Working In The Chain Gang

Homeless charities are warning that millions of people are now only one paycheck away from homelessness. It’s a cold Monday night in Glasgow, and I’m talking to someone who hasn’t had a home to go to for months. It’s an existence of sofas and car seats. The guy sat on the other side of me is overdue his own rent, but talking about the things he wants to do to help other bike couriers, once he’s square.

It’s a strange life, this one. Spending days and nights on a bike, hustling. Delivering shit for other people. Being yelled at all day. And, in Glasgow, spending most of your time soaked through by rain. All for something somewhere below minimum wage. A new problem to solve every ten minutes. A fresh chance to get killed or maimed on the road. Each delivery comes with the risk that your bike -the one thing you need for your job- will be stolen in the brief time you’re away from it. Picking up from someone who, in a good moment on a good day, might treat you like a human being. Delivering to someone who might appreciate the athletic feat you’ve just accomplished.

(Side note/universal truth: People in the poorer areas of a city will tip far more regularly, and in a greater amounts, than the people in the richer parts. They understand the value of human effort, and its relationship to money.)

As a crime writer, I mix regularly in circles of people who talk about being social writers, about the ‘working class.’ We write books full of people who spend half the plot rationalising their outlaw lifestyles. The more you live and outlaw lifestyle, the clearer it becomes that rationalisation is a thing best left to those who have time for it. You do what you do, when you do it, to live.

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

I don’t know. This phrase is getting used a lot at the moment. Writers, publishers, everyone wants to be seen to be doing their bit to encourage the ‘working class’ or to present their own bona fides as a member of this group. We’re all in a rush to show how we have a finger on the pulse, how we want to tell ‘their’ story. On this cold Monday evening, I’m looking round this circle of 30-odd bike couriers who’ve gathered to hang out, and the phrase ‘working class’ is ringing kind of hollow. Whose story is being told?

One of the strangest, Narnia-like hot takes for Brexit that I’ve been given lately, is that leaving the EU will make room for more migrant workers to come in from outside of the EU. From Africa, South America, China. And that, in turn, this influx will lead to racists becoming less racist. Because meeting workers from a foreign land will somehow make them see the error of their ways, after voting to expel workers from….foreign lands. To believe this, we need to live in a bubble where this isn’t already the case. Where migrant workers from all over the world aren’t already here, and exploited, and less than a paycheck from sheer desperation.

This is the level I’m living at, half the time. Couriers, waiters, kitchen staff, hotel porters, cleaners. On the bike, I’m working daily with people from Brazil, Ethiopia, Eritrea. They bust their ass, and yet they don’t seem to exist to people above a certain floor. And along with them, the people from here, the ones who’ve been left behind, or chosen to step off the path. The ones who can’t fit into the packaged version of a normal life, or have never had a real chance to get one.

The guy sitting across from me is from Ethiopia. He had a hell of summer. First, he was hit by a car in the Merchant City. Cleaned out completely. And the car was totally at fault, the driver deciding the best way to take a corner, was to veer so wide he crossed the lanes, ploughing straight into a cyclist waiting patiently at the junction. The only reason the cyclist wasn’t blamed, is because there is video proof. About two weeks after that, this guy got stabbed. Saw the blade coming, put his helmet in front of his face for protection, took the blade in the gut. Cycled to the hospital, got fixed up, back at work the next day. And somewhere around that time, he also had his bike stolen.

To the racists in this country, this guy is here to steal their taxes or jobs. Funny, I don’t see them out there on the bike, working fifteen hour days, delivering food for a level of pay they would laugh at. To a number of progressives in this country, he doesn’t yet exist. He’s something that will happen after Brexit, and his arrival will herald a new era of anti-racism. I look forward to him getting here.

There’s a lot of romanticised stuff written about bike couriers. Some of it is true. It is one of the last real outlaw existences that people can see in a city centre. Crazy people, with no bosses, taking stupid risks for no real pay. Spending your day out on a bike, instead of in an office, brings an amazing sense of freedom. In the very best moments, when you see a line open up in the traffic, and you truly open up your legs and show what you can do, it’s the best job in the world. On your worst days, at 10pm on a wet October in Glasgow, when you’ve been soaked to the soul all day, and have to stand and change a tyre in darkness, it’s…..still a great job. When you wake up the morning after a long shift, and find out your legs won’t be waking up for another four hours, it can be more of a soul crushing existence.

Compared to some of the other types of work we don’t really talk about, it’s an amazing job. I’ve done my time in call centres. When we talk of ‘working class’ people and normal jobs, we tend to throw around phrases like ‘9 to 5.’ But 9 to 5 is really the privileged preserve of people in good office jobs. If you’re a call centre worker, you’re on tap for a whole range of ever changing shifts, including weekends, for which nobody in politics seems to have your back. I talk to so many lefties, and listen to Labour -my natural home- talking about bringing back industrialisation, of unionising these mythical workers. It’s a shining vision of the past. The working people who need help are being systematically dehumanised in call centres, retail parks, and warehouses across the country. Start getting protection and rights for them. My time in a call centre almost drove me mad, and certainly stripped away layers of humanity and self-worth.

Compared to that, working as a bike courier is just about the most humanising thing you an do. In a world full of shitty working conditions, it’s a chance to rebel, to insist on carving out some space to be yourself and work your own rules, dress your own way, live your own life. To value your own body and spirit every single day, as you achieve small slices of the impossible just to get a fucking box of chicken nuggets to someone. It’s an insistence that we will be human, even in an app-based industry that doesn’t see us that way.

But put the romance aside, and think about the people who tend to work in these jobs. People who are new to the country, people who were born here but have never seen a chance at anything else. People with ADD, people with dyslexia. People with dependency issues that keep them from holding down the mythic 9-5 or the crazy call centre shifts. Sure, you get some students earning beer money, maybe even a novelist, but don’t follow the overriding narrative that these are the majority. Don’t be fooled into caring less about bike couriers based on the fact that a small percentage of them are just earning a little extra cash.

A week ago, Glasgow couriers went on strike. Protesting the pay conditions imposed by one of the cities main delivery companies. Their demands were humble. A minimum of £4.00 per delivery. That is, the person who brings you your dinner, is asking to be paid at least £4.00 for the effort. This isn’t currently the case. Many times, that person might be earning closer to £3 for your trip. Possibly occasionally £2.80. A minimum of £4.00 makes it feasible to at least hit minimum wage for a consistent run of hours. And ‘minimum wage’ is a lie in itself, when it comes to courier work. Minimum wage for a shitty call centre, or a shop, will include entitlements to sick pay, holiday pay. It includes the understanding that there will be times you’ll be paid even when you’re not working. Bike couriers get none of this. Factor that in, and a minimum wage for a bike courier should be looking closer to £12.00 or £15.00.

In raising awareness of this issue online, I heard from a freelance artist who probably considers himself an ethical left wing white knight, whose answer was that the couriers should go get other jobs. Cool story bro, thanks for your input.

Who cares about this small community of people? Probably not you, because they’re cyclists. And you hate cyclists. You can’t really explain why. You just do. If pressed you’ll come out with the same tired cliches that don’t stand up to logic or scrutiny, but deep down, you’re just conditioned not to like them. Just as you’re conditioned not to think about the person working in the hotel basement, the person working in the kitchen, the person cleaning up after you. Just as your conversations about ‘working class’ will tend towards focusing in on arguments about the divide between the working and middle class, and who has or hasn’t sold out, and what more can be done to increase mobility from one to the other. Let’s all keep our eyes averted from the people who don’t even qualify for the conversation in the first place.

There's An Opera Out On The Turnpike

Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy
— Bruce Springsteen 
Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
Watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ‘bout the break he’d give us if he could but he just can’t
— Same Fella

There's a line you'll hear a lot if you profess to being a Springsteen fan. "I want to like him, but he doesn't really get working class life," or, "the working class hero bit gets old." Some variation on that. Something I've heard more then once since the release of his autobiography, is that he's a fascinating guy with a lot to say, but that his songs are trite. 

(I'm pulling a lot of disparate thoughts together in this piece today. I'm not sure If I'll pull it off.)

I've long argued that each different artistic medium has its own strengths and weaknesses that should be celebrated or acknowledged. I rail against using the term 'graphic novel' (a war I have quite clearly lost...) because I want to talk about comics on their own terms, not in comparison to a 'better' art form. There are things comics can do better than any other medium. There are things they can't do. In the same vein, I roll my eyes if a standup comedian has to be praised by being something else. A poet, or a troubadour. I don't like to talk of a TV show being 'like a novel.' To my view, we should celebrate the great things for being the best version of their art form, not a weaker version of a different one. 

But I'm also thinking a lot about the way we talk about our media. Avengers: Infinity War was, to my mind, exactly the film they set out to make. A series of interconnected scenes that push our emotional buttons, based on pre-existing ties we had to all of these characters. But we talk about all films as if they're setting out to achieve the same thing, and then base our criticism on whether they hit that standard. 

Another point that's true, is that entertainers and storytellers get a different emotional reaction for their work than anyone else. As my pod-partner Chantelle has pointed out on Crime Friction, an accountant can do a brilliant job, but they don't have an audience emotionally invested in their work. As writers, performers, storytellers, we do. 

More and more, in a topic I'm sure I'll return to later, I'm realising that storytelling rests on selling emotion. It rests on feeling. Plot, structure, grammar....all of these things are useful tools. They're good guides. But we stand or fall by whether we can make the audience feel. In the moment. And then again in the next moment. And so on. All facts, all ideas, all plot mechanics, all arguments about act structure, are secondary to that. In a recent podcast interview, Writer/Director Chris McQuarrie said that 'exposition is the enemy of emotion.' And he should know, as the guy who delivered the last two Mission Impossible movies, and crafted one of the greatest plot reveals in cinema history. As a growing action director, we can view his work as an ongoing lesson in making people feel. Sure, Tom Cruise does a big stunt that they'll put in all the trailers and use to sell the movie. But the key to those scenes is how we're feeling about them. Are we tense? Are we scared? 

If we successfully sell the emotion and the character, the plot and message will take care of itself. 

And that brings me round, as much as I want each art form to be praised for it's own merits, to thinking about what they have in common. It's that emotional bond. To a greater or lesser degree, a successful piece of art in any medium will make us think, but to earn that they have to make us feel. A joke can pierce deep into the hart of an issue, but needs to pay it's dues first by being funny. A song can be political, can be about some deep social issue, but we need to viscerally feel that issue. Novelists get probably the most room to play. We can choose to take our time, to deep dive into any subject we want. But even still, we need to be aiming for the emotion of every single scene. Write a chapter from the point of view of the person most invested in it. 

(Do I have a point to any of this? Probably not. But I started out with the vague idea this was going to be about Bruce Springsteen. I used quotes, and everything. So I should make some effort to circle back there.) 

I don't really understand any of those arguments against Springsteen. That's not to say I don't also agree with some of them. I grew up in a working class area, I had family members who were long-term unemployed, and I got married young. So when I listen to a song like the River, all I can feel is a vague hollowness. The song doesn't touch me. Doesn't feel anything like the lives I saw or lived. But at the same time, there are few songs that feel as real, as true, to me, as Used Cars. That thing should be a national anthem to somebody, somewhere. To some degree, Springsteen's 'working class' songs are essentially about a life he saw his parents living. Viewed on those terms, we unlock a key to the emotional side. The songs that tap into youth and frustration, or into the way a younger generation struggles with their elders, are the ones that feel purest. 

But I'm not sure why we judge someone's entire career based on whether or not his working class songs are accurate. Is he a documentary film maker? No. Is he a novelist or photographer? No. He's a rock and roll songwriter. There are things that form can do better than anything else. There are also limitations. 

I'm not entirely sure why it's become so common to write off the guy who wrote Born To Run or Jungleland based on whether he really captures the spirit of Ken Loach. 

Let's take another example. There are few finer trickster spirits wandering our artistic highways than Tom Waits. It's easy to forget now, but at the start of their careers, at around the same time, Springsteen and Waits were marketed as east and west Coast analogues of each other. Both young, vaguely beardy, street poets in newsboy hats. In fact, the more you know about Waits, the more you see the whole first decade of his career was an act. The jazzy noir pose, the ballroom heartbreak, the piano that was drinking, and the exposed heart of a Saturday night. All of it was an act. Tom being something he thought he needed to be, and the record company packaging something they knew how to sell. At some point, he shifted, like someone pulled the focus very slightly on the camera following his life. He stepped between the cracks and went loveably crazy. I would give a lot more than I own, to be able to travel back in time and watch a Waits fans' eyes as they dropped the needle on Swordfishtrombones for the first time. Suddenly he's singing about dwarves who live underground, about catching a black crow inside a guitar, he's warbling about Singapore noodles and shore leave, he's taking us on a weird German marching band tour of a back alley. And he's doing it all with a wink and a smile. 

(Side note: 16 Shells From a 30.06 is possibly the best song ever about writing. Shooting a hole in the sky, capturing the blackbird that flies down through it, trapping the bird inside a guitar, and playing the strings just to drive it crazy. Beat that.)

So, to me, ditching Springsteen because a few of his 'working class songs' don't ring true, is like dismissing Tom Waits because his 70's period was a bit hollow. It's simply not what I go to them for, and there's way more to their art than one ingredient. Springsteen found fame as the man who wrote about operas out on the turnpikes, and ballets down in the alley. About big dreams, and small chances, and the need to escape. He has an ear for the mythic. Later on, as his first marriage was failing, he turned inwards, and started to write startlingly honest narratives about the heart. Both of those periods are amazing. I go to Springsteen for those moments, captured in the two quotes I opened with. Big mythic themes, and small focused observations. I don't really go to him for anything in between. Just as I go to Tom Waits for his odd soundscape, the imagined landscape of tricksters and bruises. Somewhere out there, in the mythic rock and roll landscape, I think Waits and Springsteen characters probably meet up and trade stories. About circuses, clowns, street fights, road races, and lost loves. Admit it, you'd want to watch that movie. And you'd feel the hell out of it. 

And if you think you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you’ll have to tell a lie
— Tom Waits

The Thing You Keep Asking Me

I spent a year tilting at windmills in the crime fiction community. A few of them were giants. And I’m tired. I know rumours are doing the rounds, questions are being asked. Am I giving the answers here? Not really. 

See, the problem with much of it, is it's not my story to tell. People keep asking me to speak up. And I do have things to say. But I’m constantly, constantly, aware that the weight of these stories falls differently on me than it does for the people who own them. 

I want to talk about a culture of people in power who will talk publicly about supporting #MeToo, but then privately question the motives of every.single.woman to speak up. Are they doing it to sell books? Are they doing it to grandstand? Have they simply gotten their story wrong? All these suggestions were raised. The validity of stories has been judged. And each one was a massive pull on my loyalties. Stay in the room to keep working towards the goal, or walk away to stop being complicit?

I want to talk about a culture where rules and precedent can be set aside to hand out opportunities to friends, but become all important when it comes to refusing to help out an indie author. I want to talk about a culture of standing by while authority figures are allowed to privately bully and publicly insult professionals within this industry. Of how evidence of this can be magically deleted soon after I forward a complaint about it. Of how other people in the conversation can tell me that evidence never existed, even as I tell them I saw it myself. I’d like to talk about how, when I was digging my heels in the sand, I was told that the person in the wrong had more support in the community than the person in the right. If people want the exact moment I lost the appetite to keep going, there it is. 

I want to talk about organisations that are sitting on hundreds of thousands of your dollars, and provide very little accountability or transparency about the decisions taken with that money. But if a suggestion for change comes from an author it means less, because it's a fan convention. Even if authors pay for registration, and their names are used on the website as a lure for readers to (pay) attend. 

I really want to talk about receiving a dog-whistle legal threat from an author who accuses me of trying to ruin his career. The Streisand-effect-level irony is that he keeps talking about something I’ve shut up about. Something I've never actually talked publicly about, and that each time he talks, more people ask what he’s mad about. If your career could feasibly be ruined by me (spoilers: it can’t) then you need to be honest about what level that career is at. 

I’ve learned a lot about personal responsibility this year. I take responsibility for the things I’ve handled badly. I would go about certain things differently if I could. People I trusted too readily. People I didn’t trust enough. But we need to see more people owning their own shit. We need to look at how a few willing volunteers, and a few people with no choice in the matter, can be left to carry the weight and blame of big, important issues. 

My point here is to say there's a dichotomy. My experiences of the past year are all my story, but at the same time, they're not at all my story. I can’t keep threading that needle. I’ve had a year in which I’ve gone through a load of stress and pushed myself to some unhealthy places, and I’d like to talk about that. I woke up recently in intense abdominal pain. At a level where I thought I needed an ambulance. And my first thought was of calmness, hey a whole bunch of problems will go away if this turns out to be serious. But talking about things also means co-opting other people’s stories, which I won't do. It’s been hard for me, it’s been much harder for them. 

There are people who judge me for doing too much, there are people who judge me for not doing enough. They're probably both right. 

There are some people I thought to be friends who vanished. There are others who’ve stood by me all the way. And I don’t make that easy. I’ve been an emotional drain on a small number of people, just as I’ve tried to give support to others. And there are people I’ve let down, too. People I couldn’t lend my vocal support to because I believed in doing the private good. There are also friends I’ve hurt or lost by being distracted, by not really listening to what they were asking for, because I was thinking about all of this. 

I think where I come out of it is this; I had a go. I can live with that. Some people hate me. I can live with that, too. I can’t change who I am. But I can accept who I am. I will always want to support and help. But I’m nobody’s moral arbiter, and I only have so much headspace. I can’t even tie shoelaces, for fuck’s sake. Velcro is about my level in life. 

We have a problem in this community. I’m talking a lack of collective responsibility. We want shit done, but we want other people to do it. We want change, but we don’t want to shoulder the burden of changing. Too many people end up shouldering burdens alone. And no, that bit isn’t about me. It’s about the people who still don’t feel safe speaking up. It’s about the people who have spoken up and been ignored. Its about the people who’ve been made to feel unwelcome in the community. It’s about the people who choose to stay silent or look the other way when bad shit is being said or done. 

If we all, as a community, don’t start owning a piece of these issues, then we’re leaving it to others. We’re leaving it to private conversations, to unqualified opinions, to unaccountable decisions. We can progress, but it needs to be a collective action. People can't shoulder it alone. 

Icarus Still Flew

"Life finds a way."
-Ian Malcom (Michael Crichton.)

Something I'm not going to do here, is try and tell you what storytelling should be about. In the age of hot takes and think pieces, I probably should. A definition of what story is for. What messages it should impart. Maybe I'd say the job of a storyteller is to 'hold up a mirror.' As a crime writer, it's ever in fashion to say we 'explore the darkness of the human condition,' or write 'social fiction.' Some people will insist storytellers have no responsibility to society, others will tell you we do. One writer might say, full of conviction, that we're about showing dark realities of our own compromised existence, their friend will say it's all about presenting optimism and aspiration, of the things we could achieve. 

I don't want to try and boil story down to one thing. Partly because, on any given day, all of the above is true. Sometimes in the same story at the same time. Life is too complicated to reduced down to one idea. You can take any of those positions, and be right, or wrong, depending on the day, and on your work. 

The main reason I avoid boiling things down to such simple ideas, is that these days my main focus is on telling a story to the best of my ability. I think that's my job. Do the best work I can. Create an interesting and involving story. Sure, I work with subtext, I've got ideas and themes. But I don't see it as my role to tell you what they are. That's the reader's job. The writer crafts the story, the reader engages with it. If I've done my part well, the reader can do theirs. 

(As an aside, this is why I'm a late convert to loglines. I used to roll my eyes at the very idea of them. Reducing a whole book or movie down to an elevator pitch? How crass. I'm an artist. If I could tell my story in one line, I wouldn't have written a book. Now I see that's actually the beauty of them. In knowing my logline, in being able to boil down the plot to a one or two sentence pitch, I'm able to sell you my story without having to break the magic and tell you what it's really about. )

So, we're agreed, I hope, that I'm not here to talk about what stories should be about?

Good, because I'm here to talk about what stories should be about. 

If you're a regular listener to the Crime Friction podcast, you know we're currently working on a series of episodes that look at the process of adapting books to films. We've already recorded an episode discussing Jaws, and I've prepared for one on Jurassic Park. And in re-reading the latter, I noticed something that got me thinking about story. 

See, I read the book as a teenager. It was possibly one of the first full novels I read. I enjoyed the hell out of it. What wasn't to like? Dinosaurs running around attacking people. Lots of fake science to make me feel clever. Also, there was a lot of it, so I got my money's worth.  Revisiting it now in my late-thirties, I found something else going on. 

A key detail here, is that somewhere in the intervening years, (hint: it was on a friend's podcast) I learned that Michael Cricton was a climate change denier. Now, in the #MeToo era, the conversation about separating art from artists has a much more important role, but for little judgemental me, my thought process upon opening the book for the first time in over twenty years went like this; "Can I still enjoy this, knowing the author was crazy?" The answer was: "Yes, kinda, but I have some thoughts."

Twenty years of pop culture, and the ever-cooky Jeff Goldblum, have worked a fun trick on us. For the movie-going public, Ian Malcom is the good guy. Walking around unflappably in sunglasses and leather, quipping about the size of poop, firing into Ellie Sattler. He even likes kids, and is willing to use himself as a human distraction to save them from a dinosaur. The movie version of Ian Malcom is a far cooler, and better, person than I will ever be. 

For the early stages of the book, I found I was still reading with Goldblum in my head. The first couple of times the character went on 'life finds a way' speeches, I would smile and think, 'hey, uncle Jeff is doing his bit.' But as the story progressed, it became clear there was more to it. By the end (or...near the end....spoilers) Ian Malcolm is going into full-on science hate. The planet is fine, he's saying, the planet will always be fine. Humans need to stop having the ego to think we can change things. And, with my new-found knowledge of Crichton's views, it became impossible not to see this both as the point of the story, and as the author speaking directly through Ian Malcolm. Spielberg aside, this is a very cold and cynical book, that fundamentally believes scientists are arrogant and dangerous, and that we should stop pretending we have any say in how the planet progresses. 

Which is where my brain started firing. 

Why is so much of our myth, so much of our storytelling, based around cautionary tales? Why is so much of science fiction (not all, obviously, don't send me hate mail) based around telling humans not to 'play god' and to know our place? Where is the aspiration. Where is the notion that, actually, we can achieve great things if we work at it, and if we trust science? 

I'm sure many people reading this now will be screaming the words Star and Trek at me. And I agree. Trek has always been at its best when its subtly telling us to embrace aspiration and work together, and is always at its worst when it tries to deal with failure and cynicism (or tell us that 9/11 was an inside job...)

But again and again, encoded deep and early by religion and ancient myths, is the idea that we can't get ahead of ourselves. That there are certain ambitions we shouldn't have. Certain knowledge we shouldn't strive for. And, to transgress these boundaries in fiction is to get eaten by our creations, or destroyed by science, or felled by an invading force. The 'mad scientist', the 'evil wizard,' Doctor Frankenshteeeen. The meme repeats over and over. 

And, as we tell these stories on repeat, is it any wonder that we have a culture where nobody trusts experts? Where half the planet can be on fire, and we still debate whether the climate is changing? Where people stop vaccinating their kids? Where we still have laws made based on books from thousands of years ago? 

I work hard at optimism. And it gets harder all the time. But I still think science can probably save us. If we fund it, if we embrace it. We can start to beat off the various forms of cancer. We can figure out ways to stop Alzheimers. People with HIV can already live relatively normal lives, what break throughs could be achieve with focus? With a serious level of funding, collective work, and organisation, we could mitigate the effects of climate change. We could work out ways to feed people, and to leave fossil fuels in the ground. There's nothing to be ashamed of in wanting to figure out how we can live longer, reach higher, achieve more. 

The quote everyone remembers from Jurassic Park is that life finds a way. And it's delivered as a cautionary statement, a warning against our own hubris. But not all of our myths need be told this way. The story of Prometheus had a god teaching us how to make fire, for which all the other gods started to persecute us. And we can tell this as a story about needing to know our place, or needing divine guidance. But we can also choose to tell is as a story about how, whatever spark of divinity exists out in the heavens, it also exists in us. We have the fire, and we can do great things with it, and maybe the gods were scared of that. 

The story of Icarus tells us of a man and his son, who built wings, and defied nature by learning to fly. Icarus flew too close to the sun, and fell back down to earth. And again, sure, we can tell it as mankind needing to know it's limitations. Or we can choose to say that, in the short time he had on this earth, Icarus flew. 

Life does find a way. Ian Malcolm was right. Michael Crichton was right. But where I think they're wrong, where I think so much of our storytelling might be going wrong, is in forgetting that humanity is included in that life. We can find a way. And I think we should tell that story more often. 

It's A Kind Of Magic

God's footballer hears the voices of angels, above the choir at Molineux. 
-Billy Bragg

It's the done thing to sneer about football. It's lost it's soul, apparently. It's not what it used to be. Or it's just a bloated spectacle, with twenty-two millionaires kicking a ball around a field. I'm hearing more of this than ever before, now that my own club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, have rich owners, and are the current team accused of destroying the game. 

Growing up in England, in the eighties, football was every politician's favourite curse word. The reason for every social ill. The fans were animals, to be kept in cages. Living for over a decade now in Glasgow, I can still see that football becomes the easy target. Politicians, writers, journalists, can all complain about the influence of the game, rather than address the social conditions that lead to problems. 

An odd thing happened yesterday. I was running late for work. Booked to chair a literary event in the city, I was rushing across my local estate to get to the train, one I was pretty sure I would miss. Along the way, I passed some young boys, kicking a football around a patch of grass, with two stolen house bricks as goalposts. And, despite the urgency or my appointment, I slowed down to watch. Because that's what I do. That's what all of us -any of us who like football- do. 

There's a magic to it. A social connection. Sure, you can complain about the wages footballers earn, but why would we want an industry where the money doesn't go to the talent? And sure, we can scoff and use the 'twenty-two millionaires' line, but why do we ignore that none of them started out that way? Pick any of the largest teams in the English Premier League, and look at the backgrounds of their players. We'll find some grew up comfortably, some might be second generation footballers. But a great majority have come from poor backgrounds. From towns and villages, or from run-down inner city housing estates, where the governments have dumped a generation of immigrants. Some are even from refugee families, or grew up in the middle of civil wars. Some of those rich professionals will have grown up in back breaking poverty. But they had a skill, they worked at it, and now they're watched by millions of people around the world, and cheered for that skill. 

The one thing they all have in common, is that at some point, as children, they will have been kicking a ball about on a patch of grass, maybe with some stolen house bricks for goalposts. The height of the crossbar determined somehow, vaguely, by the extent of the goalkeeper's reach. 

There's a magic to football. A connection to something else. I think the sports we like as adults are probably the ones we played as children. And I can be a class warrior about it at times. There wasn't much tennis going on where I grew up. There weren't exactly copious opportunities to learn dressage. Most of the celebrated Olympic sports were the preserve of the middle classes and the well-off to pack their children into big cars after school, and at weekends, and take them to a place where they could be taught by expensive coaches.  

But everyone can kick a ball on their nearest field. And when you see children doing it now, you stop, or you slow your step, and you watch. For a second, maybe you're one of them again. Thinking, I could do better than that, give me a shot. 

My team are kind of rich now. If we play the game of judging a team by the wealth of their owner. They can buy better players. They've assembled probably the best Wolves squad of my life -not that it stops them losing to daft mistakes- and some of the rough edges are being smoothed out. A national football writer recently said he hoped we get relegated so that fans can 'get their club back.' 

I started supporting them in 1986. The fourth division. At that moment, there were probably 85 teams higher in the football league, and I could've followed any of them. But I fell for Wolves. Steve Bull, Robbie Dennison, and a guy nicknamed Rambo in defence. Molineux was a disaster area. Two of the stands were closed, one was a hundred yards away from the pitch, and the fourth...well the fourth was the South Bank and it's always been a magical place, even when it was crumbling and scary. 

So what's changed, between then and now? From the days as a national joke, on life support, to the days of a national folk devil, with money in the bank? What has altered about the soul of my team, or the nature of football?

Absolutely nothing. Go pick up a ball, kick it. It's all the same thing. It's all the same magic. If I see you playing, I'll probably pause to watch. Just don't pass to me, my left foot is terrible.