It’s Only A Game

When reading Brian Moore’s autobiography, Beware Of The Dog (which I can thoroughly recommend to rugby fans everywhere, particularly those who hate him) recently, one phrase stuck out at me. In reference to the period in the late 80s & early 90s when South African sides were excluded from the sporting world in protest against apartheid, Moore writes that “I have never subscribed to boycotting sporting events unless they are accompanied by a total breaking of trade and diplomatic relations. I do not accept that sport should pay the political price when governments and business do not do likewise. Sport is an easy target, one that can be, and is, bullied by those who will not take similarly difficult decisions”. That single statement perfectly distils much of the ‘official’ attitude to sport; whilst clearly a significant enough part of our modern world to be considered a part of the political sphere, it isn’t really held to have much value over the purely symbolic, with the economy and wars taking significant precedence. Indeed, this attitude of sport being some sort of add-on, rather than the central constituent of one’s way of life, pervades all classes and levels of modern society; despite the way that the football clubs of our nation continue to be our biggest-selling global brand and are such prominent figures of our social world, sporting news is relegated to its own private little section of the paper and TV news, and during the Olympics of last summer there were even columnists who wrote articles of the opinion that the news’ greatly increased coverage of sport during this period was distracting the focus of these broadcasts away from ‘real news’*.

This attitude could potentially be considered an offshoot of our schooldays; schoolteachers, particularly at the lower ages, hate their charges becoming overly competitive, as taking it all too seriously can easily lead to jealousies, resentments and arrogance that just make the lot of a teacher even more of a social minefield than it already is. That’s not to say they think all competition is a bad thing, merely that it all works much better for everyone if it’s not blown out of all proportion and made to be the be-all and end-all of the school hierarchy. Since this competitiveness is, of course, most prominently demonstrated on the sporting field and, despite many a teacher’s efforts to the contrary, the practice of class’ social structure dividing along lines very similar to sporting (or, in many cases simply footballing) ability is common in schools across the country, among schoolchildren of all ages. In an effort to at least try and prevent this, many children are encouraged from a young age not to take the results of various sporting contests too seriously; hence the origin of that age-old phrase ‘it’s only a game’.

But is it really ‘just a game’? Is sport to be so easily dismissed as an irrelevant sideshow, just a game for kids to mess around with and to make us laugh, before we get on with the business of the ‘real world’? It’s true that sport has all manner of reasons for not totally dominating our way of life; it doesn’t greatly affect how many people are in work or the productive output of the human race in general, it doesn’t help save the environment or make any real change on our world’s political landscape, and its contribution to human technological advancement isn’t quite as significant as that of, say, NASA. However, this doesn’t mean that sport is merely some meaningless sideshow, unimportant in the grand scheme of things without lasting consequences; indeed, arguably, sport does just as much for mankind as a whole than everything your chosen newspaper will publish this year.

Consider the story of the famous Christmas football matches that took place in No Man’s Land in the winter of 1915 on the Western front, allowing Entente and Alliance forces to come into contact with one another and realise that these young men on the other side of the barbed wire were not so very different from themselves; one of the first times that the jingoistic view of the enemy as some kind of unimaginable monster was challenged and thus helping to pave the way for modern pacifism. Consider the 1995 Rugby World Cup, in which the new South African president Nelson Mandela was able to unite members of all ethnicities within ‘the Rainbow Nation’ behind a traditionally Afrikaner sport and to start making slow inroads into the decades of institutionalised racism that had previously blighted the country.  Consider how, every Saturday, men and women across the globe give up a few hours of their day to do something that helps them get a little bit healthier, gets them out and about and interacting with other people, and in many cases provides a regular reminder of the value of teamwork and generally getting along with one another.

Admittedly, these sentiments are not universally practiced within the sporting world, but in the majority of cases they are; and in that respect sport may be taking us closer to utopia than any number of technological achievements. Sport demonstrates to us the value of commitment, teamwork, dedication and the need to make sacrifices in the pursuit of greatness, not to mention the astounding ability sport has to bring people from all walks of life together and show them off at their best, in the process serving social equality and understanding better than any political lobbying. A post like this has little in the way of a natural conclusion, but it does have a point; the idea that sport is ‘only a game’ ignores that it, and what it stands for, can be so much more than that, and that to ignore its significance, to dismiss it as something merely symbolic, is indicative of an attitude that may have somewhat lost sight of what its ultimate goal is.

Basically, sport is a pretty awesome thing and deserves a little more respect in places.

*The ‘real news’ in question actually referred to the situation in Syria, something I’ve already done a post and personally consider something definitely not worth being shoved to one side for anything; but it was nonetheless reported with all appropriate seriousness and the main complaint of the writer in question appeared to be that newsreaders were being too happy by announcing medals immediately after reporting on it. And anyway, it weakens my point to mention that.

The Birth of A Legend

On the 11th of November 1880, a young man in his mid-twenties was hanged in Melbourne, Australia. Nothing particularly unusual about this; Australia was British-owned at the time and took a blunt approach to law enforcement, resulting in many a young man’s death. But this particular young man was something special, as indicated by some (not entirely authenticated) reports that a petition to save his life attracted 30,000 signatories. The man’s name was Ned Kelly, and his story was an extraordinary one.

Some reports claim it was a year later, but Edward Kelly was born in June 1854 to an Irish family in Beveridge, Victoria. He grew into a brave, boisterous boy; aged ten he jumped fully clothed into a river to save the life of a drowning seven year-old, and wore the green sash the family concerned gave him as a reward for much of the rest of his life. His father had been exported to Oz several years ago for theft, and had managed to do well enough for himself to buy a small bit of land; cheap as land was in Australia at the time, such an achievement wasn’t bad for an ex-con at the time. Not that this made life easy for him; the government view at the time was that, since a large proportion of Australians were former convicts, they must all be dirty stinking thieves who shouldn’t be given an inch. This was not conducive to a healthy state of living for Australia’s poor (ie almost everybody), and as such Ned’s father turned to cattle rustling in order to make life that little bit more comfortable. However, the law soon caught up with him, and he was sentenced to six months’ hard labour, which had a permanent effect on his health. Shortly after his return, he died, forcing young Ned to drop out of school to help his mother. His experience with the police during this escapade was not positive, and could be said to have affected the rest of his life.

Still, Ned’s mother Ellen, a famously spirited woman, was still around and moved the family to an area of uncultivated farmland (a lot cheaper than their former freehold home) at a place called Eleven Mile Creek. It was here that Kelly made his first notable forays into the lawless side of things; there was a sharp divide at the time between small landowners (such as the Kelly family) and the ‘big business’ landowners known as squatters. The latter had the police very much on their side and would vehemently ‘protect their interests’ against the hard-up small-time farmers, and a there was something of an undercurrent of resentment dividing the two camps, as there usually is between the rich and poor. The small men, like the Kellys, did what they could to keep their heads above water in this rather messy environment, and a little small-scale rustling was considered part and parcel of the whole business, horses and cattle being exchanged like an alternate currency. Illegality became a way of life for them, and in many ways it was a highly necessary one.

The police, of course, did not take this point of view; the rustlers were, to their mind, nothing more than the basest of thieves, and their patrols were determined to take them down. As ‘The Kelly Gang’ grew in reputation, the forces of law became determined to find some reason, any reason, to take them down, just to keep them under control. After several charges were (reluctantly) dismissed through lack of evidence, he was sent down twice within two years; firstly for assaulting a hawker and later for being caught in possession of a stolen horse. He was sentenced to three years whilst, bizarrely, the man who stole it received just a year and a half. A few years later, he was involved in a fight with police concerning his state of drunkenness (which many thought odd, given that he barely drank; some think his drink may have been spiked), and then came The Fitzpatrick Incident.

In 1878, Ned Kelly’s brother Dan found himself victim of an arrest warrant for horse rustling (the Kelly ring had now grown substantially) and a Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick went to the Kelly house in an attempt to arrest him. He found Dan with his mother and sisters, and agreed to let him finish dinner before coming with him. Some reports state that there had been a scuffle even before this, but what is known is that Ellen Kelly asked Fitzpatrick whether he had an arrest warrant. Fitzpatrick in fact only had a telegram telling him  to take Dan in, and his mother (quite rightly, if my legal knowledge is anything to go by) said that Dan therefore had no obligation to go with Fitzpatrick unless he chose to. Fitzpatrick responded by pulling out a pistol and threatening to ‘blow her brains out’ if she continued to ‘interfere’, to which Ellen made some comment to the effect of ‘you wouldn’t be quite so brave if Ned were here’. Dan Kelly responded in possibly the most clichéd fashion imaginable; telling Fitzpatrick that his brother Ned was coming to get him to look out of the window before jumping up, grabbing him and forcing him to drop his weapon, before releasing him (unharmed, he later claimed).

This is generally agreed to be (at least approximately) the true version of events; however, Fitzpatrick then rode to Benalla and announced that he had been attacked by most of the Kelly clan armed with revolvers, and that Ned had shot him in the wrist. The wound was almost certainly not bullet-induced; it was probably made to look worse than it originally had with the use of Fitzpatrick’s penknife (indeed, Fitzpatrick was later labelled a liar and thrown out of the force), but that didn’t matter to the courts now that they had something to take down Ned Kelly for. Within a few hours the Kelly homestead was surrounded and all present were arrested (Dan had already left to try and find his brother in the bush). Punishments were harsh; based only on Fitzpatrick’s drunken testimony, Ellen Kelly received three years whilst two other men who’d been present in the house (Ned’s brother-in-law Bill Skillion and an associate named William ‘Brickey’ Williamson) got six years apiece. Ned Kelly was furious, and demanded vengeance; a story that we will pick up next time…

FILM FORTNIGHT: The History Boys

OK, back to films this time, specifically The History Boy. Something of an old favourite of mine, the kind of thing I occasionally catch myself running through in my head. And with the death just a few weeks ago of one of the film’s stars Richard Griffiths, it seemed only right to turn my gaze to it now. So…,

There is a particular type of film that attempts to be compelling by getting rid of almost all the distractions of plot in favour of plundering the rich resources posed by character, behaviour, context and emotional development. The storyline of such films tend to be based around small scenes that mean very little on their own but serve largely as a framework for the important parts of the film itself to play out around them; a nice idea, if it can be pulled off. Done wrong and we are left with two hours of tedium whilst a bunch of theatrical hipsters pretend to hold the emotional and intellectual high ground, and a lot is left down to the sheer ability of the actors concerned to execute their roles; it’s one of the reasons why reading Shakespeare out of a textbook is so much less compelling than a well-executed live performance, and why so many schoolchildren get turned off by it. That, combined with the overly florid Elizabethan language, and the fact that they have to study Twelfth Night.

The History Boys is, thankfully, burdened by neither of the latter two issues, but its format makes the former a major point of potential worry; set in a Sheffield school in 1983, our story opens with eight history student getting their A-level grades, and very well they’ve done too. For this reason, the school (and its rather ambitious headmaster, Clive Merrison’s Felix) encourages them to apply to read history at Oxbridge, for which they need to take an entrance exam that will require another term’s schooling and revision. The other main players are their teachers: history teacher Mrs. Lintott (Francis de la Tour), specialist exam-preparation teacher Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore) and the colourful General Studies teacher Hector (Griffiths). “General Studies” here being taken as a rather loose term.

The teachers are the main source of the film’s drama; Irwin, recruited at the start of the film, offers up a totally different approach to the boys’ previous teaching style and, indeed, a different perspective on history itself, which results in one or two moments that strike a little close to the bone for some. Then we have Hector, who doesn’t teach so much as mess around in a classroom for a couple of hours, before offering the boys a lift home on his moped and casually groping them along the way. Whilst the boys have an amicable relationship with him over this, it’s kind of obvious to see that this isn’t going to end well.

It should be pointed out that all of this is established within the first 20 minutes of the film, and indeed there is practically no plot movement in the centre of the film; it is all left open purely for character interaction and development. This ‘interaction’ is frequently rather risqué in nature, but for such a serious, deeply emotional film it’s surprising the extent to which the film seems determined to have fun and enjoy itself; credit must go to Alan Bennett (the writer of the original play) for managing to inject so much humour into the piece. The actors also appear suffused with the spirit of the thing, and turn out some wonderful performances; special mention must go to Dominic Cooper for a starring turn as the sexually-charged, rather aggressively bright Dakin, and Griffiths, who at no point in the entire film looks like he’s acting rather than just doing what comes naturally. However, none of that changes the fact that this is a film built around practically nothing happening, and looking back now I struggle to visualise how the rather confused web of scenes fit together, and how indeed the film manages to make any sense at all.

However, no matter how much I try to apply fridge logic to the situation, the fact is that it simply does; it’s just that well done. Nicholas Hytner’s film is so engrossing and insidiously enthralling that everything becomes just about the characters, as if one is in fact part of this eclectic little group and this is your life playing out around you. These are your friends, your mentors, the people you laugh with, the people you cry over; it’s a slice of life at its most real yet most compelling, and most beautiful. 99 times out of 100 this sort of thing surely wouldn’t work, but by its being sit at a point in these boys’ lives that is so pivotal, and by framing it in such a fantastically well-executed manner, the realism of the event manages to feel purposeful rather than meandering. There’s something deeply satisfying, like watching an old friend come good, about watching the way these characters develop and grow over 100 minutes’ screentime, and it’s all very… right, somehow. And that’s even before we get to the ending; a tear-jerking third act that manages to hit every point on the emotional spectrum before cascading into a bittersweet crescendo of beauty and hope that would strike dumb even the most loquacious of critics. I could spend all day analysing every little intricate moment of these few minutes, every emotional tug and every moment of simultaneous hope and pain, but am restricted by both my wish not to spoil anything and my wish not to write something 5000 words long.

The History Boys is many things; relatively slow, rather lacking in plot and based around a decidedly unconventional idea being among them. But it honestly doesn’t matter; when a film attempts to mean this much, and pulls it off with such spectacular aplomb, any attempt to degrade it somewhat misses the point. If you haven’t watched it yet, then you’re missing out on something special.

The Myth of Popularity

WARNING: Everything I say forthwith is purely speculative based on a rough approximation of a presented view of how a part of our world works, plus some vaguely related stuff I happen to know. It is very likely to differ from your own personal view of things, so please don’t get angry with me if it does.

Bad TV and cinema is a great source of inspiration; not because there’s much in it that’s interesting, but because there’s just so much of it that even without watching any it is possible to pick up enough information to diagnose trends, which are generally interesting to analyse. In this case, I refer to the picture of American schools that is so often portrayed by iteration after iteration of generic teenage romance/romcom/’drama’, and more specifically the people in it.

One of the classic plot lines of these types of things involves the ‘hopelessly lonely/unpopular nerd who has crush on Miss Popular de Cheerleader and must prove himself by [insert totally retarded idea]’. Needless to say these plot lines are more unintentionally hilarious and excruciating than anything else, but they work because they play on the one trope that so many of us are familiar with; that of the overbearing, idiotic, horrible people from the ‘popular’ social circle. Even if we were not raised within a sitcom, it’s a situation repeated in thousands of schools across the world- the popular kids are the arseholes at the top with inexplicable access to all the gadgets and girls, and the more normal, nice people lower down the social circle.

The image exists in our conciousness long after leaving school for a whole host of reasons; partly because major personal events during our formative years tend to have a greater impact on our psyche than those occurring later on in life, but also because it is often our first major interaction with the harsh unfairness life is capable of throwing at us. The whole situation seems totally unfair and unjust; why should all these horrible people be the popular ones, and get all the social benefits associated with that? Why not me, a basically nice, humble person without a Ralph Lauren jacket or an iPad 3, but with a genuine personality? Why should they have all the luck?

However, upon analysing the issue then this object of hate begins to break down; not because the ‘popular kids’ are any less hateful, but because they are not genuinely popular. If we define popular as a scale representative of how many and how much people like you (because what the hell else is it?), then it becomes a lot easier to approach it from a numerical, mathematical perspective. Those at the perceived top end of the social spectrum generally form themselves into a clique of superiority, where they all like one another (presumably- I’ve never been privy to being in that kind of group in order to find out) but their arrogance means that they receive a certain amount of dislike, and even some downright resentment, from the rest of the immediate social world. By contrast, members of other social groups (nerds, academics [often not the same people], those sportsmen not in the ‘popular’ sphere, and the myriad of groups of undefineable ‘normies’ who just splinter off into their own little cliques) tend to be liked by members of their selected group and treated with either neutrality or minor positive or negative feeling from everyone else, leaving them with an overall ‘popularity score’, from an approximated mathematical point of view, roughly equal to or even greater than the ‘popular’ kids. Thus, the image of popularity is really something of a myth, as these people are not technically speaking any more popular than anyone else.

So, then, how has this image come to present itself as one of popularity, of being the top of the social spectrum? Why are these guys on top, seemingly above group after group of normal, friendly people with a roughly level playing field when it comes to social standing?

If you were to ask George Orwell this question, he would present you with a very compelling argument concerning the nature of a social structure to form a ‘high’ class of people (shortly after asking you how you managed to communicate with him beyond the grave). He and other social commentators have frequently pointed out that the existence of a social system where all are genuinely treated equally is unstable without some ‘higher class’ of people to look up to- even if it is only in hatred. It is humanity’s natural tendency to try and better itself, try to fight its way to the top of the pile, so if the ‘high’ group disappear temporarily they will be quickly replaced; hence why there is such a disparity between rich and poor even in a country such as the USA founded on the principle that ‘all men are created free and equal’. This principle applies to social situations too; if the ‘popular’ kids were to fall from grace, then some other group would likely rise to fill the power vacuum at the top of the social spectrum. And, as we all know, power and influence are powerful corrupting forces, so this position would be likely to transform this new ‘popular’ group into arrogant b*stards too, removing the niceness they had when they were just normal guys. This effect is also in evidence that many of the previously hateful people at the top of the spectrum become very normal and friendly when spoken to one-on-one, outside of their social group (from my experience anyway; this does not apply to all people in such groups)

However, another explanation is perhaps more believable; that arrogance is a cause rather than a symptom. By acting like they are better than the rest of the world, the rest of the world subconsciously get it into their heads that, much though they are hated, they are the top of the social ladder purely because they said so. And perhaps this idea is more comforting, because it takes us back to the idea we started with; that nobody is more actually popular than anyone else, and that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of where your group ranks on the social scale, if it’s yours and you get along with the people in it, then it doesn’t really matter about everyone else or what they think, so long as you can get on, be happy, and enjoy yourself.

Footnote: I get most of these ideas from what is painted by the media as being the norm in American schools and from what friends have told me, since I’ve been lucky enough that the social hierarchies I encountered from my school experience basically left one another along. Judging by the horror stories other people tell me, I presume it was just my school. Plus, even if it’s total horseshit, it’s enough of a trope that I can write a post about it.