Archive | February, 2012

I’m Confused — I Thought Murder Was Wrong!

25 Feb

When I got to the age of around 16-17, I first started to realize about the enormity of death. It horrified me. The thought of not existing any more, of being swallowed-up into oblivion, was simply terrifying. It was the stuff of nightmares. So I ended-up doing what most people around me seemed to be doing — I kept busy, constantly distracted myself with stuff to do and never talked about dying. In the West, there is this unacknowledged conspiracy: that if we don’t talk about it and if we try not to think about it, then it’s as if death doesn’t actually exist.

That’s why when someone sadly dies ( we usually use the euphanism “passes away”), many of us don’t know what to say to the bereaved. We are just not used to talking about the awful subject and so we are lost for words. It’s happened to me as well. All I can think to say is:”You are in my thoughts at this difficult time” or “If there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to ask.” It’s an awkward subject to broach, especially if the bereaved person is in a state of shock, as if they never imagined that death could claim someone close to them.

When I was a late teenager this fear and dread of death provided me with the strength and motivation to make one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided not to avoid the taboo subject anymore. I also vowed that I would no longer be knowingly responsible for any unnecessary death. You might think that that’s an obvious and reasonable stance to make in our “civilised” society. Afterall — murder — the deliberate taking of another’s life, is our most serious and condemned crime. Everyone agrees with this, except perhaps for the odd psychopath. Underpinning this is one of the Ten Commandments: ” Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Surely everyone agrees with that? Or do they? It was as I reached my later teens that I sadly realized that many don’t. The first thing I discovered was that I belonged to a species that was constantly taking each others’ lives, in the phenomenon known as war. ( see previous post — “Realizing About War.”)

Human beings unfortunately spend inordinate amounts of money, time and effort figuring out new, more efficient and more horrific ways to kill each other. In the 20th Century alone we had: artilliary bombardment, poisonous gas, machine guns ,shrapnel, grenades, aerial bombing, incendiary bombs creating fire-storms, concentration camps, starvation in ghettos, Atom and Hydrogen Bombs dropped on unsuspecting civilians, nuclear missiles, germ warfare, land and sea mines, cluster bombs and napalm — to name but a few. They are just from the top of my head and I’m not a military expert. All that’s on top of the more mundane shooting and stabbing. We like to blame the murderous campaigns or weapons of mass-destruction on evil ogres such as Adolf Hitler , Saddam Hussein or Colonal Gadaffi. We also blame evil organisations such as the IRA or Al Quaida. It always seems to be someone else’s fault, but we’re all at it really. There has been warfare somewhere in the World every single year since the end of the Second World War, which was supposed to have brought us peace in 1945. Also, wasn’t the Great War of 1914-18 supposed to be have been “the war to end all wars”? I think this continuing situation is tragic. It has led to untold misery and appalling loss of life. It’s still happening today in Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia, to name just 3 war-torn countries.

So why isn’t everyone a peace campaigner? It’s a very good question which I cannot properly answer. I have tried to be a peace campaigner. I have: marched, petitioned, lobbied MPs, been in vigils and sit-ins, discussed, debated, written letters, canvassed door to door and taken part in all kinds of peaceful protests. I have even acted in a play “what I wrote”( with apologies to Ernie) called “Protest and Survive”.  But war rages on and the horrendous threat of a nuclear holocaust still hangs over us. In fact, unbelievably, peace campaigners have been branded and castigated as: cowards, defeatists, traitors or extremists. In the days of the so-called Cold War when our enemy was supposed to be the Soviet Union, peace-campaigners were also labelled as : commies, reds or pinkoes. When I was active in CND in the 1980’s, my group in Tyneside was expelled from the pub where it met because it was upsetting the drinkers to have communist-sympathisers and traitors meeting in the room upstairs. A sympathetic local hotel owner took us in.

These days it is difficult to criticise the British army’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan ( or “The War on Terror”) despite all the suffering and killing on both sides, because so many people have relatives or friends fighting out there. Saying that you are against the war and in favour of peace would be seen by many as being disloyal and unpatriotic. One little known ( and trivial) consequence of Britain and America’s illegal invasion of Iraq was that I broke up from my girlfriend of that time. At first she seemed to agree that it was wrong to use armed force to bring down another soveriegn country’s government and that it would be setting a terrible precedent. However, once our troops invaded, she thought it was important to close ranks and support “our boys”, probably taking her cue from the overtly chauvenistic tabloid press. So even those close to me disagreed with my idea that war was wrong. I saw this as a fundamental moral isue and found it impossible to continue the relationship. Maybe I should have chosen somebody from the million who marched through London proclaiming ” Not in my name.” At least the unprecedented size of the peace march reassured me that I was far from alone in being opposed to war.

My simple idea that war is wrong has turned out to be very controversial and troublesome for me. Human beings seem to be naturally prone to kill each other and concoct endless excuses in order to carry on doing it. It seems that if one has a “just cause”, then it’s OK to kill and OK to die. However, what constitutes a just cause is highly controversial. Is it acceptable to kill or die for land, for living-space, or for natural resources such as oil? Is it OK to take or sacrifice life for: a political cause, a religion or an economic system? The matter gets even more confusing when the original cause of a war is forgotten or changed. For instance, Britain entered the First World War to defend Belgium’s neutrality, but during the course of the conflict, British and other allied troops violated the neutrality of Greece. In the Second World War we entered  to support Poland against Hitler’s totalitarian Germany only to sacrifice the Poles to Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet Union in the peace negotiations at the end. How can you tell I was a History teacher? Sorry! To cut a long story short, it seems that all humans need is a cause ( ie — an excuse) and they will kill each other on a massive scale.

The second big decision I made when I was 17 was also to do with not wanting to be involved in unnecessary killing. It was my decision to become a vegetarian. ( covered in previous blogs.) Animals, birds and fish have lives too, I said to myself, and human beings have no right to extinguish those precious, unique lives, simply to provide a” tasty” meal. Once I’d made that fundamental decision, I couldn’t imagine anything more revolting than agreeing to a living creature being slaughtered for me and then eating its dead body. To my surprise, my Christian parents disagreed. They were against murder but thought there was nothing wrong in murdering animals in order to eat them. It upset me that they were kind and compassionate people but didn’t extend that compassion to the creatures we shared the world with. I tried to argue with them and point out the hypocracies of their position, but to no avail. It was if I was speaking a foreign language. I even sang one of their favourite Methodist hymns at meal time:  “All things bright and beautiful,  All creatures great and small,  All things wise and wonderful,  The Lord God made them all.” Then I would dramatically get up and leave, leaving them to eat one of God’s creatures that had been “sacrificed” to accompany their potatoes and veg. For the rest of life I would be a vegetarian as well as a peace campaigner — a painful double-whammy in some peoples’ eyes.

As you know, most people agree with my parents rather than with me. Human beings rule the world and are indisputably at the top of the food chain. I think that humans should use their position of absolute power responsibly and compassionately in accordance with their own rule of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” However, I am naive to think this. Being in a position of total dominance is like being a Nazi in control of a concentration camp. Just like the wretched inmates of Belson or Auchswitz were mistreated, abused and slaughtered by the so-called “master race”, so the inmates of the animal kingdom are mistreated, abused and slaughtered by their human “masters”. It’s a very simple example of Robespierre’s adage: ” Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” To me, it is utterly depressing that the majority of humans choose to use their power “corruptly” rather than “compassionately”. However, as soon as I open my mouth and start saying stuff like this, I am quickly shouted down and accused of: preaching, being emotive or even being extremist. It seems that one is labelled as an  “extremist” if one disagrees with the majority view. The majority of human beings have deemed that other living creatures have been put on this earth to serve us, by providing us with: food, clothes, labour, sport, companionship and bodies for scientific experimentation. In other words: other creatures are expendable. Unfortunately, only a small minority share my belief that animals should be allowed to live their own lives without interference from us. I think a true test of a civilised society is how the strong treat the weak. Do the former care for the latter and protect them, or do they neglect, abuse and exploit them? I think responsible human beings should pose this question with regards to the animal kingdom as well as to the weaker members of their own species.

I am no longer afraid of death. As I get older I have grown to accept its inevitability instead of resisting it. As the trials and tribulations, heartaches and problems of life take their toll, I am gradually getting round to viewing my own future death as a welcome release. However, I still value my life so far, as it has brought me so much joy, happiness and fulfillment. I am now 62 and am still clinging on to my simple teenage belief that the unnecessary taking of life is wrong. No amount of name-calling, sneering, mocking, aggression or criticism will change my mind. This simple, basic belief has led to much trouble and anguish in my life, because so few other people have shared it. Sometimes I feel as if I was born into the wrong world. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world that valued and celebrated life rather than one that revels in death and destruction? That’s called a pipe dream.

Realizing About War.

10 Feb

I was born a mere 4 years after the end of the Second World War. It’s aftermath still hung heavily over the nation. Food shortages persisted and everyone lived on rations. It was the age of Austerity, of “make do and mend.”  Many people near us lived in hastily erected pre-fabs because so many homes had been bombed and destroyed. I imagine it was like that all over the country.

Obviously, as a baby, I had no idea that I had fortuitously arrived in the world just after all that death , destruction and misery. Only later did I realize what a traumatic experience my country and much of the world must have undergone. At first, as a child growing up in the 1950’s, the war years seemed to have been a fascinating and exciting time to live through. Seen through my naive child’s eyes, it almost felt as if I had missed out on something memorable and special. I was fascinated when my dad showed me the maps into which he had stuck little, colourful flags, marking the progress of the various armies between 1939 and 1945. Tiny Union Jacks, Swastikas, Tricoleurs and Hammer and Sickles advanced and retreated across the map of Europe and North Africa, while out in the Pacific, the red round sun of Japan was pitted against more Union Jacks and the Stars and Stripes. Dad explained the main campaigns and it all seemed very dramatic and thrilling.

Later, when I started to read comics in the early 1960’s I chose “Victor For Boys”. The front page picture strip always told a war story about how some brave Brit earned the Victoria Cross. I lapped up the tales of heroic “Tommies” socking it to “Fritz” or the “Hun”, as the Germans were dubbed. They were entertaining, escapist tales and to some extent they enhanced my sketchy knowledge of World War 2. What I didn’t realize at the time though, was that the Victor was also giving me a crash course in chauvism. Every issue fed a bit more patriotic poison into my susceptible mind. Patriotism is fine so long as it does not breed hatred of the so-called enemy. I was being presented with a simplistic, black and white world where the British were always good and our opponants were always bad, deserving of being shot, grenaded or bombed. The messy complications and ambiguities of real life were largely ignored. It wasn’t just the “Victor”. The 50’and 60’s were full of triumphant films about how we won the war, all portraying the British as heroes and the Germans or Japanese as the villains. Then there was the constant airing of “stirring” military music on the radio. I’ve lost count of how many times “Uncle Mac” of “Children’s Favourites” played the “633 Squadron” or the “Dambusters March”, both celebrating our mass bombing of Germany( yes I know that they started it!). Was this a suitable subject for children though? I was so drawn in that I asked for a book called “I Flew With Braddock” as my Sunday School attendance prize. It was all about a tail-gunner on a Lancaster bomber, doing night raids over Germany. My parents kindly arranged for me to receive this instead of The Bible which they had originally intended. But with hindsight, was this a suitable book to get from a church that was supposed to be promoting Jesus’s doctrine of love and peace? At the time, the war and the bombing raids seemed exciting and romantic to me. I did not think of the widespread death and destruction that they caused on both sides. For London read Hamburg; for Coventry read Dresden.

My close family had mostly escaped military service in World War 2. Dad worked on the railways, an essential service, ferrying coal from the mines to the power stations. He had actually wanted to join the Navy but had failed the medical due to his dermatitis. I remember it as a purply-red rash on his hands and lower arms and I think he said it was infectious. ( it isn’t really.)  So he spent the war in blacked- out steam trains, hoping that German bomber crews, on their way to attack Sheffield, did not spot the glow of the locomotive’s fire when he briefly opened the hatch to shovel in more coal. Both my grandfathers worked in the steel- works of north-east Derbyshire, another essential industry. Men were exempted from conscription to the armed forces if they did a job that was vital to the war effort. I remember the comedian Eric Morecombe, explaining that’s how he ended up going down the pit. Thus my closer relatives were spared the dangers of front line action although I’m sure they worked extremely hard in unpleasant conditions on behalf of their country. So no tragic stories of family wartime losses blighted my innocent childhood. In fact my mum made it sound good fun when she told me about nights spent in the concrete air-raid shelter at the bottom of Grandad’s garden. She said they decorated it and took personal items in there to help pass the time. Only later did I imagine what it must have really been like, sitting there in the cold and dark, listening to the alien drone of the bombers overhead and wondering whether this was the night when your house would be blown to bits. It must have been far from jolly.

My maternal Grandad, Thomas, used to teach me piano when I was about 7 and he told me stories that increased my fascination with the war. He would suddenly stop me from ploughing through some boring scales to tell me about a dog-fight between a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt in the skies above Chesterfield where we lived. It sounded thrilling to a child’s ears because at that tender age I didn’t think about the terror the young pilots on both sides must have felt, knowing that at any moment they could be blasted from the sky to almost certain death.

I have said that my close relatives did not experience the hazards of front line service. However when I got a bit older, my parents told me about Uncle William. He was actually my Great Uncle, the brother of Grandad Thomas. He had served in the army in the far east ( probably Burma, Thailand or Malaya). William had been captured by the Japanese  and had been held as a prisoner of war in one of their notorious camps. He survived the ordeal but came back looking like a skeleton. I was told that he had been forced to eat boiled grass. He had severe digestion problems for the rest of his life and was never the same man again! What pain he must have suffered and what cruelty and horror he must have witnessed. Then he was expected to come home and live a “normal” life! Films such as “Bridge Over The River Kwai” with its chirpy, whistled theme tune and its portrayal of brave, stiff upper-lipped British soldiers being mistreated by cold, sadistic Japanese guards, gave me important information about the sort of thing that Uncle William went through. However the film, good as it is, presents the story through a prism of patriotism, obscuring the fact that the war was a tragedy for all concerned — our poor soldiers, their poor soldiers and the long suffering local people whose land had been invaded by both the Japanese and the British. I now think that once a war film gets you to take sides, reducing the scenario to one of goodies versus baddies, it fails to identify and condemn the real evil, which is war itself. Hindsight has taught me this, but as a child , war stood for exciting stories in Boys Own comics, dramatic films where our side were always the heroes, stirring military music and patriotic pride in Britain’s great war-time exploits. Not only was I not exposed to the full horror of war itself but my view of what had taken place was severely handicapped by blatant bias.

I’m very sensitive to issues of bias because I was a History teacher for 35 years. Despite all my efforts and those of my colleagues, bias is still very much alive and kicking. It is a serious obstacle in the way of getting to the truth. For all sorts of reasons, people distort the truth to suit their own ends. War is particularly fertile territory for this sort of thing. For instance, it took me a long time to challenge the notion that the retreat from the beaches of Dunkerque in 1940, was somehow a great victory for the British because it illustrated our never-say-die attitude and “Bulldog spirit”. It actually was a catastrophic and humiliating defeat, but you wouldn’t think so from the number of times our politicians or media refer to the” Dunkerque spirit.” The past is always re-interpreted to put one’s own country in the best possible light, such that as a kid, I was always very proud of Britain’s “achievements” at Dunkerque.

The Korean War passed me by as did the early years of the Vietnam conflict when the French were involved. I was starting school and learning to ride my tricycle at the time. The Suez crisis and our (illegal) invasion of Nasser’s Egypt in 1956 barely registered on my personal Richter scale. I was only 7! I was probably writing my project about how chocolate is made, along with playing on the beach at Blackpool. The news of trouble in British ruled Kenya similarly passed me by. I vaguely remember that everyone seemed to be upset by the atrocities of the “Mau Mau terrorists” and felt better when our troops taught them a lesson. The question never entered my head as to why Britain was ruling a far away country in East Africa. All I knew was that it led to me getting lots of nice colourful stamps for my album. Like most other people I knew at the time, I was very proud of the British Empire and all that pink on the world map. I never thought about the wars and abuses that resulted from the establishment and maintenance of an Empire upon which the sun never set. My childhood ignorance allowed nationalistic pride to flourish.

Even in the 1960’s I was only vaguely aware of our soldiers fighting and dying in distant Malaya ( Malaysia). Few commentators stressed that we were over there to steal Malaya’s rubber and other rich, natural resources. ( That’s why the Japanese were attracted to south-east Asia in the 2nd World War and why Uncle William and thousands of others suffered or perished in the jungle in order to try to protect our booty.) Our leaders and the most of the media led us to believe that we were there to fight the “evil” communists who had replaced the nazis as our sworn enemies. As a young teenager I had a hazy awareness of all this from the news but was mostly interested in buying Beatles records and trying to get a girlfriend.

It was only when I entered the 6th form at school that the penny finally dropped . War, I finally realized, was not glamorous, exciting or fun. War was not always a clear-cut case of good versus evil. War was not something one could comfortably ignore because it was in a far away place or a thing of the past. I at last realized that war was, in my opinion, an ongoing abomination that blighted the world. It was, I came to believe: an unmitigated tragedy. I had been alerted to this and persuaded of this by a variety of factors that all coalesced in the 60’s. First of all I started to take notice of the lyrics of some well known pop and folk songs. Bob Dylan wasn’t singing about his love life but voicing his concerns about important issues. He was one of the first and one of the most influential protest singers, taking his cue from folk artists such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. In “Masters of War”, Dylan protested about the politicians and arms manufacturers who were(are) responsible for the constant warfare we have witnessed in modern times. Lyrics such as : ” You fasten all the triggers for the others to fire, Then you sit back and watch when the death count gets higher” made me sit up and think. It certainly was a big change from “Love me Do”, “Baby Love” or ” Sugar, Sugar” Then there was Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” which implicated the church and religious leaders for their cynical justifications of wars and genocides throughout history. It was controversial and thought provoking stuff , especially as it was challenging the establishment view that up to now I had uncritically accepted. Then came Buffy St Marie’s famous and powerful “Universal Soldier”, popularised in Britain by Donovan, which aired the simple but persuasive notion  that if all soldiers refused to fight, then there would be no wars. (Some had tried that in the First World War and had been shot for the crime of desertion!)  The horrendous dangers and consequences of nuclear war were highlighted in Dylan’s ” A Hard Rain’s a Gonna’s Fall”, a song that many interpreted as being about the poisonous nuclear fall-out or radioactive dust that comes after the blast.( although Dylan always denied this, preferring a more ambigious interpretation of the “hard rain.”)  Perhaps this interpretation emerged because the song  came out at around the same time as the frightening Cuban Missile Crisis, when Kennedy and Khruschov squared up to each other like posturing, rutting stags and many feared we were heading for World War Three. I first  heard it sung by the rich, vibrato voice of Joan Baez and it was another chilling wake-up call. Barry Maguire’s: “Eve of Destruction” covered the same subject in a more direct way and was a surprise hit amongst all the boy-meets-girl ditties.

So after listening to all that lot I had no choice but to give up my naive childhood notions and enter the real world. I had no excuse really because when I was about 14 or 15 I acquired several foreign pen-friends including a teenage girl from Hiroshima, Japan. She was called Junko Fujii. It didn’t take me long to work out why she wanted to write about the importance of World Peace in most of her letters. She sent me photos of Hiroshima’s  peace monument, which consisted of the devastated shell of a church, the only building left standing after the Americans dropped their notorious and utterly devastating  Atom Bomb. It was now all rapidly coming together in my mind. War took all shapes and forms but none of them were glamorous or exciting as I had previously thought. It was all wrong. Writers and poets were saying the same thing as were the pictures on our TV screen. It was the time that the Vietnam war exploded into our living rooms .

The 60’s saw the massive escalation of the Vietnam war which also spread into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia. The Americans had taken over from the former colonisers: the French, in trying to stop the spread of Communism from China down through south-east Asia. As I mentioned earlier, the “Commies” had replaced the Nazis as the main baddies that the so-called “Free World” felt obliged to fight. At first I accepted this as reasonable. Afterall, the Communist regimes of Soviet Russia, China and Eastern Europe had commited many atrocities and denied their own people basic human rights. Surely this was just another case of good versus bad? So what changed this view, such that there were mass protests against the war across the world.? The main reason, I think was television.

Vietnam was the first major war to get beamed into people’s houses via the evening news. There we were, eating our tea, when we were suddenly treated to scenes of: dead bodies, wounded soldiers in great distress, villages being bombed, jungles being defoliated, prisoners being executed , monks setting fire to themselves in protest and, perhaps most memorable of all, young, naked children running down a road screaming in agony after being napalmed. This nightly horror show brought to us by American TV cameras, made thousands of people sit up, take notice and say “enough is enough.”  I was one of them. Vietnam was not another far-away war that could be comfortably forgotten about. Irrespective of the political and military justications for the conflict, it was wrong, in my opinion, and had to be stopped. Surely there had to be another, less horrific, more civilised way of solving disputes? Wasn’t this what the United Nations was supposed to be for? ( Only later did I realize that the UN, like The League of Nations before it, was the prisoner of the so called Great Powers who were heavily implicated in most of the conflicts that took place in the world.)

The reasons for war are complex and could be the subject of a very long book, never mind a blog that is already too long! Suffice to say that from 1967 onwards I have tried to be a peace campaigner, sometimes quietly, sometimes noisily. It’s been complicated and has aroused a surprising amount of opposition. I have been called lots of not very flattering names!  Afterall, I belong to a country which always seems to be at war for some reason or another. The latest reason is that we are part of the “War on Terror”, the terrorists having conveniently replaced the communists, who had previously replaced the Nazis, as our sworn enemies. There’s always some excuse for war. In the early years of the 20th century it was the “Yellow Peril” Then of course it was the Kaiser’s Germany etc, etc. But that’s the subject of another potential blog. ( You have been warned!!!)

Waking up from my childhood innocence led, in many ways to a troubled and worrying adulthood. However, I’m glad I did. Ignorance is bliss they say, but once my ignorance was dispelled, I felt it my duty to campaign against something that I  felt and still feel to be a terrible wrong.

The Other Side of Football — Up The Spireites!

1 Feb

It’s difficult to write about football ( or soccer) with any objectivity. Thanks to saturation coverage in the media, its importance has been inflated to ridiculous levels. Hooliganism has been largely sorted in Britain ( though not completely) but other unsavoury developments constantly rear their ugly heads. Numerous Premier League clubs have become the playthings or part of the cooperate business- plan of foreign billionairres, be they Russian, American or Gulf Arab. Top level players are paid unbelievably high salaries that are an insult to every ordinary working person in the country. I heard of one highly paid footballer who regularly burnt £50 notes to impress his mates in the pub. Top players are now ranked alongside film and TV stars as A-List celebrities, their every move, utterance or tweet given the full glare of publicity. Then there are the armies of followers, dazzled by the hype, wealth, fame and success, who attach themselves to the biggest and richest clubs. Many of these so-called supporters don’t even come from or live in the place where their team is based. Many “fans” don’t actually come from the same country! The power of television has made football into a global force, and an important part of the show-business industry. Thus we get the strange, confusing situation of finding droves of Manchester United, Chelsea, Milan or Barcelona fans throughout Africa, Asia and all parts of Europe!

Famous players are mobbed and idolised when they visit these far-flung outposts of their club’s empire. Gullible fans may not even realise that the visit has only been organised in order to sell more replica shirts and club merchanise to generate yet more wealth for the “business.” How can a person support a team which he/she can never get to see live? I don’t understand. This blog isn’t about that side of football — the false, over-hyped worlds of the Premier league, La Liga or Serie A. It’s about the other side of football that doesn’t appear in the celebrity mags, the back pages of the tabloids or on Match of the Day. This is the football of the poorer, unfashionable clubs who struggle on despite: low attendances, financial hardship and perennial lack of real success.

Every Saturday, towns up and down the land witness a curious ritual. Men of all shapes, sizes and ages, sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, all start walking in the same direction at around the same time. A few women mingle in with them but it’s mostly men. Cars too, head for the same destination, starting to thicken and clog up the streets as the goal gets closer. Special buses deliver yet more people. Almost all are bedecked in scarves, hats or shirts of the same colour, as if they are in uniform. If this was a Sunday in days gone by, you might think that the throng was making its way dutifully to church. But this is a Saturday and the hallowed focus of the pilgrimage is the football ground or stadium. Its large stands and tall floodlight pylons rear up, dwarving the buildings around. The football ground is the modern equivalent of the cathedral or of Ancient Rome’s Colosseum or Circus Maximus. It is a place where people can go to forget their troubles, even if only for a couple of hours. Today it’s not bread, circuses or rousing sermons that are fed up to the “masses” but football and more football ( and perhaps “reality TV”). Football is in some ways the new religion. Loyal fans flock to worship their idols, pray for a win, take part in communal call- and- response chanting and exercise blind faith. The similarities between a football crowd and a church congregation are striking.

For many ordinary supporters, football is not the glamour of the Premiership or the Champions’ league (except on the telly.) It is shivering on a terrace on a freezing winter’s afternoon, watching a rubbish game littered with clumsy mistakes and supporting a side that’s not won anything for decades and probably never will. This is what I call “grass-roots football”, where supporters shout and cheer for their team irrespective of their position in the league. They would despise the pseudo- fans who only support sides that are at or near the top. These are dismissed as “fair-weather supporters” and awarded scant respect. Real, grass roots fans are always there, through rain and shine, cheering, moaning, screaming, groaning, often swearing, but always hoping. They root for artisans rather than artists. Constant failure and disappointment is hard to swallow but the genuine fan grins and bears it. There’s always next week or next season. Football at this level breeds stoicism, not a bad quality to have amongst the modern clamour for instant gratification. It also breeds incredible loyalty. I know a lifelong supporter of Chester City, a team that was relegated from the football league and thrown out of the next league down because it’s lack of finance meant it couldn’t pay the coach firm to take it to away fixtures. Chester City, a proud, historical club, was declared bankrupt and ceased to exist a couple of years ago. However, my friend Andy and thousands of other Chester supporters, refused to give up. Chester was reformed as a “phoenix club” on the basis of money proferred by loyal fans and resumed life in the “Evostick League North”, 2 or 3 levels below the actual Football league. One super rich Premiership player, Michael Owen, donated one of his race-horses to the Chester cause. That alone shows the  enormous disparity between the top and the bottom in football. The resurrection of Chester also illustrates the lengths that real grass-roots fans are willing to go to support their clubs. As I write, the same sort of thing is happening at unfashionable Darlington FC –” The Quakers”

This unstinting loyalty is a major characteristic of a genuine football fan, irrespective of whether he/she is following a “big club” or one of the many small ones. Unfortunately this does not often happen with the players, especially in the higher echelons of the game. It seems that, aided and abetted by agents, many will move clubs simply to get more money or easier success. They may kiss the badge upon scoring but then “desert” the club that has nurtured them and developed their talents in order to earn mega-bucks elsewhere. Manchester City’s team is stacked full of such “mercenaries” attracted by the high salaries on offer. Loyal fans, who do not switch clubs, regard these money-hungry players as “traitors” and they get roundly booed whenever they re-appear at their former home ground. My Uncle Victor has not switched clubs since he was 8 years old. He is now 93 and still is an avid supporter of his home town team. Loyalty may seem an old-fashioned concept in this modern age of every one for himself ( herself) but it is still an admirable and important quality to possess. It is present in bucketfuls amongst fans, especially in the lower leagues.

Football at this level is not always a happy experience. A lot of pain and frustration has to be endured. So why do thousands take part in this demonstration of masochism every week for 9 months of the year? Being a lower league follower is a bit like being a lemming constantly hovering near the edge of the cliff and flirting with “disaster.”  The question is quite difficult to sensibly answer.

I support one such unglamerous club — Chesterfield FC.  You won’t find many people in Ghana, Malaysia or Japan supporting Chesterfield! Yet it has a long, rich history. It’s the 4th oldest club in the Football League having been founded in 1867, when either Gladstone or Disraeli was Prime Minister and Victoria was just getting comfortable on her throne. Hence it is older than Arsenal, Manchester Utd, Chelsea or Liverpool. We call ourselves the “Spireites” after the town’s famous landmark — the Crooked spire. The local church of St Mary’s had its 13th century spire built with unseasoned timbers such that they warped. The spire was twisted like a cork-screw and from some angles it looks crooked and about to fall down. It’s a bit like an English Leaning Tower of Pisa and has become the symbol of the town and its football club. The crooked spire logo appears on the players’ shirts and supporters’ scarves.

The Spireites have enjoyed little big-time success but still attract a faithful following of between 3000 and 7000 supporters. In the 1930’s we narrowly missed out on promotion to the top division on goal difference. More recently, in 1997, we just failed to get to the FA Cup Final at Wembley because of a referee’s mistake. ( At least we think so.) As in the World Cup Final of 1966, the ball crashed off the cross-bar and bounced behind the goalline, but Chesterfield didn’t have a friendly Russian linesman to award a goal . The referee didn’t allow the goal which would have put us 3-1 up against 10 men with only about 15 minutes to go. So we never made it to the final to face Chelsea. Middlesbrough, our top flight opponants, forced a draw then won the replay with the help of their expensively paid foreign stars. I have always ” hated” Middlesbrough ever since, even though I now live near their ground.

This irrational “hatred”, coming from a normally mild-mannered man, perhaps explains one of the magnetic attractions of the game. In everyday life we can be pleasant and polite as society demands. However at a football match we can be as loud, raucous and rude as we like and it is accepted as “normal” behaviour. A whole gamut of intense emotions can be released within the “safe” confines of the match. Just for that 90 minutes one can become a raving “maniac”, letting the adrenaline run freely, before hopefully going back to ” normal” at the end of the game. My son, Ian, once had to pull me away to safety as I was about to carry out a suicidal one-man pitch invasion at Bradford. The Chesterfield goalkeeper was being surrounded and jostled by a posse of Bradford players and I was so incensed that I would have been on the pitch, literally fighting for my team. Luckily for me, Ian intervened and calmed me down.

Supporters exhibit emotions in a whole variety of ways. Some cheer and sing; others chant and clap. When you do it at the same time as hundreds of other people it can be very exhilerating. Meanwhile, others never seem to stop moaning and complaining, be it about the opposition’s tactics, the perceived mistakes of the officials or the home team’s deficiencies. What is really happening is that the match is acting as a sort of safety valve, helping people to let off steam and release everyday tensions. Some supporters actually sit in silence for much of the match. They are apparently indifferent to what is happening on the pitch, but you can guarantee that on the inside they resemble a boiling volcano ready to blow! Last season I sat near to such a “silent supporter” at a Chesterfield home match. He said nothing for over an hour. Then, after a petty dispute over the award of a throw-in, he suddenly screamed at the linesperson:” Are you bloody blind?” After that solitary outburst, he went back to silent mode for the rest of the match!

It’s strange being a Spireite, an Owl ( Sheffield Wednesday), a Latic ( Oldham Athletic), a Hatter ( Luton Town), or a supporter of the countless other lower league clubs. Success is scarce, failure is common, yet we climb on to the emotional roller-coaster every season. Something in our DNA dictates that we cannot remain indifferent. One’s mood on a matchday or even for the whole subsequent week, depends on the success or failure of 11 men chasing a ball round a field. If they win, we supporters go into work with a spring in our step and a smile on our faces. If they lose we feel strangely depressed and out of sorts. But as I indicated above, this can be seen as a positive thing, for  supporting  a lower club provides excellent emotional training for the realities of life.

Another attraction of following a football team is the feeling of camaraderie that exists. It’s a human need to be with other people and to feel part of something. When thousands come together with the same objective and determined to all pull together, it can be very empowering. In smaller clubs such as Chesterfield FC it’s like belonging to one big, extended family. Being part of it gives one a lovely warm feeling inside. OK, it’s a vicarious world and not our real, everyday life, but it still makes us feel secure and accepted, if only for the duration of the match. Supporters of the same team watch out for each other, greet each other in the street and enjoy each others’ company in the stands. I recently went with my son, Ian, to see Chesterfield playing away at Wycombe Wanderers. Ian, for some incomprehensible reason, is a Newcastle United fan but sometimes helps me to support the little club of my birthplace. We took the train up from London to High Wycombe but just missed the bus that would have taken us out to the ground on the edge of town. The last taxi started to drive off as we approached. It looked as though we were in danger of missing the start of the match. Then I spotted a flash of blue and white in the back of the taxi. It belonged to a Chesterfield fan we had just followed out of the station. I stepped forward and waved frantically. He spotted me and stopped the car to let us in. We had never met before but we were automatically friends and allies because we had all travelled into “enemy” territory to support the “Spires”. The next 20 minutes were full of strange, excitable Spireite talk, incomprehensible to the taxi driver who had probably never even heard of the crooked spire. When we arrived at the ground, Adams Park, our new friend insisted on paying even though I had our half of the fare all ready. He said it was because we were all Spireites. He came from London but he still supported the Spires whenever they ventured south.

It was a cold but exciting day in Wycombe. Chesterfield twice led and I shouted and cheered myself hoarse. ( something I wouldn’t normally do in my “real” life.) Despite my advanced age ( 62) I jumped up and down like a young kid. Football is very good for helping you to shed the years. When we scored, I even found myself hugging complete strangers, the normal barriers of reserve having been swept away by the excitement and drama of the match. When we lost to virtually the last kick of the match, it was like a collective blow in the solar plexus. There was a long low moan then the Chesterfield fans closed ranks in adversity, grimly swallowed defeat and trudged out of the ground hoping that next week would bring better luck.

One season earlier I had had a similar communal experience in a fixture at Darlington. This feeling of togetherness and solidarity is even stronger in away matches. It was a bitter cold Boxing Day with a raw wind whipping into us. Several hundred of us shivered on the terrace behind one of the goals. For 80 minutes, it was an increasingly cold and miserable experience, the only consolation being that we got to practice our Derbyshire grit. The pain increased as Darlington, who we were expected to beat easily, took a two-nil lead. The chanting of the Chesterfield fans was more in defiance than celebration. Apparently, according to the drum- accompanied chants, I had been recruited into “Sheridon’s blue and white barmy-army” ( John Sheridon is the current manager of Chesterfield.) I had to agree that I must have been particularly barmy to leave my warm house to endure this bleak experince. Then, out of the blue, Chesterfield scored 3 goals in 10 crazy, ecstatic minutes! They were scored right in front of us and we all went berserk! As in the match above I found myself leaping up and down, embracing strangers and singing: “We’re Spireites ‘Till We Die!” Insane and inane I know but no-one can deny that for a few heady minutes I was transported on to a different plain. My emotions had surged from one extreme to another and the whole exhilerating experience was magnified because I was sharing it with hundreds of others.

I tell you all this to illustrate that being a football supporter is often about comradeship and togetherness. Being a fan increases one’s sense of identity. Sport, especially football, can give its participants a strong sense of who they are. We all belong to the football, and in my case the Spireite, family. What’s more, this family does not consist of only testosterone-filled, aggressive young men, as is the popular conception. I have sat near to : women and young children, old men with zimmer frames, handicapped people in wheel chairs and even a middle-aged blind woman. She listened to the match commentary on the local radio,assisted by her partially-sighted husband, not being able to see a thing but enjoying the “live” atmosphere.

The live experience is a crucial part of the attraction of a match. Unlike much of our pre-recorded, packaged entertainment industry, a live sports event is completely unpredictable. Literally, anything can happen and quite often does. Who would have thought that bottom of the table Blackburn Rovers would have beaten Manchester United near the top at fortress Old Trafford? Every match is a potentially thrilling journey into the unknown. This applies equally to a match in Chesterfield as it does in Barcelona.

Being a “Spireite” gives me excitement, a strong sense of identity and the ability to patiently cope with constant disappointment. It gives me strong links with the town of my birth, where my original roots were. It strengthens bonds between me and various friends and family who also look out for the team. Even my 85 year old mother mentions the latest score in our weekly telephone conversations. I have just got back in touch with one of my closest school friends after over 30 years of lost contact. We went to many Chesterfield  matches together in the 60’s standing on the “kop” at the old Saltergate ground. Guess what Vic and I talk about at least 50% of the time? He lives in Brighton, I live near Middlesbrough, but we both still support dear old Chesterfield.

I’m pleased that I have grown up with football in my blood. My dad passed it on to me and I have transferred it to my son. I actually know some men and many women who hate football. Some, including my wife, feel sorry for me thinking me immature and silly for caring deeply about the fortunes of 11 men in blue shirts chasing a ball. They may have a point! I share the criticisms of excessive salaries in the Premier league, the antics of some of the players and the often hysterical media coverage. I also share their condemnation of violence and over- the- top aggression, whether it be amongst the fans or out on the pitch. However, I have no intention of joining them in their empty world of indifference.( to football partisanship that is.) I’d rather be passionate about something, even if others think it silly. Why would I want to deny myself: all that excitement, drama, spectacle, skill, history, comradeship, solidarity and strong sense of identity? In some ways I feel sorry for those who don’t wish to involve themselves in this rich world of experience. ( Can shopping offer anything close to all this?) I know it’s like a drug or even a disease but it gives me huge pleasure and a special edge to my life.

These days, Chesterfield FC is so relatively poor that it has to borrow spare players from richer clubs. You might think we supporters would find it difficult to accept them, as they technically have given their allegiance to another team. But to me, it doesn’t matter whether they play for us for 10 years or 90 minutes — as soon as they pull on the blue shirt with its crooked spire logo, they instantly becoming “Spireites,” carrying the hopes and dreams of the thousands on the Chesterfield terraces. Each one has the potential to become part of the club’s history, as a hero or as a villain. Maybe, if he scores a hat-trick or saves a crucial penalty, he could become part of Chesterfield folk-lore. Come on you Spireites! Silly I know, but there you go!