Monday, 30 July 2012

Books That Need Homes

I have a load of books and other stuff that I don’t want or don’t need any more, and they need responsible homes. Here is a list of them (plus a couple of other bits and pieces that I am more than willing to part with). I’ve put a price on each one, and there is also the cost of first class postage to be added - so get a whole bunch of them, it works out better value! Anyway, let me know if you want any of them, and we can sort something out.

“Mao: The Unknown Story” - Jung Chang & Jon Halliday.
“My Life” - Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet.
“Essentials of Stage Management” - Peter Maccoy.
“Stage Management - The Essential Handbook” - Gail Pallin.
“Successful Event Management: A Practical Handbook” - Anton Shone & Bryn Parry
“Delia’s Complete Cookery Course” - Delia Smith
“Eichmann: His Life and Crimes” - David Cesarani.
“The Mammoth Book of The Mafia” - Nigel & Colin Cawthorne.
“Young Stalin” - Simon Sebag Montefiore.
“Organising a Conference” - Pauline Appleby
“Technical Theatre: A Practical Introduction” - Christine A. White
“An Introduction to Benesh Dance Notation” - Rudolf & Joan Benesh
“Imperium” - Robert Harris
“The Afghan” - Frederick Forsythe
“Vengeance” - George Jonas
“44 Scotland Street” - Alexander McCall Smith
“Espresso Tales” - Alexander McCall Smith
“The Third Twin” - Ken Follett
“The History of Clocks & Watches” - Eric Bruton

The Guillermo Del Tory Collection (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos) - £10
V - The Complete First Season - £10

Nintendo Wii (with 1 controller, and everything working just fine, and Wii Sports) - £50 on its own, for each game add £3.

Games (Separate from Console):
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 - £5
Ashes Cricket 2009 - £5
Madden 10 - £5
Wii Sports Resort - £5

If any of this interests you, then get in touch. Can be negotiated on price for some stuff, and deals for getting a whole bunch of stuff can be worked out.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Essay on Ensemble Theatre Practice - Written For My Masters, January 2012

To what extent is contemporary ensemble theatre practice influenced by the traditions and practices of its antecedents? How might these influence your own practice within context of an ensemble company?

A shared aesthetic, shared motives, collaboration and artistic freedom. Each of these things is seen as important to the work of an ensemble. For an ensemble to function properly, it is important to find common ground in each of these areas. Having a group of individuals working closely together, at a high level of intensity, for an extended period of time is what separates the ensemble way of working from the more ‘traditional’ producing theatre company structure. It has long been established that consistency of members is vital to what makes ensemble movements successful – this allows the group to explore each other, and themselves, over long periods of time, and to a greater degree of depth. It is a challenge, to work so closely with others for such extended, intense periods of time. Within the folds of a regular cast of performers, this challenge to work closely is only for a relatively short period. But as Peter Brook says about the work of Grotowski, working within a dedicated ensemble presents a challenge “not for a fortnight, not for once in a lifetime. Daily”[1]. This collaboration and exploration of each ensemble member can lead to discovery of new skills and unknown talents, as well as fostering of a deeper understanding of what is important to create truly new and exciting work.

The concept of collaborative ensemble work is not new, but it has changed and developed over time, from the early companies in the time of Shakespeare, through to modern groups such as Complicité and Cheek by Jowl. As with every other area of human development, there have been changes and developments as new ideas and potential have been realised, and this evolution will continue to develop through the development of current and new ensemble practices.

When looking at how ensembles are shaped by their antecedents the clearest place to begin is in their approach and methods. How often are terms such as “Brechtian” used to describe a particular style, whether its use is accurate or not? This is due to the impact had by the likes of the Berliner Ensemble on the theatrical vocabulary of our times. Littlewood talks about collaboration and not the “supremacy” of one individual over the direction of the group, but is that truly what happened during her career, and are we more familiar with the work of Joan Littlewood, or of Theatre Workshop?

Ensembles, perhaps more so than other forms of theatre or live entertainment, are built on an ideal of collaboration between equal members of a group. An ensemble can be described as is “one body with many heads – but many heads who work in the same direction”[2], and this deep understanding and unity within the group will be discussed later. The issue here, though, is the practicalities of creating quality work for an audience, to a deadline, while avoiding becoming “the most tiresome, awkward…forever-compromise, never-right”[3] situation that many such as Olivier feared ensemble work could become.

That is the main challenge to Littlewood’s statement of collaboration. While she has admitted that she believes there ought not to be one ‘supreme’ individual above others in the creative process, did she herself, however unintentionally, take on that higher authority during her work? During her time with Theatre Workshop in Stratford, she collaborated with Ewan MacColl and Gerry Raffles, but much of the work that the company produced is regarded as being her work – for example, look at the involvement she had in taking the work of Brendan Behan and making it possible to be staged. That is not to say that she deliberately placed herself in this position. Her desire to foster a process of collective decision making to achieve the best production, and a developmental style based around combining the works of Stanislavski and Laban’s movement theories (Holdsworth 2006) supports the idea that her method was not requiring of a “genius producer”[4], rather a collaborative effort. Her description of herself as ‘saboteur and concierge’ of Theatre Workshop also points towards a mutual, collaborative approach, and her prominence as the decision maker and authority being an accident of practicalities as opposed to a deliberate, defined position.

The presence of one individual at the head of a group is not an uncommon occurrence within ensemble theatre, with one of the most famous examples being the Berliner Ensemble and Brecht. As with the Berliner Ensemble, companies like Odin Teatret in Denmark and Theatre Laboratory in Poland have been overshadowed by their founders – Eugenio Barba and Jerzy Grotowski respectively – despite much of their methodology based on collaboration and sharing of creative responsibility, much in the same way as Theatre Workshop. The method of shared responsibility and creative freedom is very much a staple of ensemble work, though with both ensemble groups of the past, and more recent exponents such as Complicité and their Artistic Director Simon McBurney, it is likely that there will be an individual with either an overall accountability for the direction of the group or a responsibility to view a piece as a director – which is the role often undertaken by Littlewood at Theatre Workshop. Whether or not it is always the same person who fulfils this overseeing role is dependent on the makeup of the group and the individuals involved. Working with the same people consistently also makes it possible to explore different positions within the creative process, meaning a range of directorial vision and ideas can be explored in confidence – and if there does emerge one figurehead, as with the above examples, then it can be a natural development rather than imposing one vision overruling others.

Something which is always referenced during discussions of Ensemble Theatre is the idea of a shared aesthetic. When used in this manner, aesthetic can be taken to mean the vision of what form of theatre the company wishes to produce. I would argue, however, that aesthetics can change over time – look at the career of Littlewood and the difference between the earlier ‘living newspaper’ work she was involved in and pieces such as Oh What a Lovely War to see this contrast – but what is much harder to change is the motive behind creating the work in the first place. Here is where the ‘why’ question is most important. The hallmark of true ensemble work is in the united motives of a group of practitioners. This motive or ideology can be the ensembles’ greatest source of strength. Why are people driven to make the type of theatre that they do? Mikhaïl Stronin said it best when he said: “Ideology – not in the vulgar understanding of the Soviet times, but ideology; what the actor thinks about art; what they think about the style of acting; what they want to say”[5]. While the ideology of each company is as diverse as its members, it is important for this common ideology to stay strong, since if everyone believes in the same goal, then it makes the bond between them stronger. When this strength is present, the effect it can have on the audience is quite profound, even on performers like Simon Callow:

“The connectivity of the actors was almost tangible, an organic tissue which made them breathe as one and move with a profound awareness of everything that was going on within the group. I was overwhelmed. I had never seen a group like it and had never had such a comparable experience in a theatre.”[6]

If there is not this presence of a shared motive and ideology within the group, then it is possible to think of it as not being a true ensemble – and being more of a producing company under the guidance of the directors, in the more ‘traditional’ view. Joint Stock, whose method in terms of their development of a piece was certainly collaborative, was described in this way:

“Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors. The Joint Stock style was the Bill Gaskill style, the Max Stafford-Clark style. This style didn’t stem from a political position or even an aesthetic theory: it was just their taste, what they liked to see… So once again, just as in any other non-collective, unfanshened company, those who stood on stage were fulfilling the will of someone else, for reasons of which they were never altogether sure”[7]

Here, I feel that while the work they did involve collaboration, there was not a sufficient amount of responsibility and ownership given to the members of the company, outside of the directors. This is where the company steps away from being an ensemble, to simply being a more collaborative company. If working as an ensemble, it is important that every member of the company feels that their ideas and their vision is valued and considered during the creative process.

When current ensembles look to the work of their antecedents, one area that is an important source to be learned from is the mistakes made by previous groups. I do not mean mistakes in the commercial sense, or shows that received poor reviews. What is more important in terms of learning from past ensembles and practitioners is to look at the ways in which their work has been passed down to us, and whether or not this has been a help or a hindrance. One example of this is the work of Grotowski and the Theatre Laboratory. While the Poor Theatre and the work that went into developing it may not be to everyone’s taste, it does have a place in the ensemble canon. Given the physical nature of the work that they undertook, it is very difficult to recreate their methods and intensity without guidance from an expert. It is possible to read the theories and understand the concepts, but translating that into physical action is a very different challenge. Without proper guidance, as with the work of many practitioners it can lead to poor imitations and incomplete understandings of the work. Part of the challenge is not to recreate past works, but to build on them, but without a solid base of understanding, then this can be difficult, and occasionally unproductive – some of the language used, such as the description of the ‘holy’ actor and ‘holy’ producer can also make the ideas difficult to engage with fully due to a level of negative exclusivity. This can be especially frustrating for a younger generation of developing practitioners, as it means that not only can an element of disaffection with the work set in, but it also means that some of the most significant research and discovery in the field of live performance is not used to its full potential.

Another issue, though this problem is one of methodology, can be found in some of the limitations behind Joint Stock. While they did have a significant role to play in reshaping theatre in Britain, as well as helping to further collaborative working styles, they were known for the amount of time taken to fix upon ideas and make progress. This can lead to problems both within the company and with those affected outside of it. The primary concern with this length of discussion and debate is that it can foster a lack of enthusiasm or creativity towards the project, because of the amount of time taken to move forward. In terms of current ensembles, when taking inspiration from some of the elements of Joint Stock’s work, it can be a challenge to engage with this level of discussion before decisions are made – though this can be mitigated by the personality mix found in the ensemble, and the ways in which the group develops  its own decision making processes.

All ensembles are influenced by those who came before them. Whether it is in their working method – the devising and writing methodology of Joint Stock or Littlewood’s own Theatre Workshop, their views on design by utilising concepts developed by Brecht and Neher, or the deeply investigative approach of Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. It is important to develop an understanding of these works to be able to develop and adapt a new style, suited to modern audiences, and current theatrical concerns. When looking at how this has affected my own personal practice, the dynamics within the group is an area of particular importance – especially the development of a safe and secure space in which to experiment.

When people feel uncomfortable, especially in the presence of strangers, they articulate the problem or the feeling as being that their ‘personal space’ is being intruded on. When sharing physical proximity with a group of other people, this idea of personal space has the potential to be highly limiting in terms of feeling freedom to express oneself. This can be especially damaging in rehearsal space. When rehearsing in a shared space with others, it is important not to view it as one’s personal space, but rather as the group’s ‘personal space’ – that is to say, if each individuals bubble of personal space overlaps, then everyone can share the same bubble. A shared personal space, if you will. This is where the long-term work, contact and understanding of an ensemble is beneficial, as unlike with other rehearsal processes, this establishment of personal comfort does not have to begin again at the start of work on each new piece. Having a stronger understanding and knowledge of those around you are working with can also mean there is time for a wider and deeper range of concepts and ideas to be explored during rehearsal work.

The challenge of this approach to spaces arises upon the introduction of new outsiders – the audience. As an unknown quantity they possess the potential to be truly disruptive. This introduction of a new relationship and the potential to create a new dynamic is not unique to ensemble work – and neither is the effect it can have on both performer and audience member. ‘Stage fright’ is something that every performer feels, and is the rush of excitement before the beginning of a performance can be felt by everyone involved; however active or passive they may be. This must be admitted to, embraced and harnessed:

“The riot that is at the theatre’s heart – the gaudy assertion of carnival values, upturning everything, embracing everything – cannot be reduced to a note, or a gesture. It springs from the primitive act of theatre – an actor and an audience – fuelled by an all-consuming, raging need on both parts of the equation.”[8]

Live performance is unique in its ability to create this closeness between performer and audience – even going so far as to create Boal’s idea of the ‘spect-actor’. The audience must be invited into the performers safe space, so that they can fully experience the work to which they bear witness. This is where idea of theatre being the interaction and shared moment between the performer and the actor (Grotowski 1968) begins to make sense, as it is the interaction on a more emotional, in some eyes almost spiritual, level.

The establishment of a group space takes time, and it is not easy to do. Once it is established, if it is not maintained by the members of the group, then the comfort and freedom of this shared private space can be worn away. The benefits of creating a safe space can be worth the effort, however. Whenever the ensemble style is approached, one of the main concerns is that it is of vital importance to create a ‘safe space’ where the members of the group can be without the concerns of the outside world, and also where they can feel free of pressure or judgement from their peers. This allows for greater levels of exploration, experimentation and risk-taking. This is helped by being able to work within the same group for extended periods of time, as each new step can be expanded or built upon.

The confidence that can be gained from inhabiting a totally safe space, free from outside concerns –something repeatedly mentioned by attendees at the Ensemble Theatre Conference – also has the potential to provoke a greater level of child-like exploration from the practitioner, as well as a lessening of socially-imbued inhibitions and stigma. As mentioned previously, the key to this space is total trust in the other members of the group, as they are the other inhabitants of this same vulnerable space. A subconscious acknowledgement of this vulnerability is needed to realise to what extent the group is there to support the individual. If this acknowledgement is not made by the ‘observer’, then the trust can break down. Once this trust is gone, it can be very difficult to rebuild, and can take longer than the original trust took to develop. Here is one of the great challenges of ensemble work, but also where it can offer some of its greatest rewards. To work so closely with others, in total trust, so that you each know all other members as well as you know yourself can help to create challenging work, exploring ideas on a deeper level than with other creative processes.

One element that is, in my opinion, highly important to development of both ensemble as a whole and the members of the group, is the comfort and ability to share. The ability to share our fears and to vocalise our concerns may not be as superficially helpful towards performance development, but it has the potential to be as beneficial, as it can help to further the bonds within the group. Emotions are something that almost every human being feels and possesses. They give us the ability to interact in a wide variety of ways. They are hugely powerful. Performance, and the creation of quality work, relies a great deal on the usage of our emotions. The long-term work of ensembles can make it possible to explore these emotions on a much deeper level than other methods. If the ensemble all works in accordance to the work of a particular practitioner, such as Meisner or Grotowski, then they might have one chosen method of exploring their inner selves, but if there is not one defined and chosen ‘method’, then that does not make exploring emotion any less possible – much as having one may not make it any easier. The goal is not to explore emotions in order to be able to more accurately portray them in performance, rather to search for shared emotions, and to establish the root of those emotions. The importance of being able to share things which live beneath the surface of all of us is what makes the ensemble different, and also what gives it the potential to create truly challenging work.

When it comes to ensemble theatres of the modern day, there are a wide range of style and methods adopted. This variety is important because it ensures that both the work that they create, and the process that is used to get there are as diverse as possible. As we have seen, in the past there has not been one fixed method of ensemble theatre, and it is important that each new group developing now is able to shape itself in whatever mode that is decided by its members.

One of the clearest examples of this variety is in the size of the ensemble. While it is easy to see an ensemble as a group of eight to twelve people, this is certainly not the case everywhere. For instance, in the German state theatre, they have ‘ensembles’ which can contain 40 performers. This may seem unwieldy but in this instance the ensemble is the talent pool from which each production is cast. It allows for a wide variety of productions to be performed simultaneously, because while it takes a great deal of organisation to keep track of what roles each individual is playing, it means that there is a sufficient number of performers to be able take on plenty of pieces. Furthermore, with the extended contracts given to the members of the ensemble, they are not only aware that they have financial security for a period of time, but also they know that there will be regular work for them to keep working at their craft – as well as being able to develop a greater understanding within the company between directors and performers, as they have the time to work on a wider understanding of their skills.

On the other end of the scale are companies such as Clod Ensemble and Cheek by Jowl – ensemble companies in so much as they are groups formed with a shared set of ideas and a shared vision. However, they are, in terms of numbers, the polar opposite of the German state ensembles, being made up of only a few people. Indeed, “Cheek by Jowl in a sense is an ensemble of two – Declan [Donnellan] and Nick Ormerod. That’s okay. That’s an Ensemble too”[9]. As mentioned above, Cheek by Jowl can be counted as an ensemble because the permanent members of the company share in a vision for the type of theatre they wish to create. This then allows them to bring in other artists with whom they wish to work, and with whom they know they can share objectives. This may sound similar to the work of Joint Stock, which has been said to not a real ensemble. However, I would say that if Joint Stock are looked at as an ensemble made up of the two directors, who then brought in those who they could work with, then they fit more into a similar mould as Cheek By Jowl – as long as there is a shared vision within the group, then they can be seen as an ensemble, no matter what the size. This is why there is no common method of ensemble, it is more that the commonality between ensembles is that they are groups whose members share a goal, motive and aesthetic for the work they wish to produce.

When approaching the question of current ensembles learning from their predecessors, one can consider the knowledge passed on to be similar to a language. Theatrical vocabulary, knowledge and methodology are passed on from one generation to the next, much in the same way as language and the ways we use words. In everything we do as humans, we learn it from the generation above us – whether that be our teachers, our parents or people who inspire us. The vocabulary and application of theatrical practice is no different, especially since “the languages we learn affect how we think”[10]. That idea is significant as it means that when we are learning new theatrical language – in this specific case, the language of ensemble practice – we are also then learning to think in a way that allows us to apply that language.

As we learn, we are also able to branch out towards other cultures and methods which may not be indigenous to the theatrical culture that we are used to. This exploration of other cultures and ideologies can mean that when we create our own work, we can take inspiration from the work of those whose work has impressed us. Michael Boyd has admitted to such exposures as being a formative part of his own development, having been “profoundly sheep-dipped abroad in Moscow at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre”[11]. This using of other cultures to expand our own is not limited to theatre – it happens in food, language, television, everywhere. The ability to access different schools of thought can only benefit us as practitioners. And it is not a one-way street. As Boyd continues:

“Just as the great European ensembles have appropriated Shakespeare as their own, there’s no reason why we can’t appropriate their great auteur director tradition as our own or their great ensemble acting strength as our own?”[12]

In an increasingly multi-cultural world, it is important that theatre, especially the ensemble, continues to lead the way in developing this acceptance of ideas from outside of our frame of reference. The reason why I state it is especially important for ensembles to push the development in this way is that there are such diverse languages within ensemble theatres – from Indian Kathakali to elements of Japanese No Theatre. This is something that has been mentioned by practitioners in the past, Grotowski being one example, and continuing to investigate and absorb elements from these other styles of cultural performance can only help to enrich the theatrical language within which we try to express ourselves.

In conclusion, it is clear that Ensemble Theatre, as with almost all forms of theatre, is hugely influenced by its antecedents. Those who took a hand in developing ensemble working methods have made it possible for current groups to have a starting point from where to develop their own aesthetic, and their own audience. There are influences from past ensemble works, as with any form of performance, but that does not cheapen either the past or the present. With a theatrical vocabulary that has been developed by years of companies and practitioners, it is now the responsibility of their current successors to develop the next layer, so that in years’ time it will possible to look back at the contemporary ensembles as the continuation of our antecedents.

The work of our antecedents has also taught us that there is no one clear description of what makes an ensemble. My personal view is that the most important part of forming an ensemble is a collaborative approach, stemming from a shared ideology behind what it is the group wishes to produce. That group can be two people, it can be twenty people. The dynamics within the group must be given time to grow and develop over time, as they will be unique to the people who make up the ensemble. These are things that have been learned from previous groups, from their failures, their ideas and the ideas that they pioneered. The responsibility of the current generation of ensemble practitioners is to learn from the past, and build upon the foundations, so that in the future it will be possible to look back at our work as the next stage in the evolution of Ensemble Theatre.


Billington, Michael. State of the Nation. Faber and Faber Limited, 2007.
Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. Penguin, 1968.
“Ensemble Theatre Conference.” Equity, 2004.
Goldman, Emma. The Social Significance of Modern Drama. Applause, 1914.
Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards A Poor Theatre. Methuen Drama, 1968.
Holdsworth, Nadine. Joan Littlewood. Routledge, 2006.
Lo, Jaqueline, and Helen Gilbert. Performance and Cosmopolitics. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.
Robinson, Sir Ken. Out of Our Minds. Capstone Publishing Limited, 2001.
Tynan, Kenneth. Theatre Writings. Nick Hern Books Limited, 2007.
Witts, Noel. Tadeusz Kantor. Routledge, 2010.

[1] Peter Brook, preface for Jerzy Grotowski, Towards a Poor Theatre, Methuen Drama, 1991 (p.13)
[2] Mikhaïl Stronin, Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[3] Laurence Olivier, 1962, quoted in Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[4] Joan Littlewood, from Talking About Theatre, 1964, quoted in Joan Littlewood, 2006
[5] Mikhaïl Stronin, Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[6] Simon Callow, introduction for Maria Shevstsova: Dodin and the Maly Drama Theatre – Process to Performance, 2004, quoted in Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[7] Simon Callow, from Being an Actor, quoted in, State of the Nation, 2007 (p.266)
[8] Simon Callow, The Guardian, October 4th, 2003, quoted in Ensemble Theatre Conference 2004
[9] Michael Boyd, Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[10] Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds, 2001 (p.119)
[11] Michael Boyd, Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004
[12] Michael Boyd, Ensemble Theatre Conference, 2004

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Writers/Journalists/Bloggers: I Need Your Help

Hello folks,
I need some assistance. I am in the formative stages of writing something about interviews - from the perspective mainly of journalists/writers/bloggers and the people they have interviewed, and also the view from the interviewees of course. I would like to get some real-world experiences from people, on one or more of the following areas (or anything else really, but these are a starting point).
  1. How do you prepare to interview someone?
  2. How do you structure the interview and plan it?
  3. Who decides the location for the interview?
  4. Do you try to put the interviewee at ease, or form a connection with them?
  1. How do you approach an interview with someone you don’t know?
  2. What are the best/worst attempts people have made to make you feel at ease?
  3. Best/worst experiences of an interview?
  4. How do you try to steer or direct an interview away from things you don’t want to discuss?
If there is anything else anyone would like to offer, then please do, and please share this around - I need as much information and as many experiences as possible.

Many thanks!

Monday, 2 July 2012

Euro 2012 - UEFA Fail to Tackle Racism, Again

With Euro 2012 officially in the books, and the Spanish team showing that they are still the best national team around (and one of the best ever), the question of the best team and best player - Andres Iniesta - has been answered. One question that hasn't, though, is when will UEFA get serious with tackling racist abuse of players by fans?

 There were several fines handed down by UEFA to national Football Associations for the improper conduct of fans, as well as one fine for "improper conduct" to Nicklas Bendtner for wearing sponsored pants. The amounts shed light on where UEFA's priorities lie:

Spain were fined €20,000 for racially abusing Mario Balotelli
Russia were fined €30,000 for making monkey noises at Czech Republic right-back Theodor Gebre Selassie.
Croatia were fined €30,000 for displaying racist banners in their match against Spain, then fined a further €80,000 for racial abuse of Mario Balotelli. Clearly the first fine had a massive effect.

Bendtner, however, was fined €100,000 for his Paddy Power pants.

Ambush marketing a worse crime in the eyes of UEFA than racial abuse? Given these fine amounts, it would seem so. Given that the racism fines were handed out to the Football Associations of each respective country, and Bendtner was fined as an individual (and given a one match suspension for Denmark's next match, a World Cup qualifier) it makes them seem like even more token gestures. When you look at the amounts of prize money from the tournament, UEFA's lack of real action appears even more stark:

Spain: €23,000,000
Russia: €10,500,000
Croatia: €10,500,000

Somehow I think that between the three nations, a cumulative fine of €160,000 will be more than tackled by a total prize money of €44,000,000.

Another interesting little side note is that Russia also have a suspended 6 point deduction hanging over their heads for the Euro 2016 qualifying phase, but UEFA chose not to activate it.

Personally, I believe that the best way for UEFA to tackle racism and fan problems is to hit those that it hurts the most - the fans. Remember when English clubs weren't able to take part in Europena competitions because of hooliganism fears? That forced the hand of the FA, clubs and fan groups to get things sorted out, and I think that this is the direction UEFA ought to head in. My ideas include
  • Matches at tournaments played without fans of guilty teams - eg, at fist group game of World Cup 2014, Spain play with no Spanish fans.
  • Point deductions - either from qualifying or in the group stages of the next tournament. For instance, deduct 2 points for each incident of racist abuse by fans, either in a tournament, in qualifying or in  friendly matches. So for example, going into the next qualifying period, Spain are deducted 2 points, Russia 2 points and Croatia 4 points. If you limit the chances of the team qualifying, then the fans might peer-pressure each other into not shouting abuse, or carrying racist banners.
  • Take away prize money. Paltry fines don't work, set a double standard and just make UEFA look either ineffective or negligent. If you deduct 25% of prize money for each instance of racist abuse (and in my mind, donate that 25% to charities fighting bigotry and intolerance in sport) then the FA in that country will work a hell of a lot harder to police things in the stands and make a stand, since they will be hit in the pocket. 
  • Any combination of the above. If there are persistent breaches of the law, then they can be punished with a combination of actions.
Until UEFA show that they are serious about tackling racism in football, then it will be there, it will be blatant, and it will get worse. This is not a time for administrators to hide behind weak rules and cowardly attempts at enforcement, this is a time and an opportunity to really send a message.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Intolerance in Football: Fashanu, Terry, Suarez and UEFA

Intolerance in football is a problem. I don’t think you will be able to find many people who will disagree with that statement. Whether it is Luis Suarez and John Terry or the fact that there is only 1 professional football player who is openly gay, not in England, but in the entire game (for those of you interested, it is Anton Hysen of Utsiktens BK in Sweden). He is, for those who don’t know, only the second gay professional footballer ever, after Justin Fashanu. Out of the around 3,000 professional football players in England, there is not a single one who is able to be open about their sexuality. Not just for the sport, but for society, that is an embarrassment. But as John Amaechi pointed out recently, is this really a surprise when the board of the FA, who run the game in this country, have only just got their first female board member.

Some numbers:

3,000: approximate number of professional footballers in England

0: Openly gay professional footballers

£6,000: fine for former Leicester City player Michael Ball for tweeting homophobic comments

16: Number of professional clubs (out of 92) who are willing to openly back The Justin Campaign’s Football v Homophobia initiative.

These make for pretty depressing reading. The FA needs to do better – for a start by stepping up efforts to stamp out intolerance in any form (including anti-Semitism against Tottenham fans and players) by making the punishments for offences actually mean something. Suarez ought to have had a much stronger penalty – if fans are banned from grounds for racist chanting, why does a player only receive an 8 game ban? The fines for the likes of Michael Ball must be so steep that it is actually a disincentive to not display such bigotry. If clubs are made responsible for the actions of their players, then that would offer a real reason for them to police their own dressing rooms. For example, if Terry is found guilty, how about a points deduction. Similarly for Liverpool and Luis Suarez. If a player’s actions hurt not only him but his teammates, club and fans, do you think that might have an impact?

It is not just the FA who need to step up to the plate though – UEFA also need to make it known to clubs and fans that homophobia, racism and other abuse will not be tolerated. If fans at a match in Spain are making monkey chants, for example, then don’t fine the club €30,000 and say you are tackling the problem. That will make no difference to anyone. Games played behind closed doors, point deductions and exclusion from European competitions might. You did it for hooliganism, time to do likewise for bigotry. Make people think twice before they decide to hurl abuse at someone for the colour of their skin, their religion or their sexual preference.

Do I think that these things will happen? Given the record of UEFA and the FA, no.

On Luis Suarez: He has been found guilty. His punishment ought to have been much harsher. Kenny Dalglish, those supporting shirts and the actions of some of their fans should make everyone involved or supporting of Liverpool football club look at what their club has been condoning, and they should feel disappointed at the action of some of their people. I will boo Suarez for the rest of his career in England.

On John Terry: He has not been found guilty of anything yet. As things stand, I support Terry as a Chelsea player and club captain. If he is found guilty, then he deserves to be neither of these things. The club dispensed with the services of Adrian Mutu when he was found to be using drugs, (a decision I supported), and I believe that a similar stance must be taken with racism and intolerance. Leicester fired Ball after his homophobic comments, which was exactly the right decision. We must, as a club, make the same stand with Terry. There can be no excuse, and although I have sung songs in support of Terry for a decade, the club and its responsibility to the community must come first. Innocent until proven guilty. If guilty, then he must be punished.

I am a Chelsea fan, and East Stand season ticket holder. I am disappointed every time elements of our fans chant about Hillsborough, Munich or sing anti-Semitic songs at Tottenham fans, and I did not boo Anton or Rio Ferdinand for their stance on John Terry. I do not do any of these things, and a lot of the people who sit near me in the East Stand upper also don’t. It is important to know that not all football fans who go to games week in, week out sing such offensive things. But until everyone in the ground chooses not to allow songs about the deaths of fellow fans, or a players race or sexuality, we need to keep pushing for better education, more pro-active administration and harsher penalties for those who persistently display such intolerance, bigotry and hatred.

Friday, 6 January 2012

5 Days in The Netherlands

It began as a throw-away comment about getting away for a few days after term had finished, and before the chaos of Christmas, families and, in my case, moving house. Then became a fairly flippant conversation about where we would like to go. Then during the course get-away at Nick’s house, it became two ferry tickets to the Hook of Holland. It still didn’t feel  like it was something that was actually going to happen. It didn’t feel like it was going to happen while cramming warm clothes into a rucksack. It didn’t feel real until the ferry left Harwich – though that might have has something to do with getting up at 5am to drive there. But it did happen, and here is a diary of our trip to the Netherlands.

Saturday 17 DecemberDSC01028
The ferry journey was surprisingly smooth. Having checked the weather forecast, and given how cold it was, I was expecting something much rougher. Given Alecky’s inclination towards sea sickness, and my lack of comfort on anything that isn’t solid ground, I was expecting this to be the least fun part of the journey. Really though, it wasn’t actually all that bad. The boat was fairly empty, no doubt helped by the time of year and the early departure time, and the seas were calm. It was even quite sunny. Cold, but sunny. As you can see, we did make use of the “sun deck”, despite it being not much above freezing. But sea-sickness was avoided, and I even managed to get some sleep – looking every bit the trampy student that I am.

Once we had arrived into the Hook of Holland, getting off the boat was quite simple. What was not so simple, however, was getting the train to Rotterdam, and from there to The Hague, where we were to spend the first couple of days. Firstly, it started to rain, and then we discovered that the ticket machines would not accept our cards – despite knowing that they worked just fine. Then we found a machine that took cash, which we didn’t have, so we wandered further in to town. We found a cash machine easily enough, and it seemed to have no problem with either of our bank cards. What it did have an issue with, however, was giving us money in any denomination under €50 – which was an issue since the ticket machine only accepted coins. Having withdrawn our cash, we then went back to the station, to get some change from the little fish shop next door. They didn’t have any. Back into town we go. Both of us are carrying quite weighty bags, and at this point it is raining and very cold. Eventually we went to the supermarket and bought some stuff, getting enough change together to pay for the train tickets. Almost everyone was polite and helpful – and spoke excellent English – which did make it easier, but it was still a more stressful arrival in the country than we had planned.

The train journey was very smooth – the train was clean, fast and on time. Definitely not in England any more! Having arrived in Rotterdam it was easy enough to find the connecting train to The Hague, and we were on our way once more. It is worth noting that, after everything that went into buying our tickets, we did not actually have to produce them at any point on the journey.

We arrived in The Hague in the middle of a downpour. Of sleet. It was incredibly cold, and very windy. Since Alecky had an idea about where we would be staying that night, we set off – looking as much like tourists as I think we possibly could, stopping every so often to peer up at street names and trying not to get run over by trams. Once we had found the place we hoped to be staying – having basically walked to the end of the street it was on and not noticed – we shuffled in to see if they had any rooms to spare (having decided that it would be worth the cost to spring for a private room, rather than the dorms). Luckily, they did, and we had somewhere to sleep. The best thing about our hostel – other than being warm and dry – was the encouragement dished out by the stairs as you walked up them. Little signs saying things like “Keep going!”, “You’re almost there!” and “See you in the bar!” were dotted all the way up to our third floor room, 304.
Having dried off and parked our decidedly heavy and damp bags, we ventured into town – the storm having calmed down a little by this point. We walked into the centre of town, mostly managing to stay out of the cycle lanes (which are actually separate to the road, unlike here where they just paint it then park a bus in it). Having braved the hail and wind once more, we settled upon somewhere to eat – starting off our run of choosing good food places without really meaning to. In that typically touristy way, we settled for a place that did Italian food – it was very good though, and just what we needed after a long day of travelling and being cold. Having stopped off for a quick drink after dinner we headed back to our hostel. Day one complete.

Sunday 18 December
This was to be our one full day in The Hague. It involved a lot of walking – we decided that we would walk everywhere, save for the trains between cities, in order to save money and to avoid getting totally confused by tram maps. So off we wandered, with only one bag of essential stuff between the two of us, so that we weren’t too weighed down by things we didn’t need.100_0182
As with most other days of our trip, we had a vague idea of things that would be worth looking at, and much of the rest was just strolling around until we found something interesting – like this multi-coloured building. Not sure what it is (I think either a shop or a cafe/bar) but it looked interesting, and the shop opposite featured this rather strange face above the door.

The Hague is a really nice place to just walk about it. It’s made easier of course by being totally flat, but even when its cold and damp it is very easy to stroll around looking at stuff – though I think at times we did look very much like tourists, taking pictures of everyday things, but they are interesting and different from the kind of things you see in London every day.
After a while ambling up and down streets – some of the shopping areas which looked as if they could have come from any town in Western Europe – we came to this square.
One of the things about both The Hague and Amsterdam was the very tall, narrow buildings that are all over the older parts of the city, which apparently came about due to a tax being levied according to the size of the frontage of the house – so they became deeper, taller and narrower.

DSC01038Just to the left of where this picture was taken from, however, is one of the main attractions on our visit to The Hague: Mauritshuis. This is one of the most significant galleries in the whole country, containing paintings by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Holbein. One of the most famous paintings in the collection is Girl With a Pearl Earring. There is a small lake/large pond right next to the gallery, and some of the buildings built along the edge of it were very grand-looking. Some had doors in that opened out onto the water – clearly built for the days when boats used to be able to pull up to the side of the house. Out of this group of pictures, the Mauritshuis is the building in the picture on the bottom left.
Understandably we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, 100_0202but it really is worth a visit – even if just for the building in which the gallery is located (and it’s always worth remembering that it used to be someone’s house). This is the front of the house.

Having left the Mauritshuis, the next place we went was the Binnenhof, which are the parliamentary buildings. Not quite as grand as the Houses of Parliament, but certainly seemed much less pretentious. What there aren’t in these pictures, but are on almost every window in these old buildings is the wooden shutters that are folded outwards to let in the light. Along with the tall, narrow fronts, another very Dutch piece of design. It was in the same central square as the fountain that executions used to take place.

Once we had left the Binnenhof we headed towards somewhere that The Hague is known for internationally: the Vredespaleis, or Peace Palace. Otherwise known as the International Court of Justice – the main legal arm of the United Nations. It is separate from the International Criminal Court – which is responsible for trying those accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and other crimes.100_0210100_0215

Since the court was in session for the entire time we were there, it wasn’t possible for us to get a tour of the inside of the palace, but it was still an impressive place to see. Right outside of the palace is the World Peace Flame – around which are placed a stone from each of the countries that supported it, though I cannot remember what the stone from the United Kingdom was.
100_0219100_0217The walk back from the Vredespaleis towards the centre of The Hague was one of the more unexpectedly entertaining and bizarre parts of the trip. The reason for that is the range of things that we saw while we wandered along. Firstly, we came upon a plaza, in the centre of which was a selection of these small stone statues. Of turtles. We had no idea why they were there, or if there was any particular significance behind them, but there they were. This is the point when we started to realise that there seemed to be an approach of “well, why not?” used when it came to whether or not to do stuff – if there isn’t a good reason why not to do something, then do it. Very different to the British way of only doing something if there is a good reason to do it.

The next couple of strange things, unfortunately, I do not have pictures for, so you will just have to believe me that they really did happen. Firstly there was a man dressed in a full suit with a gramaphone attached to the front of his bike, playing records in the street. Again, slightly out of the ordinary, but why not. The second strange event was what looked like a photo-shoot of a burlesque dancer, complete with feathers etc. taking place in what I initially thought was some form of gallery. This was happening right in front of the window. Okay, slightly unusual, but this is the Netherlands, and there are a lot of things in windows. What made this even a bit strange was the realisation it was not a gallery, it was a hairdressers. A man taking pictures of a burlesque dancer, in a hairdressers. As you do.

Having arrived back in the centre of The Hague, we decided that we would find somewhere warm to sit and defrost. Found a decent looking place with a fire, not far from where we had dinner after arriving, and on discovering there was a sofa, we parked up and ordered a couple of Gluhwein – mulled wine. We also tucked into Bitterballen, which are a kind of deep-fried meatball snack. Very Dutch, and very nice. After discovery of the place’s cocktail menu, we ended up staying till about 11pm before ambling back to the hostel and crashing out.

Monday 19 December
This is the day we had decided to make the journey to Amsterdam. It takes just over an hour on the train – which, I discovered, were double decker trains. Again, they were clean, fast and on time. Dutch rail transport is so much better than its UK counterpart – and is much cheaper too.

Having arrived in Amsterdam we followed the pattern of our arrival in The Hague: try to find somewhere to stay before doing anything else. Again, we had a first choice and a back up – though it was much better weather this time around. However, in the first place we looked there weren’t any rooms, and the second place was closed until 5pm, and by this time it was about 2pm, and we wanted to dump our bags.

Eventually, with a few distractions, we managed to find somewhere. It turned out to be a 3* hotel, but cost about the same as the hostel we had stayed in before, so it worked out quite well. It was also just inside the red light district, and was easy enough to walk to and from. And again, as in The Hague, we were staying in Room 304.

Once we had put down our stuff we headed out to the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, which is, as the name suggests, one of the oldest parts of Amsterdam. It is one of these churches where the floor is made up of tombstones, with engravings of the information about who is buried beneath it. According to the information we were given, there are thousands of people buried beneath its floor – going back hundreds of years. It was slightly strange walking out of this huge, cold stone building and finding ourselves confronted by the sight of the prostitutes behind their windows. Very much old Amsterdam and new Amsterdam blending together, even if the contrast was rather stark.

We spent much of the rest of the afternoon and evening walking down to the far west of central Amsterdam – following lights and walking across a lot of canals. We eventually ended up in this little bar, drinking gluhwein and planning out what we wanted to see the next day, before, due to cravings from both of us, having Chinese food for dinner. Certainly being multicultural.

Tuesday 20 December100_0229
Our full day in Amsterdam involved probably more walking than any other day on the trip. First thing we went to was the Homomonument, which is a memorial to all gay men and lesbians who have been persecuted because of their sexuality. It is made up of three triangles of granite, arranged to form the points of a larger triangle.
100_0225One point is raised, one thrusts out into the canal, and one is at street level and bears an inscription of a line from the Jewish, gay poet Jacob Israel de Haan: “Naar Vriendschaap Zulk een Mateloos Verlanged” – translated as “Such an endless desire for friendship”.

One of the points faces towards the National War Memorial on Dam Square, one points towards the house of Anne Frank, and one points towards the the office of COC Nederland, the oldest continually operating gay and lesbian organisation in the world.
Next we visited the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, which is an excellent museum with a walk through history of the city of Amsterdam – the Amsterdam DNA. It is quite interactive, and very engaging. Most certainly worth a visit. Next on the list was the van Gogh museum. DSC01065On the way there we stopped off in a square that seemed to have some form of festive things going on, so that I could try another Dutch food – poffertjes, which are a kind of ball of pancake batter.Not the healthiest thing to eat, but tasted very good – as the slightly manic look on my face might suggest.

Again there are no pictures of the van Gogh Museum (though the picture at the top of this post was taken only a minute or so away from it), but it was excellent. It is strange having seen some of his work through other forms, like on TV, so to be in the same room as them felt odd, almost as if they weren’t real.

Once we had left the museum (one of the places where it felt there were more tourists than local people) we headed back towards the centre of Amsterdam, via the Rembrantsplein, which was the most festively bright part of the entire city, and the Nieuwmarkt – on the way I saw a sign for a “Dutch Sandwich”, not entirely sure I want to find out what that is – and eventually we got back to the main square, not far from our hotel. 100_0236We stopped for coffee, in a coffee place that seemed to be a sort of Dutch equivalent of Starbucks, except for one difference: this one had a cat in it. It seemed totally unbothered by the people coming and going, though it seemed to refuse to have its picture taken doing anything other than grooming, which it did a lot.

For our final dinner in Amsterdam we settled on steak – since there seemed to be a lot of Argentinian steak restaurants around. We walked about until we found one that looked like it could be good without being too pricey. It happened to be 8 steps (I counted) from the door of our hotel. The food was excellent, and the waiter seemed to take a shine to us, so after we had finished he made us this cocktail that involved mixing together Lemon Ice Cream, Blood Orange Vodka and Prosecco with a whisk in a large bowl. It tasted so good! I would recommend trying it. This is the point at which our plan for the day slightly feel apart. We had originally planned to go out and spend an evening enjoying some of the Amsterdam nightlife, but after dinner we were both so worn out by the day that we ended up staggering back to the hotel and going to bed.

Wednesday 21 December
This was the day we were to travel back. The ferry was at 2:30 in the afternoon, so we managed to have a lie in, before taking the double decker train back to Rotterdam, and from there to the Hook, without any of the ticket drama we had faced on the way in. Having arrived with plenty of time, we went to the supermarket we had visited on our arrival, so that we could get stuff for a picnic on the boat, as well as some very Dutch things: gouda, Hopjies (which are a small coffee flavoured boiled sweet – we had been eating them every time we went on a train), Gestampte Muisjes (a sweet aniseed powder that is really nice sprinkled on toast – sounds strange but it works), Hagelslag (a similar thing, but chocolaty) and Stroopwafels (which are a form of caramel waffle).

The ferry on the way back was even calmer than the journey out, and also even emptier: we had one of the main areas almost entirely to ourselves. We managed to eat, sleep and watch a fair few episodes of The Big Bang Theory on Alecky’s iPod before arriving back in Harwich and driving back down to Sidcup – by far the least exciting part of the trip.

It was an excellent break, and I would certainly like to go back and explore more of the country – though we did well only having a few days. It certainly made a big impression on me, and I would recommend that people go and visit it for themselves.