Aussie Rules for me!

I go down under to investigate what makes Australian Rules football so wildly popular. 

Special report from the MCG, Melbourne.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground. A truly world class stadium

I landed in Australia four weeks ago but only truly arrived this Saturday.

The first weekend I was here it was suggested that I go see a game of ‘footy’ at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The game I was meant to see was the season opener between Richmond and Carlton but it fell through for one reason or another. I would have to wait another 3 weeks before I finally got my first taste.

So on Saturday the 21st of April I was going to see Carlton, who I was told had made a blistering start to the season and were expected to challenge for the title, play Essendon: a mid-table team who would be lucky to escape without suffering an embarrassing defeat. This as you can imagine meant nothing to me because since missing that first game a few weeks earlier I hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to the AFL, the game was nothing but a curiosity to me and if I’m honest I just wanted to see inside the MCG.

As a kid my only memories of ‘footy’ were seeing a bit of Aussie Rules on Channel 4’s Trans World Sport early on a Saturday morning before Going Live came on the other channel. This weird game played out on a gigantic, circular pitch befuddled me. Why were they allowed to use their hands? Why were there no nets in the goals? Why did they not have sleeves?

In the pub (a strip bar naturally) before the game I looked around and saw (besides the topless barmaids) Carlton fans mixing with Essendon fans. No sign of aggro, no sign of any kind of tension. Two sets of fans relaxing, drinking, talking. Nothing weird about that is there? Except for an English football fan there is a bit. Around Old Trafford there are ‘home pubs’ and ‘away pubs’. It’s not quite like Glasgow where a Celtic fan would be lucky to escape from a Rangers pub with his nose still attached to his face and vice-versa but still, you won’t see many away fans, garbed fully in their team’s colours mind, mingling jovially with the home support. I asked my Aussie friend who the home side were; it doesn’t really work that way with footy, he told me.

Almost everything that came up in our discussions leading up to the game was related back to the Premier League in some way, partly to make the alien subject matter clearer to me and partly to manage my expectations of the game. ‘It’s not like in the Premier League’ was quickly established as the phrase of the day. How many can we expect there to be in the MCG today then? I asked. There’ll be a big crowd, maybe 80 000, he said, but the atmosphere won’t be anything like in the Premier League. It’s a big pitch for the players to cover, is the game all stop-start like rugby? I asked. Oh no the game is quick, but it’s not like what you’re used to in the Premier League.

So we approached the stadium, brushing past whole families wearing Carlton shirts, Essendon shirts and even a few Liverpool and Manchester United shirts thrown in for good measure too, with my expectation level well and truly managed. We shuffled past a load of statues of Australian sports luminaries, the majority of which I hadn’t heard of save for Don Bradman, and finally got to our gate which is when I got my first sight of the stadium.

I’ve been to some giant stadia before: the old Wembley in London, Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and of course Old Trafford in Manchester but I have to say that the Melbourne Cricket Ground is the biggest, grandest most dramatic stadium I have ever seen. The sounds were equally impressive, both sets of fans (seated together) were getting warmed up and in terrific voice creating not so much a wall of sound but thanks to the stadium’s bowl shape, more of an enormous ball of sound that seemed to swell and linger on the pitch and could find no means of escape. Never mind ‘not like the Premier League’ this was better.

Immediately I knew that this game, this strange hybrid of football and rugby, would compel me. And I was right.

From the first siren I was impressed by the athleticism of these players. They sprint and leap and twist and turn with such ferocity and under such immense pressure. You think it’s impressive how Xavi engineers space, giving himself time to play his pass perfectly? Then you ought to see for yourself how quickly these men can receive the ball (more often than not at terribly awkward heights), find a teammate and offload it (in the legal manner: ‘knocking’ the ball with the fist) before two or three hulking men come crashing down on him. And have you ever tried sprinting whilst bouncing a rugby ball on the ground every 15 metres like you’re playing basketball? Not easy.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a huge fan of rugby. I’ve been to a few Premiership games before, but the game just never grabbed me. I find the reliance on brute strength and physical attributes disheartening and prefer my winners to be the ones who were more wily, more creative on the day not just simply faster, stronger or fitter (Hence why I prefer the technique of a Federer to prevail over the brawn of a Nadal, the guile of a Barcelona to the dull, if determined, discipline of a Chelsea). I appreciate there are nuances to the game that in my ignorance I do not understand, and intricacies in skill that I just cannot see, but I will never be a fan.

I expected ‘footy’ to be more like rugby then, than like football. I expected the physical attributes of the players to have more of a bearing on the outcome than their wit and skill. What I actually found was that ‘footy’ is almost the exact half way point between rugby and football. It is required for the players to be on the whole tall, muscular, quick on their feet and tough but at the same time I can not imagine, having seen this game first hand, a player succeeding at the top level without being able to marry these attributes to nimble hands and an exceedingly quick mind. It can appear at times as if they are merely playing hot potato but when you take a look at the wider picture and see the intricately set out patterns of the players and the almost telepathic knowledge of where their teammates should be positioned, it’s pretty obvious that there’s more to it than that.

Umpire

An umpire launches the ball back into play

Even the referees are athletic in this game. They need to be. The way they throw the ball back into the pitch when it has gone out of touch is amazing. They stand on the touchline with their back to the pitch, swing the ball low between their legs and fling it as hard and high as they can over their head, a sort of backwards tossing the caber motion. Most of the refs in the Premier League would put their backs out trying it.

I needed no more comparisons with the Premier League to be made once the game got under way. There were passages of play remarkably similar to those you might see on a football match with intricate one-twos being played, play being switched from one flank to the other, through balls being kicked in behind defences. At one point I even noticed how high the Carlton defence were up the pitch and remarked to my friend how dangerous that was given the pace Essendon’s forwards had displayed. My prophecy instantly came true and Carlton were hit on the counter attack on more than one occasion and trailed at half time. I felt right at home.

I expected the game, due to the size of the pitch (2.8 times the size of a regulation association football pitch), to be played out at a relatively sedate pace. It was not. It was fast, intense, frenzied action for each of the four 30 minute quarters. Towards the end of the last quarter, some of the players were visibly tiring but only indulged in putting their hands on their knees or behind their heads during breaks in play. It was astounding stuff really. The fitness levels of these players is nothing short of freakish. Carlos Tevez would have needed more than a few run outs with the reserves to get up to speed in this game.

There was a moment where the referee felt it necessary to refer to a video. The footage required was shown on the big screen high up in the stadium’s massive third tier and within quite literally three seconds he’d blown his whistle, made the call and the game was gotten on with. Another lesson to be learnt for the Premier League?

The game finished in a sound defeat for Carlton. Essendon’s supporters were delirious. The stadium rocked with noise. I was hooked.

This game which began largely as a regional passion for Victorians, quickly outgrew it’s native state to encompass the whole of Australia, evolving from the Victorian Football League (VFL) into it’s current guise as the Australian Football League (AFL) in 1990. With the right backing, perhaps similar to that which saw the Football League morph into the behemoth that became the Premier League in 1992, who is to say that this hugely entertaining game couldn’t one day prove every bit as popular?

I’ve already asked my friend for tickets to the next Carlton match.

Advertisements

Breivik On Trial: Norway tragedy a reminder to us all

I’ve heard it said that everyone is a little racist. There’s even a song about it.

Whilst most of us merely jest when saying this, tongues firmly wedged in our mouths, perhaps in one of those cringe worthy moments of camaraderie that threatens to take a joke that little bit too far, only the most blinkered idealist would claim it to be completely false. We enter dangerous territory when people begin to believe that racism doesn’t continue to pose an ominous threat to modern society.

Today in Oslo, Anders Behring Breivik went on trial. Last summer on July 22nd he killed 77 people. 8 with a car bomb in the capital, the rest he personally executed in a deadly rampage on the island of Utoeya.

On the same day a 1500 page document, written by Breivik, entitled ‘2083: A European Declaration of Independence’ appeared on the internet. In it Breivik chronicles the meticulous and painstaking steps he undertook in preparation for the attacks. He also outlines his philosophy and ideology.

He rallies against what he refers to as “cultural Marxism” “multiculturalism” and “Eurabia”. He designates his sympathies to causes like “right-wing populism” and “ultranationalism” and ultimately argues for the deportation of all Muslims from Europe by the year 2083. Breivik has claimed that his acts were a “preventative attack” against a government he accuses of supporting a multicultural society to the detriment of native Norwegians.

No matter what pseudo-intellectual phraseology he employs in his ‘manifesto’ or how much the crimes are made out to be politically motivated at dinner tables across Europe, there is one word that cuts through all the haze and penetrates to the heart of the matter: racism.

Racism is an issue separate from geo-politics, economics and even theology. It concerns something that precedes all of the above. Humanity. We are first and foremost human. After that we may be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever. After that we may be English, Taiwanese, Australian, Norwegian or whatever. We are all of us human and are born with the capacity to, if not love everyone, at least co-exist with them peacefully, at the very least accept and tolerate the differences between them. The case of Anders Behring Breivik should serve as a warning to us all against complacency in this matter.

Here is a man who has (most recently) been certified sane by two leading forensic psychiatrists in Norway. Here is a man with the faculties and application to plan and organise his life around a single moment for over 8 years. Here is a man who has at some stage in his life lost touch with his humanity and become susceptible to extreme racist ideologies.

He is not, and this is perhaps the most dangerous element to this whole subject, an anomaly. There are plenty of others with similar sympathies to him all over Europe. And whilst we may joke that everyone is a little racist safe in the knowledge that 99.99% of genuinely racist people lack the capacity and hell-bent dedication of an Anders Behring Breivik to do anything remotely on the same scale as him about their hate, we ought to remain vigilant about the others who are capable of acting on theirs on a smaller scale, even if it means ‘merely’ slurring someone on the street.

Hate unchecked grows. Once it grows to a certain size, it becomes uncontrollable.

I will never forget the day my sister told me, soon after giving birth to her mixed raced son, that a British National Party canvasser had visited her house and pushed a pamphlet through her letterbox. She was spitting feathers. I myself have had a run in with the BNP and have discussed it on these pages before. (The full article has been reposted. Click here to read it)

I believe that in these times; where India, China and other Asian nations are growing economically at an almost exponential rate and are beginning to travel and settle around the globe en masse, it is imperative that we remember that before everything else we are human and that we have the capacity to accept other cultures into our own.

This is the way the world is going. Being English no longer means being white, neither does being Norwegian. Anders Behring Breivik failed to come to terms with this truth and as a result 77 people are dead.

Pleading ignorance or misunderstanding toward other cultures is no longer an excuse.

The British National Party at the beach

We Brits love the sun don’t we? The first sign of it and were whipping off our pants and caking ourselves in coconut oil.

One minute you’re strolling through the vegetable section in Morrisons, whistling along to a musak version of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’, the next there’s a break in the clouds and you’re knocked to the ground by a marauding posse of topless, tattooed skinheads desperate to ransack the meat and alcohol aisles.

To be honest I can’t blame them; we seldom get a proper summer in Britain so it’s only natural that they’d greet the advent of a heat wave with such excitability, but unfortunately the sun seems to draw out somewhat more than just their love of barbeques.

Whilst everyone chooses to enjoy the sun in different ways, a large chunk of British people migrate to their nearest seaside town and this past weekend was no different.

On Saturday afternoon strolling along Blackpool’s sweltering promenade I encountered a vibrant and colourful beach scene crowded with a motley selection people: dog walkers, wheelchair users collecting for charity, young couples, old couples, elderly women with sagging breasts, elderly men with sagging breasts, rambunctious children, kite flying middle aged men.

And at first glance, affected by (read: afflicted) the optimism of the sunshine, these people painted a delightful portrait of how lovely Britain can be in the summertime, a veritable seaside postcard scene. I was with a South African friend at the time and was giving her a brief outline of what sort of place Blackpool was and had become, and it had pretty much lived up to its billing thus far. We sat atop the steps leading down to the sand with our ice creams and for once I felt proud of my hometown. She snapped away with her camera and seemed genuinely enamoured with the place and I suppose in that moment it would have been difficult not to be.

One thing however, rankled with me. There may very well have been a plethora of weird and wonderful people out there that day but none of them were black or Asian. Just white. Exclusively white.

There were no other races represented in my entire field of vision whatsoever.

I said as much to my friend and she said she’d noticed too which launched us into a conversation about race and inevitably, given her nationality, apartheid. She gave me a first person account of how it affected people she knew, friends and family, and how the country was still an extremely tense place and as we walked along the top of the steps it was obvious how much she still deeply resented the whole thing. “A regretful incident,” she summarised.

I told her that I thought the concept of nation states was archaic and that passports should be abolished allowing free travel between countries and she agreed that would be a nicer world to live in, even if it was a ridiculous dream.

There are lots of British people who believe that apartheid couldn’t happen here, that we are too modern, too integrated a people for such segregation to take effect, but I believe that to be a perilously complacent point of view.

What I saw next on Blackpool beach gave that belief conviction.

There are thick wooden tide-breakers at regular intervals along the sand that effectively divide areas of sand. On one side of a barrier, the side closest to the hustle and bustle, white people were enjoying themselves; throwing frisbees, playing with dogs, paddling in the tide, swilling lager and generally having a merry seaside time.

On the other side of the barrier all huddled together in the middle of the vast empty plain of sand stood a single Asian family quite literally segregated from everyone else. All dressed in traditional black, they had come to share in the great British party to which sadly it seemed they weren’t invited. Their subdued movements and lack of noise were a stark contrast to what was going on 30 yards from them on the other side of the tide-breaker.

The view I had of this segregation from the top of the steps provided me with a snapshot of exactly what is wrong with the country and why we may well be headed for our very own regretful incident in the future; for if I had been down on the sand level with them, I would not have seen the gigantic ‘BNP’ (British National Party – a legitimate far-right political party whose manifesto is built almost exclusively on ‘keeping Britain white’) logo scraped deep into the sand. Or the even bigger, even more dreadful ‘VOTE BNP’ next to it.

It was obvious why no other races were represented back where we had eaten our ice creams. Imagine how the Asian family must have felt upon seeing such a despicable, flagrant symbol of racism scrawled in the sand. Frightened and outcast and unwelcome. It is hard to imagine they would have stayed on the beach for much longer after we’d left.

Now instead of the seaside postcard scene I could only see the St. George’s flags leaping forth from the defiant bared chests of the skin-headed men, now I could only see the intense hatred behind their knock-off sunglasses and felt utterly ashamed of them, my ignorant compatriots.

These people need to realise that England, Britain, Europe, the world is changing. Countries are no longer the exclusive home for one race of people or one nationality. And as the financial squeeze on Britain shows no sign of relinquishing its grip, they may well find themselves looking abroad for work one day too.

Diversity in our personal and social lives is the key to remaining young, to remaining relevant as a nation. The BNP cannot seriously lay claim to having any semblance of a connection with young people in this country, but obviously do still strike a chord with a past generation. A generation of narrow minded, ill informed, prejudiced white people. And if the BNP continue to get their votes (They received over half a million votes in 2010’s general election but failed to win any seats), that prejudice borders on outright fascism because they are actively exercising their right as a member of the electorate to undermine that which holds the key to Britain’s and every other country’s future; diversity.

Disgusted by the display, my South African friend and I walked away and started talking about other things.

My Big Fat Jewish Easter

‘You are Louis Theroux’ I told my reflection as I placed the black woollen yamaka on my head.

I was brought up Christian. That is to say I was christened and then never practiced any religion whatsoever. Much like the majority of the kids I knew.

Christmas was always the big thing growing up, much less due to Jesus’ origin story than the new videogames that might be waiting for me under the tree. Easter was also a big deal to me as a kid; much less due to Jesus’ demise story than how many chocolate eggs I could stuff down my throat.

Another aspect to the Easter story that fascinated me as a kid was the question: when Jesus comes back to life, is he technically a zombie?

As an adult Christmas is still the big thing, still about the videogames under the tree (even if I do put them there myself now), but Easter is more about having a Friday and Monday off work.

Even so this Easter weekend was a massive departure for me. This Easter weekend I observed the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Passover is celebrated at a Seder; a meal during which everyone basically gets pissed.

Someone reads (the story of the emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery) from a book called a Haggadah and at regular intervals says, ‘Now everyone must drink’. Brilliant. This year I was going to a Seder held at a successful Jewish anaesthetist’s house, and I was to be the only non-Jew present.

Never having been to a bona-fide Seder before, I entered into it with the mindset of an investigative journalist; ‘You are Louis Theroux’ I told my reflection as I placed the black woollen yamaka on my head.

I had the balancing act of trying to be social and conversational whilst at the same time respectful of the ceremony and tradition. To represent us gentile folk in a positive light was my goal for the evening.

As a ‘Christian’ I have pre conceived ideas about religious ceremony. I can’t help but picture half empty churches where everyone is afraid to make the slightest sound, their muffled coughs echoing off the cold walls and threadbare carpets, and where there’s always a child wailing at the back encapsulating the abjectness of it all. Naturally then I was wary of having to endure the same kind of thing at this Seder.

But I needn’t have been concerned. The anaesthetist’s home was a warm place. His jolly, bantering demeanour infected everyone around him and cultivated a loud, boisterous atmosphere. ‘We have a special kind of Jewish torture prepared for you tonight,’ he says to me, ‘we show you all this wonderful food and then make you sit through a long boring story before we let you eat it.’

Except it wasn’t boring. It wasn’t even long; some of the pages of his Haggadah were stuck together meaning he skipped a bit but when someone pointed it out they were shushed so that the wait for the food was shorter.

At a certain point in the story reading duties were shared, passing in a zig-zag across the table. Some of the men read their bits in singsong Hebrew. All the while everyone sipped away at their sweet wine in between the ordained scullings, getting evermore drunk, drop by drop. ‘Now everyone must drink,’ someone says. But I have been the whole time, I think.

I read my bit, ‘…and I passed over you and saw you downtrodden in your blood and I said to you: Through your blood shall you live!’ and everyone laughs. ‘What’s so funny?’ I ask. ‘The way you say blood: blud. That’s the first time anyone’s ever said blud at my Seder’. Ah yes, my northern English accent, I’d forgotten I was thousands of miles from home.

There’s a bit in the story about God inflicting ten wicked plagues on the Egyptians for being cruel bastards to the Israelites. ‘But the thing is about Jews,’ someone says to me, ‘is that we feel guilty about this. So we sing a song to make us feel better about it.’ And they do. It’s this joyous, bouncing rhythm, sung in Hebrew that clarifies to God that; look we appreciate you freeing us and everything, but you know, you didn’t really need to do all that stuff to them. Just saying. But thanks. ‘Jewish guilt,’ someone else says with a knowing nod.

At a certain point you have to wash your hands and after doing so you’re not supposed to talk until a prayer is recited and you’ve eaten a bit of unleavened bread called matzah. This is literally the only quiet moment of the night and even this is peppered with the sound of people humming to each other, communicating any way they can within the boundaries, indeed stretching the boundaries, having fun with them.

These are people with a deep and poignant connection to their traditions but who are not constrained by them.

Back home it was Good Friday and kids across the nation would’ve been gorging themselves on chocolate eggs but it was easy to forget this, such was the welcome I’d been given by the anaesthetist and his family. By the end of the evening I had become inadvertently and pleasantly immersed in the whole thing.

The following evening another Seder took place. This is a party that lasts all week, eight days in fact. Jokes about the quality of Passover food flew around; jokes about Jewishness in general flew around. ‘You know bacon goes really well on matzah,’ the host for this second night jests, earning a hearty laugh from his guests and a smiling reproach from his wife.

Everyone got drunk again. Everyone ate too much; another ‘tradition’ of Passover so I’m told. Everyone laughed.

The only thing Christians do that is remotely like a Seder is Christmas dinner. We ‘eat, drink and be merry’ as is ordained by the TV ads but there is something authentic about this Passover stuff that our Christmas can’t quite reproduce.

Do yourself a favour next Easter and bag yourself an invite to a Seder to really kick your long weekend off.

Rip Off Britain vs Australia

Whenever I call my dad we only ever talk about two things. One: United. Two: the cost of living in England. ‘Just another example of rip-off Britain’ he’ll say.

‘Got my car taxed. Rip-off’ ‘Renewed my TV license. Rip-off’ ‘Cigarettes have gone up. Petrol has gone up’ etcetera etcetera ad nauseum. ‘At least United are doing well’, I’ll say to change the subject. ‘Yeah and have you seen the price of the tickets? Rip-off’ I give up.

Now though I think I may have something that will finally make him change his tune, or at least stop whinging about ‘rip-off Britain’.

I’ve recently moved to Melbourne, Australia.

I can already hear the knowing laughs from all the ex-pats who have tried their luck down under reading this. You already know what I’m going to say.

I had been preparing myself mentally and financially for the general cost of living in this country for a long time; asking people who have either been here before or are still here, what the lay of the land is. ‘Isn’t it supposed to be expensive in Australia?’ I asked and I’d get comments like: ‘Yeah but it’s a very liveable place, especially Melbourne’ and ‘the food might be expensive but it is good food’ and ‘as long as you’re prepared you should be alright’.

Luckily I am prepared, financially I mean, because if I wasn’t it would prove to be a very short stay indeed. Here’re a couple of examples of what I mean.

I go to a restaurant on Bridge Road near to Melbourne’s CBD a few days after arriving and to my delight find Bulmer’s Original cider on the menu for a very reasonable $7.50 (£4.87). Ha, I think, all those worrymongers making out like you can’t get a reasonably priced drink anywhere and here I am paying roughly the same as in England for a pint bottle of Bulmer’s.

And then the waiter brings it out.

It isn’t a pint bottle. It’s a tiny 330ml bottle, barely enough for three large swigs from a glass. Oh, I think, maybe they were right. But all isn’t lost. Then I consult the menu about something to eat. Fancy a garden salad? Not for $22 (£14.30) I don’t. How about a risotto? $24 (£15.60) okay? I quickly realise I’m not going to do any better so just order this. For interest’s sake I check out the price of a steak. Cheapest one? $55 (£35.78).

I finish my Bulmer’s way ahead of my meal coming out so I go to order another one. ‘Yes sir?’ the waiter dressed in flannel shirt and torn jeans says, ‘Can we have some water for the table please?’ ‘Certainly sir’ he says. I think I see a smirk at the corner of his mouth. He knew. That waiter knew it wasn’t ‘for the table’.

I go into a mobile phone store to get a SIM and some credit to get me started a couple of days after this. I ask for $30 (£19.51) credit. ‘That will last you 30 days’ the girl says to me. ‘I think I can make it last longer than that. I don’t really call anyone,’ I say with a smile. She looks puzzled. ‘This is a 30 day recharge,’ she explains. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘It means that the credit you don’t use within 30 days expires.’ ‘And then what happens?’ ‘Then you have to recharge again.’ We stare at each other for a few seconds. ‘As in another $30?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So that’s basically a contract isn’t it?’ ‘No because you’re not locked-in.’ ‘Oh I see.’ I leave the store.

What she meant was that I have two options. One: I pay $30 a month. Two: I don’t use a phone.

In the UK we can get handsets for free if we sign up for a phone contract. And we get unlimited this that and the other on top. In Australia? Pah. No chance. True enough you can get a decent contract at around $30-50 per month but you want an iPhone with that? That’s another $40 a month on top sir.

Fair enough. I’m in another new country, they may speak the same language but things are still done differently. It’s all part of adapting. That’s what I’m telling myself.

My dad thinks petrol is expensive in England? He ought to see the prices here. Actually maybe he shouldn’t, he’s already had one cardiac arrest.

To use the freeways here, and to get anywhere fast in Melbourne outside of the CBD and inner suburbs it is almost essential to, Breeze (a private company that won a government tender to build the Eastlink Freeway) charges you 54c per section of the road that you travel on via a little gadget placed on your dashboard that bleeps when you go under a sensor.

Cinema tickets for an adult: $18.50 (£12) more for a big screen or 3D films. Sweets and a small drink: $11.30 (£7.35).

The list goes on. Generally speaking it’s more than in England.

But…

There is of course the other side to the coin. That being that wages here are good. Very good in fact.

According to Average Salary Survey the average annual income for a professional in Melbourne in 2011 was $78 720 which is over £50 000. The same site has the average salary for a person living in Manchester in 2011 at just £30 996 per year.

Immediately a stark contrast emerges. It is easy to see why, when people here are forking out $50-70 for a nice, but certainly not fine dining standard, Saturday night meal they can do it nonchalantly with a smile on their face.

The British economy is in a stalemate situation with consumer spending power at a permanent low ebb and the cost of living ever rising. The Australian economy on the other hand, whilst to a certain extent relying on its fruitful mining industry, is certainly ticking over in a much healthier fashion.

A columnist in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper said last week that it is a source of national pride that Australian workers are paid well and that spending power is good. Unfortunately in England we cannot say the same.

It is telling that the backlash currently circulating the media around Melbourne and Australia as a whole against the retail sector for being uncompetitive, is not one borne out of financial necessity, (these people can afford to shop on the high street, they are just choosing not to – instead going online for massive savings) it is simply borne out of a sense of frustration that retailers are being greedy.

Of course when I next speak to my dad on the phone I won’t mention any of the part about the wages here being higher, the point is not to have a balanced argument to present to him, the point is to stop him whining about ‘rip-off Britain’ for a few minutes.

Whether I think he has a valid point or not is not the point either.

At least United are doing well.

Unrest In Suburbia – Is it the ASBOs or the OAPs?

As a young person living in England, perhaps I am not qualified to give an objective view on the apparent ill feeling from the elderly towards the youth of this country; so if the following two accounts don’t present much of a balanced argument for both parties, just assume I’m in the camp of the youngsters.

As far back as I can remember old people have given young people hassle. This might be because of the generally accepted elderly view of youngsters in England being that they all go marauding around in large groups, clad in loose fitting trousers hanging below their waistlines, and swearing sporadically at road signs and shopkeepers. This is generally speaking not true, but I suppose reading the Daily Express every day, filled with imposing words like ‘ASBO’ and ‘Knife Crime’ will eventually influence your opinion.

I suppose the lines could get blurred between what you believe to be a crime and merely a nuisance, I can accept that. Living in perpetual fear of ‘youths’ must be a tiring existence, especially for the oh so righteous pensioners of England. One day you’re sitting at home sucking on a Werther’s Original tutting at the latest spate of stabbings in the ‘streets’ on the news, the next you’re face to face with one of the remorseless bastards yourself whilst walking your dog peacefully en route to meet your wife. That was the stark reality faced by such an elderly man; we shall call Jeff, yesterday afternoon.

I was riding my bike home from work, enjoying the sunshine when I saw Jeff on the horizon of the hill I was headed up. Now I had encountered Jeff once before on the very same stretch of path about a month and a half before and he had yelled some obscenity in my direction then for not riding my bike on the road. Whilst I accept that he was indeed right, I should have been riding on the road, its not like I am the only person in England to do it and how did it give him the right to launch his tirade at me, a person he had never met before in his life?

I had felt angry that time but rode along home, putting the incident down to the prejudice I knew was so rife amongst his age group. But yesterday I encountered him again and this time, rather than simply shouting at me, he actually jumped in front of my bike. Luckily for Jeff and I (and his border collie) I was toiling up a hill and not careering down one, giving me ample time to avoid him and swerve onto the grassy bank running alongside the pavement.

“Bloody criminal!” He bellowed at me, once I was safely out of his area of course. This made me pretty irate as you can imagine, so I did a quick about-turn and rolled up alongside him as he plodded on down the hill. The surprise and fear in his eyes was tangible as I quietly asked:

“What did you just call me?” I folded my arms as I sat on my saddle, expectant.

“I called you a criminal.” He said.

“And why would you do that?” I asked.

“Because you are. A woman was killed by a cyclist three years ago.” He trembled on the spot and gripped his dog’s lead tightly to hide it.

“Well, whilst that is a regrettable story, I have yet to maim or indeed kill anybody whilst riding my bike.” His eyes widened as the realisation dawned on him that I was not a brain dead McDonald’s employee.

“But it’s dangerous! Don’t you even care?” I spotted my chance.

“Of course I care but don’t you think it’s more dangerous to go leaping in front of cyclists? I think anyone would stand less chance of survival if they kept doing that.”

“That’s not the point. You need telling.” The way he said you implied a group of people rather than just me. At the same moment I spotted an elderly woman riding her bike on the footpath across the road.

“Shall we go and stop her too?” I make like I’m about to whistle for her attention.

“Now you’re just being silly.” He shifted his weight onto his other leg to stop it trembling.

“I’m being silly? Don’t you think it was pretty silly calling me a criminal?”

“You are a criminal.” By this time Jeff’s stupidity was annoying me, so I proposed a dare. I knew I needed to make a grand gesture to win this particular argument.

“In that case you’d better call the police, if you really believe me to be a criminal that is.” I regretted my rash words instantly but I had to follow through, I was certain he had only stopped me in particular because I was a ‘youth’ (or so he believed) and I wanted desperately to make him feel a fool.

“I will you know.” He threatened.

“And what do you think will happen? They’ll put the phone down and think ‘What a stupid old codger if he thinks we’ll send a car because a boy is riding on the pavement’” My firm tone seemed to make him tremble more vigorously.

“Ok I’m calling them.” And he did. I heard him describe me as ‘young’ and ‘shaven headed’. When he put his mobile away in his pocket, he turned to me and said, “They’re on their way now.”

“Ok. I’ll wait. I don’t mind seeing you make yourself a criminal too when you waste police time.”

So we waited. Twenty minutes. No sirens. No vans. No cars. No luminous yellow jackets. He fidgeted as we waited. Eventually I broke the silence.

“It doesn’t look promising for you.”

“Well they said they’d send a car.”

His cause was empty and he looked desolate, my humanitarian side kicked in. I explained to him that if he believed so vehemently that cyclists posed a threat to the people of England, he ought to pursue instigating change through the appropriate channels.

“You can’t go on leaping in front of cyclists like some crazed vigilante.” I said. I was mocking him, but he deserved it. I was certain he had picked on me because of my age and he was wrong to do that. “You need to look after yourself a bit more, what if I had been one of those ‘hoodies’ you hear so much about.” I threw a condescending look of faux concern at him. He was defeated. His crusade against the young people of England for that day was over.

The other account I mentioned was similar. I was walking home, listening to music one day when I spotted an elderly man stooping down in front of a couple of young boys. His finger was wagging and his head was jolting sharply up and down as though he was yelling. As I got closer to him I saw that he actually had hold of them both by the scruff of their necks and was issuing them with a royal dressing down for something or other. I grew agitated at the scene and took out my earphones. I drew level with them and offered,

“Is everything alright?” The old man was clearly shocked and straightened his back to stand upright to face me. As soon as his grip on the boys relented, they bolted for safety and I immediately suspected they weren’t his grandchildren.

“Yes. Yes of course.”

“Were they your grandchildren?” I asked.

“No.” His tone was puzzled.

“What happened?”

“They threw stones at my window. I see kids throwing stuff around all the time on this street and I’m sick of it.” He too trembled as he blurted out his defence.

“Ok. But why did you grab them like that?” I folded my arms as I awaited his response.

“I didn’t.” His denial was pitiful.

“Look, I was standing right there. You had them by the scruff of their necks.”

“I didn’t. I only told them they shouldn’t throw stones.” His assumption that I would be taken in by his story irked me into pressing him further.

“I agree that throwing stones isn’t acceptable, but even less acceptable is grabbing someone else’s children and pushing them against a wall.” His eyes were livid.

“But I didn’t grab them. I just did this.” He sidled up to me and grabbed my jacket. I looked down disgustedly at his hands on my chest and he immediately let go.

“You really ought to stop touching people you don’t know.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But these kids need some fear putting in them.”

“And you’re the man to do it?”

“Eh?” My sarcasm was lost on him.

“Look. I’d recommend in future not grabbing any more people, young or otherwise by the scruff of the neck. It’s not your place.” I walked away, the valiant defender of youth and he slinked off in the opposite direction, visibly shaken by the confrontation.

You’ll probably notice in both of these accounts that the old men were both seemingly motivated by a sense of dubious civic duty, to protect their territory and walkways. You’ll also notice that the only physical acts in both stories were actually carried out by them. Does that mean the ‘youths’ reading this post should begin to consider elderly men a menace to society? Should they start crossing the road to avoid them, start writing to their local MP’s to report elderly ‘anti-social behaviour’? Or should they continue to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about them? As a young person living in England I know that answer is most likely to be the latter, but I’m not so sure that the same honour will ever be afforded to us.

Ronaldo reaction a Real shame

You’d have thought after being cultured by years of Champions League football, witnessing the finest talent from across the continent, that Manchester United fans would know the true value of naturally skilled players? These are after all the fans who famously gave Ronaldo (Brazilian) and most recently Barcelona’s diminutive midfield schemer Andrés Iniesta standing ovations in the light of such skill.

Lessons taught by artists like Stoichkov, Romario and Zidane right the way up to date with Kaká, Xavi and Messi over the past couple of decades appeared to have been taken to heart by the United faithful with some proudly citing their appreciation for cultured footballers as a reason for their superiority over other more traditionally English sets of fans.

Why then, was the announcement United had accepted Real Madrid’s world-record bid for Cristiano Ronaldo met with such a torrent of bitterness by the majority of them? On most forums since the news broke, literally 7 out of every 10 comments condemned Ronaldo for either his petulance whenever he lost the ball, or his refusal to track back, or his lack of grit, or ridiculously his lack of a smile when celebrating a goal.

All of a sudden Ronaldo had become public enemy number one. Is it not enough to drive your team to three consecutive Premier League titles and a Champions League triumph, if you don’t track back enough whilst doing it? Would these fans have traded in 10 of his 42 goals for some bone crunching challenges on the half-way line last season? Would they rather he hadn’t have scored if it meant avoiding a gloomy celebration afterwards? It is a bitter, defensive reaction and the ones who are saying these things clearly don’t understand how top-level football operates.

If you canvassed a large number of United fans at around midday yesterday on their team for next season, they would have all featured Ronaldo. You would have been hard pushed to find someone who left him out purely on account of the above ‘flaws’. If you’d have carried out the same survey today at midday, most of them it would seem would rather have had a team with Carlos Tevez in every position. How far do you propose that team would have gotten in the Champions League?

The real shame is that after graciously accepting defeat to a technically superior Barcelona side in Rome a couple of weeks ago, some United fans appear to have regressed into your typical ill-informed English football follower, criticising him for aspects of his game that for a player of his calibre are absolutely irrelevant. Are you being more of a team player if you track back all the way to your own area if you are then out of position to finish off a counter attack at the other end? Perhaps it was this fundamental lack of appreciation for what Ronaldo did bring to the pitch that ultimately forced him to want to leave in the first place? Perhaps he was misunderstood and undervalued by the United fans? Certainly the comments posted all across the internet today point in that direction.

Paradoxically a pattern emerged in these forums whereby some United fans completely contradicted themselves by at once jeering (Like a drunken ex-boyfriend to his former squeeze) ‘Good riddance Ronaldo, we’ll be better off without a workshy fop like you’ and then claiming the greatest silver lining of all was that it would finally allow Rooney to operate centrally, freeing him from his defensive duties out wide. (So let me get this straight; you’ve hated Ronaldo all along because he’s idle and doesn’t chip in defensively, but you hate that Rooney actually does?) Work that one out? The impression I got is that a lot of them were regurgitating content from other posters without much thought as to if it actually made sense (That or they actually knew it made no sense but were just hoping nobody would notice).

What irritates me the most is that a lot of these internet posters don’t seem to understand that some players don’t have to try as hard as others, and that if they did try harder, it would not add anything to their game. Would these people have omitted a talent like Zidane because of his languid playing style? Football is constantly developing with players like Ronaldinho who challenged the conceptions of what was possible a few years ago, now we have players like Messi and Ronaldo carrying on that mantle. Without these players, the sport would cease to progress. We forget that it is as much mass entertainment as it is a partisan and tribal event. Yes we need the Gattusos of the world but that’s only to allow the Pirlos the room to operate.

I just wanted to get that off my chest because United fans have not given a very good account of themselves by and large today…and if I hear another person criticise Berbatov for “being lazy” I think my head might just implode.

BBQs and the BNP

We Brits love the sun don’t we? The first sign of it and were whipping off our pants and caking ourselves in coconut oil. One minute you’re strolling through the vegetable section in Morrisons, dreamily whistling along to a cover version of Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’, the next there’s a break in the clouds and you’re knocked to the ground by a marauding posse of topless, tattooed skinheads desperate to ransack the meat and booze aisles. To be honest I can’t blame them, we didn’t get a summer last year (rain) or the year before (lots of rain) so it’s only natural that they greet the advent of a true heat wave with such unbridled joy, but the sun seemed to bring out more than their love of barbeques this weekend.

Whilst British people choose to enjoy the sun in different ways, most of them migrate to their nearest seaside town and this weekend I was no different. On Saturday afternoon strolling along Cleveleys’ sweltering promenade I encountered a vibrant and colourful beach scene crowded with a wide variety of people. Dog walkers, wheelchair users collecting for charity, young couples, old couples, elderly women with sagging breasts, elderly men with sagging breasts, rambunctious children, kite flying middle aged men and the sum of those motley images, I thought combined to paint a delightful portrait of what can make England such a great place to be in the summertime. I happened to be with a South African girl at the time and was giving her a brief outline of what sort of place Cleveleys was and had become, and it had pretty much lived up to its billing thus far. We sat atop the steps leading down to the sea with our ice creams and for once I actually felt quite proud of where I came from. She snapped away with her camera and seemed genuinely enamoured with the place and in that moment it would have been difficult not to be.

However one thing rankled with me. There may very well have been a plethora of weird and wonderful people out there that day but none of them were black or Asian; just white. Literally there were no other races represented in my entire field of vision whatsoever. I said as much to my friend and she said she had noticed too which launched us into a conversation about race and inevitably apartheid. She explained the whole unfortunate episode to me in a nutshell, about how it affected people she knew and how the country was still a tense place and as we walked along the top of the steps I felt a genuine regretful wistfulness coming from her. I gave her my world-view; that I thought the concept of nation states was archaic and that passports should be abolished allowing free travel between countries and she agreed it would be a nicer world to live in then we dropped the topic to concentrate on the dogs in the distance.

There are lots of British people who believe that such a thing as apartheid couldn’t happen here, that we are too modern, too integrated a people for such a blatant segregation to take effect, but I believe that to be an extremely slippery slope and what I saw next on Cleveleys beach gave that belief conviction.

The beach has these thick wooden panels that help control the tide at regular intervals, which act as a barrier between areas of sand. One side of this particular barrier (the side closest to the hustle and bustle) was choc-a-bloc with white people all throwing Frisbees, playing with dogs, sunbathing, paddling in the tide, swilling down alcohol and generally doing what one would accurately describe as ‘merry making’. On the other side of the barrier all huddled together in the middle of the vast plain of sand stood a single Asian family literally segregated from everyone else. All dressed in traditional black, they had come to share in the great British party but it seemed sadly that they weren’t invited. The view from the top of the steps provided me with a microcosmic snapshot of exactly what is wrong with the country and why we may well be headed for our very own regretful incident in the near future. If I had been down on the sand level with them, I would not have played witness to the gigantic ‘BNP’ logo scraped deep into the beach’s flesh. Flanked by an even bigger, more dreadful ‘VOTE BNP’ I felt embarrassed of the perpetrators. It was obvious why no other races were represented back towards where we had eaten our ice cream. The poor Asian family must have felt frightened and outcast and all of a sudden, those images that had moments earlier painted such a quaint playful picture of England, morphed into something else, something terrible. Now I only noticed the St.George’s flags flaming forth from the proud bared chests of the skin-headed men, now I only saw the intense hatred behind the knock-off sunglasses and felt utterly ashamed of my countrymen. This is exactly why I am not proud to say I am English.

These people need to realise that England, Britain, Europe, the world is changing. Countries are no longer inhabited by only one race or one nationality. Diversity in our personal lives and our social lives is the key to remaining young, to remaining relevant. The BNP cannot seriously lay claim to having any semblance of a connection with young people in this country, but unfortunately they obviously do strike a chord with a past generation. A generation consisting of narrow minded, ill informed, prejudiced white people and if the BNP get their votes, that prejudice borders on outright fascism because they are actively exercising their right as an elector to oust that which holds the key to Britain’s future; diversity.

Disgusted by the display, my South African and I walked back towards a pub and started talking about other things.

What A Bloody Swine!

People generally don’t panic like they used to do they? In the good old days the threat of economic meltdown or a global flu pandemic would have had everybody hugging their knees to their chests, eyeballs bulging with fear, rocking gently back and forth on the floor. In the good old days these kinds of things were met with a widespread and utterly irrational urge to hide indoors clinging to the walls until the crisis passed, but no more. Since the internet came and ruined everything by granting all equal knowledge, global crises have just gotten dull.

I realised this last night when, upon watching the evening news and hearing about the first confirmed case of swine flu in Europe, I felt a pang of panic in the pit of my stomach. As a person with moderate to low levels of medical expertise, I simply put together what I had heard coming out of Mexico (about the swine flu fatalities), and added that to the announcement of the case in Spain. My brain then proceeded to calculate that I would be dead by the morning.

I figured that if it had already arrived in Spain, which is only a two hour flight from where I was, then it would surely have taken over the UK by midnight at the very latest; the simple calculation was made and my fate sealed, there could be no avoiding it. I considered leaning over to my sister to tell her the sort code and account number for my savings which she could have used to fund my funeral, and what music I wanted playing (Decades by Joy Division probably).

At this point the panic would only have snowballed in simpler times. The rest of my evening would have been spent going over the same questions in my head again and again, never getting closer to any actual answers. Questions about the threat posed by the virus, the risk of infection and the possible complications for someone of my health, the symptoms…ah the symptoms. This is where things would have gotten really scary. I’d have imagined steaming volcanic boils sprouting all over my skin, my limbs seizing up, my hair falling out, my feet falling off, my tongue swelling to fill my mouth and my eyes turning into my head or something. It would have been truly awful. Yet instead of the torrid futile suffering that would have ensued years prior, I simply got out my iPhone and Googled “swine flu”.

Literally less than a minute later and my mind was eased. I learned that my feet wouldn’t be falling off anytime soon and apparently here in the UK we have a natural basic immunity to the particular strain of flu in question and I wouldn’t be dying either. The deaths in Mexico were being viewed as something of an anomaly and we were being encouraged to wait and see what happened in Europe before making any major decisions. I put my phone back in my pocket, safe in the knowledge that I would live to see another day at least. I’d even go so far as to say that I might have even stood up to mild questioning on the topic, and this only a minute after accepting the inevitability of my impending doom.

This is what disappointed me today as I read about more confirmed cases of the virus in New Zealand and Israel. Before the internet we might have all grown closer as a people, united in our crippling fear of the absolute unknown. We might have sat around the TV eagerly awaiting further news or instruction. I can picture us walking around with those funny surgical masks on and stocking up on bottled water (which seems to be our national reaction to any such news – we are but a nation of hypochondriac water hoarders), something we could have told our grand-children about and hear them laugh at the very concept of illness, because of course by then people will all be intricately engineered super-robots of the future with full immunity to all ills (And they’ll probably roll around on laser guided silver rollerblades as well; powered by mere thoughts). These days the camaraderie created by such an event is more likely to manifest itself in a “Top 5 pandemics that never were” list on Facebook (My particular favourite being SARS).

Is it too much to ask for me to be able to induce some undue panic in my office tearoom by nonchalantly mentioning, in full earshot of my colleagues, about the increasing number of swine flu deaths, without being shot down by some smart arse in the corner with a Blackberry?

It’s all such a let down isn’t it? But still, nice we’re not going to die.

Upon Meeting The Boy

I met the boy for the first time yesterday afternoon around 2. Paid me little attention. He seemed pretty enamoured with his new bits and pieces to be fair to the lad. He squirmed about a bit, waved his arms, scrunched his face up, kicked his legs and generally ignored everyone in the room. There were comments;

“He has a lot of hair.”

“He looks Chinese.”

“He is very placid.”

And he was…extremely. It was the second thing I noticed after how much he moved. There didn’t seem to be any sound coming from the boy whatsoever, to the extent that I felt compelled to move in closer to observe. His eyes darted around manically, as though attempting to harvest as much data from his surroundings as possible. Of course to the casual enthusiast it may have appeared as though the eyes operated without purpose, but I knew better. I got the impression that he was privy to some great secret about humanity. I wanted to know what it was but somehow the boy made me feel unworthy. He had judged me, and all else present. I looked harder into his eyes but he rejected me and turned over. It was futile, he knew he was superior.

I returned today and observed once more. It was largely the same; lots of movement, only with more intensity than yesterday’s displays, lots of eye movement and a total lack of sound. The visitation was more serene than yesterday’s which filled me with hope that he might have more of an opportunity to assess my worthiness. I held him in my arms and he wriggled and kicked and squirmed for a time, until he heard my voice and he settled. I spoke to him as an equal and he responded the only way he could; with silence. His eyes halted on my own and it was then I realised what he was saying to me.

The thing is he swore me to secrecy so I can’t disclose any details.

I sang him a little bit of a Muddy Waters song and he didn’t react much except for a nonchalant brush of his hand over my chest. The longer in his presence I remained, the more I grew convinced of his superiority. Nothing fazed him. He had been poked, lifted, injected, exposed and talked at since he arrived yet retained a vicelike grip over his composure that made me feel in awe.

Maybe when we’re born we harbour all the knowledge in the world?

This boy though, he represents humanity in its newest, purest form yet he came across to me as the finished article. Clearly I’m not talking about physically, but only a moron could fail to notice the obvious mental capabilities. Just think, by the time his body grows and his ability to communicate his philosophy to everyone else improves, he will be a formidable being.

That’s what went through my mind upon meeting the boy anyway.