Archive for category Football

Right when I needed them…

A guest blog from Arthur Annabel

This has been the worst year of my life by a wide margin. It’s also had some of the most deliriously, life definingly joyful moments I’ve ever experienced.

The fact that both those statements can be true suggests Dickens may have been on to something.

On the 9th of October my dad died suddenly. No warning, no build up, no anything. I went to bed one Friday night oblivious to how my entire world was about to change and then a phone call at one in the morning realigned everything.

I’ve spent the last few months trying to work out what my life looks like without him in it, how I manage to move forwards with this chasm of grief suddenly smack bang in the middle of everything I do.

I’d always understood that losing a parent is one of those life defining moments, but understanding and experiencing are two vastly different things.

The months since have been a real challenge, with both the loss and the illogical abruptness of it bringing out the worst in my mental health. Depression and anxiety are constant companions for me, but for the past eight months they’ve threatened to overwhelm me multiple times a week. Sometimes like the slow building pressure of a crowd that only seems dangerous when it’s already far too late to extract yourself from it, sometimes like someone running up and punching you in the face with no warning. I’ve spent those months discovering just how much truth lies behind so many of the clichés about loss and grief, and finding that they inevitably don’t do justice to it at the same time.

So it has sat truly oddly with me that interspersed throughout these months are some of the most enjoyable moments I can remember.

As with so many emotional reactions that don’t really make sense in my life, Nottingham Forest are behind those moments.

My dad never really got being a football fan, he vaguely supported Mansfield Town as his friends dragged him to games in his teens, but the idea of a football club having the ability to trigger despair or joy always seemed illogical to him. He’d often decry (at least 50% of the time to wind me up) the nature of tribal loyalties and the way they bring out the worst in people. Stubbornly individualistic in everything outside of his family, he never truly understood or approved of what I loved about the collective experience of being part of a crowd, a group of people defined by their shared devotion to a concept, a cause, a club.

He was frequently baffled by why I spent so many of my weekends jumping on trains across the country following a team that seemed to mostly only bring me disappointment. The idea of going to Birmingham or Bradford, Peterborough or Preston only to see us lose was alien to him. He never really got the escape I found when in a packed away end, that sense of being with “my” people, of for 90 minutes it not mattering how awkward I felt, because we were all there for one shared reason, the way Forest even at their most disheartening, were something I could invest emotional intensity in, whose failure couldn’t be blamed on me, where there were thousands of other people sharing in the exact same joy or despair I was.

As someone who struggles to just be in any moment due to my anxiety and over analysis, football and Forest in particular, have always somehow existed in a separate realm and those little pockets of breathing space have always been priceless to me. Much like when I’m playing football, when I’m watching Forest so much of the background noise drops away.

I inherited my love of Forest from my mum, a devoted fan who along with my uncles and aunt saw us win practically every competition we set our sights on in the late 70s and 80s. Growing up in Sheffield, being the only Forest fan in my year at school, was often not fun at all. Particularly when Forest conspired to throw away a lead in the play-off semi-final against United in 2003. That was the birth place of my occasional theory that Nottingham Forest Football Club is a specially designed science experiment intended to engineer the most depressing experiences possible for an individual in order to test how much they can tolerate. It’s the kind of self-indulgent theory that requires ignoring all the other football fans so much worse off than you, but I suspect we’re all prone to it.

My first in person Forest game was a premier league draw against Leeds United, unaware that my first game would also be the highest I’d see us play for more than two decades. My life time of being a Forest fan is one that’s been spent listening to the stories of how good we once were while watching us be relegated, fall short of promotion, be relegated again, scramble our way out of league one, fall short of promotion a couple more times, avoid relegation on a final day and then throw away a play-off spot from such a seemingly secure position that you’d almost wonder if there was a fix involved, if you didn’t subscribe to my dad’s theory that cockup wins out over conspiracy 99% of the time.

There’ve been good days, but they’ve been few and far between.

I don’t believe that things happen for a reason or that there’s any grand design to how things pan out. I lean towards the chaos theory end of the spectrum when it comes to trying to explain why what happens, happens.

So I can only turn to thank the universe in all its random variations, for the fact that in a year where I so desperately needed reasons for hope, belief and unbridled joy, Nottingham Forest picked this year to suddenly deliver the best season in my time supporting the club.

The whole journey from being bottom when Steve Cooper came in, to securing a spot in the Premier League on Sunday has been joyous and better writers than me have captured that (check out Daniel Storey and Paul Taylor in particular), while Phil Juggins at the The Loving Feeling blog captured the way that that wonderful, wondrous Welshman took all our apathy and frustration and threw it in the Trent to be washed away.

What I want to focus on is on four particular moments. They’re not necessarily the most important games to the turnaround or the triumph, though unsurprisingly there’s plenty of overlap, they’re the moments that meant everything at the time and still stand out knowing exactly where they fit within the overarching story.

October 19th 2021

One day after my 31st birthday. barely a week after my dad passed away. Me and my mum sat at home, watching on tv as Forest took on Bristol City. Results had turned around significantly but I’d be lying if I’d said I’d had any sense of what was building at this point. There was no sense of what was to come or belief that there was anything more at stake than three more points away from the relegation zone. No this was a scrappy away game that for 90 minutes offered me an escape and a distraction from every unavoidable feeling I’d been experiencing. Given the gap between the dates I suspect birthdays will always be difficult from now on, but even a few months on I can’t put words to the cocktail of emotions I felt with that one.

We’d played ok but were 1-0 down. The rain was pouring down in Bristol. And then goals in the 91st and 92nd minute saw us snatch a win from the jaws of defeat (a reverse of the pattern we’d seemed to perfect for so many years) and as Taylor scrambled home the winner I got a minute, maybe 90 seconds of unadulterated, uncomplicated, utter joy. My sister, who shares my Dad’s minimal interest in football, wandered in to see what the fuss was about and got whisked off the ground and spun around several times, much to her bemusement. In that moment this Nottingham Forest team gave me an invaluable moment of delirious glee at my lowest and I can’t help but think about how often football must throw up those moments for so many fans. The right goal, scored at the right time and that escape hatch on everything else you’re dealing with right then opens up and you just get to revel in it.

February 6th 2022

By this time the novelty of not being terrible had worn off slightly and those delicate little tendrils of hope were starting to creep out. We’d seen off Arsenal already and now we had Leicester at the City Ground in the FA cup. Given we’d already had one shock win and were now playing the holders, I fully expected Leicester to see us off without too much fuss. Instead, what happened was perhaps the most unbelievable 9 minutes I’ve ever experienced in a football ground. One goal followed another before we’d even settled down from the one before and suddenly we were demolishing a local rival from the league above like it was nothing as the crowd reached a volume and intensity I’d seldom experienced. While there’ve been the occasional shock win in the cups before in my time (the 3-0 win at the Etihad in 2009 stands out, or the Eric Lichaj inspired 4-2 against Arsenal), they were anomalies in otherwise underwhelming seasons.

What made this different was that, personally, it truly felt like something was building and it scared me how far we might go. A lifetime of supporting Forest had taught me that hope was not just dangerous, it was downright foolish. I’d only ever really feared how we’d screw things up or fall apart, and on that Sunday afternoon I started to believe that maybe, just maybe. this year might be different. When Spence put in the 4th and we knew there was no way back I got to revel in a full City Ground unified behind a team and a manager in a way I don’t think I’d ever experienced before. As Cooper did his now customary fist pumps towards each stand, I remember I started to lose the fight with daring to wonder just how far we could go.

May 17th 2022

Of course, it was Sheffield United in the play-offs. And of course, we threw away a potentially commanding advantage to make it unbearably tense.

I was sat in my seat, feeling beyond sick with nerves, with two thoughts circling around: “how can this be happening again?” and “why, oh why, did it have to be United?”, a club that comes with fans I count as my closest mates, who I suspect would have driven me close to murder if they’d won.

But somehow United didn’t get that winning goal. Or more accurately, because of Samba they didn’t. A keeper I, and almost all Forest fans, already loved because of rather than in spite of his eccentricities, then went on to deliver one of the best goal keeping performances I’ve ever seen in a penalty shoot-out and suddenly, somehow, history hadn’t repeated itself and we were actually, really, truly, going to Wembley. One of the last sides in the Football League to make it there but we’d done it finally.

It was another skeleton laid to rest on a personal level, trauma from just shy of 20 years ago melting away as I celebrated.

Despite my earlier profession of belief in the randomness of the universe, I think we all occasionally indulge in a belief in fate or destiny, however illogical we believe it to be deep down. As I stood there in the Trent End watching the celebrations, it really did feel like something had shifted and we were going to go all the way this time. It’s been interesting to see, since the final, that so many fans shared a similar sense, that some two-decade long curse or prophecy or sheer, baffling incompetence had finally been overcome and we really could dream of that promised land that had evaded us for so long. Which brings me to Sunday 29th May.

May 29th 2022

The less written about the game itself the better, a dour affair settled by an own goal and the officials missing probably two penalties for Huddersfield.

What I will always remember from the day was the sense of the collective experience that I talked about earlier. From the moment I arrived at St Pancras (I’d stayed over near London with a friend the night before so missed the travel drama so many other fans experienced getting to London), everywhere I looked it felt like there was someone in a Forest shirt. When we came out of Wembley Park station and I saw the ground looming at the end of a Wembley Walk painted red, I felt a rush of adrenaline unlike any other I’ve felt pre-game.

When I got to my seat behind the goal an hour before kick-off and saw how our half of Wembley was already starting to fill up the nerves did kick in, but if I’m honest I don’t think at any point in the final they reached the level they had during the semi-final, I suspect because I truly believed we would do it. Thankfully I never had to find out if that belief would have held if Huddersfield took an early lead.

Then the game took place, as cagey as you’d expect from a game with so much riding on it.

The explosion of emotion on the final whistle was unlike anything I’ve experienced in a football ground before, and probably ever will again. I have no idea what noise I made but I know my voice didn’t fully recover until mid-week. Around me some were crying, some were laughing and others just stared into the distance, soaking up a new reality. 36,000 fans realising a dream come true that they’d long ago abandoned hope in.

I teared up a little watching the players climb those Wembley stairs to lift a trophy, a sight I don’t think I’d really contemplated that I’d get to see. Watching that team of local lads, young loanees who’d found a home on the banks of the Trent and a sprinkling of experienced characters like Samba and Cook, dance around in front of the delirious masses, it slowly started to sink in that we’d really done it

All of the above, taken individually or collectively will stick with me for a long time.

But most of all, what I’ll remember is that I got to share this season with my mum, who needed it every bit as much as me. We didn’t explicitly talk about that need until we were sat in the pub at the station waiting for our train home. I suppose to do so would have felt too much like tempting fate or asking for help from higher powers neither of us believe in. But as the season went on, we both started to feel it. This year has been horrible and would have been regardless of Forest. If we’d had a season like so many recently where we spluttered to a mid-table finish it wouldn’t have been any worse really.

But just this once things fell into place right when we needed them most. And I know we weren’t alone in that. Not at Wembley and not amongst the wider fan base. The crowd and the fan base will have been full of people struggling, people grieving, people lost and people who had become numb to it all, and I hope that for a moment, maybe if the universe was kind slightly longer than that, football provided one of those escape hatches I mentioned earlier for all of them like it did for me and my mum. It doesn’t solve the problems and it never can, but those moments of fresh air, of breathing space, where something as joyous as that drowns everything else out with such intensity that the happiness becomes the only thing you can focus on, are inconceivably valuable.

Football is often a distraction at best from the rest of our lives, but sometimes it becomes something so much more, because we invest so much more into it than we probably should in something that is, despite all our protestations to the contrary, fundamentally “just a game”.

For one season, culminating in one May afternoon, it meant everything that we needed it to be and I will never forget that.

Samba, Spence, Worrall, Cook, McKenna, Colback, Yates, Garner, Zinckernagel, Johnson, Davis, Horvath, Lowe, Figs, Cafu, Lolley, Mighten, Grabban, Surridge, Taylor. Gary Brazil and Dane Murphy. Steve Cooper. Steve Cooper. Steve Sodding Cooper. I hope they know what this season has meant to people like me and my mum, to Forest fans and the community as a whole, because it will stay with me for the rest of my life and I can’t thank them enough.

I know my dad would have been delighted for us, baffled as to why we cared so much, but delighted all the same.

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You Reds

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In all of the words I’ve churned out about 2016, I haven’t talked about football.  Whilst it was, indeed, a reason to be miserable, it seemed inappropriate to mention it alongside Aleppo, Trump and Brexit.  And frankly there was nothing to celebrate alongside the brilliant films, books and so on that I have recommended to anyone who’s interested.

Supporting Nottingham Forest has provided very few reasons to be cheerful in recent years.  I have the advantage over my son, in that my years as a Red have included the glory years, the miracle years, celebrated in Jonny Owen’s film, I Believe in Miracles.  The best we’ve seen in his years as a Red has been promotion from League 1 to the Championship, notwithstanding the odd good game along the way.  We’ve appointed and disposed of many managers, some with good reason, others quite arbitrarily.

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I’ve only managed to get to two games so far this season. I saw them defeated away at Hillsborough, after being one up at halftime, and I saw them beaten 2-0 at home by Wolves.  The latter was quite the worst performance I can recall.

So what can I salvage from a dismal year?  What reasons can I find to be cheerful or at least hopeful?  The change of ownership may well prove to be positive, but we’ll have to wait and see.  And whether with the new owners we have yet another change of manager, and whether that is a good or bad thing – well, the jury’s out.  Should they give him time, particularly given the appalling injury problems he’s had to contend with, or has he already had enough time and failed to prove that he has a grasp of strategy or the ability to get the best out of the players?

Dunno.

But what I do take away from this year is not anything that happened on the pitch.  It’s about what it is to support a team through thick and thin, through glory days and the slough of despond.  It’s about the rueful camaraderie between people who support crap teams, whether they’re crap teams who were once brilliant, or crap teams who’ve always been that way.  Last Saturday summed that up for me.

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Firstly, Forza Garibaldi.  This group of Forest fans, proper, Forest ’til I die, couldn’t change it if I wanted to, Forest fans, organised a very jolly Xmas pre-match meet up in a Nottingham pub, raising funds for Archie’s Smile, a charity supporting kids with Downs, including one Tyler Cove, whose joyous presence lit up the whole event.  There were Wolves fans there too, who joined in with enthusiasm, sending themselves up and engaging in some competitive ‘we’re shitter than you’ sing-songs which kind of sums up what it’s like being a football supporter outside the top echelons of the Premier League.

Forza’s mission is to

mobilise ourselves into creating a positive, enjoyable occasion around NFFC games both home and away. And, crucially, to harness that into improving the atmosphere and backing of the team. The objective is to create a platform that galvanises the fanbase into wanting to offer their support.
So, how do we do this?
We don’t pretend to have all the answers or a full strategy but our starting point is to get people together before games and create something, a ‘buzz’ if you will. We will do this via mass gatherings at various locations and occasional specialised events with the theme always being that we inject a degree of adrenaline into proceedings. We hope that fervour and passion is then carried beyond the turnstile.

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Secondly, Bandy & Shinty.  I’ve found much pleasure in recent years in reading some excellent Forest-focused blogs.  Now there’s a fanzine, its second issue published just a couple of weeks ago, which features fascinating articles on a range of Forest topics, with an incredibly high standard of writing, and beautifully produced.  Copies were very much in evidence at the Forza jollification and I understand they are selling fast.

After the Forza do there was some frankly inept and half-hearted messing about on the pitch, and a well-deserved defeat for the Reds.  I will let other pens dwell on that misery.  After the final whistle we headed home on the train.  A couple of Wolves fans just across the aisle,  and then at Chesterfield we were invaded by a horde of jubilant Bolton fans, singing ‘Up the football league we go’.  We all assumed they’d won, but apparently not.  They’d travelled all the way to Chesterfield, been beaten, but were having a half-decent season and so were in tremendously good spirits.  We ended up talking to the Wolves fans, and one of the Bolton fans, and it was all rather jolly.

Years back, I would have been nervous, would have been tensed for the atmosphere to turn nasty.  Instead there was that rueful camaraderie.

I’d love Forest to win, I’d love another miracle.  But I’d settle for staying where we are – no promotion, no Cup runs – if when the team came out on to the pitch we knew that they cared about the team, wore the shirt with a sense of its history and of how important it is to the fans, did their best, every time.  And that the manager had a sense of how to get the best out of all of those players, in terms of motivation and also what Clough did so supremely, to spot what they could do best and then  focus them relentlessly on doing that, just that, until they were unbeatable.

Maybe next year.

Forest ’til I die, couldn’t change it if I wanted to.

Youuuuuuu Reds!

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27 Years

Under a Grey Sky

Memorial

On the 15th April 1989 I was nine, and I can remember playing a game with my younger brother Sean. We were in the bedroom of our house in Burscough, messing around on the bunk beds. At some point we wandered downstairs, to get a drink or a ‘Toronto Snack’ – a fruit salad like the ones I used to get at nursery in Canada when Dad was teaching there for a year and Sean was just a baby. In my memory we came into the living room to find him watching the television.

“Something’s happened at the match,” is what I remember him saying. I remember the green of the pitch and the blue of the sky and the people milling around on the grass. People running as they carried others on makeshift stretchers. A line of police. As the afternoon progressed we learned of the deaths. 10, 20…

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The Anniversary Waltz

The best thing I’ve read about football in a long time. For those who share my despairing love for Forest, or for other football clubs with similar histories, you’ll understand. For those who don’t get it, read this, and try. Forest ’til I die.

THE LOVING FEELING

No one knows why he chose Nottingham.

Arthur ‘Artie’ Scattergood had it all.  His parents – my great, great grandparents – were textile merchants.  They lived in a big house, on a grand Georgian square, in one of the nicest part of London.

And one day, it’d all be his.  The house, and the factory, and the money.  The life.

But Artie didn’t want it.

Why, we never knew.  When he rocked up at Bestwood Village in 1920, he had no friends, no prospects, and no reason for being there.  Maybe he’d taken the first train out of St. Pancras; maybe he just closed his eyes, and pointed at a map.

Whatever the plan was, Artie worked hard.  He made himself a life—a life of his own, for the first time.  He got a job at Bestwood Colliery.  He found himself a woman, and a home.  And soon…

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Hillsborough – the simple truth

On 14 April 2012, marking the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, I wrote this:

…the awful truth is that no matter how many of those fans were drunk and how many were there without tickets, if there had been stewards in front of the entrances to the Leppings Lane pens, directing fans away from the already crowded central pen, then no one would have died.  No one.  It’s horrifically, tragically, simple.

Earlier this week, at the inquests in Warrington, David Duckenfield who was the police commander in charge on the day of the match, acknowledged, at last, at long last, that ‘his failure to close a tunnel that led to the overcrowded Leppings Lane terrace pens directly caused the deaths of 96 people.’

The truth about the tragedy was always known.  It was always that simple.  But the lies that were spun and spread were so effective that it’s taken us 26 years to have that truth stated so starkly, in public.  So to the tragedy of 96 lives lost, and so many more injured and traumatised, so many families devastated by grief, was added the bitterness of the contempt that the dead and their families received, the scandalous lies, the fabrication of blame.

It is unforgiveable.

And yet I find myself pitying Duckenfield. Forgiveness isn’t for me to offer, and whether, if I were a family member I could ever have the courage and the grace to forgive I don’t know.   I do not, cannot, sympathise, let alone empathise with him.  I can imagine myself, briefly and inadequately, on those terraces, or in the homes where people waited and hoped and then despaired.   I cannot, however, imagine covering up catastrophic failure and living, for 26 years, with the knowledge of what my failure had done not just to 96 people but to all the others who loved them.  That is beyond my comprehension.

It’s not that I find it so impossible to imagine finding myself out of my depth, being expected to make huge decisions and realising that I haven’t got the knowledge to do so, freezing like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car, lying on the spur of the moment to try and cover up a catastrophically wrong decision.  There but for the grace of God, as they say.

But faced with that aftermath, not just the bodies, the grieving families but the tabloids full of lies, to remain silent? As Taylor and Stuart Smith inquired and scrutinised, through the private prosecutions and the Independent Panel, he remained silent, acknowledging only what he had no choice but to acknowledge, that he had lied about the opening of the gate.  I can’t understand, I can’t sympathise let alone empathise, and it is not for me to forgive.

But I felt pity for him this week, for the first time in 26 years.  That he suffered from depression and PTSD in the aftermath of the disaster is hardly surprising.  That he, as a middle-aged Yorkshire bloke, was ashamed of that diagnosis, saw it as weakness, and attempted to hide it, is not unexpected.  Locked in his own shame and misery, he could not see, he says he did not see until so recently, what his failure to acknowledge what he did to the 96 was doing to the survivors and the families of the 96.

I’m not letting him off the hook – not at all.  From his blunder and the knee-jerk attempt to blame someone, anyone, for the unfolding disaster rather than to take responsibility for it, flowed everything else that happened that day.  And from his failure to speak out in the days, weeks, years that followed, flowed the persistent stream of misinformation, the inevitable rejoinders to every article or statement supporting the families.  The S*n would not (or so they say) have published that most scurrilous and vicious of reports had they not heard the allegations from the apparently impeccable source of a Tory MP and a police commander.  And inevitably what he says now causes yet more pain.  For the families to hear of his PTSD after their years of agony, to hear him say that failing to foresee the consequences of opening exit gates at the ground was “arguably one of the biggest regrets” of his life – arguably?  ‘one of’?? – must have been extraordinarily difficult, and little wonder that some had to leave the courtroom.

But he’s said it now, and it stands there, that crucial admission, after all these years of denials and lies.  Too late, of course, but it cannot be unsaid.  And I cannot help but pity a man who has carried so much guilt, the responsibility for 96 deaths and for prolonging and intensifying the misery of the families, who has had that weight to carry all these years.  I cannot help but pity a man who has known all along what was right, and been unable to do it.  I do not say that I hope he finds peace now.  Peace is what is owed to the families and the survivors – it’s not for him.  I do, however, hope that he finds some way to channel the guilt and shame that has festered in him for 26 years into doing something good now, something right.

RIP the 96.  Massive respect to the families.   You’ll never walk alone.

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2014 – some of the best bits

Some of the cultural highlights of my year – a year of working at home, long train journeys to long meetings which gave me more time to read, less time to go to the cinema or the theatre.   However, I did manage a few outings…

  • Twelfth Night at the Crucible – a real delight.  I’d been disappointed that we weren’t getting a tragedy or one of the problem plays, rather than a comedy that I’d seen on stage before, but that feeling evaporated very quickly indeed.  The performances were excellent, the staging imaginative and suggestive of darker undercurrents (the cast appearing at windows almost like the undead, the showers of rose petals  – see also Poppeia).
  • Brilliant opera at Leeds Grand – La Boheme,  and The Coronation of Poppeia.  And another Boheme, this time in Graves Gallery, from Opera on Location. 

poppeia la boheme

  • Tramlines!
  • Music in the Round – I’d pick out the Schubert octet, Tim Horton’s bravura performance of the Prokofiev Piano Sonata no. 7 (described by the Guardian as ‘ferocious’),  Charlie Piper‘s WWI suite, The Dark Hour; works by Schulhoff & Haas, and consort of viols, Fretwork.
  • Once again we celebrated Tim Richardson’s life and passion for learning and teaching with the 24 Hour Inspire – 24 hours of lectures on a host of topics, from WWI poets to insect sex, from biogeography to Mozart, from underground science to fairground history – ok, you get the picture.  Once again a host of people stepped up to help, everything ran smoothly, and we were able to donate to Rotherham Hospice and Impact Young Heroes.  We’ll be doing it again on 16-17 April 2015.  Tim’s charity, Inspiration for Lifegoes from strength to strength.
  • I revisited the City Ground after far too many years, for the first home game of the season, and Stuart Pearce’s first game as manager.  That was a great game.  We’re in a slump at the moment, and that early euphoria has dissipated.   If it was anyone but Psycho in charge I suspect the calls to sack the manager would be ringing out right now, but few Forest fans would want to deny him the chance to turn things around.  I hope he can.  I really, really, hope he can.

Top TV of 2014

No attempt at ranking.  How could one decide on the relative merits of a gritty cop drama and a comic book fantasy?  So, what do all of these shows have in common?  First, excellent writing, and great performances.  Essential to have both.  So many big budget dramas skimp on the former and blow the budget on the latter, but even the best actors can only do so much with a script that clunks.  Second, great female characters.  All of these programmes  basically kick the Bechdel test out of the park.   It’s not just about having ‘strong’ women.  Not all women are strong, and no women are strong all of the time.  It’s about having women characters who are rounded human beings, fallible and flawed, but not dependent on men to make decisions or to solve problems.   Some of these women do indeed kick ass, but they don’t all have to.  So, to Nazanin Boniadi, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, Amelia Bullmore, Lauren Cohan, Clare Danes, Siobhan Finneran, Danai Gurira, Keeley Hawes, Elizabeth Henstridge, Gillian Jacobs, Suranne Jones, Nimrat Kaur, Sarah Lancashire, Melissa McBride, Vicky McClure, Tatiana Maslany, Lesley Sharp, Allison Tolmin, Ming-Na Wen and the rest – cheers, and thanks for giving us images of women that are as diverse and complicated as actual real live women are.

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  1. Fargo – I was decidedly unconvinced beforehand, but it turned out to be funny, gruesome, and touching, with one of my favourite women cops in Allison Tolmin’s Molly (not just a re-run of Frances McDormand’s marvellous Marge from the film, but a character in her own right), Billy Bob Thornton as a grimly hilarious killer and Martin Freeman as a weaselly one, and a wealth of other characters, some of whom we came to care about so much that at tense moments there was much yelling at the screen as we thought they might be in danger.
  2. Line of Duty – I wasn’t convinced about this one either, mainly because the first series had been superb, and I wondered if they could match it.  They did,  and it was Keeley Hawes’ performance that clinched it.  Whilst I’d watch Vicky McClure in anything, Keeley wasn’t in that category for me, despite Ashes to Ashes.  But in this she was riveting, absolutely mesmerising.   The rest of the cast was superb too.
  3. Happy Valley was perhaps the most ironically titled programme of the year.  This valley was pretty damned grim.  But Sarah Lancashire as cop Catherine Cawood was wonderful, and the story was compelling and moving.
  4. Scott & Bailey maintained its form in series 4.  The three central women (count them!  three central women!) are all convincingly real, sometimes infuriatingly so.
  5. The Walking Dead opened series 5 with an episode so gripping that I really could neither breathe normally nor speak for quite some time.   It’s maintained that tension (more or less) whilst varying the format, to focus on different subsets of the characters, and different locations.   Carol has been central to this season’s episodes so far, and her character is one of those that has been allowed to develop and deepen throughout.  There’s no shortage of other interesting characters, and the plot allows for philosophical, political and ethical speculation as well as for gory shocks and suspense.
  6. Agents of Shield got past a slightly wobbly first series and got its pace and tone just right.  It fits right into the Marvelverse, but stands alone perfectly well.  And it features girl-geek Simmons, a Sheffield lass, and there’s just a hint of South Yorkshire in her accent from time to time.
  7. Community made me laugh more than anything else this year.   Just when you think it is as bonkers as it could be, it ups its game, to be even more meta, and even more daft.
  8. Doctor Who I have spoken of elsewhere.  I have a deep love for this programme, and whilst this regeneration has been unsettling at times, uncertain in tone perhaps, I have great hopes for Capaldi and Coleman in series 9 next year.
  9. Homeland redeemed itself.   Gripping stuff, with Clare Danes acting her socks off and getting us deeper into what makes Carrie tick.
  10. Orphan Black is one of the most criminally underrated programmes of this (and last) year.  Tatiana Maslany inhabits each of the characters she plays so well that I forget – disbelieve almost – that there is just the one actress involved.   And when she’s playing one of them pretending to be one of the others….  Cracking plot too.

Films of the year – I leave the in-depth cinematic  reviews to Arthur Annabel who promises an extensive blog on this topic soon.   I simply note these as films which have delighted and/or moved me, in no particular order.  Worth noting that whilst the programmes on my TV list get A* on the Bechdel test, the films are considerably weaker on that front.   Nonetheless, some fine performances, and Nicole Perlman was the first woman with a writing credit on a Marvel movie (Guardians of the Galaxy).

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Women of the year:

  Jack Monroe – for enlivening my repertoire of meals to feed the family, and campaigning about food poverty

Professor Monica Grady – for being emotionally, exuberantly passionate about science

kate Kate Bush – for doing it her way, as always

fahma Fahma Mohamed – for telling men three times her age what they needed to be told about FGM and how to protect young women in the UK

malala Malala Yousafzai – it’s all been said really.  A young woman of remarkable maturity and dignity, as well as courage.

adedevoh Dr Ameyo Adadevoh – helped to curb the spread of Ebola by quarantining a patient in the face of pressure from his government, but succumbed to the disease herself

 

laura bates Laura Bates – her Everyday Sexism project helped to give women a voice, to tell their stories, to shout back.

In 2014 I’ve blogged about refugees, genocide, footballW G Sebald and Michel Butor, Kazuo Ishiguro, everyday sexism, Tramlines, Josephine Butler and Doctor Who.  I got a bit personal on the subject of depression, and was inspired by Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl to present my manifesto – a plea to just be kind. And my blog about reading the last of the Resnick series of detective stories won the approval of the author, John Harvey, who linked to it on his own blog, and republished my jazz playlist!

Amongst the blogs I’ve followed, or at least tried to keep up with, I would particularly note Searching for Albion.  This is the record of Dan Taylor’s four month cycling trip across the British Isles, talking to people he meets, by plan or by chance.  A fascinating project, beautifully documented.

To all of those who’ve shared some of the above events, obsessions and enthusiasms with me, who’ve given me support when I’ve needed it, who I’ve learned from and with, thank you.   I don’t know what to expect from 2015 – but see you there!

 

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The beauty of the game

I’ve written quite a bit about football over the couple of years that I’ve been blogging. But I’ve said next to nothing about what happens on the pitch. I’ve talked about what happened on the terraces one day in April 1989, and the quarter-century aftermath. I’ve talked about the various nations competing in the World Cup and their history and politics in terms of the displaced people across the globe. But the game itself?

I can talk about music, though I’m not a musician, I can talk about art though I’m no artist. But I can’t talk about football, the playing of the game, without it sounding second-hand, words and phrases borrowed from the pundits on the telly or the pundits in my own life.

Forest logoNonetheless it’s played an important part in my life, still does. I barely knew the game existed until the early 70s, when the family moved to Nottinghamshire, and my brothers determined that our loyalties would henceforth belong to Nottingham Forest. And I went along on a Saturday, wearing the scarf that I knitted myself (the only piece of knitting I ever finished, at one time embroidered with the names of the players) at least until the final whistle blew and we hid our scarves away and legged it to the bus station. I stood on the Trent End, being pushed one way and another, pressed up against the barriers till it hurt, sometimes. I went along to watch them train in between home games, to watch the reserves play, to get their autographs. I loved the atmosphere, until the violence – always simmering – seemed to come every week to the boil, and I was too afraid and too sick to love it any more.

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Reading Danny Rhodes’ Fan brought it all back. He writes about following Forest, and I recognise everything he describes. But at the same time my experience of being a football fan was so different – being a girl, a swotty, geeky girl at that, I could never have been part of the beery sweary scrappy bloke culture.

Rhodes FanI never lived for it, but I loved it. Time was I knew all the names, the numbers, the fixtures, the results. Time was I could recognise every player on the cards my brothers collected (the Panini stickers of their day) – and I was tested on this regularly and rigorously. I lost that over the years, lost touch with the minutiae of the team and the game, but never stopped checking the results, and feeling a glimmer of excitement if we were doing well in a Cup or league, or – at least as often – frustration and gloom if we weren’t.

Looking back, I’d thought that ‘my’ Forest era was the glory years of Clough, European cups and league triumphs. But in fact, the years when I was going most Saturdays, when I was the most engaged and invested, were before that. In fact, I supported Forest under three managers before Clough & Taylor arrived (Gillies, Mackay and Brown), and saw them relegated in ’72 to the then 2nd division.

Clough came in ’75, the year I went up to University in Sheffield, and my match attendance plummeted. But I still went, when I could, and saw two League Cup finals (victory over Southampton, defeat to Wolves), and a European cup tie against Grasshoppers Zurich. And I saw the players who Clough inspired to greatness, many of whom I’d been watching in the reserves before Clough saw what they could be capable of and gave them the chance to achieve it. It’s been a pretty bumpy ride since then, and most seasons I apologise to my son for making him a Forest fan – I may have seen some dire, desperate games and some crushing defeats, but I also saw the team when they were the best.

So I can reminisce, but I can’t pontificate about the game. I know genius when I see it – old clips of Best, new clips of Messi, and my memories of seeing John Robertson, short stocky guy, invisible on the left wing until he suddenly took off and scored before the opposition had even registered his presence. Clough said ‘give him a ball and a yard of grass, and he was an artist’, but also that he was (or had initially appeared to be), an ‘unfit, uninterested waste of time’, perhaps the supreme example of Clough’s own genius.

But the offside rule is something I understand only fleetingly and I never spot an offside before it’s called. And I can’t analyse – I’m always kind of surprised and pleased when my general impressions of possession and dominance are confirmed by the ‘experts’ and the on-screen stats. Instead I get caught up with the ebb and flow, the swell of the crowd’s noise and the dying away when the moment is lost, the grace and athleticism, the exhilaration and despair. I can share in that, and I’ve wept over results before now, most recently when Ghana were knocked out of the last World Cup thanks to a certain Uruguayan’s blatant hand-ball.

But when the City Ground crowd invites me to join in and assert that I hate Derby, or Leicester, or anyone else, I can’t do it. I don’t recall racist chanting on the terraces at Forest – and I do recall leaflets on the seats at a reserve game vigorously opposing the National Front and their calls for Viv Anderson to go back where he came from (as Clough pointed out, that would be Clifton, about 15 mins drive from the City Ground) – but I know that black footballers in Britain were subjected to vile abuse, and that this still happens in many European countries. I know that there are aspects of the game that are profoundly ugly.

I saw that in the violence that became endemic in the game – people who turned up for the fight, not for the football, driving other spectators away, and creating the vicious circle of aggressive policing, media contempt and political rhetoric that led us inexorably to Hillsborough. I know that the tribal loyalties that make following a football team so emotional can be dangerous, and are dangerous when they’re linked to other loyalties – religious, ethnic, political. And there’s a dispiriting cynicism in the way the game is played (nothing new, whenever I see the perpetrator of a blatant foul turning to the ref with an expression of affronted innocence, I think of Leeds’ Allan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke).

Yet, despite all that, there’s something wonderful about it all. The experience of being at a match (Premier league, championship or Sunday junior league) is unlike anything else I do. If I’m at a gig, probably the closest thing, where one is caught up in the collective experience, responding emotionally and vocally to what’s happening on stage, still, I know that it’s not going to end with the band I’ve come to see being humiliated and defeated. Every football match presents that possibility.

And all of the above is why Hillsborough is seared into my soul. I wasn’t there. But I stood in my kitchen, just across the valley, watching Grandstand, trying to figure out what was happening. And later, watching as the death toll crept higher and higher. And then hearing the way the narrative twisted – so soon – into the familiar territory of blame. I wasn’t there but it haunted me, and still does. Because it sums up what British football had become – the adversarial policing, the pens that crushed the life out of so many, and the contempt for the fans that allowed the lies to be believed, in the face of all the evidence, for so long.

I do feel some nostalgia for the days when I stood on the Trent End. It is so much safer now, so much tamer. And I’m glad of that, even whilst I feel the loss of the visceral excitement that was part of the experience then. Because that’s forever associated with the reasons I stopped going to matches. And, overwhelmingly, with 96 football supporters who never got home after the match, and the families who’ve had to fight for 25 years for the truth of what happened .

Can we find a middle ground? Can football be family friendly, safe, without being bloodless and corporate? The contradictions will always be there, I think. And I will always have this ambivalent relationship with the beautiful game but will be – can’t help it, couldn’t change it if I wanted to – Forest till I die …

 

http://www.dannyrhodes.net/fan.html

Danny Rhodes, Fan, Arcadia Books, 2014

 

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The Refugee World Cup – Saturday 21 June

Playing today – Argentina, Bosnia

Fittingly for the last of my series of World Cup linked refugee stories, both of today’s have a football theme.

Argentina

Bayan Mahmud fled ethnic violence in the north of Ghana, stowing away on a ship leaving Cape Coast, and ending up in Argentina.  He was lucky, finding kindness from a member of the ship’s crew, and then from strangers who helped him get to Buenos Aires, and to get refugee status.  Now, he’s on the Boca Juniors youth football team and hopes to one day be the first black player in the Argentine national team.  Maybe next time…

Bosnia & Hercegovina

Dejan Cokorilo’s story of leaving Sarajevo for safety in Sweden – ‘The Civil War kidnapped our childhood. Our city was under siege, but somehow my parents found a way out. We found peace and freedom in a new country, far away from home.’

Meanwhile the Bosnian national team includes a number of players who at least temporarily fled their homes during the war – amongst them Miralem Pjanic, Edin Dzeko, Asmir Begović, Senad Lulic, Haris Medunjanin.

 

There’s an actual Refugee World Cup, in Manchester later this month.  Details here:

http://www.manchestercommunitycentral.org/event/refugee-world-cup-2014-football-tournament/2014-06-29t084500

and another took place in Sweden just before Rio as well:

http://frenchfootballweekly.com/2014/06/11/forget-brazil-2014-the-alternative-world-cup/

 

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The Refugee World Cup – Friday 20 June

Playing today: Italy, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Switzerland, France

Italy

The Italian island of Lampedusa is best known for being the primary European entry point for migrants, mainly coming from Africa.  Last autumn, around 36o migrants died in the seas around the island, and over 30 000 have been rescued by Mare Nostrum.  And the boats keep on setting sail, crammed with desperate people.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/02/europe-refugee-crisis-un-africa-processing-centres

Costa Rica

One of the most peaceful and stable countries in the region, Costa Rica hosts many refugees, mainly from Colombia and Nicaragua.  Costa Rica took in many refugees from a range of other Latin American countries fleeing civil wars and dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s.

Honduras

In recent years, growing numbers of people have sought asylum in Mexico, Canada and the United States, citing the threat of gang violence and forced recruitment in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

‘A 17-year-old boy who fled Honduras said, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.'”‘

Ecuador

Jason Tanner reports on a photographic assignment for UNHCR on the Ecuador-Colombia border:

‘Over the course of four weeks I would be ferried, often at short notice and sometimes covertly, to meet with and photograph refugees fleeing persecution and violence from neighbouring Colombia. This fearful frontier town in Ecuador is often the first stepping off point for refugees seeking safety and security. Unfortunately, for many refugees, the reach of those responsible for the violence often extends deep beyond the porous borders of Latin America.’

Switzerland

Switzerland’s cherished neutrality during the Second World War was in part protected by rigorous border controls.  Many refugees were turned back, including at least 20 000 Jews.  Those who helped people to cross the border were subject to criminal proceedings, and it is only very recently that some of the sentences handed out to people who challenged the restrictions to smuggle desperate people across the frontier have been given pardons.   See Aimée Stitelmann’s story here.

France

In September 1940, plans were being developed to enable Jewish children to get special visas to leave for the US.   The plan was intended for children under 13, but older children (up to 16) were eligible to accompany their younger brothers and sisters.   In March 1941, the OSE  (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) at Montpellier sent a list of 500 children held in camps who were candidates for emigration.  These children were released from the camps, and brought by OSE to await emigration, along with children who had been helped by the Rothschild Foundation, Secours Suisse and the AFSC.   The first convoy of 101 children left Marseille in May 1941.   The train stopped briefly at Oloron station, just by the Gurs camp, so that children could say goodbye to their parents.  This was traumatic for all, and OSE did not continue with this practice.   From France, the children travelled through Spain to Portugal, stayed for around a week whilst they received medical care and were vaccinated.  At Lisbon, they boarded the SS Mouzinho, which took to the sea on 10 June 1941.  They disembarked in New York where they were met and looked after by the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children.  The OSE went on to organise an underground network to smuggle children out of France.

Rio Mavuba, a member of the French World Cup squad, was born on board a boat in international waters during the Angolan Civil War, and later stated that his birth certificate did not have a nationality on it, reading only “born at sea”.   He received French nationality in September 2004.

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The Refugee World Cup – Thursday 19 June

Colombia, Ivory Coast, Uruguay, England, Japan, Greece

Colombia has one of the world’s largest populations of displaced people – somewhere between 2.6 and 4.3 million – due to ongoing armed conflict in the region.

See here for information on the photo project, Land of Light, undertaken by UNHCR Colombia and the Colombian photographer Santiago Escobar Jaramillo, which was realized through a series of  workshops with displaced communities.

Georgina’s story

Ivory Coast

Bere Tassoumane’s journey from stateless person to state official.

Some who left Liberia for safety in Ivory Coast during its civil war later returned the hospitality when Ivory Coast went through the same terrible trauma.  “During the Liberian war, refugees who left from Liberia to Ivory Coast stopped with people who also fled this Ivorian war,” Kolubah added.  “So those who were hosted as Liberian refugees in Ivory Coast do not want their host to go to the camp. They want them to stay with them no matter what it is.”

Uruguay

Uruguay’s president has agreed to take 100 Syrian child refugees.  The complexities of refugee politics are clear from this article – both in terms of the contribution relative to that of other nations, and to the problem as a whole, but also in terms of the way domestic politicians respond to even this ‘drop in the ocean’.

England

Refugee Action tells the stories of some of the refugees they work with, and the struggles they face in the UK.

I am, probably, more critical of my own country’s response on refugee and asylum issues, than of most others.  I expect more, I hope for more.  And there is so much to be disappointed, or angry, about.  I had to make a mental readjustment, however, talking to a taxi driver yesterday – father from Djibouti, mother from Britain, born in Dubai, and in no doubt at all that this was the place to be, a generous and welcoming society.  I found myself giving ground, acknowledging, I hope not too grudgingly, that it was good, even if I believed it could be better.   He’d have passed Tebbitt’s cricket test too, with a higher score than me…

Japan

Even a wealthy, peaceful nation, which tends not to persecute its citizens, can encounter a refugee crisis as the result of natural disaster.  The tsunami in 2011 left many homeless and facing desperate conditions.   ‘Freezing winds, hail storms and thick snow are the latest threats to 430,000 beleaguered survivors of northern Japan‘s week-long cascade of disasters. After a massive earthquake, devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis, many people made homeless are now facing icy weather, with temperatures forecast to plunge to –5C (23F).’ (Guardian, March 2011).

Greece

Syrian refugee Hussein finds safety in Greece.

In 1923, Greeks from Asia Minor were evacuated or relocated in Greece following the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed in Lausanne.  This followed a period of brutal massacres and ‘ethnic cleansing’ instigated by the government of the Ottoman Empire.  The first census after the evacuations showed the number of Greeks of Asia Minor origin to be 1,164,267. Descendants of the refugees took part in the great Greek migrations of the interwar period, as well as the large immigrations to the United States, Australia and Germany in the 1960s-1970s. Today, about 40% of the population of Greece claims full or partial descent from the Asia Minor refugees; as does an almost equal percentage of diasporan Greeks.

 

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