OUR award-winning programme editor Dave Bowler begins his new weekly column with Remembrance Day reflections:
THIS is a week of special commemoration. As ever, on Armistice Day, tributes will be paid to the fallen and to the damaged in armed conflict throughout the world. This year, of course, there will be special attention paid to the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, a catastrophe that has now slipped out of direct memory, all of those who survived it having now passed on to their reward. All we have of it now are stories, just as we have about the Boer War, the Crimea or the Napoleonic wars.
The Great War was, of course, captured on film, giving it a greater sense of reality, one that it will keep down the years, but even so, an event of a century past struggles to retain a relevance in the modern world.
We can see that danger in the game of football. It is a sport – a sport remember – whose vocabulary is peppered with warlike clichés. A pugnacious midfielder is described as somebody you’d like to have with you in the trenches. Seasons are routinely described as campaigns, as though General Haig were running them – that would explain the ridiculous goings on at Leeds United mind you. Teams have to win the battle in midfield, they fight wars of attrition. All of this in a game.
You might say that such language is unimportant, that we use it to merely add colour, but the words we choose say much about not only what we are describing, but the way we feel about it too. The fact that football has been given over to the language of the battlefield illustrates just what little perspective we have when it comes to the national pastime. Is it any wonder that we have no perspective on the game, that it looms so large over everyday life in such a frankly insane manner when we discuss games between Chelsea and Manchester City in the same terms as a war fought out on the fields of Flanders?
Life is about perspective, it is about context, but it is also about description. It is a chicken and egg situation admittedly. Did football become a war because we talked about it in those terms or does our language simply reflect the fact that running around after a bag of air has become a matter of life and death and this is the most appropriate way of talking about it?
Whichever is the case, don’t you think that this, of all Armistice Days, might give us an opportunity to pause and think about the way we treat the game of football? We talk about honouring our dead and respecting, cherishing the freedoms that they won for us with their blood. So why don’t we do just that with our national game and, instead of enduring it, try enjoying it instead?
Let us tear up Orwell’s dictum that organised sport is essentially war without the shooting and recapture instead the concept that football is a game, just a game. It is what we do with our spare time, it is what we do to enjoy ourselves. We are not curing cancer. The football ground is a place where we should go to find our soul, to commune with like spirits, to celebrate our freedoms, our humanity, be a place of poetry, imagination, not a war zone.
If you want further proof of just why we should do that, reflect on the first Christmas of the war, the one it was supposed to have been finished by. With a ceasefire in place, what did the troops of both sides do to observe it? They met in no man’s land and they played football. Men who were, quite literally, in the business of maiming and killing one another laid down their arms and kicked a ball about before the Germans won on penalties. Is that not an example we should be following, should we not be using our weekly footballing devotions as an oasis of joy in the midst of what is a hard, hard life?
So when you observe silence this Armistice Day then of course, think about those who made those monumental sacrifices in the past. But spare a thought for honouring them in the best way possible, by embracing life and by enjoying our freedoms, including the freedom to play football. Don’t see your team as going into battle. See them as producing a glorious expression of what it is to be free, to be alive, to have its hard won possibilities in front of you. See football as fun, not a killing field.
(This piece originally appeared in the Newcastle edition of Albion News in the Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed strand.)