A moment of optimism

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As we approach the start of a new Premier League season, there are plenty of pundits being asked for their previews and predictions for the year ahead. The Observer did it differently, though. They asked a supporter from each team to write their predictions of where their team would finish and I was struck by the uniformity of their responses. The supporters of the “top six” teams were confident that their teams would either win the league or at least finish in a Champions League place, supporters of the teams widely predicted, by others, to be relegated said their clubs would finish one place above the relegation zone in 17th and all the others more or less said their teams would finish between 8th – 12th place. None of the predictions were outlandish or completely overblown, but they all were at the top end of expectations. That was because all of them were written from a position of optimism.

Fans generally start a new season feeling optimistic. They think “the last year has been put to bed and this new year will be better”. No doubt there will have been a signing or two to add strength to the team or to shore up the obvious flaws from the last season. The manager would have been able to see where they needed to strengthen and, in theory, will have done so. The results from the pre season friendlies might have been disappointing, but they can be discounted as meaningless. We all have stories of how a bad pre season did nothing to foretell the great year ahead (West Ham – summer 1985). Anything can happen in the first few games and a “couple of wins takes the pressure off and allows the team the space to properly find their feet”

As a West Ham fan, I have often made my way to an early season game, eager to see a new signing and hopeful of the impact they would make. On 3rd Sept 1988, I remember going to Upton Park to see our new striker, David Kelly, make his home debut against Charlton. We lost 3-1 and at the end of the season were relegated. One defeat doesn’t make a season, though, and early defeats don’t entirely put paid to your optimism. I reckon it takes about five games to really do that. Jump to 2010. We hadn’t spent much money in the summer but had brought in quite a few new players (Winston Reid was among them, as was Freddie Piquionne). We went to Villa Park, for the season opener, with hope, but were thumped 3-0, followed by a 3-1 loss at home to Bolton, a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford and another 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea. So, in this year it took just four games for me to see the writing on the wall. Not surprisingly we were relegated, in last place, at the end of the season. (Of course it doesnt always work like that. Last year Crystal Palace lost their first seven games without scoring a goal and survived, whereas West Brom won their first two matches, but ended up being relegated)

The strange thing about this high level of optimism at the start of the season, is that football fans are generally known for being ‘moaners’. Tune in to any football phone-in programme and you’ll hear the regular football fan berate their team, the referee, the other side…, anything, really. Social media can also be vicious. I’m sure we all know people, football fans or not, whose glass is half full, but also plenty more who have it half empty. We like to position people as one or the other, positive or not, whereas I’m sure there is a spectrum like everything else. Another way to characterise this dichotomy, is to seperate people into the ‘plumbing’ metaphor of drains or radiators. I know people who radiate positivity, but my goodness I also know some who are real ‘drains’.

Its generally accepted, by health professionals, that optimism is a positive thing for ones mental health and that negative thinking can have a serious detrimental effect. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which is a common tool of the modern NHS focuses on people’s negative thoughts by getting them to recognise and tackle them. One of the “thinking errors” in CBT is “catastrophising”, which is when you consider something negative that happens, as more serious than it really is (“it always happens to me / it’s a total disaster”). This seems to me to be the default view of many football fans on social media.

Optimism is also a factor for the players and the manager. Confidence, in a player, can improve their performance (think of the striker who is sure they will score every week, as opposed to another, with equal ability, who hesitates out of fear). Therefore, managers spend a lot of time focussing on this. They certainly try to create a positive environment around the squad. This is something that those of us who have run drama workshops know something about too (especially if you are working with low confidence participants in the community). You have to ease them into it. One of the tools at your disposal is to make it a very positive environment. I did a week-long series of workshops in Bulgaria with adults with a learning disability and the only words I learnt to say in the Bulgarian language were “good”, “great”, “excellent”, etc. The difference between the timid group at the start and the noisy group at the end was immense. So much so that our hosts from Varna kept asking me what the secret was. All I could say to them was “I told them they were great!” A positive environment is key, therefore, to draw the best out of people (tempered with some specific pointers as to how to improve) and perhaps the positive noises that come out of a football club in pre-season rub off on the spectators.

The difficult thing for football fans though (as opposed to players or managers), is that they have no control over the outcome. It is a vicarious belief in someone else, acting on your behalf. Is this good for your mental health? What if it does go wrong and (like in 1988-89 and 2010-11) the team that you have invested some much emotion into, let you down? Well, then, at least you can blame them and not yourself for what went wrong. You are cushioned from the psychological blow of failure, whereas the players are not.

Perhaps this ‘distancing’ gives us football fans a freer reign to be optimistic, at the start of the season, therefore. Perhaps we can invest more hope in the team, because ultimately we have a safety valve that protects us from great disappointment. The same distancing effect probably leads to fans, at a later point, talking total sh#t on phone-ins or on social media, because then they can blame other people rather than themselves for what has gone wrong (“they are not fit to wear the shirt!” carries with it the suggestion that the spectators are). They can also say what the manager should do, safe in the knowledge that their views are never going to be tested.

The start of a new season, though, is that moment in time when anything is possible. The slate has been wiped clean and we are starting again. It’s a unique moment for us all. It is a moment of great hope and optimism. When Leicester came to Upton Park for our first home game of 2015-16, we were disappointed to lose 2-1; a result that tempered our enthusisam after a 2-0 victory at Arsenal the week before. I doubt anyone in the ground thought then that Leicester would go on to win the league. Now, the memory of that, helps us to dream. Maybe this year will be our time… (to finish 8th)!

So the start of the season is a unique moment of optimism for football fans. It is a time to dream and imagine a better world. Wouldnt it be great if it also heralded a moment for us to think more positively about our lives too? A chance to see the potential in the year ahead. It would also be good for our mental health.

Safe standing

Image of the Pirelli Stadium, Burton Albion, looking across to their safe standing areas

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an Immersive Theatre performance. Its quite different from traditional forms of theatre. In traditional theatre the division between the audience and the stage is clearly defined, whereas in immersive performances the action takes place around the audience and you are often able to walk through different spaces that feel like the actual rooms in the action (effectively being immersed in the middle of the action). Something that often characterises an Immersive performance is that the audience walks around… and stands.

I recently did a survey about safe standing at football grounds. I understand entirely why the Taylor report, after Hillsborough, recommended all seater stadia and I can also see how, in many ways the spectator experience is enhanced if you have your own numbered seat, but I also think the time has come for the government to explore safe standing in football grounds.

My view of standing has undoubtably been coloured by my experiences of going to Upton Park in the early eighties. I started by standing in the North Bank, briefly tried the South Bank and then finished by standing in the West Bank. These were formative experiences. Often I couldn’t see much. I would be buffeted about when the crowd moved. Sometimes I got soaked by pints of beer being chucked in the air when there was a goal. But, it was brilliant. Exciting. Immersive. You were in the middle of things. You were part of the crowd; part of the action. When the crowd moved, you moved. When they sang, you joined in. Together, you were as one. It made that intangible, but much sought after, thing called ‘atmosphere’ something special

I know those days are gone and it’s interesting, to me, to compare my first experiences of ‘live’ football with that of my kids. They say how amazing the London Stadium is. I have taken them to a number of crumbling lower league grounds, with poor toilets and limited refreshments, but where you are so close to the players you can almost touch them. I nostalgicly enjoy these grounds, but they much prefer the London Stadium. Its comfortable, it’s impressive and its safe. There has been crowd trouble at the London Stadium, but even when things were kicking off against Burnley, we felt safe. If I thought it wasnt safe, I wouldn’t take them. However, I remember a match in the early 80s at Upton Park, when West Ham fans ran across the corner of the pitch to attack the away fans (Newcastle, I think) in their caged enclave on the South Bank. I was also once punched in the face by a Derby fan, when leaving the Baseball ground. Being an away fan was dangerous and you were treated a bit like a dangerous beast (It wasn’t fun being frog marched from the station by the police). I’m glad it is no longer like that. Its not much to ask to feel physically safe whilst you’re at a football match, is it?

Of course, you are allowed to feel angry, frustrated, let down, etc whilst at a game and to shout rude and even agressive things at the other fans. I sometimes enjoy the banter of the other fans, when they abuse us. We accept their derision, its the same we offer them, but after the game, I also enjoy speaking to and getting the perspective of an opposing fan. And, even when things go horribly wrong, and you lose 3-0 at home to Burnley, at least you have the satisfaction of saying to others “I know. I was there!” A bit of me even feels sorry for fans that have never seen their team relegated. I watch football for both the euphoria and the despair (maybe I haven’t had much choice about this, thanks to supporting the team I do). I think you know more about what it means to win, if you have experienced defeat. Watching football is an emotional experience.

Theatre makers know a thing or two about emotion too. Since the time of Aristotle, emotion has been associated with the theatre experience (catharsis). Other practitioners have sought to minimise the emotional impact and to emphasise rational thought. Brecht was concerned with the using the theatre to explore political ideas and following him was Brazilian practitioner, Augusto Boal. If you were asked to name some famous Brazilians, you might say Pele or Neymar. I would say Boal.

Any theatre maker knows that the essence of the art form is the ‘live’ experience. By chosing theatre as your art form, you are making a conscious decision to share your work in front of a ‘live’ audience. As such, it becomes an interaction or a dialogue. It also ensures that the show is constantly evolving and changing, the more it is performed. Every audience is different and hence every performance is different too. Each new audience will listen with a different intensity and respond in a different rhythm.

Boal was particularly interested in the dialogue between actor and spectator. He, like Brecht, was interested in politics, although his theatre presents problems and asks the audience to come up with solutions, rather than telling them what to think. It also has a particular and unique process. It starts with a performance that is shown to an audience, in which the main characters make mistakes. This piece is then replayed, but on this occasion the spectator can propose their own solutions by replacing an actor on stage and showing a different way of behaving (becoming neither spectator nor actor, but a hybrid spect-actor).

I have used this technique on loads of occasions and by doing so understand something about the difference between a passive and active audience. A theatre auditorium carries with it an expected set of behaviours. Over many years we have established that in the theatre you sit quietly until the end, when you clap. In order to change those expectations, and establish a new set of behaviours, you have to shift the audience out of their ‘rooted’ comfort zone. Therefore between the first (passive) performance and the second (active) performance you need to warm the audience up. I do this by getting them to wave their arms in the air, shout things out and stand up. In many ways I ask them to behave a little more like football fans.

Boal’s ideas, about empowering the spectator can only go ‘So far’ when it comes to football. I don’t imagine the referee stopping the match when someone in Row C complains about the striker who missed an open goal, and asks them to replace the striker to show how they would do it. I am not seeking a consensual football supporter. A crowd should have many different voices despite the sense of unity (although I have felt ashamed in the past when fascist idiots have been allowed to shout their garbage. Thankfully those days are gone). I guess the closest we get to the idea of a disaffected supporter replacing the ineffective striker is the kick around in the park after the game or the chance to right the wrongs on FIFA.

Even though a crowd is made up of individuals though, we do still act together. I think it is both a positive and negative aspect of human nature. It can be hard to stand out from the crowd and shout “Stop. This is wrong!” as we know only too well from the rise of fascism in Germany in the 40s. However there is something within us all that wants to be tribal; that’s wants us to be part of something; a gang or squad. Football Can give us that in a safe and understood way. Even I, as a liberal, ‘right-on’ lecturer have sung some of the less than PC songs (albeit with a strong dose of irony) at the top of my voice. I like to, sometimes, be simply part of a mass of West Ham fans.

Part of the common identity of fans is the singing. Songs are a verbal way of claiming our identity. National, sectarian and political identity is reflected as much now, through song, as ever. At West Ham we have somehow chosen an old musical number from 100 years ago, to use as our anthem. When Kendis, Brockman and Vincent first wrote their lyrics about the “pretty bubbles in the air” I bet they never imagined it could mean so much to so many people – a song of regret, stoicism and hope.

When we sing, we also stand. Our physiology dictates this. If I were to wear my Performance lecturer hat, I would point out that to project your voices out into the vastness of a stadium, you need to use your diaphragm and this is more difficult to do when you are sitting. When you stand you can breathe properly and make a better sound. Perhaps there’s a sideline for me here – voice classes for football fans!? It would be a variation of Boal’s audience warm ups. There is serious point here, though too, and that is, to create atmosphere you need a crowd that sings and to sing properly you need to stand

I talked before about expressing euphoria and despair and in a football ground there is an acceptance that fans will express these emotions. Unlike the quiet theatre auditorium (in the theatre it’s the actors that do this), in a football crowd there is an expectation that you will express / demonstrate (even perform) your feelings. Where else do we jump up and scream when something good happens? I remember my daughter and her friend almost jumping out of their skins, when I suddenly screamed and jumped around the kitchen, after Payet had scored aginst Man U in the cup. To them, my behaviour seemed out of keeping with the situation and the location. They hadn’t noticed that I was watching the TV in the corner. In football grounds, though, there is no surprise to see people jumping up to remonstrate with the assistant referee (I remember almost fainting once when I jumped up and yelled, in one movement, and all the blood drained from my head). Even if you give fans a seat and then enforce the ground regulations for no standing, there will be an acceptance that at certain moments everyone will stand up. Emotion is something we express with our bodies.

However, in contemporary grounds this can be dangerous. The act of jumping to your feet, as I suggested, can result in light headedness, but also make you feel very unbalanced. My sister was quite badly hurt when at a rugby world cup match, the large bloke sitting behind her jumped up at a try, tumbled forward and pinnioned her to the floor. Stadia seats are placed at a height that means the back of the seat in front is at knee height and dangerous to anyone losing their balance. Safe standing areas, though, contain crash barriers that prevent this imbalance.

Safe standing areas can also be strategically positioned in a ground. The traditional place for the most vociferous supporters is behind a goal (e.g. the Kop, the old clock end, the North bank). In theory it helps the attacking side to play towards their fans in the second half and be roared on. It is widely accepted that it is an advantage to play at home and be roared on by the majority of the stadium. It can, of course, also work against you if the crowd are on your backs and we have certainly seen the effect of that at the London Stadium (e.g. the Burnley game). The problems with the new stadium are various, but the perceived lack of atmosphere can in part it can be attributed to a dispersal of the singing clusters of fans and the attempts to make fans sit down (understandable, as the rke of the seats is so shallow). It has certainly meant that, for away teams, playing at West Ham is less intimidating than in the old days of the Upton Park cauldron. If you go to a West Ham away game the atmosphere is often better. There’s less insistence on sitting and all the singers are closer together. In most Premier League matches now, it is the away fans that sing more. Soon, if the away fans are quiet, we will start to turn that song on its head and sing to them “You’re supposed to be away!”.

However, it goes without saying, that home teams still want to maintain the advantage they had. Anything the club can do to create an environment that favours the home team is in their interests. Its also in the interests of the Premier League to generate atmosphere in stadia. It is part of the USP and something that helps to sell the ‘brand’ throughout the world. It is widely accepted that the best atmosphere is now found in the Bundesliga, in grounds that have safe standing. Oh, and also, safe standing takes up less room and so you can fit more supporters in the ground, which is even better news for club finances.

So, as far as I can see, the argument for safe standing is compelling. It facilitates a more engaged and emotional experience, it helps people sing and so creates atmosphere, it can enhance the Premier League brand, it allows for more bodies through the turnstile and it is what the customer wants. It is in the interests of the clubs and the Premier League to enhance the ‘live’ experience. English football is distinct, not because the quality of the football is better than anywhere else (we have all watched the other main European leagues on the TV), but because of its history, the competitive nature of the competition and importantly the atmosphere. It is these things that sells the broadcasting rights and the ‘brand’ around the world. Therefore these things need to be carefully protected.

The ‘live’ experience (in the theatre or in football) is something to be considered and developed. Many theatre makers are interested in disrupting the safe and distanced positioning of the audience; to make them more involved and immersed in the action. It is a way of emphasising the ‘liveness’ of a theatre experience, as opposed to watching the TV or going to a cinema. Similarly football needs to appreciate and enhance the difference between the ‘live’ / in stadium experience and that of watching at home. A ‘live’ football experience should be engaging, emotional and immersive. We don’t need to get the fans to walk on the pitch to do this, but we do need to support ways of enhancing the ingredients that make for a great atmosphere. If a fan wants to stand, let them, but do it in a safe standing area.

Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable

This is a review of the Damien Hirst exhibition called “Treasures from the wreck of the unbelivable” at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice that I posted on Trip Advisor on 19th June 2017

‘Treasures from the wreck of the unbelievable’ is an amazing, irreverent and gauche exhibition. It is by turns both beautiful and ugly, meaningful and vaccuous. The perfect place for it is Venice. By placing this work there, Hirst is sticking two fingers up to the art establishment that revere Venice as the home of great art.

The premise of the exhibition is that an ancient ship has sunk with treasures from across the world. These treasures have now been excavated from the seabed by divers and are displayed with the customary descriptions from experts. On the way in you watch a ‘documentary’ about the raising of the artefacts in which a voice-over says things along the lines of “I’m not saying it is the truth, but there could be some truth in it”. The exhibits seem at first to be plausible but later you see encrusted statues of Mickey Mouse and Hirst himself. I enjoyed wondering what would come next and confess to occasionally laughing out loud.

However, despite enjoying the irony, the size of the imagination and the craft, I also felt frustrated by the nihilism. The exhibition seemed to me to say “Don’t believe anything” / “there is no truth” / “there are no experts”. These are mantras that we have heard in Trump’s USA or UK’s Brexit and personally they make me despair. If we don’t find meaning in things, if we cant see the difference between the price of something and its value, if we cant come to appreciation of our past, then how can we feel passionate about anything. If you see a Titian painting in a Venice church you can see passion and belief. It jumps out at you. For this reason it has been captivating people for hundreds of years. Art can be amusing, irreverent, challenging, but it can also be passionate.

So if you get a chance to go, do. It is certainly an exhibition that makes you think and laugh, but… maybe… also leaves you feeling a little empty.