Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

GAH Humbug – How You’re Helping the GAA Ruin Your LIfe

September 22, 2013

If you’re of my persuasion (and you’re probably not, unless you’re the sort of reckless maverick who uses parentheses in an opening sentence), Croke Park strikes the eye as a kind of optical illusion. At once monstrously conspicuous – a brusque interruption of a familiar landscape – and curiously invisible, by virtue of one’s utter indifference to everything it represents.

For international readers – Croke Park is the 80,000-seater Dublin headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which governs Gaelic Games.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gaelic football, it is essentially an archaic kicking-and-catching code, akin to those played in elite English schools 150 years ago (from which modern football quickly evolved). Its sister sport, hurling, resembles a hybrid of lacrosse and field hockey in which the ball is plucked and volleyed freely.

The common format of the Gaelic Games (amateur players, multiple scoring methods, 70-minute matches) is unrecognisable from those practised at the elite level of sport, and they are better understood as elaborate athletic folk-rituals (along with other regionally popular spectacles such as bullfighting and Morris-dancing). – Dublin Dilettante

It is beyond dispute that football (and there will be no qualification of that term) is the game, indeed the primary cultural outlet, of the global working class. It conquered the world in parallel with the very processes which formed that class, rippling outwards from the British Isles along the earliest currents of globalised capitalism.

Enthusiasm for the game was immediate and uniform, throughout Latin America and Central Europe (except, initially, in Germany, where football was condemned as a malign foreign influence amid a vicious swelling of Teutonic nationalism, but survived and thrived nonetheless).

Curiously, however, those countries which proved most resistant to the game were precisely those which appeared best-placed to assimilate it, by virtue of their cultural ties with Britain.

Even today, football remains institutionally marginalised (though wildly popular amongst much of the general public) in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United States. South Africa is an atypical case, where majority rule has seen football displace rugby union, the sport jealously favoured under Apartheid as an exemplar of disciplined white supremacy.

Football had the misfortune to take the playing field at a time when all these societies were attempting to disentangle themselves from British influence, with varying degrees of urgency. But in order for the native elites of these countries to  preserve their own political and economic power, they needed a forge national identities which did not conflict with existing systems of ownership.

Cultural and ethnic differentiations were a means of short-circuiting the more radical currents of thought which emerged from anti-colonial struggles in the English-speaking world. Sport was a central battlefield in this cultural war, even in those places where the trenches had to be carved from virgin land.

The supposedly ancient Gaelic Games (and how weird is it that a sport should carry a racialising prefix?) were not actually codified until the 1880s; like so many feats of  “national awakening”, this was hailed as an heroic revival rather than an outright contrivance.

From the very outset of Ireland’s independent existence, the Gaelic Athletic Association constituted the sporting wing of the corporatist Irish state, a state which sought to bring all cultural, religious and social institutions under its control while allowing private capital to operate freely.  Gaelic Games were, in effect, the racial purity and brutal simplicity of De Valera’s Gaelic Ireland neatly encased in pigskin.

Professional football is a primarily urban sport in which the club-based structure tends to highlight local class tensions and divisions. Dublin’s clubs have their roots in unambiguously working-class communities such as Inchicore, Phibsboro and Ringsend.

Gaelic Games, by cunning contrast, are contested at the inter-county level (Ireland’s counties being more-or-less arbitrary parcels of land with no distinct socio-economic identity). It’s hardly surprising that this meaningless and unthreatening “county pride” is relentlessly promoted by the Irish media, political class and the massive multinationals which back the GAA to the hilt.

If you’re still not convinced that the GAA’s supposed centrality to Irish life is a political and marketing exercise, attempt the following:

Take a walk through any estate, park, or viable patch of grass in any major urban centre in Ireland. You will see gaggles of children breathlessly kicking, heading and dribbling footballs, just as – if not God, then some happy combination of human biology and human genius surely intended. (Indeed, it’s significant that football involves the head and feet – the organs of thought and dance – whereas catching codes express the acquisitive desire to grasp and manhandle, to fumble with the greasy ball).

By contrast, the only evidence of Gaelic Games you will encounter will be taking place within caged-off reservations festooned with civic and corporate sponsorship, or under strict and peremptory adult supervision.

The Gaelic, Catholic model of nationalism upon which the state was founded has largely fallen into disrepute in recent years. It has been replaced by Ireland Inc., a perverse concept which presents the “favourable business climate” as the bedrock of 21st-century patriotism.

But this novel definition of Ireland as a patchwork of taxation rates and share prices excludes the populace entirely, and makes for a vague and tenuous claim on their allegiance. And so the GAA must continue to be fostered, the atrophied black heart at the centre of the Irish state, the eternal reminder that your ancestors were every bit as unworthy and servile as you are.

Taxi for Tiki-Taka: The Dialectics of Football

July 22, 2011

I’ve always been relatively ambivalent towards the tiki-taka phenomenon, without ever quite understanding why. Having since puzzled it out, I now realise that simple recourse to onomatopoeia would have saved me a deal of soul-searching. The childlike flippancy of the term itself encapsulates much of my aversion to the style it denotes.

In an era of neo-brutalist vulgarity, in which forwards are equally prized for their defensive as offensive qualities (Tony Grant might have been an unlikely pioneer of the age, had he not abnegated his place in history by scoring freely up-North for Glenavon), Barcelona’s attacking, progressive football is rightly regarded as a breath of fresh of air.

Concessions are made to certain indispensable elements of the Zeitgeist; Barça press hard, but to state that a modern professional football team presses hard is to state that it fields eleven men. The Spanish national team, with the explosive and unquantifiable variable of Lionel Messi excised from the equation, represents arguably the purer strain.

I think I’ve expressed before my preference for the Russo-Ukrainian school of football espoused by Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kyiv and USSR teams (they were essentially one and the same). The following is an excerpt from Lobanovskiy’s book The Methodological Basis of the Development of Training Models, quoted by Jonathan Wilson in this month’s World Soccer.

“When we are talking about tactical evolution, the first thing we have in mind is to strive for new courses of action that will not allow the opponent to adapt to our style of play.”

“If an opponent has adjusted himself to our style of play and found a counter-play, then we need to find a new strategy. That is the dialectic of the game”.

(Thought you’d escaped the politics, didn’t you? Not so fast, motherfucker!)

Attempts to conflate styles of football with the political and cultural environments in which they flourish are invariably tenuous (where they’re not downright mischievous). But Lobanoskiy concocted a style genuinely expressive of egalitarian values; a hard-running, dynamic, counter-attacking game which was exhilarating to watch, all the more so because it was played at such pace (unlike tiki-taka).

In Lobanovskiy’s framework, every member of the team was a potential playmaker. The man in possession, whether he was a full-back, a midfielder or a central defender, was expected to launch the counter-attack with a single long pass to a free player as soon as the opponent relinquished the ball. Likewise, everyone was expected to chase down possession with equal fervour.

This is where the crucial cleavage between the Russo-Ukrainian school (faint echoes of which survive in Eastern Europe today) and tiki-taka becomes apparent. Lobanovskiy strove for constant movement of both ball and man. In his eyes, a player who could release the ball and then receive it back in the same position wasn’t working hard enough.

The Barça model lacks that kind of rigorous humility and a certain amount of, as it were, Dynamism. Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad Barcelona won the Champions League, and I’m glad Spain won the World Cup. But they are teams to be admired, not teams to be loved. They neither aspire to, nor are capable of attaining, the sublime (except in the person of Messi). Rather, their holy grail is the achievement of absolute technical competence, like a backroom of IT geeks, or Fleetwood Mac.

A small, blackened corner of my heart drew immense satisfaction from Barcelona’s defeat to Inter in the first leg of the 2010 Champions League semi-final (as dismayed as I am by any outcome which burnishes Mourinho’s reputation).

Barcelona showed up at San Siro expecting to pass rings around a flat-footed collection of South American has-beens, cast as the Washington Generals for one night only. Instead, Guardiola’s side visibly wilted in the face of a fearsome fusillade of passionate, attacking football which cut them down to size. Their self-satisfied arrogance had blinded them to the dialectic of the game; they had no response.

One could make the claim that FC Barcelona’s success has given contemporary Europe the champion it deserves; a technocratic elite, backed by big money, which parades across the continent beneath the banner of UNICEF in a false posture of social solidarity.

Taste The Blog Of Dracula

August 22, 2010

Growing up in the Ballymun of the 1980s was, in socio-cultural terms, somewhat akin to living beyond the immediate blast radius of a nuclear explosion. While those at ground zero absorbed all the energy, only the fall-out ever reached us, leading to malformed, barren mutations.

One happy consequence of this phenomenon was that, as children, we were blissfully ignorant of our dire need to cultivate positive role models at the behest of middle-class patricians. We probably thought positive role modelling was what Maurice Pratt was doing with his fluffy jumpers in the Quinnsworth ads.

So the closest thing I had to a hero was Peter Cushing. Peter Cushing the screen presence, I mean. As a child, I think I would have been less impressed had I known that, in real life, he was a cheerful, high-pitched, giddy and skittish raconteur, ebullient to the point of eccentricity. On-screen, however, he was either a taciturn, incorruptible and boundlessly humane good guy, or an obsessive, iconoclastic antagonist, ravaged by his own inarticulable genius.

While I’m normally a fierce advocate of the primacy of an original author’s vision, Cushing’s interpretation of the role of Van Helsing was the making of the character, which became an archetype in its own right. It also gave Cushing an opportunity to unleash the generic Central European accent with which he also graced Dr. Terror’s House of Horror and The Beast Must Die, curiously plummy undertones and all (the principle being that simply because a chap happened to be foreign, he wasn’t absolved of the obligation to speak properly.)

Cushing is, of course, inseparable in the popular consciousness from the Hammer productions of the 50s, 60s and 70s. My own preference was always for the creepy portmanteau movies of Amicus, which were often mistaken for Hammer films thanks to numerous shared quadrants of the vintage horror Venn diagram, including the presence of Cushing, Christopher Lee and other mainstays of the genre.

It took me a long time to accept, however, that Hammer films were mostly dull, and that I wasn’t really interested in the classic icons of horror which populated much of the studio’s output (although leftists could do worse than check out Plague of the Zombies, a powerful parable about industrial exploitation and probably the only Hammer film which aspires to social commentary.)

This led me to ponder the popularity of these characters, and the appeal of the type of horror they represented. One thing many contemporary directors fail to understand is that mere physical peril is not the stuff of horror; they seem unable to appreciate the fundamental difference between horror and the horrific. To see someone butchered by a psychopath may be (though it usually isn’t) an horrific experience, but it doesn’t leave the cinema with you. At best, it might engender a kind of short-term PTSD.

True horror seeps insidiously into your bloodstream and comes back to haunt you with a frisson of unease in quiet moments of solitude, because it thoughtfully tosses an impossible fear beyond words onto the pile of mundane anxieties beneath which we all labour. This, I think, is why the classic creatures of horror, though they don’t press my buttons, have aged so well.

Vampires, werewolves, zombies can all kill you, but what’s really disturbing is that they used to be you. Once a serial killer or a five-headed monster slaughters its victim, that pretty much closes the lid on the whole affair. When a vampire or werewolf kills someone, he’s just getting started. Psychologically, the fear of losing one’s identity and becoming other than oneself is an extremely potent concept.

This, I think, is why vampires are so popular with adolescents. Teenagers don’t share the existential anxieties of the adult and are naturally fascinated by metamorphosis.

Right, enough horror. Let’s get back to the really scary stuff…

How Not To Win A Class War

April 15, 2010

Perhaps the most persistent myth of the bargain basement cod-sociology which keeps Irish media pundits ticking over is that of the Celtic Tiger as a societal phenomenon. I’m not even referring, in this instance, to the political expediency of this myth, although this is manifest; sure, some of us bought up half of Western Anatolia and purchased a fleet of limos for our grand-niece’s communion, but then others took a weekend in Copenhagen when there was perfectly good dirt to grind themselves into, so we all lost the run of ourselves. Can’t we just call it quits and move on?

In reality, however, the Tiger was the material expression, at an opportune moment, of a culture which had long preceded it and has long survived it. The cult of neoliberalism, Irish-style, was not a product of the boom, nor of the housing bubble, nor of Italia ’90, nor an intellectual construct of the Progressive Democrats. It was not even a consequence of Fianna Fáil’s innate sense of entitlement to droit-de-seigneur over the Irish people. The supremacy of the market had long been impregnably implanted in the minds of the opinion-formers of Irish society (i.e., the ones with the airtime and column space to propound their views unchallenged.)

One of the most striking aspects of this development, however, was the almost complete failure of neoliberalism, as an ideology, to take root within the populace at large. Even as chapter and verse resounds from the lips of its prophets, the language employed is the language of solidarity, of unity, of justice. Greed is not only not good, it’s very, very bad, and moreover, it’s everywhere. Greed is defending one’s pay and conditions in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Greed is temporarily withholding non-essential services from the public. Don’t you know there’ s a war on?

So why has the media onslaught against the public sector, and workers generally, been so unremittingly triumphant? Some people bought into the false equivalence of solidarity and unconditional capitulation, as propagated by the likes of Pat Kenny, Eamon Keane and Independent Newspapers, undoubtedly. It’s a shoddy scapegoat that finds no takers.

Strikingly, however, the instrument used to smite the public sector was not one crafted from the precepts of neoliberalism, but a specious appeal to a debased form of egalitarianism. There was no suggestion that these people had job security, or pensions, or relatively decent pay because they’d fought for and earned those things, as elsewhere in the economy. Their sin was the sin of privilege. Right-wing commentators used to have a phrase for this approach; they called it the politics of envy. But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

However, there is also a smaller, though significant, element at play here, which is worth exploring simply because it’s substantially overlooked by those on the left.

I grew up during the last great recession in the 1980s, in what was probably the most deprived (settled) community in the entire country. Unemployment was ubiquitous, a natural condition of life that barely registered as a vicissitude, like head-lice in the 1950s. Heroin was consuming the neighbourhood from the inside out, although to innocent eyes it was simply “drugs”, something that happened between huddles of furtive young men in stairwells.

The chief certainty one absorbed from a remarkably early age was that life comprised one long struggle against the government and its confederates. Far from being cosseted in the bosom of a doting welfare state, the relationship was defined by antagonism. They begrudged you every penny, every second of service, and they made sure you knew it. Nor was there any serious recourse to collective struggle; there were no unions for the unemployed.

To anyone under the age of thirty in those days (certainly under the age of twenty) the notion that the clerk in the rent office, the woman in the labour exchange, the guy from the ESB who cut off your supply, that any of those people could conceivably be on your side was not just laughable, but offensive. And as for guards and teachers…

Of course, these were all false impressions. None of these underpaid, under-resourced public sector workers were responsible for the low-level violence of compulsion which the state inflicted upon the poor, nor (under constant attack themselves) did they have the leeway to act on their sympathies. Though undoubtedly corners were cut in Dublin 11 which would not have been cut in Dublin 4.

Because familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, contempt breeds contempt, and the contempt of the state for the urban poor was boundless and vicious. In addition to which, the state (then as now) was masterfully adept at bringing a kind of degenerated Marxist method to bear against different sectors of the working class, lest they should come to recognise their common adversary.

In many areas of the city (I can speak only for Dublin), that experience of the 1980s has not only inculcated a genuine apathy towards politics (and not the kind one hears invoked when turnout drops half-a-per-cent in a given constituency), but also a steadfast, instinctive aversion to the agents of the state and all their works and pomps. This lingering resentment has done for class identification with public sector workers amongst the urban poor what aspirational allegiance to the ruling class did in other parts of the population.

The consolatory fact remains, however, that the Irish people have never endorsed neoliberalism on its own terms, and when invited to do so (McDowell’s PDs, the Lisbon campaign that was fought on the treaty), have resoundingly declined. It is no wonder, therefore, that the neoliberal offensive has been so elliptical in pursuit of its goals.

The other night, some character called Niamh Lyons from the Daily Mail appeared on Vincent Browne’s show to preview the morning papers. She described the proposed Croke Park deal as “manna from heaven” for the public sector, evidence of which was that the “hardline militants” in charge of the unions had endorsed it. I hesitate to say that she believed any of this, because a basic level of intelligence must be present before one can be meaningfully said to believe anything. However, hers was not the most depressing contribution.

That came from our old friend Joan Burton TD, who refused (despite repeated entreaties spanning half an hour) to support or oppose the deal. Her contortions mirrored those of her party leader Eamon Gilmore, who refrained on the basis that “[it was] not the function of politicians to get involved in an industrial relations issue such as this.”

That the leader of the LABOUR Party can come out with a statement like that demonstrates the water-tightness of the neoliberal consensus which defines Irish politics. It also demonstrates the necessity for a left alternative to avail of these open goals, not just on an electoral, but also an intellectual basis. The neoliberal right haven’t won the argument; there hasn’t even been an argument.

After all, with enemies like Gilmore, Burton and the union leadership, who needs friends?

And another thing…

March 28, 2010

The heroic struggle of Limerick vintners to preserve punters from the ordeal of enduring a rugby match sober has been much in the news this week. One target has been left singularly untouched by the fusillades from either side in the church-state conflict over the issue (which, I must confess, leaves me cold; the Catholic church is a spent force in Irish society, and no vestigial of its former influence is going to re-animate it, not even at Easter.)

Namely, the real scandal at the heart of this issue; the pathological inability of the Irish people to stay off the booze for twenty-four hours without going into seizures.

Replace dry Good Fridays with a secular Anti-Alcoholism Day, that’s what I say. No alcohol to be sold anywhere, no exemptions, free public transport to family entertainments, and some open-air festivities around the country.

Spacehoppers, Flares and Trade Union Militancy

February 25, 2010

With UK opinion polls inclining towards the possibility of a hung parliament at the forthcoming general election (although Lenin is sceptical), BBC Parliament deemed it opportune to re-broadcast the corporation’s election night coverage from February 1974, the last election which produced no overall majority at Westminster.

I waded through all six hours at leisure, as much in a spirit of televisual archaeology as historical research. 1974 was before my time, but the Life On Mars thesis of an irreconcilably alien world was borne out to some extent. In fact, everyone was so fucking ugly and ludicrously dressed that I’m surprised the birth-rate didn’t stall altogether.

Beyond the terrifying vista of a world made entirely of beige and hair, however, lay a televisual culture both strikingly familiar and oddly dissonant. The format of the programme was pretty much the standard fare which has survived into the present day: A chief anchor, a couple of eccentric psephologists, a tech kid, a panel of interviewees, some vox pops with inarticulate punters, a few weak humorous interludes, and a band of hardy foot-soldiers doing OB from the count centres.

Nowadays, of course, the emphasis has changed somewhat. The professional psephologists have been marginalised and replaced by graphical shock ‘n’ awe, the main presenter is flanked by a row of permanent and semi-permanent panellists, and the supreme imperative of speed results in an array of reporters standing under basketball hoops and trying to find varying ways of saying that they don’t have a fucking clue what’s happening yet.

What struck me most about the ’74 coverage was the performance of Alistair Burnet under a monstrous workload. Sure, he’s a slimy, oleaginous creep, but he played a blinder. With no laptop, no in-studio interviewees (all the strangely truncated interviews were conducted by Robin Day, tucked away in a poky corner of the studio) and presumably without a torrential surge of information flooding his earpiece in the modern fashion, he kept on top of events, exhibited instant familiarity with all candidates and constituencies, dealt with a breaking news story from Belfast, and didn’t flag once in the course of a six-hour marathon.

The election itself resulted in a minority Labour government which ruled for eight months until Harold Wilson sought a working majority. It also demonstrated the inadequacy of the British first-past-the-post electoral system, as the Liberals were left with just fourteen seats to show for their six million votes (a horse Robert McKenzie flogged endlessly and in vain.)

I’ve uploaded a few highlights which give a flavour of the politics, the campaign and the coverage.

First up, some marvellously old-school striking miners in Denaby reject claims of political striking by a hostile interviewer.

Burnet sombrely interrupts coverage of the election to report multiple bombings and a fatality in Belfast (including a later update.)

David Dimbleby’s round-up of the pre-election campaign, featuring Enoch Powell acting demented, Jeremy Thorpe (whom I was surprised to discover is still alive) sounding typically sinister, and a cast of assorted clueless toffs.

A plummy punter in Trafalgar Square who appears to have been animated by more than the spirit of liberalism (incidentally, “liberalism” is evidently a word to avoid when you’re pissed.)

Desmond Wilcox interviews the original Tory Boy.

Communist Party candidate Jimmy Reid gracefully accepts defeat in Dunbartonshire Central after polling almost 6,000 votes. He was one of only two unsuccessful candidates whose speeches were broadcast that night, for some reason. He’s now a member of the SNP.