Category Archives: Football

Harking back to the disaster decade

Growing up in the 80s was a strange business on all sorts of levels. But speaking as one who reached the most impressionable age – 9, 10, 11-ish – in the latter part of the decade, there was one respect in which it stood out more than most.

I mean, of course, the disasters. That extraordinary series of accidents and incidents which mars my otherwise magical memory of those ineffably exciting years. Perhaps it’s just a case of perception, and the apparent pile-up is merely a reflection of just how impressionable I was. But even looked at objectively, there’s been no other period in my lifetime when so many catastrophes – encompassing such a horrifying range of settings and scenarios – unfolded in so short a time.

The-Hillsborough-memorial-002

What exactly am I referring to? Well, I probably wouldn’t include, say, the 1983-1985 Ethopian famine, since that unfolded over a longer period and lacked the suddenness needed to crash into a young boy’s mind. My disaster decade probably began with the Challenger Disaster in January 1986 – truly, stuff to stir the imagination of a seven-year-old – and continued with the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy in 1987. After that, in rapid succession, even for a kid experiencing the giganticism of time, there was the King’s Cross underground fire, the Piper Alpha explosion, the Clapham Junction Rail Crash, Hillsborough and the Marchioness disaster.

There may be others I haven’t mentioned; there may be some I have which don’t quite compare in scale or circumstances. Either way, it was a vivid, terrifying time, and I remember wondering what grimness could possibly be coming next.

Of course, having been young at the time, my lingering memory isn’t so much in the detailed, scandalous specifics of how each event unfolded. It’s more in half-remembered news reports or glimpses of where I was when I heard the news (the front garden, helping to a paint a fence, when Hillsborough happened). Above all, for me personally at least, it’s in that most ephemeral of responses to disaster: the charity pop single.

It was the fashion at the time. After Band Aid and USA for Africa, it became the default response to tragedy. There wasn’t a single for each of the major disasters – though the Pet Shop Boys’ King’s Cross offered an eerie, unofficial pre-echo of the underground fire – and, in truth, the majority of charity singles, then as now, were prompted more by ongoing campaigns (Comic Relief, Sport Aid, the GOSH Wishing Well appeal) than specific tragedies.

But whatever the context, I remember being very keen to collect these records. I still have the Zeebrugge and Hillsborough seven inches, plus virtually all the campaign records up to the early 1990s. I don’t want to overstate my youthful altruism, but it definitely felt like a positive way of responding to the horrors of what I’d seen on TV. I don’t suppose I really understood how it made a difference any more than I questioned the charitable integrity of participating artists. But that wasn’t the point. As a music-loving 10-year-old, the only action I could take was to march down to W H Smith, Our Price or Woolworths and spend my pocket money on a single. So that’s exactly what I did.

I mention it now because of The Justice Collective’s newly-released version of He Ain’t Heavy (He’s My Brother). As I bought my copy on Wednesday, it occurred to me that this kind of charity single – celeb-packed, event-specific – felt like something of a throwback: an old-fashioned way of answering injustice and suffering.

And then I realised: what could be more apt? The legacy of Hillsborough’s outrageous aftermath has been the inability of the victims’ families to move on from their grief. They have been frozen emotionally in time by a web of conspiracy, deceit and lies. So it’s only fitting that He Ain’t Heavy feels a little anachronistic. By harking back to those heady, frequently horrifying days, the single reminds us where these people have been trapped all this time. Its release, one hopes, will bring another wave of catharsis to match those brought about by the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, and the quashing of the original inquest verdicts.

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Show me the Moneyball

A couple of weeks ago I saw Moneyball. Ever since, I’ve been wondering why I enjoyed it more than The Social Network. Now, I think I have a few answers.

First, though: why the comparison? Well, there’s the razor-sharp, high-stakes dialogue of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Also, the fact that both films are based on paradigm-shifting true stories from the last decade or so – and the fact that both stories are, in their own ways, still unfinished. There’s an affinity, too, in the renegade protagonist of each movie. Both Billy Beane and Mark Zuckerberg are single-minded guys – geeks? – with big ideas fighting different kinds of establishments. And yet, as is also the case with Sorkin’s problematic Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, neither big idea is, in itself, quite as important as Sorkin’s favoured vernacular demands.

So why, then – despite knowing nothing about baseball – did I enjoy Moneyball more?

Well, the first thing to say is that Moneyball isn’t really about baseball. Granted, neither is The Social Network really about Facebook, but what matters is what’s left once you dig below surface meaning. And it’s in that respect where Moneyball hits its blood-brother out of the park. How? Here are five possible answers.

1. Moneyball is told in real time, whereas the legal flashback framework in The Social Network – structured to add jeopardy to events that might otherwise seem undramatic – interferes with the linear momentum of the film. You never quite know where to look for the source of tension and, as a result, you never feel where resolution needs to occur.

2. Events in Moneyball are brought to a more satisfying conclusion. Despite the awkwardness of the real-life story still not having come full circle, Moneyball locates and nails the all-important pay-off, achieving emotional resolution in the absence of narrative closure. The Social Network, on the other hand, is left hanging, with the constituent episodes of the narrative failing to add up to a satisfying whole.

3. The characters in Moneyball are, to a man, more likeable than in The Social Network. Unavoidable, to an extent, but some avenue of empathy is required with even the hardest-nosed characters. With Zuckerberg in The Social Network, I always felt we were being told his story not because of who he is, but what he did. Whereas with the brilliant Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the person made sense of his passions.

4. Moneyball is about sport, and sport is a fully-functional, out-of-the-box metaphorical wizard; a guaranteed short-cut to any number of universal themes that are much harder to locate in other subjects. Whether fans or not, we all understand the aim of winning, for the team and its supporters, meaning the meddlesome detail – in Moneyball’s case, how you win – will always be secondary. In The Social Network, however, the subtleties were not only paramount, but proved difficult to universalise into cogency and relevance.

5. More personally, as a Liverpool fan, beholden to John Henry’s view of things, the detail of Moneyball (making a little go a long way) couldn’t be more timely. The same goes for football overall. Bloated as the Premier League has become – a few clubs swallowing the cream of others’ labour – the time is ripe for a different way of doing things, just as with baseball in the early 2000s. This, in contrast to The Social Network, where it felt hard to reapply even more specific themes to different contexts.

So there you have it. A personal comparison of two companion pieces, both of which I admired, but one of which most definitely trumped the other.

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