Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 10 December 2012

Hooptedoodle #72 - Rio’s Eye

...and other tangential thoughts

For a while, up until October of last year, I ran a small publishing business which was basically a post-retirement hobby job to keep me sane – or very nearly sane. It was mostly a device to introduce sufficient real hassle into my life to stop me taking out my daily frustrations on friends and relatives.

Anyway, among other things, this operation required me to spend a fair amount of time each month distributing a community newsletter around a rural area. In fine weather this was good exercise and a pleasant activity for which to get paid, though the small number of residents per unit area and the distances involved meant that this distribution work took longer than would have been ideal. One aspect of visiting every one of 1600 or so letter boxes every month was that I met a lot of people, and occasionally found myself in situations which otherwise I would have never come across.

Which, as you may have guessed, is a windy preamble to a short anecdote, which will have some vague connection with something else I’ve been thinking about. It’s a system.

One day, as I was going up someone’s front garden path in one of the villages, a friend walked past in the lane outside. I called to him, from somewhere in the middle of the path, exchanged waves, and said I would phone him later in the day. When I resumed my plod towards the house, I found the householder was standing in the doorway, arms folded.

“What are you doing in my garden?” he asked. Although the large shoulder bag full of booklets made it fairly obvious, you would think, people sometimes would ask me this.

“Good morning,” I replied, with my official Community Smile, “just delivering the monthly Advertiser.”

My man was unmoved.

“Why are you having a conversation in my garden? I wouldn’t come to your garden to have a conversation.”

I should, of course, simply have beheaded him with a single backhand stroke of my samurai sword (a move which I practised several times in my mind after I left him). However, experience had taught me that an exchange of ribald witticisms with any of my readers usually – inevitably – led to the discovery that they were closely related to one of my biggest customers, so instead I went into professional mode, and the Smile didn’t dip a millimetre.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you – I saw someone I need to get in touch with. As for being in your garden, it is the only way I can get to your letterbox.”

Humour, you see. Engage your listeners. Then he produced a rhetorical question which has given me much food for thought since then.

“How would it be,” he said, deadpan, “if everyone came into my garden to hold a conversation?”

Devastating insight. I agreed that would be, at the very least, crowded, gave him his newsletter and left him to enjoy his day.

But that is a hell of a thought. I was allowed to be in his garden – I wasn’t trespassing – I was quite within my rights to be there. I was even allowed, presumably, to speak to a passing friend if I had one and he passed. I would be expected to stop short of attracting the friend’s attention by blowing a trumpet, I imagine, but it all seems in order. The whole subject of what happens if suddenly everyone – potentially everyone in the world? – simultaneously carries out some legal and reasonable action, such as being in the same place, is big and dangerous.

The only thing that saves us is probability. They probably won’t. It is unlikely. Sometimes, in busy cities for example, it seems that they are trying to, but commonsense tells us that my villager’s proposition is silly, but the point is still interesting, if only from a philosophical point of view. What if the entire population of the Earth all arrived on, say, Weymouth beach on the same afternoon? They would all, individually, be within their rights to do so, but the results would be catastrophic – just think of the effect of that single mass on the planet’s rotational inertia, for a start. Then there’s the environmental impact, lack of toilet facilities, critical failures of the ice cream supply and so on. It really doesn’t bear thinking about – my grumpy villager was right to be concerned.

The two things which offer me a little comfort over this are

(1) It is, as I say, very unlikely. The sheer scale of the project management implications are terrifying

(2) The authorities would probably notice once about half the world’s population had arrived, and do something about it

This comfort, however, is tempered a little by some further thoughts

(1)  Reports from incidents in the Arab Spring and last year’s London riots suggest that the Facebook app on mobiles might now make it a bit easier to organise such an event [awesome]

(2) Just a minute – the world’s population includes the authorities – good grief. If they had already arrived, would that make it better or worse?

So I am still a little troubled – the phrase still rings in my mind: what if everyone did... [whatever]?

Given this background and my predisposition to this kind of anxiety, I was lying in bed watching today’s early morning news on TV, and I saw a news clip of Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester United footballer, being struck in the face with a coin thrown from the crowd at the end of the big match against their local rivals, Manchester City. In the early morning, my mind wanders a bit. Some thoughts stumbled around my head – I haven’t refined them or sorted them, but this is what I was thinking about before my coffee:

(1) It’s a pity – it was a terrific match, and it is regrettable that it should end with such a stupid, antisocial act

(2) Ferdinand did the right thing – he laughed it off, made light of it – he could have been very badly hurt, but he wasn’t really

(3) It is worrying that a mindless minority of football crowds – probably of many types of crowd – can be egged on by their friends and by group hysteria to commit such deeds – things which they might deeply regret at other times and in other circumstances

(4) However, there must have been many millions of people involved in football matches yesterday – watching and playing – at all levels, in all countries where the game is played, and the proportion of people who were struck by coins or missiles is so small that it is simply insignificant. If the TV cameras had not been on Ferdinand as the coin hit him we would have heard much, much less about it.

(5) As it is, British ITV (for example) featured a slo-mo clip of the incident long before, and much higher up the batting order than, all other discussion of the weekend’s sport on their news programme. It must be the sort of thing we are interested in, then.

(6) I hear the villager’s voice – “what if everyone threw coins at football matches? – what then, eh?”

(7) Well, that is a worrying idea. Off the top of your head, would you say the media’s outraged coverage would make it more or less likely? If we make the shaky assumption that morons mostly have little imagination, does spelling out (in slo-mo, for the benefit of the hard-of-thinking) how to commit an anonymous, violent offence at a public event lead us to expect a growth in the number of such incidents next week? Place your bets – Faites vos jeux, messieursdames...

(8) I guess we have to react. It is right that there should be some concern, but it should be proportionate, and it should be thought through. The police and the clubs will all be worried, and rightly so. Someone, somewhere will claim that football should be watched from behind a high plastic shield. I hope not, but someone will claim this is further support for a hobbyhorse theory they have held for years.

(9) There was a time in England (1970s?) when the authorities and the clubs were so terrified of pitch invasion that there was a requirement to surround the pitches with wire netting to prevent it. The Hillsborough Disaster was graphic demonstration that the risks from the worst imaginable pitch invasion were negligible compared with the risk of injury to the crowd themselves if they were unable to escape on to the playing field in the event of an accident. It is easy to be sanctimonious, or wise after the event, but the police and the sporting authorities, with the best of intentions, got it wrong in that case – in getting rid of a small identified risk they directly gave rise to a new and much more frightening risk which they had overlooked.

(10) As usual, I probably don’t have anything directly useful to contribute. I have no qualification to offer an opinion, this would not be the place for it, and no-one cares what I think anyway – in any case, I am far better at pouring scorn on the efforts of others than offering anything useful myself, but I do find myself coming to what is effectively a restatement of an age-old truism which makes me groan when other people come out with it:

“The problem lies in society, not in football crowds.”

That’s the standard version. This is usually the prelude to some single-interest wacko thumping his own war-drum on what he, in his infinite wisdom, sees as the answer. So it’s time for us wackos to stand up and be counted. I don’t know how to get from where we are to where we might otherwise be, but I believe that we need to achieve a position where collective decency smothers the idiots.

Football – all sports – need to get back to the position where families go to the games. That will do it. Wives, grannies, kids, girlfriends. As the antisocial element have chased away those with a nervous disposition, so there is an understandable, growing reluctance to take one’s tender nearest and dearest to such a tribal obscenity as a football crowd. The situation is self-perpetuating. In fact, it’s worse than that – it is self-propagating.

For many years, the big games in Italy on a Sunday were remarkably free of crowd trouble, because whole families had season tickets. No-one is going to wish to be a bear or a hard man in front of his mother, for goodness sake. Very inappropriate. You could even see this effect in the old gang-lands of Glasgow – nothing would get the warriors off the street faster than getting a telling off from someone’s granny. No amount of counterthreat or bluster can combat that. I doubt if the lads out on Kristalnacht took their families along, for example.

So I think the truism is not quite correct, but contains an element of the answer – the truth of the matter, it seems to me, is that the problem is that football crowds do not represent an acceptable subset of “society” (whatever the blazes that is). Society is not especially sick or evil. When you are out doing your Christmas shopping, you will be very unlikely to be struck by a coin, because society doesn’t behave like that. If the shopping centre was filled only with drunk young men singing football songs you would have more reason to worry.

The clubs should think about offering special deals for family tickets. Get the mix of humanity in the grounds back to a healthier state, and let them sort themselves out. I promise not to let my granny throw coins if you do the same.

What would happen if everyone was expected to behave themselves – all at the same time? Then what would happen, eh?


  1. I'm afraid my thoughts, while on a less global plane, may be even more disturbing, I was wondering what if, not every one, but say 10 or 20 people all met in the man's garden on legal business and stopped to actually chat, say every day at 2 pm for a month or perhaps as flash mobs at random times. Would the police respond? What would/could they do? Does he own a gun or an angry dog?

    1. This is a complicated matter - I was interested to note that a potential 'unlawful assembly' has 3 or more people, in the US 1st Amendment and also (I think) in UK Law . I'm not sure how you stop people collecting together anywhere they want.

      The villages around here are complicated anyway - some of the new housing has been built with open-plan front lawns to simulate the traditional village green, but if you try to walk across thissimulated village green you will always find someone who knows exactly where his bit ends (and he probably mows it in a distinctive way). I used to avoid delivering the magazines at weekends, because the husbands were at home, and they got very edgy about their territory boundaries. It was much more relaxed during the week - the wives were pragmatic.

  2. I once had the aisle seat on an airplane to Vancouver and as we were flying over the Rocky Mountains on a clear day I glanced out the window at the view. The man in the window seat told me it was his window, and if I had wanted a window, I should have booked a window seat. I decided not to escalate the issue and returned to my book, which was heavy enough that I could have clubbed him into unconsciousness and then enjoyed the Rockies, but I didn't. It was interesting how a four hour plane ride gave him the same sense of proprietorship over his window as your man had over his garden. Fortunately for my seatmate, no one else on the plane decided to come and look out his window, which was a pity, really.

    1. Excellent story - this guy was clearly a hero. Was he allowed to speak to the flight attendant, or did you assume that he would have booked an aisle seat if he wanted food? I guess he spent his childhood being dominated by his big sisters.

    2. Further thought - you might also have insisted that he close his window blind, so that no-one else got to use his daylight to read by. It seems only fair.

      No, you're right - that wouldn't have been helpful either...

      Turning the other cheek or clubbing him into unconsciousness are the best responses, I agree.

  3. Hmmm! Sorry to be pedantic*, but it's not a case of getting "back" to the position where families go to games. I'd wager the age/gender mix in football crowds is closer to being representative of the wider population than at any stage before. I don't think there was a golden age when football crowds were made up of families and behaved much better than they do now - a glance at any history of hooliganism will tell you that. But there have certainly been periods when it was worse.

    Not disagreeing with you that having families attend is, however, a partial solution.

    And as sure as eggs is eggs, there will be copycat incidents following the Manchester coin throwing. There usually is whenever there's an outrage. I reckon it's a posturing attempt by youths to put themselves in the same "league".

    * as for the pedantry, well I am a wargamer with an interest in history!

    1. In Britain, I wouldn't disagree with you - old photos of football crowds from the 1930s show a predominantly male profile - all in matching caps and raincoats, with a big age range. The Italian 'family model' is the decent ideal I had in mind, really, but I think that has diminished in recent years also.

      It's all about hatred. Hatred is fashionable, acceptable, maybe even manly? A quick look at soccer fan sites shows a horrifying display of anonymous homophobia, racism, you-name-it. If the English League clubs are trying to address racist abuse at games, you can bet that the moronic 'laddish' culture will consider it amusing or provocative to deliberately behave in an offensive way - the chanting will increase.

      Punishing the clubs or docking points is tricky, though making the clubs answerable seems one valid route.

  4. I agree about the fashion side. Part of the problem (and I speak as a lifelong follower and attender of matches) is the meeja err....passion for "passion". The boundary between "ironic" "hatred" of rival clubs is often a blurry line for the terminally stupid. I associate this with the ersatz culture that's developed in the last 20 years. Although somewhat tamer than the old-style ardent hooli-fans it still provides a basic backdrop of behaviour which "normalises" the worst excesses.

    Obviously trouble at football has been around a lot longer than Sky TV etc.

    I think punishing the clubs is a sensible part of an overall package of measures. Most hooligans are genuine fans of their clubs and want success for them (at least the ones I've met and known). The threat of lost points and games behind closed doors will have an effect.

    As for the hatred side of things I'd say most of it is testosterone fuelled posturing. Sure some young men love a good scrap with their fellows from neighbouring towns, but it's all set aside when it comes to seeing off Johnnie-foreigner (and I include North Britons in that).

    1. When I was a kid in Liverpool, I used to go to watch LFC when they were in the old Division Two (I was at St John's first game!) - me and my pals felt that we would have died for the club, but if they were playing away my mum wouldn't let me travel, so we used to go to the Everton matches and support them if there was a good game on. A bit like dividing patronage between the local cinemas. This was a different age, but we had affection for ALL local clubs (I even used to go to Tranmere at times). That was a different age - I am personally saddened to find that the relationship between Liverpool and Everton fans is generally a lot more fraught now, though there were some positive signs after the Hillsborough Report.

      Punishing clubs is tricky - it's hard to prove that a racist chant or gesture took place, for example, and unless it's caught on CCTV it's hard to prove which side is responsible. The big fear about pitch invasion used to be that there might get to be a fashion of invading the pitch if your team was losing, to get the game abandoned. It must be possible to fake or hype-up all sorts of punishable incidents (ask Sir Alex!) to gain an advantage.

      The gender mix is probably better now, as you say, but not in the parts of the ground where the trouble is. The age mix is no different - fans have always taken their children and their grandad to the game.

      The hatred thing probably is a posture - agreed - the most dangerous aspect is what it does to fans who are too thick to understand that. For a great many years, people have been stabbed in Glasgow for wearing the wrong shirt in the wrong pub - mind you, they'll find some other reason to stab you if you pass that test (this was a joke, before I get hate mail!).

      A glance at the fan chat websites for any of the major British clubs is a depressing experience, but the number of individuals who contribute to that is probably not large, and not many 'normal' fans have the time or the taste to get involved. The internet is also a safe place to let go with extreme views one would never have the guts to state in public, so there is bound to be an element of empty sounding-off, but it isn't healthy.

      The superimposition of Political Correctness only serves to confuse me further. If I abuse someone about the size of his nose, his red hair or his personal hygiene I am just being rude - if I mention his colour, religion, disability or sexual orientation I have broken the law. I don't find that particularly helpful or even straightforward. I was brought up to understand that German fans 'bayed' [i.e. like animals] in support of their team, that any other nation's pride or patriotism or loyalty was somehow an offence against our own.

      In the Grand Venn Diagram of loyalties - our nation, our town, our street, our church, our tribe, our Russian owner - we can always find someone to be opposed to. Seeing-off Johnnie Foreigner is such a rare occurrence these days that we should probably come to terms with the fact that football is, after all, a sport and an entertainment rather than a direct replacement for warfare.

  5. PS the last bad example of racist chanting that I recall at a game I attended was in the 91-92 season. Think the target was Luther Blisset. Not saying people have changed under the surface though.

    1. I remember when European club competitions were still relatively new, Glasgow Rangers lost (I think) an away fixture against Moenchengladbach - their then-manager was (I think) Willie Waddle, and he was very upset. He complained to the match officials after the game about a number of aspects of the hostility of the crowd, including the fact that he had personally heard German fans calling his players "Schweinhund". Presumably the Moenchengladbach manager was upset during the return leg with the Glasgow fans shouting "You rascal!" and calling his players cads and bounders.

      Small minds and big ambitions - ye cannae whack it.

  6. To pull the threads together a little ("how dare you enjoy my garden/look out of my window/enjoy yourself supporting the opposition") a pleasure shared..... for political correctness, isn't it really about good manners?

    1. Well, absolutely - problem is that the PC age finds the definition of good manners too subjective. It is definitely not good manners to throw coins at Rio Ferdinand, I would say.

      Cheers - Tony