Tuesday, 30 November 2010

'A Coat of Arms for Your Face': Movember

"A well maintained moustache is a symbol of a modern gentleman."

That's according to the founders of Movember, the month-long charity event inviting men grow a moustache to raise money and awareness for men's health and prostate cancer in particular.

From the wispy lip-ticklers at the Cardiff School of Journalism to the grizzly and glorious efforts of international rugby players, Movember is a worldwide movement.

The rules are simple. Begin on 1 November with a clean shaven face and grow a moustache for the entire month.

Founded in Australia in 2003, Movember has grown to the extent that, in 2009, official global participation reached 255,755, with over a million donors raising £26m.

Having lost family members to different forms of cancer, I'm aware of the disease's fatal consequences. Prostate cancer, however, has not always benefited from exposure as far-reaching as Movember.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK – 36,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year and 250,000 men are currently living with the disease.

Whether you're driven by the loss of a loved one or just happy to donate your face to a good cause, Movember is a more than worthy reason for sporting some facial furniture.

One of the primary objectives for the founders of Movember is to change men's attitudes towards their health - to encourage them to be more proactive in taking care for themselves.

A recent poll showed 45% of 'Mo Bros' are thinking of keeping their new facial accessories beyond the end of November.

But with my effort falling some way short of Tom Selleck levels of hirsute luxury, I doubt my moustache will be keeping me company much longer.

If you'd like to make a donation, please visit: http://uk.movember.com/donate/

As written for Guardian Cardiff

Friday, 24 September 2010

Sky's the limit: The rise and rise of Murdoch's monopoly

The decision to move October’s football match between Leeds and Cardiff from a Saturday afternoon to a Monday evening will have passed without as much as an arched eyebrow for most people. It is the reason for this switch, however, which should cause alarm; symptomatic as it is of the monopoly enveloping British media.

Since the inception of the Premier League in 1992 (or the Premiership, as it was then marketed), football in Britain has been governed not by the Football Association, but by Rupert Murdoch’s (above) multi-million pound television enterprise, Sky.

Having paid astronomical amounts to screen Premier League matches, Sky have since wrestled control of fixture lists, moving matches at such frequency that, last season, Manchester United played just three home league matches at the conventional kick-off time of 3pm on a Saturday.

And while switching a Championship fixture may not be Sky’s most outlandish statement of intent, even this relatively restrained flexing of the corporation’s muscles is indicative of its growing power.

Worryingly for the rest of the British media landscape, though, there is little to suggest that the Sky juggernaut faces any opposition as it hurtles towards absolute dominance.

The government is far from bothered by the swelling of Murdoch’s empire; in fact, the mogul’s expansion suits it.

Jeremy Hunt, the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, are just two prominent Conservatives to have rounded on the BBC recently, arguing that the corporation is too powerful.

These two and their party, however, are more than happy to stand aside as Murdoch plans to become the outright majority shareholder of BSkyB, whose chairman James Murdoch (yes, the son of) is also an outspoken and vitriolic critic of the BBC.

Sky recorded revenues of over £6bn last year, while the BBC this week saw the licence fee frozen – at Hunt’s behest – at £145.50, adding budgetary injury to the incessant insults the corporation has endured from its competition.

The government’s brazen double standards are hardly surprising. David Cameron’s cabinet, after all, is deeply affiliated to Murdoch’s modus operandi, News Corporation.

Through News International, News Corporation owns nearly 40 percent of British newspapers, and the former editor of its prized publication, The News of the World, happens to be Andy Coulson (above), who is now Cameron’s Director of Communications.

There is an unhealthily close relationship between the current government and the commercial monopoly which is about to strengthen yet further its grip on the British media.

But rather than sounding the alarm bells, the UK is currently heading towards a crisis akin to that seen in Italy recently, where the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is also an entrepreneur with a Murdoch-esque stranglehold on the country’s media.

There could be one, lonely voice in government willing to stem the tide. Business Secretary Vince Cable spoke at the Liberal Democrats conference about how "Capitalism takes no prisoners and kills competition where it can,” in what may or may not have been a thinly veiled challenge to Murdoch’s latest move.

There is scant support, however, from Downing Street for Cable’s views, as the lukewarm reaction from colleagues to his controversial speech proved. It could be some time until Cable’s warnings are heeded.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Serbian see-saws and Dutch pretentions: architecture in Venice

You'd think the opening salvo "Architects, we who change the world" was a tongue-in-cheek introduction. Not at Venice’s La Biennale, though: a festival of contemporary art and architecture as rich in booming pomposity as it is inspiration and creativity.

The Dutch installation, ‘Where Architecture Meets Ideas’, was the most impressive show of self-aggrandisement. A call for architecture which “comes up with solutions for the major issues of our time” was one of its more memorable soundbites – perhaps a little optimistic for what is essentially a blue-foam cityscape (above).

The ‘ideas web’ (below) was similarly, er, ambitious – the sort of diagram that would not be out of place on the office walls of SugarApe magazine from an episode of Nathan Barley. It was, like, totally profound and shit.

Pretentiousness is by no means, however, an exclusively off-putting quality of this exhibition. Quite to the contrary, there was much to enjoy about indulging in one’s own wafty self-importance.

The sight of Belgium’s snappily-titled ‘Polyester and Fibreglass Seats from a Metro Station' was as visually arresting as the name suggests. Not exceedingly so. Yet it instilled in me a sense of double reality; simultaneously indulging in the gallery’s warmth yet also arrested by the chill of bus and train stations where I had spent countless, desolate hours of my life.

Having guffawed at the lofty ambitions of the Dutch installation, I now found myself thinking twice about my own decadent reflections. There I was pontificating about Jean Baudrillard and ideas of hyper-realities, the simulacrum – from the sight of a shabby seat from a train station. Pretentious? Me?

La Biennale is a feast of art and architecture, ranging from the self-satisfied Australian 3D vision of the future (complete with ‘edgy’ title, ‘Now and When’), to the enchanting ‘hylozoic’ (the belief that all matter is alive) fusion of technology and nature from Canada, manifest in thousands of digitally-fabricated components glittering and breathing like plants in a darkened room (below).

Few installations, however, were as much fun as Serbia’s, which, either through a distinct lack of ideas or an admirable commitment to childish enjoyment, turned out to be a room packed with see-saws. And not even the architects at La Biennale could muster something pretentious to say about a see-saw.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Football's noisy chasm: The case of Steve Coppell and why fans boo

When Steve Coppell announced his resignation after just two months as Bristol City manager, the surprise resonated far beyond the usual gawpings of radio phone-ins or rolling news channel banalities.

The esteemed former Reading boss was not only stepping down from his post at a bafflingly early stage, but retiring from football altogether.

And it was Coppell's reason for taking such decisive action which shocked commentators and fans most.

The 55-year-old explained how his fading passion for the game had left him devoid of inspiration, unmoved by the prospect of leading his Bristol City players for their second match of the season.

But while, for most, an element of detachment from one's work is a prerequisite for sanity; for football fans, a sense of distance or objectivity in relation to the sport is as attractive as a steak and kidney flapjack.

Coppell had enjoyed a successful managerial career, guiding Crystal Palace and Reading to the Premier League, and earning praise for the fluent, attacking style he instilled in his teams. So why, fans asked, would somebody turn their back on this ultimate profession?

The answer lies in the nature of that question's final word.

Throughout his playing and managerial career, Coppell maintained a sense of perspective; as enjoyable as football may be, it was for him simply a job.

Such an outlook is partly influenced by Coppell's playing days, ended by injury at the cruel young age of 28.

Having had his own dream job cut short, the former England international has an acute understanding of how football is but a profession. Life goes on without it.

It is this detachment, however, which causes the chasm ripping through the sport''s heart.

Beyond the vuvuzelas, the soundtrack of this summer's World Cup was the chorus of boos.

For the usually adored likes of Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, a tournament-long exhibition of mediocrity saw them drown under an inescapable din of boos.

The cries of fury in South Africa, however, were no different to the tunes of discontent which ring out of from British stadia on a weekly basis.

For every player who has his name chanted by thousands, there is one who feels the wrath of his club's followers, and it is not simply because a pass intended for a team-mate has ended up in the directors' lounge.

A miss-kick or a home defeat can sometimes be grudgingly accepted, but it is the manner of failure which irks fans most.

The passion of the underperforming players is questioned, their desire to win is shrouded in doubt, and their wages are (justifiably) criticised.

Further than the obvious alienation that stems from such a gross gap in pay, the division between players and fans is intrinsically linked to the bemusement supporters felt after Coppell's resignation.

For fans, there can be no sympathy for individuals who treat as a job what is for them a passion.

While the audience vicariously endures the drama of their club's season, the protagonists treat each match as a matinee, a day in the office.

But what might be just another afternoon's work for the players of this piece is for the paying onlookers an addiction.

For disgruntled season ticket holders, the players - to whose wages they make a significant contribution - are little more than mercenaries commodifying their purest form of entertainment.

So, armed with little more than their voices and cups of Bovril, the boo is for fans the most effective way of expressing their disgust; the most direct form of bypassing the chasm between players and supporters.

The season is but a few weeks old, yet terraces nationwide are already shaking with boos.

And should the cat calls or wolf whistles lead to another resignation or retirement, this chasm will only grow wider and louder.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Football's parallel universe

With the Premier League fast approaching, much media coverage revolves around the frenzied dealings of the transfer market. And although a plucky performance on a soggy pitch in Pontcanna is unlikely to attract a multi-million bid from Manchester City, amateurs in the parks league can rejoice in the fact that they too can move from club to club like an expensive professional.

While there are some who loyally stick with one team for years, those of a more fickle ilk can forge a journeying career with only the briefest of stays at any number of sides. Pre-season training is nearing its conclusion, and players across the leagues are ready to showcase their talent to a host of potential new clubs.

There are numerous stages for such displays, whether it is the hallowed turf of Trelai Park or Cwrt-Y-Vil’s home ground Llandough Fields. Changing rooms are infused with the smell of cigarettes and Deep Heat muscle rub, and the pitches themselves are a marshland of miss-kicks and the odd moment of brilliance.

This contrast is the primary appeal of parks football; a player is as likely to fire a match-winning volley as he is to be kicked into orbit by an overweight, middle-aged centre-back. Parks football is also intrinsically attractive for fans of the sport because it often seems to operate in a parallel universe to the professional game.

In the shadow of the Cardiff City Stadium, for example, lies a ground belonging to a different footballing sphere, Grange Albion’s Coronation Park. While 20,000 or so flock to see Cardiff compete for a place in the Premier League, a handful of fans walking across Sloper Road stop by to watch 22 less celebrated players vie for the bragging rights of an alternative top flight: the Cardiff and District Premier Division.

I’ve plied my trade with parks sides of varying quality, and although professionals now often seem to be younger than me, I still haven’t entirely abandoned my childhood ambition of playing in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger, however, has not yet been in contact.

As written for Guardian Cardiff

Monday, 12 July 2010

The World Cup: National Stereotype Bingo

Refreshing Ghanaians, industrious Koreans, flamboyant Brazilians, arrogant Frenchmen, negative Italians and efficient Germans.

While the World Cup may have deprived us of many things (daylight, the ability to form a non-football related conversation), the British media’s coverage of the tournament certainly provided us with an abundance of national stereotypes. Indeed, soundtracked by BBC or ITV commentary, watching an international football match became more like an introduction to a game of national stereotype bingo.

The opening fixture between hosts South Africa and Mexico set the tone, with Peter Drury rejoicing at the “wonderful sights and sounds” of a “colourful” crowd. This was, after all, the first World Cup to be staged in Africa, a continent supposedly without anything but a smile on its face.

It was Ghana who were truly smothered by patronising ITV commentary, with Clive Tyldsley particularly belittling in his reference to the Black Stars’ “refreshing” approach. With every mention of the “colour” and “big African smiles” of supporters and players alike, it was as if the entire squad were having their hair ruffled by an army of elderly relatives.

Ghana’s quarter-final loss to Uruguay was, of course, a crushing blow to the whole of little Africa, and our friends in the studios had the knives out for Luis Suarez, Uruguay’s willing pantomime villain. Suarez’s handball denied Ghana a semi-final place, helped big bad Uruguay (population of three million people) to a fourth-placed finish and allowed Adrian Chiles and his cronies to crank up the condescension with heaps of gushing sympathy.

South Korea were treated similarly even as they beat Greece 2-0, with analysts and pundits repeating like a mantra the now institutional stereotype of “industrious” Asian footballers. The guile of Park Ji-Sung was irrelevant, likewise South Korea’s collectively slick performance. What ITV wanted us to see was just how hard those little South Koreans had worked.

BBC were seldom any better on the opening day, as they indulged in predictable caricatures of the French squad. “Plenty of Gallic shrugs,” Steve Wilson helpfully observed, reminding those watching at home that Raymond Domenech’s men are little more than an assembly of ‘cheese-eating surrender-monkeys’.

With their self-destructive penchant for player coups and disinterested performances, though, France were arguably one team who actually strengthened their country’s stereotypes.

Brazil and Holland, meanwhile, were determined to confound their respective traditions of ‘Samba Football’ and ‘Total Football’ flamboyance. With every gruff holding midfielder who replaced a dainty playmaker, their managers Bert Van Marwijk and Dunga seemed to be revelling in their elaborate refusal of the long-standing labels attached to their sides.

Tyldsley did not appear to have seen any of Brazil’s matches, however, as he welcomed a headed goal of theirs with the disbelieving screech: “Brazil score a British goal!” How surprising that the diminutive South Americans can jump and emulate their Anglo-Saxon peers, who had of course enjoyed such a fruitful tournament.

England did seem conspicuous by their absence in these long and recurring lists of stereotypes. So, when BBC and ITV commentators present their warped coverage of Euro 2012, why not introduce their viewers to the “underwhelming English”?

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Not So Golden Generation

As the hysteria subsides and cries of injustice die away, England is coming to terms with the passing of what was supposedly a golden generation of footballers.

England’s 4-1 defeat to Germany was met with outrage and disbelief, and then a feeling that an entire country had been cruelly denied the glory which was rightfully theirs.

Commentators, journalists and fans alike were all incredulous that Germany had the temerity to spoil their party; overlooking how the Germans had assembled a side that plays some of the most confident, thrilling football in the world.

For once, it was not the odious players who truly soured the occasion, but the voyeuristic reaches of the media.

Frank Lampard accepted defeat manfully, and as he exchanged post-match pleasantries with Germany's excellent Bastian Schweinsteiger, there was in his weary gaze more than the distant look of a beaten man.

At 32, Lampard is a veteran English pin-up of the Premier League, and he – along with his other much-vaunted (and ultimately over-hyped) team-mates – saw this World Cup as a last shot at international immortality.

This potential glory was considered a divine right by others. The Sun boasted on their front page of England’s ‘E-A-S-Y’ group when the World Cup draw was made, and this sense of entitlement seeped through hordes of English media camped in South Africa.

The chest-beating red tops and rolling news channels were missing the point, though. Indeed, their reading of the situation was as far from reality as an Emile Heskey shot is from goal.

This, after all, was no golden generation. Since the halcyon days of a semi-final defeat in 1990, England have failed to qualify for two major tournaments and have twice been eliminated at the group stage. Golden indeed.

And even after England showed themselves to be distinctly mediocre in their plodding displays against the USA and Algeria, the media still could not fathom how a team as excellent as Germany’s could outclass their dear Three Lions so thoroughly.

England players were actually commendably mature in defeat, though the media glare around them was unrelenting. While Lampard and Steven Gerrard magnanimously accepted that they had simply been outplayed, the BBC’s Alan Hansen bleated about "average" Germans, and Sky's reporters beat the "we woz robbed" drum of self-pity deep into the Bloemfontein night.

This golden generation, we had been led to believe, simply required an alchemist to mould match-winners out of this mound of talent. Fabio Capello, a manager whose Midas touch is unquestioned at club level, was seen as the man to turn these underachievers into all-conquering champions. As this dream faded, Capello was bestowed with a new identity: the scapegoat.

In truth, however, were these players really 'underachieving'? By the lofty, and often unrealistic, expectations of a ruthlessly demanding media, nothing less than world domination would suffice.

But as long as the Premier League and its cheerleaders continue to blow their own trumpets louder than a continent of vuvuzelas, expectations of international success will remain nothing other than a blind expression of self-importance.

Apologies for the delay in posts - I've been busy writing for news.ladbrokes.com
Thanks to OptaJoe for stats.