The Football Fight Club and the question of masculinity

Having been a follower of football since I could walk and talk (and play), and also being English, I have an acute awareness of hooliganism in the sport. Although the match experience is far safer these days than it used to be, football hooligans (or “lads” as they prefer to be called) are still well and truly alive.

The BBC documentary “The Football Fight Club” is a candid piece of film making that follows a select group of lads organised in their firm’s “youth teams” throughout a season. I was shocked to see kids as young as 17 amongst these roving gangs, barely out of school and spoiling for a fight.

That’s not to say these groups are intrinsically violent. They decry fighting for the sake of fighting, swearing that they would never attack another supporter, no matter what team they supported. No, football firms fight football firms.There is an odd sense of honour here, as rival firms contact each other by phone and email to arrange fights.

FFC4

“Where are you?” The leader of Manchester City’s youth firm, Carl, says down the phone to the man he’ll soon be trying to put in hospital. “How many of you? Four? We’ve got four here – you better not have six or ten, if you have let me know and we’ll grab another lad.”

When asked by the camera crew why they do this, many point towards the adrenaline rush, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of being “alive”. Not knowing whether someone could smash a glass in your face or stamp your head in is all part of the thrill for these teenagers. Standing by your mates is the epitome of being a man, as is fighting off a crew with more lads than you.

Watching I couldn’t help but draw obvious comparisons between these groups and Chuck Palahniuk’s classic Fight Club. The strongest firms tend to come from inner-city clubs like Birmingham, Manchester and London, or from towns in the North, where the opportunities for a lot of young guys are slim. Many are unemployed or unemployable, having served banning orders and prison sentences.

FCC

The men in Palahnuik’s novel were unsure of their place in society. They were domesticated, their ambitions in life dulled by the endless search for material possessions. In a world of political correctness, Calvin Klein adverts and societal expectations they lashed out the only way they could – with violence.

In a world where young men have little to rail against, the chance to throw a punch at someone in different colours to you is all too welcome. Paul, a member of Bury FC’s youth firm, lauds the ability to release all his anger at the end of the week, to forget about his life and live in the moment. The adrenaline rush is like a drug, another (masked) Man City lad tells the camera. “I work in the week, I pay my taxes and at the weekend I come out and do this,” he says. “I’m an addict.”

Violence is obviously not the way to deal with problems, but have men found a better way to do so in history? Dante, a former Spurs lad (now kept in check by his fiancée and several banning orders) heads out into the woods on match day to weight-lift trees and stamp on logs, pretending they’re Chelsea fans.

FFC2

These are clearly lads who are looking for ways to express themselves. Unfortunately they’ve been dragged into doing so by trying to kick someone’s head in on a Saturday. Men have natural instincts inbuilt into our psyche – aggression is simply one of these instincts made manifest. Even the most gentle of men will revert in some way or another: getting drunk on the weekend, taking the piss out of mates or pushing themselves into physical competitions like Tough Mudder.

Is it fair to say then, that these youth firms are some rejection of the ultra-fashionable, feminised makeover that men are told to undergo in modern society? Probably not. I’m not sure many of the young men in the Football Fight Club think about chiselled Adonis models in the perfume adverts as they’re cracking a bottle in someone’s teeth.

There is no doubt that some of these kids are lost, though. The lack of a true role model in society has left them reaching for the first thing that fit their definitions. To them these bloodied, grizzled veterans of hooliganism are John Wayne with Wolverine claws.

“I used to go to pub with my Uncle when I was little,” Dante recalls, talking about after his dad passed away. “See all the clothes and hear all the stories. I wanted to be like them.”

They’re unable see a future past their twentieth birthday, past hanging around with mates and fighting for fun. Football is the world’s greatest sport, and provides moments of true brilliance for fans and players alike, but it is a tragedy and a sad indictment of our support system that hundreds of boys see putting each other in hospital as the epitome of life’s goals.

What does it mean to be a man? Masculinity is a massive question for the modern bloke, and one that will remain a mystery for many. Until then, it seems, there will be groups of lads kicking the shit out of each other in city centres every Saturday for years to come.

The Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad: Moving tribute or shameless commercialism?

The air is still and cold, the ground frozen solid. Amidst the morning fog on the 25th December 1914 a young man climbs out of his trench not to charge the enemy, but to shake his hand.

This is the image that has been so wonderfully captured in a recent television advert. The Christmas Truce was a truly fantastic moment in this country’s – and humanity’s – cultural memory. So why does watching it make me feel so uneasy?

The writing is brilliant, the acting steady and believable and the cinematography beguiling. I challenge any human being to watch it in its entirety and not be moved by its sentiment. Two sides brought together by common good in the peace of Christmas, despite all their differences.

What an advert this would be for the good in all men! For the senselessness of war, especially one such as WW1. Unfortunately, it’s an advert for a supermarket.

The Christmas Truce is a remarkable moment in history: where men who had hours before been trying to kill each other realised the stupidity of what they were being forced to do – realised that those just 200 yards away from them were human beings and not worthy of hate or death. To use that to sell frozen vegetables and milk seems, well, emotionally manipulative.

True, you’re not thinking about your Nectar Points as you watch, but there is something unsettling about the camera panning away from the trenches, two (remarkably clean and handsome) soldiers dwelling on their shared gifts, and the orange Sainsbury’s logo pushing its way in.

Perhaps I have grown too cynical; after all, the advert was sponsored and aided by the Royal British Legion. However, no matter how many £1 bars of special chocolate bars it might sell, I can’t help but smell the stink of commercialisation, even if it wafts in after my initial pride and sorrow at remembering what those young men had to endure.

Yes, in this year, the centenary of the Great War, we should remember those who fell in one of the most senseless and bloody conflicts in human history. In that I commend Sainsbury’s for reminding the country of the good will to all men that should exist around the holidays.

It does seem, however, that everything is becoming fair game in the war to make customers emotional, in the salient hope that reminding them of the tragedy of millions of war dead will somehow convince them to snap up more Christmas puddings.

Brothers in Arms: The Cure to the Modern Shooter?

Back in the heyday of the PS2 and the Xbox, shooters were historical rather than modern, enemies were German rather than Middle Eastern or Russian and multiplayer was a myth, rather than a selling point.

Publishers and developers pumped out game after game set during WW2. Medal of Honour kicked the trend off proper in 1999 before Call of Duty began its steady march to power. So many video shooters piled onto the WW2 bandwagon that soon people were crying out for change.

The game that started it all...
The game that started it all…

That change occurred with the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (and, you could argue, the ongoing success of the Halo series). Suddenly WW2 was out and modern shooters were in. Online multiplayer became the cash-cow to focus on for developers and publishers, who wrung their hands at the prospect of yearly releases of grey-brown mini-updates charging all-too eager gamers £40 per release.

Before that paradigm shift, however, a FPS series had set itself apart from an on-the-rails one-man-army crowd. Like those around it at the time it was set in WW2, yet focused on more than one individual.

Based on the exploits of the 101st Parachute Division (and with a healthy dose of inspiration from the critically acclaimed Band of Brothers TV series), Gearbox’s Brothers in Arms aimed to show a different side to combat, as well as gaming. Instead of a one man army carrying five to six weapons at a time, players took on the role of Matt Baker, reluctant squad leader and all-too fragile human being.

Being in charge of a squad, the player is tasked with using real-life military tactics to defeat their enemy. Two fire teams have to be used to fix an enemy squad in position with a base of fire while an assault team is directed to flank them for an easy kill. Rushing well-entrenched enemies is a no, as both the player and their squad can only take so much punishment before dropping.

The original squad from Brothers in Arms
The original squad from Brothers in Arms

The game asked tactical questions of its players, something lauded when compared the “go here, kill that” mentality of other releases. Brothers in Arms arrived at the dawn of the cover-based shooter, fresh enough to be admired.

The first entry into the series received critical acclaim, for both its gameplay and its story-telling, where each member of the squad has their own personality told through dialogue and cut-scenes. As opposed to one-man army shooters players were encouraged to rely on their squadmates and care for their wellbeing through the Normandy campaign of 1944.

A second Brothers in Arms followed shortly, lambasted by some as an attempt to cash in – since it portrayed mostly the same event but from a different characters perspective. It did show, however, that Gearbox were intent of creating a narrative for the characters they had created – the game added depth and backstory to events that would occur later in the series.

Gearbox waited until the next generation had emerged before returning to Baker and the 101st. By this point Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had been released to great success, causing a number of other publishers to begin scrambling for their own modern IP. Even multiplayer greats like DICE’s Battlefield series began to modernise its highly successful model, increasing graphical fidelity and realism to cater to gamers’ new tastes.

Hell's Highway was given a huge graphical overhaul.
Hell’s Highway was given a huge graphical overhaul.

It was in this market that Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway was released. Featuring a new graphics engine and storyline, it focused on the 101st’s role in the failed Operation Market Garden. Many of the same features were there with a healthy coating of improvement: situational cover returned, as well as the addition of destructible environments. Two new forms of squad were added in the shape of a bazooka and machinegun squad. Tactical choices were numerous in open campaign maps allowing players to create their own unique battle plan.

In an era where huge multiplayer maps are becoming the norm and single player campaigns shunned or completely ignored, Gearbox attempted to tell a single player story that would abate a modern gamer’s needs to go online and yell at someone through a mic. There are very few games that prize their storyline over their profitability (Spec Ops: The Line comes to mind) and they are usually hailed as diamonds in the rough.

It has been six years since the release of Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Returning to the game now reveals a title that has lost none of its sheen: the graphical fidelity of the game still holds up, while its historical accuracy and sound design is second to none. Gearbox has since its release created and grown the hugely successful Borderlands series (itself also based on teamwork) and the “to be continued” at the end of Hell’s Highway seems to become more and more of a false hope.

The developers attempted to cash in on the success of Borderlands (and of Quentin Tarentino’s film Inglorious Basterds) with the announcement of a new entry into the Brothers in Arms series named Furious Four. Tongue-in-cheek, outlandish and cartoony, scorn was poured upon the game until finally Gearbox agreed to remove the game from the fan favourite series.

Nothing much more has been heard from Gearbox since: rumours of a Brothers in Arms set in Bastogne – where Matt Baker’s story comes to an end – are abound without confirmation by the developers. It must be said that with the new generation picking up steam and gamers finally growing tired of cookie-cutter carbon-copy modern warfare shooters, perhaps the time has come for a much-loved franchise to step up to the plate once again.

How criticism made me a better journalist

“If your work doesn’t improve dramatically I think you should seriously reconsider your career as a journalist”

That was the advice I received around one week into my first writing job, as a freelancer. I was new to the news writing game and had barely written my 10th article. After four years at university, writing well over 80,000 words of essays and reports, I figured that I was a good writer. In truth, I didn’t have a clue how to write proper news stories.

I was angry, I was hurt and upset. I took the advice and seriously considered my future as a journalist… For about five seconds.

I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and right there and then took the criticism on the chin and decided to improve. It still took me another few months to reach a level that required little to no sub-editing and I’m still learning to this day, 8 months on from that piece of advice.

I happen to have quite the stubborn personality, which apparently helps in this field. If someone tells me “you can’t” or “you’re terrible at this” I’ll just think “watch me” and throw myself into becoming better. Criticism is very hard to take, and being a perfectionist/competitive person I always take it harder than I perhaps should. As soon as I hear the editor’s keyboard clacking after I submit a story I immediately castigate myself for messing up.

Yet it’s this attitude that has enabled me to get to where I am. I have no journalism qualifications (yet) and have gone up against candidates for jobs who have got the degrees and the qualifications over and over again and been pipped to the post. If you’re not willing to improve continually then you’ll end up in a dead end.

That piece of criticism I received barely days into my journey as a writer has stuck with me throughout what happened afterwards, and I often look back at the articles I wrote to remind myself how far I’ve come in such a short time.

Good god, some of them are awful.

Music and Relationships

It’s just that feeling of being transported somewhere, four months ago or two years ago, when you felt a whole different way. It reminds you of times when you were phenomenally happy and of others when you were so sad. You’re like “I don’t want to be here why is this song doing this to me?” It just floods inside of you and it’s overwhelming – you suddenly think of that person and you’re like “oh god I miss them so much” and then you’re like “wait no I don’t I just love this song” It’s incredible and horrible that a bunch of words and a melody can make you feel that way.

– Johnny Foreigner, concret1

Music can have a strange way of being imprinted into your life. There are moments in my life that will forever be conjured up by just one song, whether it be reminiscing about something not so long ago as University or something quite a long time ago like holidays in my teens or bonfires in summer.

Invariably, as has been proved by the thousands of love-songs that are churned out into the charts, as well as all that awful poetry / songs that angsty teenagers (myself included) write, music and relationships go hand in hand. There have been songs in my life that I refused to listen to because they reminded me of a person I’d rather not remember.

I’d like to think that at the age of 23 I’ve become a little bit mature, and can look back and listen to some of those tracks and enjoy them for what they are, as well as who they remind me of. In a sort of boyfriends I have been way, some of the songs I look back now and wonder what I was thinking about when I dated that person or even listened to that type of music.

I thought, for the sake of posterity and giving people an idea of how easy it can be to relate certain songs to people/events, I’d list them. To protect people’s privacy I won’t be using names, but they are in order from earliest to latest.

1.  NeYo – So Sick

This one makes me chuckle every time I listen to it. I’ve never really been into RnB but I was young back then, I think we danced to this song at my school dance or something. Still surprises when it (admittedly rarely) comes on the radio. Extra points for it being a song about relating songs to people, too!

2. 30 Seconds to Mars – The Kill

Deep into my angsty phase here, hence the penchant for bands including Jared Leto and shouting. Another relatively bitter song, too, which I have only just noticed, I hope this isn’t a trend.

3. Bloc Party – Flux

This is my ultimate throwback song. This one has some pretty vivid memories for me in a classic “what could have been” scenario.

4.The National – All the Wine

Back into being angsty, but this time its white-hot man-angst. This song is actually still pretty painful to listen to, I get a little knot in my stomach whenever I hear those first guitar strings go. A song about getting hammered, as well, so I’m doing well on the “definitely not bitter” side of things…

5. Bombay Bicycle Club – How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep

It was a toss up between this one and another song, but this one wins simply because it actually makes me smile. Not very often you can fully think back at a relationship (that’s not a silly high-school one) and feel happy about it, even though it ended.

So there’s five that cause me the most nostalgia. There are of course a number of other for smaller events in my life, but it goes to show how a varied selection of songs can have such different meanings to just one person. I imagine if I came back to do this when I hit thirty I’ll have plenty more songs to feature. It’s been interesting to go back and revisit these songs too, there are some memories that should never be locked away forever.

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