Saturday, 13 August 2016

Regarding Hamburgers, Variety and Culture

I want you to imagine that you've never had a hamburger before. Everything else about you and the world around you is exactly the same as it is now, you've just never had a hamburger. Not a Big Mac, not a GBK, not a Whopper, nothing. Now imagine you've been to the supermarket and bought yourself the value range of hamburger and the value range of hamburger bun. If your supermarket of choice has something lower than their value range, then you've gone for that option. You then cook the burger, lightly toast the bun and then eat them. As of that moment, that hamburger is three things; it is the only hamburger you've ever tasted, it is worst hamburger you've ever tasted but it is also the best hamburger you've ever tasted. 

You now have two options; do you stick with this hamburger next time or do you mix things up a little? It's not foie gras, the hamburger is ubiquitous enough that you're bound to be aware of all the different things you can do with it. Do you try some bacon and cheese next time? What kind of cheese then? The humble cheddar slice or do you thrown some Cashel blue on there? Ever hear of tobacco onions? They're fantastic on burgers. Of course, you can simply choose to stick with it; you liked the one you've already tried, no need to go changing anything. Sure all that fancy garnish is just for foodies and hipsters, you like your hamburger plain and you see nothing wrong with that.

Of course there is nothing wrong with that. There really is nothing wrong with only having ate and planning to eat, only one type of hamburger. Just as there's nothing wrong with only watching films made in English or only listening to stadium rock. But there's nothing right with it either. Sticking with what you know is something we do out of comfort and at times is done out of fear, a trepidation towards the unknown. For that reason, there's nothing to be ashamed of in sitting there, eating your plain hamburger, listening to U2's greatest hits before settling in for a Friends marathon, but it's nothing to be proud of either.

Food and culture are two of the very few areas where the idea of kicking up is as derisable as kicking down. To return to the hamburger, we all know the simple joy of the plain hamburger, especially at a summer BBQ. Yet I'd wager you also know how good it can be to mix things up with the hamburger. We've all had enough nights in the likes of GBK to know what makes a great burger, what makes an awful one and what makes a curious one. We know that some go well with beer, whilst others go better with wine. We know all of this and yet the one we keep coming back to, our all-time favourite, could be that first, plain hamburger. It's bland, it's lazy and it has the nutritional value of a rubber coaster; but then, lazy isn't necessarily bad, there's comfort in familiarity and sometimes it good to eat things that are bad for us. 

One night at University a friend was going through my CDs looking for something to put on. As he searched he would repeat the phrase, "I only want to hear hardcore dance music" (the only people still listening to hard house in 2003 were the Scots). It's important to note that this wasn't before some night out, nor were we prepping for a house party. He was looking for something to put in his discman (remember those?) before he walked to campus. I find it impossible to imagine wanting to listen to hard-house at nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning*. But he wasn't in a particular mood or taken by some random whim, he literally only ever listened to hard-house. It was his musical accompaniment of choice. Night out? Hard house. House Party? Hard house. Walk in the park? Hard house. Romantic night-in? Hard house. For him, hard-house was his plain hamburger. 

If we've all experimented with the humble hamburger, why can we find it so hard to experiment with everything? There are of course as many reasons for this as there are people doing it (so somewhere in the region of seven billion reasons) but unquestionably, two of the main factors are our use of language and the culture of individualism. 

Individualism today can be broken down into three messages. The first is to always try new things, the second is that you are always correct and the final is that you are the most important person in the world. Marketing and social media have seen to the solidification of the latter two points but no-one seems to have stopped and realised that they're incompatible with the first message. If we are always trying new things, two things are certain; we'll find out that we're wrong, a lot, and we'll also find out that we are far from being the most important person in the world. Viewed in this light, the decision to stick with the plain hamburger isn't so much a choice as it is a prerogative or a defining feature.It's at this point that we get scared about trying new things, this is when we get defensive and retreat to the comfort of our plain hamburger.

This is then reinforced by the streak of aggression in all the language we use around culture. Music we don't like isn't simply music we don't like, it's shit. Films we don't want to see aren't simply films we don't want to watch, they're wanky. How many times have you heard something being derided as "artsy-fartsy"? This is far from being an issue exclusive to culture, I've lost count of the amount of coverage I've read, seen and heard that deride the intellectualisation of football journalism. Consciously we've a spectrum in our head; at one end is everything we've labelled as high art, at the other, everything we've labelled as low art. We place our likes and interests somewhere on that spectrum and then we only branch out into things we've placed next to us on that spectrum. If we step back for a second and think about this rationally, we can see how preposterous the idea is. We can enjoy the plain hamburger but why rob ourselves of the Michelin Star dining experience? We can own a lot of Kings of Leon records but why deprive our ears of someone like Kraftwerk? You can of course opt to keep to the plain hamburger and Kings of Leon's greatest hits but don't think for second that you're doing anything other than denying yourself new experiences. 

Let's work through an example; ITV's The X Factor has consistently been one of the most popular television shows of the last twelve years. Many of the winners and contestants on the show have gone onto have hugely successful music careers. There's nothing wrong with being a fan of The X Factor, in fact quite a lot of work has gone into making the show incredibly easy to like. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with liking the music put out by the show's stars; again, a lot of work goes into making their music likeable. The show and it's music are however, simply a plain hamburger. The music is so lacking in invention or creativity that one could take any given song from any given season and swap for another without anything feeling out of place. For show that's been running since 2004, that borders on the absurd. The show is also guilty of that most heinous of cultural crimes; it derides the new and the different. The show has a formula for what it feels is the "X Factor" and anyone who doesn't fit the mold is mocked on national television. If all musicians were assessed on this X Factor model, we don't have to think long before we start excluding many of the great artists. As I write this I'm listening to Bjork, it's a fair bet she'd have never made it to the judges' houses.

We all have our plain hamburger. We all have something that we know is better in some other format but our quite content to just leave as is. But this attitude is only healthy if we've sampled the other burgers and continue to sample the other burgers. It's perfectly fine to exclusively listen to stadium rock but don't deride the Norwegian nose-flute until you've sampled it. Who knows, you might get to really like Norwegian nose-flute. 

*Yes, I know what you're thinking, maybe Tuesday mornings are the best time to listen to hard house but I'll never know. Well for the purposes of writing this, I did try it and all I can say is that I care even less for the genre now.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Regarding Anniversaries and the Dangers of Fetishising the Past

If I scratch past the facade or, in most cases, my own ignorance, every city on the planet probably has a fascinating history. All the architecture, parks and monuments, are no doubt overflowing with tales of heroics, cowardice, war, peace, culture and art. Berlin however, has no facade, as a result of a series of historical events, Berlin is overflowing with architecture, parks and monuments that it has no choice but to wear in plain sight, exposed for all to see. It's odd when you think about it; the majority of European cities are filled with monuments to a glorious past - regardless of how glorious that past may actually have been. Berlin is filled with monuments to its darkest hours.

Front and centre of the city's tourist district sits the Brandenburg Gate, one of the few non-shame inducing monuments in the city. Yet, not fifty yards from this, one can find the sobering columns of the holocaust memorial, the muted black structure in memory of the homosexuals sent to the camps, and the fountain for the Roma. All of this, lies in plain sight of the Reichstag, with its resplendent glass dome.The dome is of course symbolic, it is a promise of accountability and transparency to the German people but it also reminds the members of the Reichstag that they do not need to look far to see were political folly can lead them. There are a generation of Germans who can never repay the debts that they carry. Yet it should be noted that we are three or four generations down the line from that generation and the monuments show no sign of disappearing, being moved or being replaced. Looking back and focusing on what it got wrong, would appear to be how Germany plans to continue its assessment of its past.

I grew up in the British education system; from primary through secondary to my eventual degree from Stirling University, my view of history was shaped by Britain's view of itself. Perhaps it's the relatively recent, victorious contributions to the two World Wars but there can't be many people who have more warped view of themselves historically than the Brits. Approximately 500,000 people never returned to the shores of the United Kingdom after World War II and over 1,000,0000 never made it back following the armistice of 1918. How is this celebrated? There is the sobering and beautiful tributes of every November 11th but this is largely overshadowed by the endless parade of flag-waving, cheering and chants, "two world wars, one world cup!". It is easy and correct to point out that those who fell during the second world war were fighting a worthy battle but the same can never be said of those who fell during the first. Over 1,000,000 family members never came home because some aristocrats failed to properly grasp the changing realities of the preceding decades; quick, pass me my flag. 

We can take Britain's approach to the two world wars and pretty much apply it to all aspects of its history. Countries weren't invaded and colonised, they were discovered. That the sun never set on the Empire is something that was still chimed as reason for celebration even when I was in primary school, the ramifications of that red-coated presence were never explored. Thankfully though, that is changing; Britain is arguably leading the way in the revisionist history academics but it's possible it's come too late. Some people aren't quite ready to accept that the real war was in the east and even fewer are willing to accept that the invasion of Poland wasn't the quite the catalyst for Britain's entry to the war than had previously been claimed. Instead the image of "Great" Britain continues to be emphasised and celebrated but quite what justified the "Great" part, is very much open to interpretation. Spitfires are used on political flyers for the British National Party and refugees from war torn countries are described as "swarms". This from the country that once held off the jackboot of the Nazis, the country that was behind the evacuation of Dunkirk and the country that took in Jews fleeing oppression. No, apparently the "Great" part was just that they won. 

This year Ireland celebrates the centenary of the 1916 rising; the execution of the leaders of this rising would be the catalyst for popular nationalism to take hold in Ireland. It's important that a country commemorates it's important anniversaries and for a country as young as Ireland it's a great opportunity to forge and reinforce some sense of national character. The truly important part though is that the centenary is explored fully, for it came with just as many negatives for the country as positives. 

One can list and debate the various events of history until the sun sets but consider these two points. Prior to the outbreak of World War I the Home Rule Party had secured a separate parliament in Dublin for the whole of Ireland. It would remain under British jurisdiction but it would have considerable autonomy; not unlike Scotland in the current union. This is obviously far from ideal but it would have been a stepping stone none the less. Importantly though it was a political victory won by Irishmen, it was not some begrudged gift from Westminster (although I imagine there were a good number who weren't happy about it) and it applied to the island as a whole. The second the rebels marched into the GPO, regardless of their intent, the island could not be united under a movement that would have them or those who followed in their lead at it's helm. As the first shells landed on O'Connell Street, the actions of the rebels had placed the gun front and centre of Irish politics, a position it would not yield for a long time. The second is the wording of their declaration, pronounced from the steps of the GPO on the first day of their ill-fated rising. Over the years a lot of attention has been given to the "cherishing of all the children of the nation equally", but we tend to skip over how they sought help in the rising from their "gallant allies in Europe". These "allies" who were mowing down hundreds of their fellow countrymen indiscriminately with machine guns in the fields of France.

Historical events and what they come to represent are very different things and for all I know, they should be. It was heartwarming and fantastic to see so many children so interested in the country's history. But if this momentum isn't built upon and developed then it risks becoming some lone firework on an otherwise uneventful night. For a true understanding of ourselves as Irish people, both north and south of the border we need to give the same time and attention to what would come next. The division of the country, the swapping of oppression from London, for oppression from Rome and most importantly, the Civil War of 1922 and 1923. We are as much who we are at our ugliest, as we are ourselves at our best. 

The alternative is what I'll call the original British model, wherein everything we've done is  great and we wind up the victim of our own follies. As an island we've done so much to be proud of, the term "punching above our weight" is such an understatement that it's use could be considered almost satire. Yet, how good can our great achievements be if we keep them next to our worst moments?

Friday, 8 July 2016

Regarding my Annual Period of Self-Flagellation

As I type this my twitter feed is currently awash with updates from Manchester City's plethora of Twitter accounts. Today is the day they unveil international coaching superstar Pep Guardiola as their new manager. Despite having not kicked a competitive football in a very long time, Pep is probably the biggest signing that City will make this year. As an event, it could really only be beaten if they had signed Ronaldo or Messi. In keeping with the spirit of this event, City have taken over a small patch of land next to their stadium for a "Cityzens" weekend. The Cityzens program is a fan loyalty scheme, with a pun name as infuriating for its laziness as for its effectiveness. All this fanfare, all these interactive booths, social media hashtags and giveaways will all be topped off with what will undoubtedly be an underwhelming interview with a mildly-embarrassed, middle-aged Catalan whose visa could soon be in doubt following the brexit result. It is another moment in a long line of embarrassing PR moments that City have trotted out since being taken over by Shiekh Mansour in 2008.

For football fans Pep's arrival in the Premier League should be a cause for celebration. One of the great midfielders of his generation, Pep has cemented himself as one of the all time great coaches. His Barcelona and Bayern Munich sides were not only tremendously successful, but exciting and beautiful teams to watch. In Pep's sides, backs are never against the wall and buses remain unparked. The ball is passed fluidly, quickly and always forward. So why, especially as a Manchester City fan, am I not more excited about this? I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a considerable part of me that is. His appointment was one of the major factors in my decision to renew my Sky Sports subscription. Yet I can't get away from a question that is just playing endlessly on a loop in my head; what exactly am I watching? What the hell am I supporting?

This isn't a complaint about the players, I've long since made my peace with the obscene money they make in exchange for endless matches of poor to average performances. Football is now a piece of the entertainment industry and that will always bring with it unimaginable amounts of money. They would be more foolish to turn it down and have it simply return to the pockets of the club owners. Besides, it's not as if I would be inclined to turn down a six figure weekly income if anyone was stupid enough to offer me one.

Instead, this is a worry about where the game has gone in terms of the bigger picture. Not the players but the clubs, the leagues and governing bodies that oversee them. We are currently in the throws of another international tournament and once again everyone involved with the English national team have managed to be a massive embarrassment to their country as a whole. This also provides an endless amount of entertainment for all non-English football fans (including myself) and that irreplacable smug feeling of superiority over them. England's Premier League has, by some distance, the most money of all the major leagues, it boasts of having the best players (La Liga would politely protest that one I'd imagine), the best teams and generally, erm... of being the best. Yet, England have gone out in the first of the knockout rounds to Iceland, a country with a population the size of Croydon. 

The reasons for this are well documented by now and can be largely boiled down to one factor. With the inauguration of the Premier League, English football threw the baby out with the bath water. The grassroots programs in the country are notoriously underfunded and once again it is worth noting something else; Iceland, that tiny country with it's semi-professional leagues, has more UEFA coaches than England. The money is going somewhere but sadly it's not going to the two places it should, fan support services and grassroots investment. 

This brings me to the crux of the problem (it takes me a while but I generally tend to get to my point eventually). City have signed Pep, so what do their crosstown arch-rivals Manchester United do? Do they promote from within? Do they promote someone who will adhere to and hopefully enrich the club's long-tradition of youth team development and attractive, attacking football (a tactic which, it should be noted is how Pep got promoted to coaching the Barcelona senior team)? This, after all, would buy into their much trumpeted club mythos.  

No, they hire Jose Mourinho. The man is a walking trophy cabinet, that can't be denied, but he has nothing in common with the team ethos or DNA of which United and their fans are so proud of (and rightly so). It's incredibly unlikely that Mourinho will develop or promote players from the youth teams. He might but then he didn't at Chelsea, Internazionale or Real Madrid, so it's hard to see him changing his policy now. His teams are not famed for their attacking vigour but for their defensive stoutness. His Porto side were one of the most abject teams (to watch) to ever win the Champions League. His tactics are undoubtedly effective but could never be labelled entertaining. The appointments of Mourinho and Guardiola are therefore symptomatic of the Premier League's greater problem. English football is no longer about footballing development or sustainability; It's about celebrity, it's about entertainment. It's about big names on the marquee and the blind, vain hope that all of those components will add up to big numbers below the line on a balance sheet.

Mourinho is a statement of intent from United. He's the big flashy new car parked in the driveway after the family two doors down upgraded their own earlier in the year. Sure, the golf clubs wont fit in the boot, the terms on the lease plan mean you'll technically never own it and your insurance bill has just doubled but at least everyone in the street is taking note. At least all the kids in the cul de sac are staring a bit more enviously as you reverse slowly out of the drive. 

United's commercial partners (official noodle partner, official paint partner etc...) are certainly sleeping better and as a club they'll find it easier to attract some of the world's galacticos to Old Trafford. Yet, they are no longer Manchester United. The tether that tied this current rampaging corporate behemoth to its history of the "Busby Babes" and the "Class of '92" has been looking a little threadbare for some time now. With Jose's appointment, that last pathetic little bit of string has given way. They've joined Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in the new world of football teams as lumbering corporate behemoths. A new world where historical legacy is used not as source of community placement or local pride but as brand identity.

Consider these points in relation to the recent faux outrages concerning Raheem Sterling's fancy sink. It is no longer enough to judge the game on what matters most; namely, how well those millionaires managed to kick the ball around the varied assortments of hallowed turf up and down the land. Mistakes, skill, effort and performance levels are no longer viewed simply in footballing terms; the drama of life away from the pitch is given as many column inches as the drama that on folds on it. It is without question that Pep and Jose have been appointed as much for their box office potential in the nation's gossip columns as for their considerable coaching prowess. Should a player play badly for a couple of games, it is no longer sufficient to muse that he might be having some issues off the pitch. Now it would seem, we must speculate wildly about any number of the possible vice distractions that the man may have succumbed to. 

We are now in the position were the haves and the mores of the Premier League's excesses are waved in our faces as reasons to envy players, reasons to put them in the position of lifestyle role-model. Football players are no longer just idolised for their athletic abilities; they are now a part of the fully-fledged culture of envy and self-promotion. I blame David Beckham's hair. We celebrate the sheer crassness of their wealth; then when things waiver just slightly, we use these same things to crucify them. We beat them about the head with the immaculately fitted leather-interior of their new Bentley. The same Bentley we had just been told by some snake-oil peddler to put up on our wall as a part of the latest "lifegoals" exercise. Football isn't a sport anymore, at least not in its upper echelons, it's Keeping Up with the Kardashians on a wet grassy area in England.

And yet, and yet...I can't help myself. 

I know I won't be able to stop myself. Match of the Day and MOTD2 will be both set on series link. The fantasy team will be painfully prepared and updated every week. Livescore will become the most used app on my mobile and the Guardian's football page will be the first stop on my lunchtime reading list. On at least three occasions I'll justify it all to myself by promising that this is the year I finally invest some time and attention on the Airtricity League. Or perhaps this will be the year I finally, properly, just give myself over to the Pro12; their grassroots investment and fan support services are unparalled after all. But not this year, I know I wont do either of those things. My cursory glance at the Union Berlin score will help me sleep better (St Pauli would just be too obvious) but I know I can't escape it and I know it's now gone long past the point where I can defend it. 

For all the upcoming drama the new Premier League season will offer, the coverage deserves to be played on Sky Living as much as on Sky Sports. It's coming up fast, my annual period of self-flagellation.