Monday, August 23, 2021


  I have a hobby, one which is hard to define, and seems difficult to explain. Its core is doing things on a whim, to pick a place almost at random, almost with no planning, and with freedom to do so, allows me to venture to a suburb, a village, a town centre, somewhere unknown, somewhere new, with fresh-eyes watching the new surroundings in a role positioned between an off-brand Poundshop version of Louis Theroux and a local government inspector tasked with photographing the least connected, most disparate travel guide in existence. My hobby is, on the face of it, the hobby of travel. "On a whim" is its guiding principle, and beyond Google Maps, there is no true guide to where I go, and what I do.

Except that is inaccurate. For over a decade now I have groundhopped, picking different venues almost every week to visit to watch, broadly defined, semi-pro or amateur football games. Football is not the core reason for travelling. I have no football brain, no innate ability to discuss tactics, dissect goals, suggest who should play instead of a star player, an injured alternative, or a new signing. My football brain is a narrow, shallow channel of selected highlights, woven together within a hyperactive montage of otherwise long-forgotten moments. For over a decade, at mostly amateur and semi-pro level, my memory has only known the non-league game, and perhaps has known to avoid remembering every last second, for the game at non-league level has far less intrinsic value, far less of a lasting legacy, that to remember everything would be to waste precious resources. 

Except that is inaccurate. I do remember when a decent ball was squared into the box and fired at the 'keeper, and can see a fuzzy green-grey memory somewhere of this, but the details are hazy, the specifics lost to time. It is one moment, innocuous and work-a-day, something that happens at every match, at every level, at every pitch, ground, and stadium, at every place where football is played. I can recall that hazy, fuzzy, half-forgotten pencil sketch of a memory, and can recall other fragments of time in similar ways:  a memory drawn by distance which could have been at Lancaster, or Dulwich, or Rhyl, or Bootle, or Southport, or Preston, or Armthorpe Welfare, or FC United of Manchester, or Wembley FC. What I know with more accuracy, with more certainty, is how easy it has been to pick a place, to find somewhere new, to take a train with barely any fuss or faff, to make new memories of stadia, grounds, pitches, fenced-off parks, and to turn each one in time into anecdote, into hazy memory, into a story, for later use. 

For we should, as a population, be more proud of the ability to walk into a railway station, pick a place to travel, and cost notwithstanding, visit that place without much in the way of barrier or restriction. The cost of UK rail travel is preposterous, a pornographic celebration of profit over personal freedom, with prices apparently chosen on their own whim, for their own narrow, shallow reasoning. We should, could, ought to be proud, of how boarding a train is so easy, picking a destination is so easy, travelling is so easy. 

Except that is inaccurate. People of a certain political persuasion are no fans of the freedom to travel, the ability to follow one's "whim". Hobbies are difficult to justify to these people, who see no intrinsic value, who see no profit, who see no end point, in the ability to switch off the 'work mode', and turn on the 'holiday mode'. Hundreds of years ago, before our own births, our parents' births, even our grandparents', the otherwise anonymous marks on the map of English coastal towns grew into destinations, into resorts, into end points on maps, where nascent railway companies provided for places to alight, places to visit, places to turn hard-fought workers' rights into the freedom to make tonnes of money. People of a certain political persuasion could argue no more, rehash no more losing arguments, trying to win back what they had lost, as workers were finally given the freedom to take leave, the freedom to have holidays, and weekends, and journeys beyond their immediate surroundings. The right to not work was created, and has been retained, and remains today.

Except that is inaccurate. The freedom to...and freedom from...we enjoy has always been fragile, and hard-fought, and hard to fight for, and easily restricted and difficult to lock-in, to secure, to retain. Hobbies make no sense to people of a certain political persuasion. If your day out turns no profit, makes no personal financial gain, what was it for? If your visit to a town leaves you out of pocket, leaves you scrabbling for loose change, leaves you with only memories, fading, fuzzy, half-remembered, couched in anecdote, you have surely been of no intrinsic financial value to capitalism, and have wasted time, effort, and money. Hobbies, the mere act of setting out without the intention to make money, only spend it, causes these people to wrinkle their nose. 

My hobby is not centred on football. It is not really centred on travel, either. It is centred on curiosity, perhaps. The will of human nature to explore, to adventure, to wander. To take a train beyond my immediate postcode area to visit the country, to ostensibly focus on watching amateur football, in a makeshift, tumbledown 'ground', or in a field behind a leisure centre, or wherever it may be, and before watching the match, there would be a cafe somewhere near the railway station, where I have never met the owner, who has never met me, and will never again. And somewhere near that cafe will be a pub, where I may drink something I've never had before, and will never again. And after one pint, because timetables are tricksy mistresses, I may board a bus I've never boarded before, and had to focus on Google Maps, to check a blue-blob avatar of me on the bus, to follow streets I've never seen before, on a route I'll never use again, at least not in the same direction. 

This combination of pieces of my attempt at a pyschogeographic jigsaw could easily be dismissed, pushed off the table, disallowed, discontinued, by the attitudes of people of a certain political persuasion, who dislike the freedom to spend time away from the office, away from the factory, away from the garage, the supermarket, the ward, the wherever we may work, those of us who have to scramble for leave requests, holiday booking forms, clumsy in-house websites with clunky calendars, or badly designed apps, or carbon copy paper with counter-signatures. Travel is not accepted, universally, as something workers and the working class should enjoy as a right, as a freedom a freedom to...It is fragile, as all workers' rights tend to be, as all workers' rights have ever been. Travel was not supposed to be for the masses, in their packages, in their millions, in their endless countless sprawling crowds, with the freedom to take time off work, to relax, to switch-off, to disconnect. 

I have a hobby. It requires taking a train (mostly) and a bus (sometimes) to unfamiliar towns, suburbs, villages, to get to a stadium (rarely), a ground (mostly), a field (sometimes), to watch football, mostly amateur, often semi-pro. It has taken me, on a whim, to Burnley, and to Wembley, and to Dulwich, and to Berlin, and to the fringes of the city of Glasgow, and to the Cumbrian coast, and it's taken me to Llay on the outskirts of Wrexham, and to Kinmel Bay adjacent to Rhyl, and to Denbigh and Mold, and to Bamber Bridge in the Lancastrian commuter belt, and to Aintree to watch Bootle, and to the outskirts of Bradford for FA Cup Qualifiers, and to Hemsworth for an "international" game between Yorkshire and the Isle of Man, and it has taken me to Rochdale, Oldham, and Blackpool, and may yet take me further, and beyond, and closer to home, and unknown places yet to appear as possibilities and opportunities and chances. 

I have a hobby which exists only because of my personal freedom to....and freedom from...and because, so far, touch wood, people of a certain political and economic persuasion, people of a certain world-view, of a particular attitude, allow such whims to be entertained, permitted, conducted. My hobby has no intrinsic financial or economic value, other than the amount of money I hand over to the railways, and to non-league sides, and to pubs, and to cafes, and to newsagents, and over and over, and on and on, and such and such. A net loss, every weekend, a net loss only to me, and me alone. The freedom is mine, and it is fragile, and is at the whim of those above me, those beyond my pay-scale, those beyond the ballot box, those who decide, and choose, and consider the bottom line, which is this blog's bottom line, which is where this journey ends.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Falling Man to Falling Man

 From our earlier age, turned in memory and anecdote as might wood, as might metal, our age before instant, constant, always on-line, in an era which seems so close and so far. So far away, with its analogue shadow, with its urgent need to play catch-up, desperate to watch again and over again the images you could not request on demand over-and over again with such urgency as now. Did you see the first plane...did you see the second plane...did you see the Pentagon...can you bring up the BBC, CNN, why is this egg-timer going around and around, turning on its axis...of dial-up...Did you have to cover yourself in confusion, uncertainty, something detached, by way of listening only by BBC Radio 4, with their improvised running commentary, unprepared for something constantly referred to as unprecedented, something beyond training, something beyond worse case scenario, and something unreal, if you could only hear on the radio an unreal event occurring in  real time, in an age which could not provide full screen, full colour, live-tweet, rapid reaction fundamental always on-line ever-present digital realness. Did you see...

...the first plane. Did you hear? Did you see? Who showed you? Back then, which seems recent, and which is not, the age without viral videos, and meme generators. And yes, ITN News really did use an Enya track as background music, for maudlin greatest hits coverage of what you may have missed, which ultimately did create memes of its own, rapidly catching up to the digital disconnect. Did you see...the papers...snowfall of brick and glass and paperwork, snowfall of clothes, carpet, light fixtures, snowfall of shirts, ties, shows...snowfall of early 2000s flip-phones...and snowfall of actual people...Did you the camera crews had no instinct to avoid...being a part of it...New York...New York...unprepared for an event which broke our comprehension of live-news, of what could be observed, of trying to avoid the snowfall life...turning into...death on the 6 O'clock...cameras observing what might, chrome, carpet, filing cabinet, window, frame, ID card...the mundane stationery of office life....early 2000s mobile phones were not smart enough to create memes, viral videos, snapshots, reels, and reels, and reels, and reels of...constant on-line...commentary on what you must have seen in the digital real....real....realness...Did you see...

...the falling man? Falling Man. Falling Man. Now with context. Now with a frame. Now in monochrome, afforded dignity of one form or other. From our earlier age. Still in the shadow of nineties analogue attitude. Film crews must have targeted the snowfall of the mundane turned tragic and horrendous and it's beyond crews must have realised....the snowfall was an ugly reality...of something unreal...death on the...New York...of the...being a part of it...if you could turn away from an early, panicked, uncertain, unsure form of 24-hour news, unaware how easily captured the snowfall was, cascading in ugly unreal realness...cutting from sky to floor, from pavement to the space beyond the sky...Did you see....the papers...those which reproduced....Falling Man. The Falling Man as headline, as caption, as indicator of how beyond we had crossed, pushed even, from news we could observe, to graphic horror, without preparing us, without being made prepared, without granting permission. First plane, second plane, did you stay up for...the reality of one passenger plane being dissolved, in real time, without censorship, without censure, on live television whether we wanted to have permission granted or not...Did you....automatically enter the 21st century through the constantly repeating highlights real of constant death...and repeated on the wheel...wheel...wheel of television news eager to repeat....repeat...repeat....the snowfall of mundane office life turned into....viral before viral, meme before meme, constant death before...the horror show of...a highlights package to an Enya song...Did you see....

...did you flick through the Sundays? One of each. Rush at the newsagent. Rush at Smiths. Rush at Morrisons. This one has a lot more colour. This one has a pull-out. This one has black-and-white ones. The impact, already reduced to a T-shirt logo, a summary, an icon. The collapse, already reduced to jpegs, littered with red circles, suggesting conspiracy, encouraging lies, spreading innuendo. The snowfall. The dust-clouds. The race for decent photographs of this new, unreal, real, digital world of constant atrocity, forever analysed, fast-forwarding without permission into an age of terror. Did you see...Falling Man. Constant, captioned, analysed, whether you wanted to see him or not. The parallel lines, suggesting the US Flag, and the man, in free-fall, in death, in life, in the last tragic freeze-frame of our early 2000s life, in one blink of an analogue era, the last great time of innocence...The rush of being comfortable with...never seeing...not wanting to age where, just about, there was a gap between observing and creating conspiracy theories...the man in repose...whose image would be controversial our new confusion, in our new age, out beyond the shadow of the 1990s, recent and distant, recent and alien, now that we live only around and around in our digital age...the age of The Impact, the First Tower, the highlights reel, the slow-mo reverential in repose as the man is framed by his own national flag, in steel, in glass, in chrome, his office clothes now his snowfall. Did you see...

...the year 2021? Are you living it, or observing it, from distance, from arm's reach, from the constant on-line, digital, never ending, always sharing, liking, reliving, re-live, re-live, constant always on-, hyper-reality of this age of virus, viral videos, millionaires being created by snapshot videos of a type, all written with a cynical language of wry know-it-all captioning for the office world who feed and re-feed and refresh and re-fresh the ever present digital unreality, as distant from the early 2000s as we are from the 2050s as we are from Duck Dodgers in the 241/2 Century!! And now we...scroll....and now we...flick...and although we did channel hop, with the early 2000s attempt at multi-channel television and 24-hour news, we now sit at arm's length from constant, ever-present, never-ending, news and news and news, and constant reaction, reaction, reaction...And now arm's length...and we thumb...disinterested....and now we prefer....greatest hits constant constant, feedback news...which feedsback news which demands our attention to we are detach ourselves from....death, destruction, floods, panic, anger, hunger, blood, guts, gore....and we detach ourselves starting with...our thumbs....and the constant constant constant...always emotional, angry, high-tension, high-pressure 24-hour....scroll, scroll, scroll....and we are distant from we are from....experts.....and we are constantly reminded of....virus, viral, virulent....scroll, scroll, scroll....And we ask ourselves, did you read, did you share, did you like, did you.....see....

...the year 2021 introduced us to....something familiar....after a year of....a difficult age....unprecedented...if you could stop the....constant indicators, in graph-form, in table-form, the morbid Eurovision-style voting tables, each country gaining more illnesses by the thousands, by the millions, the nations united in a perverse race to....the bottom....graphs spaghetti-style, worm-style, columns of death reaching into....where the sky used to be...and the 24-hour news eagerly updated each new death as Sky Sports News would eagerly update pub-goers of the score at....Old Trafford...or Lords....And then we witnessed the fall of....another....echo from.....our age without viral videos, social media, constant scroll scroll scroll...the turning of history as one might turn....metal.....wood....words....The fall of...a national flag, once turned red green...and now after twenty years turned again to...white....purity and...censure....and...we are immune to the eagerness for....commentary....eager to call vaccines dangerous and eager to call mask-wearing oppressive even when we observe, on screens unbelievably small by 2000s standards, the genuine oppression of an earlier age...Watching with arm's length disinterest you see....

...the video. The desperate video. The digital fingerprint of our new age. Watch one video, then another one. It's called binge viewing. It's okay to force an ad-break into the middle, its acceptable to be sponsored, and talk about your supporters, churning out the slogans for your latest....wheeze....And the digital shadow shows airport, full, a plane, crawling with....desperate, helpless, hopeless, panicked people...who cling subscribe, don't forget to share....a video... a plane, in the air, as it was, in other contexts, tracking its own ancient paths through history, a neon-line drawn by history, attaching itself to 9/11, attaching itself to the Soviets, attaching itself to the British, attaching itself to the hard, sharp, unnaturally straight lines of...a fake map...And now we watch as Falling Man repeats, as do memes, as do headlines across the bottom of the screen...Our new Falling Man. A crease in the digital signal. A small, certain, desperate....parallel line....drawn from....a war on terror to the new escape from...a white flag, defaced....a belief system...A new digital graph, columns rising beyond its axis....of evil!...and we watch on repeat, a plane, in flight, in escape, to an unknown destination, from which...falls....our new Falling Man....our new viral video reality....our parallel...hard, straight, parallel lines...where the sky was red green...Did you see... helpless we've all become? Only veterans and schoolchildren know the War Poets from ancient history, kept alive by the Age of Empire into which our curriculum is formed, is forged. Then, and for generations after, only the poetry mattered, the words as refugees of emotion, of an experience no man should ever have again. And again, and again, the poetry was supposed to save us from ourselves....and now, in this shadow of digital unreality...the photographs are the new poetry...for people to observe, if not learn from, if not hear the...parallels...drawing from one plane in the air...crashing into....the creation of social media...the creation of 24-hour news...the creation of being politicians realising how little power they truly have....And the creation of....horrible images we escape from, as quickly as pressing [X], as quickly as pressing BACK, as quickly as pressing F5, or the smartphone equivalent. One of our Falling Men has become....another.....reduced immediately afterthought....Twenty years between....falling man....and falling man...Falling in snowfall....falling in....August heat....into crowds of....panicked, desperate, eager newsfeed, newshound, newshour, new....redefined....eager.....being....turned into jokes, punchlines, memes....a perverse scoreboard, of an entire year without a summer, fighting a virus, fighting an invisible enemy and now....a digital....backdrop....little wonder we prefer....falling into....ourselves....Falling Man, an indicator of horror, and twenty years later, another falling man...Refresh, rewatch, repeat. Our new, shallow, desperate, horrendous poetry.