|Many people talk of knowing where they were the moment they heard that John F. Kennedy had died, or Elvis Presley or Princess Diana. Now I wasn’t around for the first, and the latter two made scant impression on me, but I do recall crystal-clearly the day, the night, I first heard a phrase that has cast an ever uglier shadow over our public discourse this past quarter century. The occasion was the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and we – my brothers, my father and I – were all grouped around the TV in the sitting-room, in the small hours, to watch Carl Lewis win the last of his record-equalling four gold medals. A BBC journalist interviewed the freshly-triumphant Lewis beside the track and said, ‘Carl, you’ve done, won, everything now. What’s next?’ ‘Oh now, ‘ said Lewis, ‘I’d like to be a role model.’
What? I frowned inquiringly at my elders, what’s that? I actually thought it was a job, like being an engineer or a lorry-driver. I didn’t even know how to spell it. ( ‘Role?’ ‘Roll?’). I had this vision of him wheeling a Pirelli tyre down a catwalk. I thought, ‘Bizarre. They’ll pay you for that?’
This is not the place to give RoleModeldom the full, pants down thrashing this pot-holed notion deserves. But thrash it some we must because, when in 1998 Channel 4 took over from a BBC whose sixty-year long coverage of cricket it had successfully portrayed as having become flat, uninspired, and off-puttingly posh, it did so partly on the back of RoleModeldom and its atttendants. It promised a fresher, more relevant, inclusive approach, its then sports chief Mark Sharman emphasising how the multicultural audience for the game meshed perfectly with Channel 4’s remit. All fine and dandy and aspirations that any progressive would subscribe to, aspirations that gelled too with the orthodoxies of those fresh, new New Labour times. But just as Blair quickly proved to be basically a trendy – Cool Britannia and all that – so I feared that Channel 4, a station that had been showing increasingly populist colours, might, for the sake of an overegged notion, throw the baby – still beautiful, just in need of a scrub-up – out with the bathwater. I sniffed some symbol-minded television ahead: Alex Tudor, south Londoner and England’s then black hope, perhaps, pressganged into showcasing his skills amongst Brixton’s garage artists, or in the exercise yard of Feltham Young Offenders’ on the new Saturday morning Cricket Roadshow. Gestures that would not only be cringeworthy but futile.
It is not that the concept is rotten at its core – clearly, there is some truth to the idea that people, especially as they become older and more socially aware, are inspired by others or an activity in whom or which they can see themselves – but the ways in which this neologism has been promulgated have been frequently patronising, dangerous and not as true as all that. The racial condescension is plain for all to see – some folk apparently need models more than others. Indians did and do not need Indian teachers to do well at school, nor did Africans need Africans when I was at school and Brit-Africans regularly vied with Indians for number 1 spot in the education charts, but these days whenever a black youth messes up or is absent in some area the cry goes up for role models as if we are the children of the world. Dangerous because the concept places too high an importance on externals whilst correlating insufficiently with the main reason why most people of any substance sustain an interest – for the thing in-itself and their relationship to it.
This has become one of those chicken and egg businesses. We have so encouraged our youngest to think along role model lines that many now think in this way at hitherto unseen ages. And so a talented eleven year-old mixed-race, part-Ugandan boy I know, the son of a teacher acquaintance from Brent, north London, has already hung up his cricket boots because, he says, cricket is a (Brit) Asian, not a black thing. At worst, the notion encourages group thinking and conformity, a nice fit for this conservative-in-progressive-clothes age.
I had fallen for cricket, in my working-class part of north London, in very different times, the early seventies, around the same time I fell for Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, Anthony Buckeridge’s prep school ‘Jennings’ books, tales of Greek and Roman myths, and the elan-laden French rugby team (not, cricket apart, a black one amongst them). The game came courtesy of those two enablers to the thing-in-itself, those dual routes to access: watching and actually playing. My first fully remembered televisual season was 1975, and its standout image will be etched for just as long as Lewis’s interview: the inaugural World Cup final, Lords’, a muggy morning, and Roy Fredericks, the West Indies’ dashing left-hand blade, clad in a wide-brimmed white sunhat and white shirt open to the torso, hooking Australia’s demon bowler Dennis Lillee gloriously for six in an opening over, only to tread on his own stumps in the process. He departed to the roars of a crowd of every hue gathered on the grass beyond the boundary edge. A little later, that same summer, I remember waking up thrilled in my stomach, the way I always was when it was a cricket day, and turning on the telly to find, to my horror, that a group, protesting over the imprisonment of a man they believed innocent, had vandalised the Headingley Test match pitch, and thus there would be no play that day. Ah, televised cricket, the time-honoured companion to the unemployed and to children, those without the means or the permission to pursue other pleasures.
Ours was an uncommon childhood, I grant you. We laboured, in the school holidays, under a strict academic regime supervised by my father. When he was out, at work, we’d convert our Maths and Latin primers into table tennis bats and a net across the table, or else play cricket in the hallway and outside. Our home backed onto a number of gardens most of them overgrown so you couldn’t play football in them, but a long stony strip ran alongside, just wide and flat enough to accomodate a bit of turn from the off for this apprentice spinner.
Cricket, then, was part of our route into normalcy, into mainstream Britishness, into the world outside our strange doors. We’d play it across the road on a neighbouring sidestreet or in the park, along and with other boys, and even at state junior school, with a tennis ball and the white wicket painted on the wall. We’d talk about Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee, and know about showjumping and Harvey Smith (big on the box in those days), and play this game too. The big local park – Finsbury – always had a big people’s game going on in the summer – these were the days when urbanites, not so many, but some really did play cricket in the summer and football the rest of the time. Bizarre isn’t it, now, to imagine cricket as a way into the urban mainstream? It’s about as central as the no longer televised show-jumping these days. Now, be it the recent African arrivals clustered in their pubs to cheer on the African-friendly Arsenal and Chelsea, or the Eastern European immigrant I saw yesterday in his red England soccer strip – football is the only way in.
It seemed, if anything, more multicultural than British football then. That World Cup seemed to bring all bits of the globe – really, the British Commonwealth – to town, each with their own flavour of the game, and was followed the year after, by West Indies’ celebrated 1976 tour. (England’s South African born captain Tony Greig said he would make them grovel. He didn’t). There were various overseas stars in most of the county sides, and numerous non-white faces in those crowds of the seventies to mid eighties – especially when the West Indies were over, especially at the Oval, south London – black Britain’s heartland – far more than I’d see on my occasional, someway wary trips to Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane. Those black folk at the cricket were, looking back, of a certain age, – men for the most part, not youngsters, no doubt many born elsewhere, and this allied with the serious racial pressure of those times – the NF, the sus laws, the riots – may have given them the confidence and the defiant mindset to make those days, those grounds their own as they did, with their klaxons and whistles and curries and general othercountry vibe. There were others who seemed cowed or threatened then, as much off the field as on it.
Class has always cast its shadow over this English-born and Empire-disseminated game. As Mike Marquesee notes in his ‘Anyone But England: Cricket and the National Malaise’: ‘Cricket was the first team game in which the upper classes took part. They patronized football and other traditional festive games, but they played cricket… Cricket brought together all the classes on the village green, but it did so in hierachical fashion’. Hierachy has left its mark all over, in the old race and shade-stratified clubs of the subcontinent and the Caribbean, and at ‘home’ – in the old amateur-professional distinction, in the public-school prattle and pro-apartheid sporting-links lean of many of the game’s stalwarts through the eighties, in the Lords test’s enduring status as part of the ‘Season’ and the fact that, until now, a number of players have been knighted for the ‘lordly’ pursuit of batting, but none for the manual labour that is bowling. There was also a country background, a rus then urbs element, a game that grew out of the leisures of the English landed classes at the moment the nation entered its Industrial Revolution. Many of the sport’s early patrons, such as Lord Sheffield, were landowners, and the Champion players often workers on their estates. You get a whiff of this in former Tory Prime Minister John Major’s famous 1994 yearning for an (old) England of ‘village greens, warm beer and cricket’ (a sentiment that would, interestingly, have touched some chords some with any early Caribbean migrants who heard it, for that cricket-minded first generation were predominantly country folk), and a whiff of it all in the animus from some of English cricket’s quarters towards that dominant West Indies team. There was clearly something in the support and style of that side – its Rasta wristband-wearers and ferocious pace attack, its unapologetically masculine virtues – that did not agree and with the pastoralists and their version of the game.
The sport also appeared multicultural to me in another, non-racial way. I loved the fact that the pitch, the playing surface was different from venue to venue, as were the weather conditions, that the pitch actually changed character over the course of a three or five day game, and that all thismattered, affected the outcome. It seemed a richer game than football where teams pretty much played the way they always did across the world and conditions didn’t matter, and more real, more in tune with nature and science – just as the world felt more real to me in summer when you could smell the cut grass and people and have that langurous, sensual feeling all over. This was a game that incorporated change over time, that understood dx over dt. Which is to say that although you could look at this black-immigrant boy and say he got into cricket at its multicultural, mainstream moment and chose to support the West Indies who, don’t you know, were successful; a politically-maturing boy, moreover, who could see in the game, in that era of anti-apartheid and a politically-flecked black team, a site of action that led him to dig up his cricket-famed public school’s pitch when the white South African team came visiting, and it all sounds a straightforwardy, rolemodelly, inspired-by type-story, and it is all true (apart from the top dog aspect for I am underdog man – must be the deep British in me), yet it’s less true than the fact that white shirts on dark skin topped off with maroon caps was an aesthetic, near-fetishistic delight to this boy, a side of him he became increasingly aware of as he soon after developed a taste for film noir with their men in fedoras and dames with cigarette holders, just as the shapes a batsman’s body makes when he strokes the ball and the lines those shots make through the circle that is the field of play later evolved into a love of dancing and the shapes of the human body in motion, and of geometry’s curves and angles; just as his opting for the con game that is spin was echoed in his hankering for the life of grift and street cunning you saw in films like ‘The Sting’ and shows like ‘Sargeant Bilko’; and most of all because this avid reader and wannabe writer welcomed Time, be it in its short form, as the fast bowler returned to his mark, before hurtling back again, and the bareheaded batsman tried to calm the thoughts in his head and the churn in his stomach, or though all the fluctuations, varying mental pressures and situations of the Test match. Enough time to give you evidence for and the capacity to be moved by the characters of the protagonists. This was a sport that more than any other had narrative, a novel-like relationship with time. And, in its rhythmic, hypnotic beats, a musicality too. If it were a music – well, the soothing strains of classical could certainly put up a case, but you’d have to go for dub.
Time, like reading, is not for everyone. Perhaps it is most of all for Hindus who, if you subscribe to the take recently put forward by United Nations Under Secretary and cricket nut Shashi Tharoor on Test Match Special, have such an affinity for the game because their religion is big on eternity – but even this no longer prevents sparse Test Match crowds in India. It has become less even for me, I confess, as I’ve got older, and least so for young western boys, as the world has got busier, freer, quicker. Speak to some young about their aversion, their indifference to cricket, and it is not role models that crops up, but time. Boxer Amir Khan, cousin of England bowler Sajid Mahmood, when asked about his opinion of cricket, said, ‘I don’t have the patience,’ a view echoed among my nephews and the children of my friends. Fielding is especially trying, but even batting…’We went to one game,’ noted one ten year-old to me, ‘and, you know, the first ten minutes, they didn’t run.” To use a expression in current black parlance, applied to all time-intensive activities, ‘Long!’
It strikes me that what Channel 4 was most seriously up against was widespread changes in our relationship to time , and hence to many’s perception of this thing. Granted, in the black-Brit part of its anticipated multicultural audience at least, there was a class issue too – a political shift amongst British-Caribbeans between a first generation migrant community that was essentially Anglophile, and who saw in cricket an arena to assert pride and dignity, and a 2nd and 3rd UK-born generation that was less Anglophile but properly English working-class, ‘street’, in both environment and ideology, who saw the game through English eyes in a decade when the game had all but slipped from urban vernacular, from its streets and schools ( Brit-Asian communities were more suburban, so less affected) – but more widely, there was time. It’s almost as if we needed to relearn how to watch and appreciate this game. English Cricket, characteristically, did not help itself through the eighties and early nineties when the team that, slow overrates aside, best embodied this quicker sense of time, and modernity more widely – the West Indies with their speed merchants and general dynamism, their liberation from the class issues that remained in the English game, a team that like their musical and street-cool counterparts were more popular, more trend-setting amongst white Britons than many realised – faced the repeated sniping that they did. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that the one English player to truly catch the public imagination in those years, the brash Ian Botham, was best mates with the West Indies’ star – attitude-stacked Viv Richards. In the end, those stuffier quarters got what they wanted – a ban on musical instruments at grounds that contributed to a diminuition in those black throngs by the turn of the nineties. As it turned out, a few years later when, in between Blair’s and Channel 4’s triumph, a bunch of ululating Africans gathered outside Kensington palace after the death of Diana to lead the country in a very demonstrative, unBritish type of mourning, the powers had bet on the wrong England.
This is role-model-lite, if you like. Lacking the kind of fresh formats or fully endorsed personalities – preferably British – that chimed with modern aspirations, with the directions the country was moving in, the appeal of the game waned. A contrast can be made with baseball here. Nine -innings baseball too suffered its ‘boring’, ‘old-fashioned’ moment in the States in the eighties, increasingly under threat as it was from quicker games such as basketball that had taken much of its urban audience. But baseball responded by embracing its modern personalities – its Dwight Goodings, its Darryl Strawberrys, and the game successfully regrouped, its audience fattened by the new hispanic immigrants moving to New York and other big cities.
When it came Channel 4, in that English starless, pre Twenty-Twenty, pre-earstudded Flintoff era, did what it could and what it did did not turn out as crudely as I’d feared. In bouffant-haired former player Mark Nicholas they had a lead presenter – smooth, authoritative, not too Ra-Ra – at the personable end of public schooldom. Crucially, he was an enthusiast for the thing-in-itself – his commentary paid full due to the game’s aesthetic appeal while the Saturday roadshows he hosted focussed on skills sessions involving local budding youngsters. His colleague Simon Hughes, in his OB spyhole, carried the illumination process further, with his forensic graphics-aided rewinds of passages of play. He’d show you, for example, how a bowler ended a batsman’s life by ‘working’ him over a number of particularly placed balls. The viewer was given a sense of how time and pressure worked in this game – that it might not be thrills-a minute football, but contained its periods of situational intensity. Other use of technology – Channel 4’s deployment of on field microphones (initiated by Sky TV, to be fair) drew attention to aspects like the verbal abuse, the sledging , between opponents that the previous broadcaster, for some overly-protective reason, had ignored. In short, stuff for the connoisseurs and the casuals.
Inclusivity was there, also, but not crowbarred. When the roadshow arrived in a more Asian part of the country , you’d see more Asian youngsters in the roadshows. When the West Indies toured in 2000, it was the cue for a ‘Caribbean Summer’ and the sounds and smells once again, at grounds (yea, even at Lords) of drums and bass and curried foodsm And if this was partly Channel 4 -induced, and some of the bands quaintly old school, at least this time you felt there was no ambivalence, no Tebbit-like tests or unwelcome in the air. The change in tone across the media to stadium diversity, to the Brit-Asians who these days throng the grounds in the blue and green of their mother countries is marked, and Channel 4 played its part.
None of this, to be sure, could save cricket in Black-Brit land ( final confirmation of which came at a recent Lords reception to launch the Brian Lara exhibition there where my late thirty-something self was, the odd celebrity-hopeful hottie aside, the youngest black person there). In the end, for all its multicultural past, and part-multicultural present, it took an old-fashioned domestic dispute to lift English cricket to a height it had not seen for a very long time. Channel 4’s time at the helm concluded with the epic 2005 series between the Anglo cousins – England and Australia, for the Ashes. Its coverage gave it, on the rubber’s climactic final day, its highest ever audience share of 23% – 7.4 million, an beyond that, thousands famously stretched outside an already full Old Trafford, and serenaded a triumphant England in Trafalgar Square. Who can definitively say what led to all this? The moss-gathering media coverage that summer? Patriotism? An unquenchable thirst for big public occasions in the post- Diana’s death era? No doubt there were plenty of sheep, those who wanted to be in on any in-thing once it’s in. But I like to think that much of it was due to the thing-in-itself. That people had a chance to see the games and some were seduced by what they saw. We’ll never know because, ridiculously and kind-of karmically, live cricket, courtesy of a still-myopic cricket England’s choices and a New Labour whose demotion of the game from its ‘Crown Jewel’ status showed you all the contemporary relevance they thought it had, was now leaving free TV for the first in my lifetime. And, in a flash, any hope of sustaining the momentum was gone. Behind me, on the telly, some ‘London Olympic Special’ is going on. One Tim Lamb who, as it happens, was head honcho in cricket England once upon a time, has just asked Lord Coe how he can justify cannibalising the money earmarked for grass roots sport to fund the London games, and Coe is droning out the standard line. The biggest help for grass roots sports, he’s saying, will be the role model Olympic champions that the Games will provide. No, Seb, believe me. Gold medals come and go. Most are forgotten about a few weeks later – they mainly attract the kind of superficials who’ll go somewhere else when that medallist and that activity is no longer in the news (English hockey, archery, anyone?). Give us access to the thing, don’t forget the necessary spring cleans, and you will attract the audience and the partcipants your thing deserves.
Kensington Oval, Port of Spain, Trinidad, February 1994. West Indies v. England. After lasting maybe twenty minutes in the prime seats largely occupied by those, like us, who’ve come from Britain we – my two white friends and I – have decamped to a locals’stand. Here, the Nutsman, his natties packed under a striped top hat and over his shoulder a body-long canvas bag, stuffed with every known nut in the world, is moving among us, slinging his wares around, and pitching with ditties in his Trini lilt: ‘Nuts, Nuts! How many? Is it any?’ …’You grow big on nuts and honey/ All that’s missing is your money….’ ‘Nuts! Special Lara nuts, special Lara rates…’Each over’s end is punctuated by blasts of soca and reggae from the many sound systems in the ground, and the sight of an old,cross-dressed man, a much-loved ‘Mistress of Misrule’, gyrating his double-jointed triple-skirted self. All of the island’s worlds seem represented across the packed ground, from the middle-classes to young ragamuffins, from those who have no especial love for the game but are patriots still, to the connoisseurs, hunched silently over their scorecards, or else swopping judgements like lords of the earth.
There is rum and beer and any amount of addictive dice-and-counters –games to be played during the breaks. My England-supporting spars exchange much banter with our new friends and, as paceman Curtly Ambrose’s wickets helps to scuttle England for 46, the nuts are magically transformed to ‘Ambrose nuts’. On the final day, an excited buzz goes round as three of the island’s most celebrated calypsonians appear below us, guitars in hand, ready to serenade the expected home victory. And as we join the hundreds behind them surging to the pavilion, all three of us are beaming, so happy to have seen what we’ve seen, to have sampled our favourite thing in such an environment. “Boy!” one of my friends turned to me, mindful of all the talk there had been about the decline in interest in cricket in the Caribbean, “it would be nice to have a decline like this back home!”
Back home, of course, music was banned. Faced with increasingly vocal supporters of Pakistan and the West Indies, who blew horns , whistles and banged drums at their teams’ triumphs, the English cricketing authorities had responded by banning these instruments from its grounds, treating its latest chance to broaden its appeal with the scorn and the blinkered vision I had come to expect.
If Britain’s post-war history is a story of the management of the decline of a once world power, then there is no more dramatic case study than that of English cricket. Attendances at the first-class game have slumped from 2.3 million in 1946 to a tenth of that now, whilst the briefest stroll through this country’s streets and parks will tell you of the almost complete eviction of the game from the social fabric….
|Athletes have always been expected to set a good example. But today, does the immediacy of social media mean their right to free expression is under threat? Diran Adebayo considers the rules of the game.
THE LONDON OLYMPIC GAMES were dubbed the first Twitterlympics, a nod to the numer- ous athletes who were now using social media to share their experiences and comment on one of the world’s most-loved sporting extravaganzas – and to the various deals the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had struck with Facebook and YouTube, among other big businesses. It goes without saying that social media has dramatically changed the style, reach of, and audience for public expression, and the unintended consequences of this brave new world are nowhere more appar- ent than in the audience- and responsibility-rich domain of the sporting ‘role model’.
The explosion of social media has laid bare the dangers that were always lurking
It was in the small hours one night in the summer of 1984 that I first heard mention of what was to become a mighty concept: the role model. It was the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 and my family was grouped around the TV to watch Carl Lewis win the last of his record-equalling four gold medals. After- wards, a BBC journalist interviewed Lewis beside the track and said, ‘Carl, you’ve done, won, everything now. What’s next?’ ‘Oh now,’ said Lewis, ‘I’m going to be a role model.’ What? I frowned inquiringly at my elders. I had not heard this phrase before and the way he said it sounded like it was a proper new job that he was moving on to. As I’ve said previously when writing about sport and the job of being a role model, I had this vision of him wheeling Pirelli tyres down catwalks (‘roll model’) and thought it bizarre that he would want to move from this to that.
It turned out, as the concept began playing an ever bigger part in the national and international ‘conversation’ from the 1990s onwards, I was only half wrong. It wasn’t an orthodox job, but it was a ‘job’ in the sense that one of its primary func- tions was the making of money. Nor was it a job in the usual sense of a position that one voluntar- ily applies for and can leave should one choose – this was something that was thrust upon every figure, usually public, who was deemed to have some influence on others, especially the young; sportspeople, musicians, and so on. And the role models, the sport stars especially, usually accepted this position because of the extra money-making potential it afforded them through corporate endorsements and sponsorship.
And thus was born the 24-7 sportsman ‘brand’. Where once people did their day job in ways that might result in the happy by-product of inspiring and exciting followers of their activity, now this informal quality, or consequence, was professional- ised, monetised. There was a new insistence that if you had achieved some level of standing in a high- profile profession you had also somehow signed up to a 24-hour contract of promoting a version of goodness to the world.
What’s the future of the sports role model? One of a series of photographs commissioned by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, 2010
This is not the place, unfortunately, to give this over-egged neologism the full pants-down thrashing it deserves. The tensions and pretensions in the ways ‘role model’ has been propagated have been clear for some time: the way it is ostensibly about higher values when usually it is actually about celebrity and profiteering; the fact that these role models have no ethical or intellectual mandate, yet we grant them a privilege and responsibility we formerly accorded Solomon; its frequent racial condescension – somefolks apparently need models more than others – and Protestant banality (‘work hard’ is the routine message of the role model, telling you nothing of the importance of luck in success, or of the potential impact of societal connections or status).
But sceptical voices have been drowned out by the constellation of strong forces – the media, poli- cymakers, the beneficiaries themselves – wedded to the idea. Some of us have perhaps been too timid in attacking a concept that seems, for many, to have an obvious kernel of truth and social utility to it. However, the explosion of social media in recent years has laid absolutely bare the dangers that were always lurking in the creature of the role model. It seems to me we are now at a critical juncture. Unless more of us really step up and raise our voices, this thing will mow down many of our cherished, legitimate freedoms.
But at last year’s Twitterlympics, it was easy to bear witness to a clash of corporations, spats erupting immediately over, essentially, money; ath- letes bristled at the fact that new IOC rules banned them from mentioning their own individual spon- sors in any tweets they made during the duration of the Games (unless their sponsors were the same as the IOC’s), while one journalist, the Independ- ent’s Guy Adams, found his Twitter account sum- marily cancelled after he was critical of NBC’s Olympics coverage. Twitter had signed a Games partnership deal with Comcast Corp, the parent company of NBC. Twitter stated that Adams’s account was suspended because the journalist had posted the corporate email address of NBC’s Olympics president, Gary Zenkel, in contravention of Twitter’s regulations. Still, their response to this everyday occurrence was strikingly heavy-handed.
If social media had been around during the 1968 Mexico Olympics, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests
All of these stories were swiftly trumped by the news that two athletes had been kicked out of the Games for posting unpleasant racially- inflected comments on Twitter. First, Swiss foot- baller Michel Morganella, irked after his team lost to South Korea, tweeted that Koreans ‘can go burn’ and are ‘a bunch of mongoloids’. Then Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou, who had already distinguished herself by re-tweeting posts and YouTube videos of Golden Dawn, Greece’s far-right anti-immigration party, excelled herself with this joke, as her country faced a mosquito outbreak: ‘With so many Africans in Greece,’ she tweeted, ‘the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!’ In expelling her, the Greek Olympic Committee said that her tweet was ‘contrary to the values and ideas of the Olympic movement’.
The final athletic casualty of the Games was not an Olympian but a rugby player. The contract of Northampton Saints hooker Brett Sharman, South African born and raised, was terminated directly after he posted this tweet, just before Somalia-born UK runner Mo Farah won his second Olympic gold in the 5000 metre: ‘Good luck Mohammed running for Paki … I mean Great Britain …’ The official reason given by the club for his dismissal was that he had a long-standing knee injury.
Sympathy for these three will be limited in many circles, but add to these the tale of a fourth sportsman, American NFL Pittsburgh Steelers star Rashard Mendenhall, who was stripped of his sponsorship by sportswear company Cham- pion after tweeting, when Osama bin Laden was killed by the US military, ‘What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side …’ The repudiation of his view, quickly posted on the Steelers website by its president, Art Rooney II, laid bare the real issue at stake: ‘The entire Steelers’ organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.’
What unites these cases, beyond the important fact that all were expressing personal, legal opin- ions in what used to be understood as their ‘off- duty’ free time, is that all had un-family-friendly views. For ‘rolemodeldom’, you see, is essentially a quietist, conservative, status-quo-minded doctrine. It has, it seems, four tenets: don’t smoke, don’t do drugs (apart from widely sanctioned ones like alcohol or valium), don’t sleep with anyone other than your ever-loving wife/husband and do sup- port your military.
The tyranny of social media
Even where racial or patriotic slurs are absent, sympathy for sportspeople caught up in these dra- mas is scanter than you might hope, to judge from the comments posted on media websites or sent by trolls to players’ accounts. There is a tyrannical tendency, a kind of crowd control that has become apparent in social media whereby commonplace opinions are quickly endorsed with a barrage of ‘likes’ while those that deviate from the bulky middle of the curve are equally seized upon and shouted at. This is particularly noticeable in the mass-market, mass-follower world of sports.
Bound up with that lurks this idea that the athletes signed up to family friendliness by virtue of their trade. But did they do anything like that, really? If one has signed a contract with a particu- lar endorser or sponsor – many of which will have included some type of ‘moral’ clause indicating that the athlete is a ‘representative’ of their brand – then maybe. You supped and the devil will have his price. But those who do not have these extra deals, and even for high-profile individuals, when it comes to parts of their lives that do not involve these sponsor relationships, surely they are entitled to the same space that most ordinary employees have enjoyed until very recently. They did not ask to be represent- atives. They had no higher calling, necessarily. They are mainly people, like most of us, who wanted to do a job they enjoyed. It is others who are doing the insisting. They come for one, they come for all. New ‘role model’ contractual clauses for footballers are being mooted on the continent, making the contest- able explicitly mandatory and further encroaching on the employer–employee relationship.
In the USA, the 24-7 ‘brand’ now seems to be giving way to the three-score-year-and-ten sports- man. The universities of Kentucky and Louisville are among increasing numbers of American col- leges, public as well as private, requiring that their sports players hand over access to their personal social media accounts to their coaches and other authorities. What they say affects ‘the brand’ of the university, as they are the public faces of it, explained Kentucky Athletics spokesman DeWayne Peevy. It’s not clear just when 18-year-olds con- tracted to ‘represent’ the university and forego their First Amendment rights.
There has always been a level of expectation of virtue placed on sportsmen. It’s there way back in baseball’s famous ‘Say it isn’t so, Shoeless Joe’ story, in which a distraught urchin is supposed to have accosted Chicago White Sox outfielder Joe Jackson outside court when his team was accused of fixing the World Series in 1920. As that piece of apocrypha indicates, the role model concept is usually justified by pointing to sportspeople’s great influence on the young. Whether the relationship between child fan and his sporting or musical inspirers is anything like the one of blanket idola- try and vulnerability we are led to believe is, of course, moot too. Certainly this child, like many, welcomed more complex, potentially ‘divisive’ information from such figures – but today, the wider public would never give youth the credit to allow them the same sort of complex information. If social media had been around during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, one wonders what the fate would have been of the famous black-gloved, arm-raised protests of the sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. Smith and Carlos were both students at San José State Col- lege, where they came under the influence of radical sociologist and Black Panther Harry Edwards. Their salute stemmed from a wider civil rights agenda more troublesome than Dr Martin Luther King’s, in that it had no problem with ‘armed resistance’. At the same time, Edwards’s agenda did bear some similarities to King’s in that it embraced both international as well as domestic issues, not least southern Africa and their call for the removal of then International Olympic Committee Presi- dent Avery Brundage for his reluctance to evict apartheid South Africa from the Olympic move- ment. Today, Smith’s and Carlos’s Twitter accounts might be shut down pre-Olympics because of their ideas, which would have been seen to be incom- patible with the brand of the university – or their comments would be vetted into innocuousness by their coach. Once at the Games, the athletes would probably face swift and ultimate action for their criticism of the IOC and the fact that they were clearly potential troublemakers. Their stand, which now lives forever in history, might never have got off the ground.
It is social media’s misfortune to have been launched at both a time of great sentimentality around children and a wider moralism, a ‘new health’. It has great potential, for social media is a baby itself, but we mustn’t coddle it; we must allow it to work as it will, to help us discover what’s on peo- ple’s minds and in their hearts. The truth, and wider dissemination of our truths, is always the most useful thing any medium can do.
|There has been a relative spate of television documentaries on black subject matter this last little while. The Skip Gates-presented travelogues ‘Into Africa’, the Trevor Phillips-produced series on the slave trade, and unheralded late-night numbers on Channel 4. All the high-profile shows have been marred, to a greater or lesser degree, by a blatant orientation to the white gaze, the white viewer, and ‘The Hip Hop Years’, so unfortunately, was no exception. As you might expect, these series have played very well to a certain powerful liberal constituency, as did their comedic counterpart Goodness Gracious Me. No doubt they achieved better than usual ratings for these types of things, so clearly some commissioners somewhere know what they’re paid for. But for those of us seemingly too few to figure in such pragmatic calculations, Channel 4’s ‘definitive’ threeparter on hip-hop culture was another bitter pill to swallow.
Such a shame because it all began so promisingly. I was mainly impressed by the opening hour-long chunk of Narrator/ Director/ Producer David Upshal’s series, spending, as it did, a serious amountof time detailing the youth culture that spread from the block parties and street dances of New York’s South Bronx in the seventies. Some great rare footage of original B-boys and girls was juxtaposed against present-day interviews with these same pre-industry local heroes. One or two telling instancesof skulduggery, too, in the transistion from pastime to business, notably when neighbourhood MC Casanova Fly spoke of how one of his raps was bitten whole for the tune that became ‘Rappers Delight’, hip-hop’s first chart hit. He looked pretty much how you’d expect someone to look who’d never earnt what was rightfully his….
|Your reaction to this collection will depend, I think, on which notion of writing you hold dearer: a ‘high’ view of writing as a discipline that demands a certain rigorous combination of intellectual and literary skills to be found only amongst a few, or an attitude to writing that sees it as something more akin to a community resource, a tool to be used by the many, whose value lies as much in its documentary and therapeutic worth as it does in the intrinsic quality of the work in question. If your bent is towards the former, then I fear this collection may disappoint….
As a record , and as an addition to the ahem, national conversation, it works quite well. There is little from the regions, but many of the commonly struck notes of black chat – the struggle to find a comfort zone amid mixed cultural identities, the sense of being second-class citizens – are heard here, as well as less widely known aspects of the black familiar: how black bouncers are often employed on a keep blacks-out basis and, in Linda Bellos’ excellent essay on Age, the sad consequences that spring from the absence of grandparents, ‘wise elders’, in most black lives here. While pieces such as Kechi Nwajiaku’s, who notes how ‘black’ is a term that has little currency outside of white parts of the world, and who rejects the ‘black-British’ label for herself because of its working-class connotations – will bring some awareness of nuance to those who mainly see monolith.
Unfortunately, these matters are sometimes in the hands of correspondents not fully equipped to illuminate them. Much of the work feels slight and stronger editorial steers at the top of the fairly arbitrary-seming sections would have given the whole greater weight….
|In ‘the Atlantic Sound’ Caryl Phillips revisits many of the concerns that have bubbled through his fiction: the lives of people whose fates have been largely shaped by the 500 year-old relationship between West Africa and the West. As a travelogue, this book is also something of a companion volume to his fine exploration of modern European identities, ‘The European Tribe’.
Here he travels to towns that all figured prominently in the old slave triangle – England-Africa-the Americas – to gain a sense of how their contemporary realities play against their historical freight. In particular, he’s interested in the mind-set of the black diasporans he meets. What constitutes home for these ones, like himself, whose most defining characteristic has been displacement?
The book is topped and tailed by visits to Liverpool and South Carolina, but the heart of it is the trip Phillips makes to Ghana to attend ‘Panafest’, a biennial government-sponsored jamboree that seeks to exploit the growing fashion for cultural tourism amongst diasporans. The author casts a largely sardonic eye over the event’s organisational laxity, and the inability of these ‘homeward bound’ Americans and Caribbeans to be as African as they would so clearly like to be…
Well, yes. Phillips’ critique of the quixotic nature of such projects is a popular counter against the Afrocentric thinking that remains such a strong current in black western communites today. But clearly the fact that such yearnings do remain, and are being acted on, is a testament to the disaffection that many diasporans still feel in their western homes, even when it’s the only home they’ve ever known. Their prescriptions may be flawed, or unrealistic, but the passions they spring from are real and they demand, I think, a passionate, not just an intellectual, engagement. This book is billed as a ‘personal quest’ but I wanted to know more about this Caribbean-born and England-bred author’s own deep feelings to ‘home’ and how they were affected, or not, by his journey….
What are your memories of ‘Africa ‘O5’, this – if you didn’t notice yet – yearlong series of events, political and cultural, aimed at focussing a nation’s attention on that continent? For me, the highlights have been under-the-radar-moments, mainly about comradeship; bumping into some old friend at a concert or a talk, and setting your childhoods or the old country to rights over a drink after. Just spending good time amongst folk for whom Africa is more than a once-in-a-decade thing.
As for the high-profile, public side, my two abiding memories are both, unfortunately, sad ones. The first is watching Bob Geldof’s trawl through the present-day Congo for a BBC TV series and seeing him – surprise surprise – deploy Joseph Conrad’s century-old ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the main frame for his musings. The second is of hearing about Penguin’s failure to include its novelist Chinua Achebe, author of the celebrated novel ‘Things Fall Apart’, in its 70th-anniversary marking series of ‘Pocket Penguins, a series designed, apparently, to showcase ‘the breadth, diversity and quality’ of its list. “Both Baldwin and Achebe, who I concede some people might feel were left out, in fact sell very little in this country. We were looking at our foremost writers,” explained Penguin’s Marketing director Joanna Prior. Strictly speaking, the Penguin story isn’t an ‘Africa ‘O5 moment’, but it’s linked with it in my head, not least because Achebe wrote his novel partly in response to Conrad, Geldof’s Congolese-writer-of-choice.
The Golden Age of African literature is generally held to date from around the time of the 1958 publication of ‘things Fall Apart’ to the early seventies, when luminaries such as Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Wole Soyinka bestrode the international stage. Why is is that since then – and even then if Penguin is to be believed – books by black Africans have made so little impression on the western imagination? During a period when Indian and Indian diasporic literature, for example, has continued to make a strong showing.
For sure, there are any number of factors involved – and I don’t not claiming to be an expert in this matter, but, from my interested-observer, in-between-standpoint as a Briton of African descent, a couple of reasons stand out.
The first concerns the production qualities and general ‘vibe’ of many African books. Not surprisingly, given the wioder economic malaise of the continent, many africa-published books are poorly produced. The text is often small and crammed onto pages with narrow margins, the covers generic – not the most alluring prospect for your impatient western agent/ publisher hunting for goodies at an international book fair. Added to this is a conservative lean and an overregard for formality in many African cultures which can have a deadening effect on the prose, and saddle the books with an old-fashioned feel to western eyes. When you add to this Africa’s long-standing position as a place that is only really worthy of the west’s worthy attention – ‘These poor, afflicted people!’ as Queen Victoria was fond of saying – you have a low-selling cocktail. Worthiness will get you charity donations but it doesn’t (unless you hit the schools set text jackpot) shift a lot of books.
White African writers, or whites writing Africa-set stories, do not seem to suffer from any such ‘worthy’ suspicions. From a white perspective, it’s boom time in Africa. Nobel Laureates Nadime Gordimer and JM Coetzee, Peter Godwin, Breyten Breytenbach, Alexandra Fuller with her Zimbabwean farm angst and of course, Alexander McCall Smith with his Ladies Detective Agency series.
Now it may be that these writers are the only talents around, but I think that history commands us to be a touch more sceptical than that. Black Africa’s literary highpoint came at a time when the continent was going through decolonisation, and many of its lauded books were about the effects of that colonial period on African minds and cultures. The west was interested not least because they were in the story. Africa has moved on, but this western desire to be in the story is catered to by the interest in white tales of Africa. Historically, the Africa- billed – and indeed, more widely black-billed -cultural produce that makes a splash is rarely primarily about the place and its peoples, but more about whiteness: white fears or expectations, missions; a suitable backdrop to deal with white masculinity, perhaps, or heroism (Rider Haggard, Hemingway etc). The racial thinking that has existed in Europe at least since the Enlightenment days of Hume and Kant, that Africans are lower, have less interesting stuff in them, casts a long shadow.
There are fully human, 3-D, exciting stories to be found in Africa. These are countries with their own intellectual hubs with a new young, globalised, generation of people who are in touch with more than we think they are. Writers such as Cameroon’s Calixthe Beyala, for example, tell gritty urban tales of a kind we more often associate with a London or a New York, and the new, smart literary journal ‘Kwani’ is already being hailed as Africa’s ‘Granta’. More relevantly, perhaps, from a UK perspective, at a time when Africans are soon to replace Caribbeans as the largest black presence in Britain, there are a growing number of stories from British Africans that take a reckonning with their dual heritage. We hope you enjoy tasting some of these new flavours in Cheltenham.