of whom watched while their communities and ways of life were dismantled and left to rot. Those people got the message very clearly: your government will not help you. Years later, Mitt Romney would tell the poor people of America that if they were struggling to make ends meet, they should borrow money from their parents. And Americans against gun control argue that the state has no business policing weapons; it's every man for himself, and the fastest shot wins! "People must look after themselves first," states the U.S. Constitution as written by Thatcher, "with guns. Lots of guns."

So. What does this have to do with the Boston bombings?

After those bombs went off, individuals ran to help the wounded. It's practically the first thing you see after the bombs go off: people running headfirst into the smoke. They don't know if another bomb's going to go off, if a building is going to collapse, or if the same madman/madmen who set off those bombs is still among them, ready to cause more havoc. Their first instinct is to help their fellow man. Other people who'd just finished running 26.2 miles...TWENTY SIX POINT TWO MILES...ran even MORE miles to the nearest hospital to give blood.

Do I believe that human beings are inherently selfish? Yes. We are. Even when we give to charity, we're probably largely doing it for selfish reasons: to make ourselves feel less guilty about our own privilege, or to show off how generous we are, or even just to stop that man outside the grocery store hassling me every fucking time I go to buy milk.

But we also have empathy. We don't like the idea of others suffering because we can imagine ourselves in their shoes. It's a kind of selfishness in a way, I suppose, but to call it that simply blurs the lines between selfishness and selflessness until the terms are meaningless anyway. You help those in need because you'd want someone to do the same for you. You run into the acrid smoke of a bomb that has just gone off because those people lying wounded all around you are friends, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, children, cousins, distant second cousins once removed...not of you, maybe, but of someone. They're people, they're fellow humans. Isn't that what a society is, just a load of people thrown together? Why wouldn't you want to help one another out? You wonder, if in Thatcher's view the human world is just a tangled mess of individuals who happen to live near each other, what the point of a nation, or a community, is at all?

People pull together at tough times, and they cling to things they know. This video from the Boston Bruins ice hockey game soon after the bombings sums up everything I mean:

Whatever your views on jingoistic patriotism, and sure, it sits slightly uncomfortably with me cannot watch that video and say that society is meaningless. The people in this video are latching onto something they all have in common and giving voice to it, and that's why it's so moving. It's fundamentally human, this coming together in the face of adversity, which is why I think you don't have to be American to appreciate it, or be moved by it.

Alongside that, you cannot say that the people of Boston, after that bombing, did not turn to each other, to their city, to their government, to their nation; and you also cannot say that the nation did not turn to the people of Boston and say, "We are with you." I mean, the Yankees did a tribute to the Red Sox for goodness' sake.

It's a shame, to me, that people can pull together, that "society", whatever it is, can pull together during times like this and not, you know, all the time. What does it say about us as people that we can act like actual human beings when we're faced with some kind of "enemy", even when that enemy is nothing more than a deranged 19-year-old lunatic, and not in daily life? The poor, the destitute, the starving, the unemployed, the homeless, the injured veterans I see hobbling around the streets of Los Angeles, the sick, the old, the young, the marginalised, the oppressed, the huddled masses yearning to be free: why do we not run to them through clouds of smoke? What is government for if not to help them? Thatcher told us that if a bunch of unemployed coal miners at the other end of the country were starving to death, and their towns were crumbling, well, that was their own fault and the rest of us didn't have to worry about them. It's an attitude that still exists today, in some force, and it's for that reason that people celebrated her death, in my opinion, because for those people it symbolised the death of some small part of that heartlessness, that lack of empathy in the world.

And unfortunately, for all that empathy on display during the bombings, I also saw in it the legacy of individualism and selfishness that, if we're honest, is the backbone of America. It struck me, after the bombings, that after some of those people have their arms and legs amputated, they'll be getting a bill for it in the mail. Because the "United" States of America doesn't provide universal healthcare for those who can't afford it. We'll run to hospitals to donate blood, but we won't pay a little extra tax just so you don't have to pay to get your leg sawn off. Again, what is society for, if not for that? Why do we only help people in need sometimes, and not all of the time? Why does a bomb need to go off to remind us that society has value?

Funnily enough, a marathon is a nice microcosm of society. Everyone is running their own race, just trying to get through that 26.2 miles in whatever time they have set for themselves in their own head. No one is really racing anyone else. It is as individual as sport gets. If marathons were truly Thatcherite, that's really all they'd be: thousands of people with their iPod headphones in, all running separately, all ignoring each other. Anyone who has ever run a marathon knows that that's not the case. It's thousands of people running individual races, yes, but they're also all running together. Some run quickly, some run slowly, but everyone's running the same distance, in the same direction, to get to the same finish line. No one wants anyone else to fail. And it feels like a community, like a strong, close-knit community. I think it's one reason why those bombings were so shocking, and so gut-wrenching. It didn't feel like an attack on a nation or a people or a way of life, like perhaps 9/11 did. It felt like an attack on community. On us, whatever exactly us is.

The last marathon I did, I ran next to a complete stranger the entire way. We didn't say a word to each other, but I think we both spoke to ourselves during moments of mad, exhausted delirium. A hundred yards from the finish line, in the midst of a cheering crowd, he sprinted ahead of me. We probably finished about five seconds apart. Minutes later, I saw him with his family. "Nice race," I said, and I shook his hand. "Oh yeah, you too!" he smiled back. He turned to his parents, "I was running with that guy the whole time." I limped away, feeling warm inside despite the excruciating pain in my legs and the exhaustion throughout my body. I will never see him again, most likely. But if he had fallen down at any point in those 26.2 miles, I'd have helped him up, and I can feel fairly confident he'd have done the same for me. Even though I didn't know him at all, and I still don't. For just those three-and-a-half hours, for what it's worth, we were friends.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Reaching for the Stars and Falling Down the Stairs

I’ve never liked Los Angeles. I’ve always thought of the people as fake, desperate for their big break, and hopelessly self-centred. If London is an outward-looking city that feels like it’s at the centre of the world, Los Angeles is an inward-looking city that feels like it’s at the centre of…itself. And eating itself from the inside like some sort of demon wasp. (I’m sure there’s a species of wasp that does something horrific like that.)

Of course, that’s a stereotype. Like London, L.A. is mind-bogglingly enormous, so much so that to make generalisations about it is patently ridiculous. However, unlike London, it also lacks any kind of central identity. “Londoners” are a thing, and they’re proud of being so. Most people in L.A. don’t seem to identify as “Angelinos”; it’s all just a chaotic mishmash of people brought together, for the most part, by what is ominously referred to as “the industry”. And they seem to assert the identities of the places they came from, rather than the sprawling hell that they’ve moved to.

Granted, most people in London aren’t “Londoners” either; they’re also from all over the place. But London has an intense centre of gravity that sucks everyone, and even every town around it, into its dark embrace, like a black hole of surliness and stress, the tentacles of the Tube dragging everyone and everything in like a voracious octopus. Within days of moving to London, you’re already advising people on whether to get the Edgware or High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, grumbling about the omnipresent rain, or complaining about the cost of…well, everything. Which basically makes you a Londoner. In short, live in London for any length of time, and the city makes you one of its own.

Don't even try to understand the clusterfuck that is the Northern Line.

The biggest difference between the two cities, though, is outlook. Los Angeles is based on, for want of a better word, dreams. People dreaming big, and dreaming of making it big. Everyone has to have the kind of relentlessly positive attitude that only California—with its perfect weather, majestic coastline, and abundance of organic food—can provide. It’s the only way the city can survive.

Staple of the Californian diet.

Of course, if you’re a Londoner reading this, then you vomited into your own mouth the moment I used the word “dreams”. London is designed to crush those stupid things. Positivity is for the naïve and the idiotic. You think you’re going to make it big do you? Wake up, mate. Were you born yesterday? You’re nothing but a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck in an infinite and uncaring universe. I mean, have you looked outside? It’s a cold, harsh world out there. And it’s pissing it down. Now get your umbrella and make a cynical tweet about how your train’s delayed again.

Now, I love the cynicism of London. It lends itself to that dry, dark humour that people associate with the Brits. It also strips away delusion and pretension like nowhere else. Every time I hear someone talk about how they’re “special” and how the only thing between them and success is “just believing in themselves”, the Londoner in me wants to beat them about the face with a cricket bat. And then head to the pub for a swift pint. Oh yes.

Literally the first image that comes up if you type "pint" into Google image search.  Which is brilliant.

To any Brit, America (and particularly California) is painfully positive to an almost physically repugnant degree. The smiling, cheerful waitresses. The optimistic wannabe actors. The fact that everyone isn’t constantly drunk. Just what the hell is wrong with these people? If Americans are dogs, slobbering happily while chasing their own tails, barking loudly with a blissful dullness in their eyes, all while maintaining the vague threat of being able to maul you to within an inch of your life…then Brits are the cat, miserable and wet, glaring effeminately down at the dog from a nearby bookshelf and thinking quietly to themselves: “Idiot.”

God is dead and your ignorance will kill you all. Moron.

Schadenfreude may be a German word, but it was made for Londoners. We love nothing more than hubris: the pride before the fall. Watching someone reach for the stars…only to fall down the stairs and break every bone in their body on the way down. I mean, I actually laughed out loud just writing that. Stars, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde (a Londoner, don't forget), are for lying in the gutter and staring at. Longingly.

America, on the other hand, loves a good rags to riches story. They want to see people reach for the stars and actually make it. Only this country could take the phrase “picking yourself up by your bootstraps”, a phrase that comically and ironically points out the precise impossibility of lifting yourself up on your own…and use it to mean the exact opposite. The misuse of that phrase by Americans is everything that America is about: naïve (some might even say “ignorant”) optimism about individual triumph trumping common-sense cynicism and irony. It’s enough to make a grown Brit weep.

And yet, it’s what makes this crazy City of Angels work, and it’s also what makes it great. Londoners are always trying to drag you down (usually to the pub), or at very least waiting for you to fail. In Los Angeles, everyone just takes it for granted that, some day, you’re going to succeed. As I said, Americans want you to reach for the stars, and as stupid and saccharine as it sounds, they want you to make it there.

Let’s put it this way. There’s a reason the first man to walk on the moon was an American.

Sod that, though. Pub?

Friday, 1 February 2013

Superb Owl

Here is a list of the Superbowl champions for the past fifteen years.

Grand. Now let's look at is an equivalent list of the most recent champions of England’s Premier League, the top tier of English soccer.

The Superbowl has had ten different winners in the past fifteen years, and twelve in the past twenty.
The Premier League, meanwhile, has had just four different winners in the past fifteen years, and only five in the past twenty.

WAIT, I hear you cry, is that statistically significant? Well, let’s look at similar tables for Spanish soccer…

4 winners in the past 15 years

…Italian soccer…

6 in the past 20 years

…and worst of all, Scottish soccer.
For fuck's sake.

Every top-tier soccer league looks more or less the same. The best two or three teams dominate year after year, with occasional outliers popping up to steal some glory from the big boys. 

The Superbowl, on the other hand, tells a different story. Teams go through waves of success, sure, but that makes sense. If you win the Superbowl one year, you should still have a pretty good team the next year or two, and a reasonable shot at winning it again. But no team dominates year after year after year in the style of Manchester United or Barcelona.

¿Como se dice "bored"?

Let’s take the San Francisco 49ers as an example. Between 1989 and 1995, they won three Superbowls. Three in a seven-year span. Enough to be thought of as a “dynasty”, to use American parlance. This weekend they go back to the Superbowl for the first time since that 1995 triumph. In that seventeen-year wait, they’ve run the full gamut from decent to mediocre to atrocious and back again. As recently two years ago, they had a record of 6 wins and 10 losses. 

Hey, remember when we were terrible? Oh yeah...two years ago.

For Brits, it would be like Blackburn suddenly challenging for the title again (an appropriate comparison, seeing as they won the league in 1995 and were mediocre in 2010), but that’s about as likely as a complete disintegration of the laws of physics (note: Blackburn aren’t even in the top league any more, but more on the concept of “relegation” later).

That's Latin for "Usually Shit"

The NFL is a unique league. Any given year, pretty much any team can, in theory, challenge for the Superbowl. If you finish the year with a terrible record, you get first pick of the best new players in the annual “draft”, and a chance to rebuild your team into a Superbowl contender.  In soccer, the best players go to the best teams. Almost always. One of the most stark examples of recent times is Everton getting maybe one and a half years of the teenage Wayne Rooney they’d trained since he was a child before he left to win countless trophies with Manchester United. If you’re a smaller club with a world-class player, don’t plan on holding on to him for long.

"Once a blue, always a blue." Ummm....

The TV money in the NFL is also split evenly 32 ways, as opposed to European soccer. In fact, just to show how stark the difference is, here’s Guardian correspondent Sid Lowe on the Spanish league: “It is well-documented that TV deals are signed individually in Spain. Real and Barcelona make three times more than Valencia and Atlético, the next highest earners. That is not the only source of their income, but it is the most significant. €120m against €42m a season may not sound like much but season after season after season, the impact is gigantic.” And indeed it is. Not only do Barcelona dominate every season; they’re close to dominating every single game. “There is a difference between the same two (or three, or four) teams winning the league and the same two teams winning virtually every game. It is not normal for four- or five-goal victories to be more common than one- or two-goal victories, but that is what is happening. Last season, Valencia finished third. They were 39 points behind the champions.” 39 points. Thirteen wins out of a 38-game season. That is a colossal chasm. In another article, he warns about Spain becoming the "new Scotland". Yikes. 

This article has a fantastic breakdown of how TV revenue is distributed in the major European leagues. Nowhere matches the NFL for parity.

The upshot is that, in the most capitalist country in the world, somehow the richest, most popular, most commercialised, and most televised sport…is essentially socialist. It is pure bottom-up economics.

Over in supposedly socialist Europe, meanwhile, its most popular sport has become the quintessence of free-market economics, the perfect example of unregulated capitalism, complete with the illusion of competition amidst the ever-growing gulf between not just the rich and the poor, but between the super-rich and the very-rich, like Bill Gates looking at the Hamptons and laughing derisively at their tenement houses.

"I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this soccerball thing."

Man, remember that guy? Heh.

Anyway, it's obvious how this has happened. Success draws in fans, which means more ticket sales and TV revenue, which means more money to afford the best players, which means more commercial and sponsorship revenue, which means more success, which means…and so on. There is nothing to curb this, no laws that can't be bypassed via loopholes (again, you'll notice how it's a perfect metaphor for the economy in general). 

Fans, meanwhile, cling to the naïve hope of player loyalty, fantasising that their star player might value his hometown club over the wealth, success, and glory that Manchester United or Real Madrid might offer him. Yeah, like the Rooneys of the world. You can probably count such players on one hand.

The only hope any “lesser” team ever has is a wealthy benefactor coming in who can pull out the trump card. “Sure, you might want to join Manchester United, but join my team and I’ll pay you three times as much.” Manchester City and Chelsea are two such teams, and the only ones who have come close to competing in recent years. City pay some of their players £300,000 a week. A WEEK. Last year, unable to offload the problematic striker Emmanueal Adebayor, they paid him over £200,000 per week to play for another team

At the same time, historic clubs like Portsmouth FC go bankrupt. And in the spirit of unregulated, free-market capitalism, not only is this allowed to happen, but they are actually punished for doing so. Anyone who’s been fined for being in their bank overdraft knows what that feels like:

Portsmouth likewise have repeatedly been docked points for, essentially, not having enough money, which relegates them further down the leagues, which means they have less money, which means they get docked points...and so on. This year they are on the brink of relegation to the fourth division of English football, the equivalent of the Boston Red Sox facing the prospect of playing Single-A baseball next year.

Now, relegation is one of the things I love about soccer. It adds a whole other level of tension to the season. Imagine if the Oakland Raiders or the Dallas Cowboys went into the final game of the season needing to win to avoid being sent down to play with amateur teams. It would be glorious mayhem. Unfortunately, it also accentuates the gap between rich and poor. When a soccer team fails, it fails catastrophically because it loses the TV money it gains from being in the top league. There is no safety net like in the NFL, no pick of the best players in next season’s draft, only the bleak reality of lower-league soccer and the haemmorraghing of players, drop in ticket sales, and financial ruin that often comes with it.

Obvious Metaphors R Us

Money is the only thing that talks in modern-day soccer. How much the latest shirt/stadium sponsor is bringing in, what percentage of the TV revenue my team is getting, how much cash the board is making available to buy new players, if can we afford to up our star player’s contract to stop him joining a larger club, if can we finance the debt on our stadium expansion……and on and on and on. The league is bought every year by whichever club has been able to afford to purchase it. Fans of clubs lower down the financial tree (or “league”, as it was once called) are faced with the fact that, realistically, they will never, ever see their team crowned champions.

It strips sport of its very essence. The thrill of competition. The hope that this year might just be your year. And unless you’re a Chicago Cubs fan, it’s a feeling that American sports fans get every year.

"There's always next season." - every Cubs fan since 1909

So even though it pains me to say it, that’s why handegg is better than football.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Foot. Ball. Hand. Egg.

This is one for you sports fans out there.

If I’m the sort of freak who prefers baseball to cricket (heresy in these here English parts), then you might assume I’m also the sort of freak who prefers American football to what the English call football and what Americans call “soccer”. Not so.

Let’s get the annoying business out of the way. The picture below perfectly demonstrates how I intend to refer to the two sports:

It’s handegg. Not football. Handegg. Which is not only more appropriate, it’s quite fun to say too, so I suggest you try it. And before you accuse me of rank anti-Americanism, let me spring this little surprise on you: “soccer” is possibly a better way to refer to football than…er…football.

You see, back when original football split into its constituent parts, the two different games were called “rugby football” and “association football”. Rugby football became rugby, which occasionally, even now, can be “rugger” for short. Association football skipped the step of ever being called “association”, which would have just been bizarre, but the abbreviation for association – “soccer” – remains, thanks to our American cousins. 

Of course, in a British accent, “soccer” sounds like a great spot of fun. "Fancy a bit of soccer in the park?" Great. The problem is that, in an American accent, it’s hard to say “soccer” without it sounding disparaging. Oh yeah, that game that kids and women play…saw-kerr. (Just to confuse everything, a lot of Welsh people call rugby simply “football”. I once tried to watch a fairly major soccer game in the middle of Cardiff. Not a single pub was showing it. One particularly enormous Welshman replied to my request with, “Football? Oh…you mean women’s rugby?” Suffice to say, I stopped trying.)

A Welshman in his natural habitat

Anyway, I digress. I shall stick with the word "soccer", to keep things fair and balanced. So just what is Americans’ problem with soccer? The most common complaint I hear is the lack of scoring. Second only to the concept of the “draw” or “tie”, something innately repugnant to the American psyche. Brits love a good draw/tie. It’s so much more sporting. “Jolly good show, old chap, would be a shame for there to be a loser anyway. So what if it was a dull 0-0? Scoring is vulgar anyway. Shall we go to the pub?”

As for the lack of scoring, well…sure. It can be dull, I’ll admit it. Painfully, painfully dull.

However, I’ll never accept this criticism from fans of handegg, which is, as far as I can tell, a 3-hour-long series of adverts occasionally interrupted by brief glimpses of sport. Don’t get me wrong. I love me some handegg. I wore a gold San Francisco 49ers jacket every single day of fifth grade. But seriously, people: can we just get on with it?

NINERS. We might win the Superbowl this year, you know. Oh yes.

Especially after I discovered rugby (which didn’t happen until my early twenties, to be honest), handegg seemed slow-moving and lame. I mean, rugby is basically handegg but with no pads, no stoppages, and the intensity turned up to 11. It is a phenomenal sport, and should be more popular in the US than it is (then again, when would you have the ad breaks?)

Yeah, watch that video. Handeggers are pussies. One thing handegg and rugby do have in common though, is that they are, to me, bewilderingly complicated. The first time I was forced into playing handegg, as a tiny British kid new to America, well…I’ve never been so confused in my entire life. And rugby is probably the one sport you need a good few weeks to actually teach someone properly; the number of rules is dizzying. Soccer, meanwhile, is essentially just, “Here’s a ball, get it into that goal without using your hands. GO.” The beauty of soccer is its simplicity.

For me, though, it is exactly that paucity of scoring which Americans hate that is its greatest strength. The goal is the drug I keep going back for. Yes, the goal in soccer, the goooooooooool if you will, is the Pulp-Fiction-adrenaline-needle-straight-to-the-heart that no other sport quite has. The touchdown, the home run, the game-winning drop-kick are all great in their own ways…but there is just nothing in the world like the sight of a soccer net rippling, precisely because it is so rare. If you can’t find joy in that, well, then you probably don’t have a soul. See below.

I still count this goal as one of the highlights of my life. I was in Holland during the first World Cup that I paid any attention to, in 1998, and it was impossible not to root for the Dutch, with their absurd orange jerseys and their ingenious striker Dennis Bergkamp (whose name is the only thing this commentator can say as he completely and utterly loses his shit). That goal, man. That goal. For context, it's important for Americans to understand just how big a deal the World Cup is in Holland. The country is utterly soccer mad, and yet Holland have never won the World Cup. At the time, the last team to beat them in a World Cup Final was...Argentina. 

And the last minute of a quarterfinal that had been an absurd rollercoaster of emotions already (including an Argentinian player headbutting Holland's goalkeeper in the chin), the Dutch defender Frank de Boer played an insane, perfectly weighted long ball to Bergkamp...who then did something unreal. He needed only three of the deftest, most brilliant touches you will ever see to 1. control the ball, 2. totally bamboozle the defender, and 3. slam the ball into the net. All with one foot. Out of nowhere, in the final minute, Holland had won, thanks to a moment of complete genius. I have a soft spot for the British commentary of, "Oh that's brilliant, OH THAT'S WONDERFUL," but it's the Dutch commentary that sums up exactly what was happening in my brain and the brain of every single person in Holland. I was eleven years old, and I felt like I was going insane. Wonderfully, magically insane. Who needs drugs, eh?

So, in conclusion: why do soccer fans sit through dull 0-0 draws? Because every once in a while, something magic like that happens. Or like this.

Which is like any sport, I suppose. They all have their dramatic moments. That's why we watch any sport at all: for the drama. And yet, for me, nothing will ever be quite as dramatic as the soccer goal. Call me a romantic, I guess. And I'll happily sit for 90 minutes in anticipation of one that never comes...than watch three hours of TV ads.

TOMORROW, THOUGH…A TWIST: WHY HANDEGG IS BETTER THAN SOCCER. Bet you didn’t see that coming! Stay tuned…