The Two Looming Issues the Scottish Independence Movement Needs to Address for Success

Sturgeon Brexit

This time around, the independence is stronger, in contrast to Brexit. Credit: The Guardian

Scottish Independence has never felt closer, or more realistic a prospect. In the context of the hellish purgatory of the Brexit saga and widespread sympathy for the ongoing campaign of the Catalans, an independent, progressive Scotland seems a lot more attractive to an increasing number of people than being dragged in to the economic, consumer standards, and human rights quagmire of a Union which leans increasingly on cartoonish, fascistic mini-Trumps like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. What is more, the many Unionist arguments and ‘vows’ extolled before the 2014 vote have evaporated in to the ether: Scotland’s voice in the UK continues to be under-represented and under-heard at Westminster, a falling pound has made currency less of a powerful argument, and most importantly, the notion that vote for the Union was a vote for EU membership has collapsed spectacularly.

In this reality, polling for independence is already consistently at at least 50%, and even more popular in the event of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, all before a campaign has officially started. On the surface, independence feels almost inevitable, but there are reasons to be quiet in our confidence, and two growing issues which the movement can no longer ignore if we want to not trip ourselves up before the finish line.

One of the issues is central to the current campaign, and has to be addressed now; and quite conversely, the other should have nothing to do with the movement, and should be addressed after the matter is decided.

The former issue, the one which is central to the campaign, is climate change, and the black gold which Scotland holds. Part of the need for independence is the need to escape the far right ‘populism’ that has taken hold in the rest of the UK, but it is important that ‘populism’ needn’t equate to far right, and indeed, there are some exciting socialist populists we should be looking to emulate to help inspire a progressive, vibrant Scotland. The stalwart radicalism of Bernie Sanders and the uprising of working class heroes in the ‘Justice Democrats’ (AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashid Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley) is showing the world that bold and innovative policies can be both radical, fresh, fair, and crucially, viable. They have shown this in their campaigning for a Green New Deal – a policy which aims to both save humanity, and overhaul industry in a way which creates new jobs rather than clinging to the rotten, flailing fossil fuels industry. This is an issue that will be central to Scotland’s future regardless of any independence outcome, but that needs to be addressed right now given that oil is so central to many arguments for independence from an economic viability point of view.

Greta

Climate change is now, finally, a mainstream movement, galvanized by Greta Thunburg whose school strikes for the climate were recently replicated across Scotland and the world. Credit: TheCourier.co.uk

The wealth the oil could generate for an independent Scotland, like it has for other similar countries like Norway, is a powerful argument indeed, but my assertion is that it is one that Scotland simply has to abandon.

While the right continues to wax cynical about the affect of climate change, scared of jeopardising high-emitting industries, the majority of people accept that climate change is real, and increasingly, the need to act on this threat has been increasingly acknowledged with some thanks to inspirational figures like Greta Thunberg and the activism of Extinction Rebellion. Scotland has hardly been left behind – just last month, the Scottish Government set the most ambition carbon emission targets in the world, and next year, Glasgow will host the ‘COP26′ UN Climate Change Summit. In this context, is the independence going to cling to old notions of profitting from our oil? Not only is it politically illiterate, it is unacceptable in light of the ongoing climate crisis. Scotland, and independence campaigners have to ask themselves: what use will an independent Scotland be if the world is burning around us?

It is difficult, but Scotland can only progress if we start to significantly reduce our own dependence and demand for oil – if not greatly reducing what we would drill for and sell, then ultimately, keeping it in the ground altogether.

Fear not though, this is not just money left on the table, it just means Scotland will have to focus on it’s other abundant natural resources: wind, wave, and good ol’ Scottish industrial excellence: a Green Industrial Revolution for Scotland. I don’t claim to be an engineering expert, or public policy one either, but the basic idea of such a policy is to train and retrain our engineers in renewable energy technologies and do so extensively, creating jobs and sustainable energy for all of Scotland.  The reality is that not only does renewable energy create jobs across various sectors, but it creates more jobs than the fossil fuel industry. It is both economically and scientifically the right path for Scotland. For many, ‘Scotland’s oil’ will be a difficult comforter to let go of, but it is something we have no choice but to do. The case for independence was never just oil, and now that climate change has taken more precedence than ever, we have to forget about it.

The second barrier to independence is one that has been growing steadily seemingly for the last year or so, and that is a split between in the movement that has seen a more conservative, reactionary ‘wing’ (if you will) emerge. Indeed, this split is well defined by ‘Wings Over Scotland’ (Stuart Campbell). During the 2014 referendum, Wings’ ‘Wee Blue Book’ was a popular and impactful document arguing for independence in an accessible way, but since the referendum, Wings has become divisive and reactionary in a way which has undoubtedly become toxic. Unfortunately, the rot seems to have spread through the movement, and if we are not careful, it could undermine everything.

The issue of oil and green energy has to be addressed right now as it will be central to any independence campaign, but the issue that Wings and others I will discuss shortly have taken to obsess over is one which has no direct bearing on independence, and is simply causing disruption and disunity. That issue is trans rights.

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Hanging over her like her own tweet in this picture is the spectre of Joanna Cherry’s trans position. The baggage this adds to the emerging figure could undermine the independence movement. Credit: Indy100

Some brief context. As a so-called ‘cis’ male, I am no expert on the issues either women or trans people face, so I want to keep anything declarative away from this argument. The little bit I will say is that while I will admit to not quite understanding certain aspects of trans people’s lives or choices, what is clear is that it seems clear to me that no one enters any kind of gender transition for an easy life. It seems extremely challenging to do and leaves people facing incredible scrutiny. It is also clear that trans people are vulnerable both to increased self harm and increased hate crime. Basically, while I can understand some of the arguments based on the safety of women from a logical stand-point, I think they are ultimately unfounded and based on hysteria. With all this in mind, we must always remember a more fundamental standard – trans people are people, and we need to remember this when discussing trans issues and making arguments about their lives. Ultimately, their choices do not impact on society as a whole, and to the same extent as everyone else, they should be able to live as they wish.

But for the likes of Wings, and disappointingly, prominent SNP politicians Joanna Cherry and Chris McEleny as well as a disappointingly large number of others throughout the party and the wider movement, the issue of gender self-identity is one that needs to be argued about extensively, and right now. I won’t say more about the issue beyond my pithy position above, and in fact, my point here isn’t event about the outcome of the argument, it is simply, practically, about the timing of it.

Joanna Cherry especially has become a very prominent member of the SNP and the independence movement following the admirable success of the ‘Cherrycase’ which scuppered Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament, so the fact that she is simultaneously mired in the trans ‘debate’ seems to me like a potential time bomb for the movement. Meanwhile, Wings seems to be getting increasingly unhinged online and is talking of setting up his own political party to challenge the SNP. His obsession with this issue is leading him to literally try to split the independence vote.

Trans rights and self-identification is a very emotive subject, and it is one that could easily alienate potential ‘Yes’ voters from either side of the debate. My point is simply this: whatever your view on trans rights rights, it is not fundamentally linked to independence, and is rather something that can be campaigned for or against once we have independence. If we split the movement though, we risk not getting our full self-determination at all. Post-indy Scotland will be something of a blank canvas, and it is then we can shape our future country. I would argue for a more trans-inclusive Scotland, and other can argue against, but until that opportunity is secured, arguing over trans rights and tarring the movement with such a controversial brush is simply irresponsible.

Linked, it seems, to this issue, is the emergence of more reactionary campaigners in the movement. It seems a lot of passionate people are losing patience and seem to be becoming less tolerant of our English neighbours, keen to replace the extremely popular Nicola Sturgeon with a potentially toxic figure like Joanna Cherry, and ready to ‘take’ independence through UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence).

I understand people’s frustrations, but these elements of he movement are simply unhelpful. The strength of the establishment and/or right wing has always been unity while the weakness of progressives and revolutionaries has historically been disunity – the seeds of this disunity should be a worry for every independence advocate. The idea of replacing Sturgeon and/or pursuing UDI is extremely careless and outdated. Any UDI will make it near impossible to gain recognition from our future international and EU partners, and will make relations with the rest of the UK extremely dysfunctional. It simply will not work, and people have to realise this quickly. If Brexit happens and Scotland is frustrated in its pursuit of independence, then we can talk about more drastic measures, but for now, we have to keep it smart and cool.

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It’s Time. Let’s not ruin it for ourselves. Credit: The Herald

The only reason independence is back on the table is Brexit and the fact that it fundamentally alters the constitutional reality of the UK, but make no mistake, if the second referendum fails, there will be no third opportunity for at least a generation. There could be no reasonable argument for it. In this context, being smart and effective is even more important. For many people, maybe for all of us, it will be their last chance to see independence. We can’t risk the movement being undermined by the campaign turning on itself over things like trans rights or arm-chair political tactics.

Independence is close, but we only have one more shot. Those campaigning, and those running the campaigning, need to think seriously about these barriers that are staring us in the face, and address them positively and clearly if we don’t want to cost ourselves our independence.

The Myth of Meritocracy in (Most) Sport

Headstart

Image credit: kentoh

Nearly eight years ago, I wrote an article for The Oyster’s Earrings about the seeding system used for qualification to international football tournaments. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but suffice to say, I still stand by them, and now I would like to expand on them to claim that most sports don’t live up to their pretense of meritocracy.

In a nutshell, the argument of the first article was that qualification was seeded in such a way that favours teams which are established powers to qualify without much of a challenge while giving lower-ranking teams, necessarily, a harder route to tournaments. After watching the Women’s World Cup this year, I realised that this trend extended to the tournament finals of competitions too, and as soon as I understood that, it became clear that favouritism towards favourites is pervasive throughout sport as a whole, so the idea will be discussed more generally here.

It is important, though, to first make a quick distinction. Meritocracy in sport, as I will be describing it here, is almost exclusively determined by the formats and structures of sporting competitions; it has absolutely nothing to do with ‘fair play’. As my recent article about VAR will hopefully have made clear, sport is a reflection of life – it shouldn’t always be clean or proper, and indeed, some of the most legendary and important sporting figures to have ever graced us have been known known to bend the rules. Rules exist, but they also exist to be tested, toyed with, and occasionally subverted. Everyone has the equal ability to cheat or even get away with unintentional infractions. When the structures of a competition favour some competitors over other though, the equality of opportunity is undermined.

Progressing first from the original article and extending the arguments about seeding, I will discuss how seeding affects tournaments in football and American football especially, as they are the sports I am most familiar with. Keeping first with football knockout tournaments, after the competitors have been engineered through qualifying, the process continues, with higher seeded teams being provided with a golden path to – roughly – the finishing place their seeding dictates for them. Thinking of international tournaments; during the group stages teams are shared out between groups in a tiered way so that each group has a top seed, second seed, third seed and fourth seed. Initially, this may seem fair – like an even spread of talent in the process, but what it really creates is a situation where the six or eight top seeds necessarily only face competition ranked below them in order to progress. Similarly, the second ranked teams, while possibly struggling against the top seeds, will only have to best the two lower-ranked teams to progress, and the lower ranked teams will always have to beat at least two higher ranked teams. Now of course it is natural that not all teams can be matched evenly in group stages, and indeed, they shouldn’t be, but the regimented seeding means that the favouritism is part of the system – there is no prospect of a top seed being challenged by another top seed at this stage, and there is no chance of a lower seed getting an easier draw against other lower seeded teams.

FIFA draw

Seeding at the World Cup cracks open the door to progression for some teams before a ball has ever been kicked. Credit: FIFA

Progressing along to the knockout stages with the (usually) higher seeded teams, the seeding system continues to do it’s work to preserve the progress of the higher seeded teams. While it is an inexact science, at the knockout stages of major international tournaments, the hierarchy is reset, with the teams who finish top of their groups being pitted against second place (or even sometimes third place) teams in the knockout stages. After this first round of knockout rounds, the route to the final is set, but the group stages and first knockout round are unabashedly ways to engineer highly-ranked teams as far as possible. It is only by the quarter finals that the safeguards are removed for a top team to face a similarly-skilled team. The system over-favours highly ranked teams and creates extra barriers for lower-ranked teams to progress.

This phenomenon is only worse in another sport which is otherwise based on some fair and democratic principles: American Football. While concepts like the salary cap and the weighted draft attempt to make American football a meritocracy, there are two elements of the structure of the game which undermine this, including seeded tournaments. While at the World Cup the bias only affects the opening round, in the NFL playoffs, it affects every round until the Superbowl, pitting the highest seeds against the lowest and also guaranteeing them home-field advantage. This resets every round, with the highest ranking remaining team taking on the lowest ranking remaining team and the highest ranking team having the advantage of playing at home; an advantage which is even more pronounced in American football.

So in both cases, international football tournaments and the NFL playoffs, the highest seeded teams are provided with match-ups that necessarily favour them, and this is guaranteed philosophically by the structure of the competition. So why does that happen? I think there are two general justifications: the first is that teams earn their privilege with their success. This seems to make sense and even might suggest a kind of meritocracy; it is certainly a very basic accepted practice in the NFL, but why is it just accepted as the right way to do things? Why should past successes guarantee you an easier ride later on?

The argument I have heard with regards to the World Cup both in terms of the qualifying stages and also in terms of the group stage seeding, and the separation of top-rated teams, is that fans ‘want to see the best teams playing’. That is true of course, but if the identity of the ‘best teams’ has already been decided based on seedings and they are provided systematically with weaker opponents to encourage their progression, then what is the point of the competition at all? Why not just go straight to the final every four years between the top two ranked teams (with the #1 team playing at home)? The fact is, which teams fans want to see at tournaments is irrelevant; all that matters is that the ultimate victory is earned from an equal footing.

Home Field Chiefs

Arrowhead Stadium, a stadium which can produce a noise roughly as loud as standing next to a jet engine on an aircraft carrier. In the NFL especially, home field advantage is a tangiable advantage. Credit:  Sportsonearth.com

In the NFL, I presume a major reason for this is to incentivise competitive games once teams have sealed a playoff birth. Indeed, as the regular season nears it’s end, many of the clashes shift from being clashes to progress to the post-season, to battles for ‘Home Field advantages’ or ‘first round byes’. In the NFL, I don’t know if there is a way to fix this short of reducing the playoff spots from 12 to 8 and going straight to a divisional round. With fewer playoff spots available, competition for them would be greater for longer in to the season. There would also be the added bonus of further increasing the prestige of playoff berths. The first round bye would also be abolished – the tournament should be the same length for all teams anyway if the contest is to be equal.

Taking all of this in to account, I think all tournament sports need should use the FA Cup draw model. If you progress past a round, you enter the same pot as everyone in the draw for the next round; top teams might face lower ranked teams, but they could equally face teams of similar stature. Regardless, no team will receive an easy ride in the tournament, systematically, because of their standing.

Meanwhile, there is another merit-based problem with the NFL which is difficult to fix, and that is the differing strengths of each team’s schedule. Each year, each division group of teams face a different collection of teams to every other division group. This is because the game is so physically draining and damaging that the season is restricted to 16 regular season games meaning that the 32 teams can’t all play each other as a matter of course. One of the many statistics measured in the game is Strength of Schedule, and the fact that it is so widely acknowledged as a factor in results goes to show the obvious problem with regards to meritocracy. A regular season (aka league, or round robin), is perhaps the purest test of each team or competitors merits, but they only work when each team plays each team the same amount of times. If a team can, in the case of the NFL, make the playoffs because they have played less skillful teams than others, then their success isn’t purely based on merit. There is no alternative but to extend the regular season to either 31 games (if each team plays each team in a pure round robin), or 34 games (if, honouring the divisional system, each team plays every other team once except for divisional rivals, who they would play twice). While there is speculation that the NFL could extend the season to 18 games, due to the physical toll mentioned earlier, the season will never be extended to 31 or 34 games. I understand that, but it means that the NFL will never truly be a meritocracy either.

The league system in football does this effectively, in comparison, though I would be loathe to ignore how money tilts the tables in certain teams favour in club football. Yes every team technically has the same opportunity, but with individual club spending only having the mere appearance of regulation, the teams which can spend the most, have an obvious head-start on their competition before a ball if kicked. Some sort of spending and/or salary cap is necessary to overcome this and while I think any possibility of this is miniscule, the recent phenomena of rich clubs carrying albatross players on wages very few clubs can afford, such as Gareth Bale at Real Madrid, and then struggling to offload them due to their un-affordability, may have some effect eventually. Any reform would have to be abided to internationally though, so as to not allow pockets of super clubs in countries that don’t follow them. As I say, there is a really minuscule chance of this ever happening.

As mentioned at the start of this article, I have discussed the two sports I watch and enjoy the most, but I would like to go over some other sports which have an issue with meritocracy, and then some perhaps surprising sports which do not. A lightning round of sorts:

Athletics: A mixed bag in some ways, as some sports within athletics are a meritocracy, but partly based on this former post, I will mention some of their running events, swimming, and certain artistic events. In the sprinting races, and in swimming, the athletes have the same distance to race, but there is an acknowledged advantage to central lanes. Placement in these lanes are determined by achievement in qualifying rounds. This should be randomised as again, it gives the strongest runners a further advantage for no other reason than that’s the way it is. Even quicker, as much of an admirer as I am of the artistic sports, as soon as the result is based on the opinion of someone other than the athlete, the idea of a meritocracy is somewhat undermined. This can be referred to as ‘Performance Judgement’.

Basketball: Seeded playoffs and the strength of schedule issue.

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The exhaustive map of nations not who competed at the cricket world cup, but of the teams who attempted to qualify. Credit: Wikipedia

Cricket: International cricket has an issue that many lesser sports have at international level, and that’s that, frankly, not many countries play the sport widely. The Cricket World Cup, for example, comprises of only 10 teams – a reduced number from previous competitions – and of those 10 teams, even fever have any chance of really competing. In fact, only six nations have ever won the competition. I would refer to this issue as ‘lack of competition.’ When there is such a small pool of competitive teams, it may not directly affect the meritocracy of the game, but it certainly undermines it. Sticking with the World Cup, because of the small pool of serious teams, many teams are given a qualification bye anyway, with only two nations actually having to qualify, providing them with something of a de facto ‘wild card’ status. Yes these teams are chosen based on ranking, but as explained in the oft-mentioned article about seeding, this is an imprecise method which can be influenced by each team’s strength of schedule and which can often become a self-fulfilling exercise. To have a qualification process where 80% of the spots are allocated by seeding anyway, makes a mockery of the process itself. There are only a very small number of nations who are competitive, and their participation is pre-ordained. There is no prospect of these ordained nations facing an upset or of smaller nations overcoming them to even make the tournament, let alone at the tournament.

Moving to Test Cricket – a previous bug bear of mine was how international test cricket had no endgame. Countries would play ‘tests’ against other countries without it ever leading to anything. Yes, ultimately, the world rankings were at stake, but it meant most tests had very little at stake. They were essentially ‘friendly’ games played because otherwise there would be no test cricket. To be fair to the sport, they are now, after a couple of false starts, trying a test cricket World Cup. If it works, it should be a giant step for the sport and a truly unique experience given how long test cricket takes and that the tournament would run over multiple years. In that way it will be unique. Saying that, the proposed tournament suffers from several issues – namely ‘lack of competition’ with only nine competing nations, and ‘strength of schedule’ issues, as the teams will not play each other in a pure round robin, but will play different sets of teams. As the final will consist of the two best performing teams in the round robin, strength of schedule will play an even more fundamental role.

Cycling: I’m going to focus on the Tour de France here, and only briefly because cycling is so utterly dull to me that I can’t even be bothered to read in to it beyond a basic structural level. Here’s what I do know about Tour de France. It comprises of teams of riders who have different levels of funding/sponsorship. From that point of view, the playing field (track) is already uneven. However, it is the ‘team’ aspect which has never resonated with me. If it was truly treated as a team sport, which is what it is, that would be better, but instead, the winners and competitors are treated as individuals, despite each being supported by team mates. If the individual’s performance is reliant on both funding and especially the contributions of others, then the idea that the winner has achieved an individual title on their own merit is severely undermined. It is like France having won the 2018 football World Cup only for Mbappe, for example, to go and collect the trophy alone. A spending cap and a philosophical shift to treating teams as the winners rather than individuals would help here. You could still have ‘star’ riders and give them whatever jersey you wanted, but they wouldn’t claim the glory themselves.

Formula 1: F1 is a sport I used to enjoy immensely. I actually still enjoy it in small doses, though I am not even sure of it’s designation, strictly speaking, as a ‘sport’ – that’s a discussion for another time though. The problem F1 has in terms of meritocracy is an obvious one – a supercharged version of some of what cycling faces, and that is that the driver’s performance is strongly dependent on their equipment, i.e., their car. While there is a great deal of driver influence over the race (overtaking skill, judgement, bravery, fitness), the fact remains that the speed and handling of the cars are something completely independent of the driver. In most cases, whoever drives the best-performing cars will be in contention for success. Of course Lewis Hamilton in a slower car would perform better than a more average driver in the same car, but he would not be winning multiple World Championships with ease. I would refer to this issue as ‘equipment inequality’.

Eton Rugby

The majority of professional Rugby Union players in the UK come from a private school background, reducing the field of competitors based on social standing. Credit: Eton Rugby

Rugby: Rugby suffers from some of the issues of meritocracy that other sports do, as well as a more unique one which is perhaps more emblematic of wider social inequalities.  Starting with international Rugby Union, it mirrors closely it’s football counterpart, with a seeded ‘pools’ stage and a knockout bracket which starts with pool winners playing pool runners up, but also has cricket’s issue of ‘limited competition’ which football doesn’t have because, like cricket, Rugby isn’t played that widely internationally. Domestic Rugby Union (The Premiership) has a pure round robin for it’s regular season, but the post season then gives Home Field advantage to the two top qualifying teams and seeds the very top team against the 4th ranked team (of four). In such a small bracket, the seeding is less damaging, but it is still an un-necessary advantage to the top two teams.

Perhaps the most pervasive issue with Rugby Union though is the fact that it’s players, at least in the UK, have backgrounds significantly skewed towards privilege. Though it is played in some secondary schools, it is played far more commonly, and seriously, at private schools, and the vast majority of people who go on to play professionally are from that background. What does this mean for meritocracy? I’m not totally sure myself. On the one hand, if fewer working class people play Rugby, it isn’t the fault of the sport and it’s structures; but at the same time, if exposure to the sport comes primarily through school, and it is only really encouraged at private schools, then there would also seem to be an issue with what might even be an unintentional form of social engineering of the sport. Far more people attend state school rather than primary school, so the prevalence of privately educated players in the sport speaks to barriers for working class people to participation. If that is the case, as it seems, then those playing professionally are doing so in a much diminished pool of competitors, which arguably affects claims to meritocracy in the sport. This could be referred to as ‘Participation Elitism’.

Rugby League, the close relative of Rugby Union, avoids Participation Elitism as it only has a minority of privately educated players, more in line with the demographics of society. Indeed, it is seen, rightly as the more working class sport of the two. That said, it still shares issues of meritocracy with Union. Rugby League’s ‘Superleague’ has a fairly askew version of a round robin where a full round robin takes place, plus some extra fixtures, which disrupt the whole concept. There is then a seeded playoff where the top team gets a bye followed by a nonsense bracket where teams can advance even after losing games, again, if they started with a higher seeding. This is maybe the most egregious form of giving higher ranked teams an easier run to success than I have seen anywhere else. As for their World Cup, many teams qualify just by virtue of reaching the quarter finals of the previous tournament, which is a sheer nonsense that only gives credence to the ‘lack of competition’ issue that both kinds of Rugby have.

I am only ever in favour of automatic qualification for Hosts and defending champions. I believe champions should always have the opportunity to defend their crown, and I believe competitions are greatly enhanced by the participation of Host teams. Yes, that provides a meritocracy issue as only certain countries have the money and infrastructure to host a major competition (though some of them will crush their own people to attain it), but I believe there is an exception for this due to how positively it affects the competition.

Tennis: Tennis has a characteristic which usually makes a sport more of a meritocracy, and that is that it is most commonly, and pretentiously, played as a single person sport, meaning that a single player is ultimately in control of their own destiny in the game. I will discuss this idea in more depth in relation to other sports though, as seeding once again undermines the meritocracy. In tennis’ ‘Grand Slam’ championships, the seeding is arguably used even more bluntly, with not only seeds 3-32 guaranteed early round matches against non-seeded qualifiers or wild cards, but seeds 1 and 2 deliberately placed at other sides of the draw so they could only play in the final. This final part is especially egregious. As suggested earlier, tournament organisers only do this because they believe these players deserve to play in the final. They have pre-determined, in fact, what the final should be, and attempt to engineer it. This may go some way to explaining why Grand Slam finals are so frequently repetitive match-ups between a handful of famous (and of course talented) names. It is an open question whether the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Serena Williams, etc. would have won quite so many titles, as skilled as they are, had they been given an even draw with the rest of the competitors for each competition and maybe faced a tougher road to their respective titles.

Tennis, unfortunately, is also an even more transparent example of a sport affected by ‘Participation Elitism’. In rugby, it seems like a general trend, but in tennis, there are tangible reasons as to why tennis is an easier pursuit for wealthy people. From the costs of tennis club membership, to multiple racquets and other equipment and clothing, lack of free coaching or playing opportunities, and finally, historically, a tendency to be more inviting to white, heterosexual men, it is a sport which naturally excludes large swathes of the population and therefor ensures a greatly diminished field of potential players to compete with. While it isn’t impossible for poor people to overcome such barriers, it is difficult, and when certain classes of people are more able to play consistently due to their privileges, there is a significant diminishing of meritocracy.

Speaking generally of sports which fail to present a true meritocracy, what is clear is that there is a cultural, encouraged culture of giving competitors blessed with skill, reputation, or social status a extra advantage via various means, intentionally or not. Top competitors are provided with a golden path to success, going through the motions of competition until they reach later stages. To so many, this is the righteous way to construct tournaments, but I again ask, if these competitors are so deserving, why do they have to duck the stronger competition? If they are deserving, they will overcome the same barriers as everyone else on their way to success.

Weigh In

Badou Jack and Marcus Browne weigh in for a big fight. Their success if purely down to themselves. Credit: Boxingscene.com

Moving now to the disappointingly shorter list of sports being considered here which represent a meritocracy, at least for the most part …

Professional Combat Sports: Specifically referring to Boxing and MMA here, without offering a moral justification for them, brutal as they are, they are at least meritocracies. It’s a simple premise really – individuals train and hone their craft and fight another individual with the best one winning the contest. Champions are largely challenged by strongly-performing challengers, and though this process can be disrupted by ‘box office’ considerations, the champion still has to defeat challengers on an equal footing.

There is a parallel to ‘performance judgement’ here though in that contests are sometimes decided by judges scores when there is not a knockout or retirement, and this can be controversial. What differs to artistic sports though is that in combat sports, this process is a fail-safe to ensure a winner when the competitors can’t overcome the other, whereas in artistic sports, the judgement system is the only system of awarding victories.

Golf: It is important to note that golf has parallel issues to tennis in terms of elitism. Access to courses can be limited for less wealthy people (and for other marginalised people), and the requirement to buy and maintain equipment can be financially burdensome. With this in mind, I would not refer to golf as a perfect meritocracy, but where it differs from tennis, is that once it is being played, the playing field is completely even. It has an advantage of meritocracy that I would describe as ‘playing with your own ball’, meaning that the individual player is solely responsible for their own performance. Indeed in golf, the player is usually playing the course as opposed to the other competitors (with the possible exception of matchplay golf). Everyone plays the same course the same amount of times – it is a perfect, almost literal, testing ground to determine who has played the best golf over the given time.

It is also true that some competitors receive automatic entry to Golf’s ‘majors’ but the context is different to the team sports where such inclusions undermine meritocracy. For the competitions where this has been described as a problem in this article, a qualification process is possible where teams can play and overcome each other, but as discussed, golf players are simply striving for personal success and don’t really compete with others. While highly ranked or seeded teams in sports like cricket, for example, could prove their worth in a qualification process but are simply allowed to by-pass it, in golf, the only real way to measure relative ability is by rankings.

There are, of course, other sports that could be described as meritocracies, but sticking to my arbitrary list of sports to be analysed, these are the only sports that truly qualify, and even then, there are some asterisks next to both (just not significant enough to significantly undermine their status as meritocracies).

The fact is that (most) sports seem to fail at providing a true version of what sport, at it’s most fundamental, purports to offer – competition from which the objective best competitor is determined. Further, the existing prevalence of governing bodies and pundits alike to favour structures which give an extra procedural leg-up to the strongest competitors is a troubling parallel of the privilege enjoyed by so many in the free market economy. It’s the cliche of wealthy people rarely having to spend their own money while the poor are expected to pull themselves up by the boot-straps. Indeed, the idea that sport, like society, is a pure meritocracy when those with already existing advantages are given extra advantages and then lauded for their resulting successes, is a nonsense.

Corporate Social Irresponsibility: Models of Ethical Whitewashing and Stolen Valor

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WWE Superstars posing with Nestlé products and employees to publicise the new partnership between the two corporations. Credit: Nestlé

As someone who has worked the majority of his life in the charity sector, I have both been encouraged to work with the Private Sector, and have always watched with interest how many businesses exploit their relationships with charities to shirk their ethical responsibilities or mask their otherwise questionable activities.  Everyone has different ethical standards and personal missions, but for me, the strongest one has always been against the Nestlé corporation. It is Nestlé who, again, have got my blood boiling, and whose new charitable partnership with WWE called the ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’ was the final catalyst for an article which has been stewing for some time.

In a now infamous tweet from 2015, WWE’s Chief Brand Officer, Stephanie McMahon admiringly quoted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone from an interview with WWE’s Michael Cole in which he said ‘Philanthropy is the future of marketing, it’s the way brands are going to win.’ This of course laid bare the rationale for any charitable work WWE engages in, and it engages in a lot. Now it’s important not to be so over-zealous in your in your analysis of these activities that you denounce meaningful charity work like Make-a-Wish, which all of the wrestlers seem to enjoy, or even the positive elements of the shadier partnerships they are involved with, but knowing that WWE’s charity work is a branding decision as opposed to a moral one certainly puts it in a different light. Of course, this strategy of Corporate Social Responsibility is by no means unique to WWE, and is indeed the norm for big corporations, but as WWE is a brand I have dedicated a lot of time to, and is one which is now engaging in unconscionable practices, they will be the focus for the most part here.

In retrospect, while I have been snide about many of WWE’s corporate practices in the past, it is only now – far too late – that I have started to be appropriately disturbed by them. They have always been bad, but between emerging partnerships and announcements regarding them seemingly snowballing recently, they are now verging on cartoon baddie status.

Tackling cancer is obviously a very worthwhile cause, but where good causes are, there will always be some unscrupulous people willing to profit from a cottage industry, and in charity terms, unfortunately, ‘cancer awareness’ has become the most bloated cottage industry going with Susan G. Komen being a poster-child of the worst of it. ‘Komen’ have been accused of about every bad thing a charity can be accused of, from marketing products and policies which are linked with causing cancer, to backing industries they receive donations from, to ‘Pinkwashing’ – focusing more on selling merchandise than actually trying to cure cancer, while keeping much of the profits for themselves. Despite this, possibly because more respectable charities won’t go near wrasslin’, WWE chose to partner with Komen to get skin in the charity awareness game, promote the charity, and enable them to do more damage. The best you can say for WWE is that they were ignorant of the dark side of Komen, didn’t care to consider it, and went ahead as a business decision, not caring about the ethics of it.

I have written extensively about my cynicism regarding the merits of the armed forces, and my nausea with celebrating them too much. That said, I understand that it is natural and sincere for many people to want to celebrate them, that there isn’t anything terrible about corporations like WWE doing so, and that often it is the troops that are the real victims of the military-inductrial complex. What is terrible, however, is the money which changes hands when corporations celebrate the military, and the fealty that is required in return. WWE is by no means alone in this; the NFL is just as bad if not worse, taking vast sums of taxpayer money to promote the US military. While veterans are spat out of the military to lives of PTSD, financial struggles, and problems to re-integrate in to life without the military once they have served their purpose, the military has an insatiable appetite for recruits. The US military is desperate for bodies, and it drives them to recruit youngsters, play to false notions of patriotism, and use the platforms of major corporations to spread propaganda for them. So corporations like the NFL and WWE promote the importance of the military, the apparent ‘freedom’ they secure, and also programmes like Hire Heroes, which helps gets veterans in to work. Again, I won’t pretend that Hire Heroes is a bad thing, but what it is, is a shoddy clean-up effort, a tacit admission of guilt and of the problem at hand, and a solution that amounts to a drop in the ocean that they hope will absolve them in the public eye. It’s the equivalent of burning someone’s house down, buying them a sleeping bag, and expecting a thanks. What makes support of these military-linked charity partnerships so uncomfortable is the blatancy of the quid pro quo. The military pay corporations like WWE to promote them and absolve them of their sins.

This theme is repeated with WWE’s new Nestlé partnership.

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WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and COO Triple H posing with Saudi despot Mohammed Bin Salman. Credit: Forbes

But before I get to that, there is another WWE business decision which doesn’t really count as corportate social responsibility, but has thematic links, and that’s the elephant in the room: WWE’s ongoing contract with the Saudi Arabian royal family. There are much better explanations of the crimes of Mohammed Bin Salman and the Saudi monarchy elsewhere, but in short, the ruthless evil of a state which is bombing and starving their poorer Yemeni neighbours and brutally murders critical journalists is an evil which is impossible to defend. What Saudi Arabia would like to do, however, is have you forget about it, and they have some ideas for how to do that. One is to pay WWE outlandish amounts of money to put on a series of stadium-sized house shows there to contribute to a cultural whitewashing of the oppressive state and to add a (thin) veil of cultural progressivism to the rulers there. There’s talk of letting the women wrestle over there in the name of ‘progress’, but that hasn’t materialised yet, and increasingly, this seems a hollow carrot dangled above the WWE superstars who make the trips there to make the whole thing seem less greasy. That said, there are some superstars – Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and more, who are conscientiously objecting, but it should be many more. WWE are so ashamed of what they are doing that they don’t even refer to the country the shows are in when they promote their broadcasts on the WWE Network, and they should be ashamed. Unfortunately, they are not ashamed enough to hand back the cash. Again, their partnership is a straight exchange of money for good PR, but there isn’t even any hint of charitable activity this time.

When WWE entered in to this disgusting arrangement, that should have been enough for me to stop watching, but to my shame, it wasn’t. It has taken until now for me to speak out (for what that’s worth), but when I saw that WWE were entering in to a PR clean up campaign with Nestlé, that was the equivalent of a punch in the stomach to me. To be extremely clear: Nestlé are evil. Nestlé has caused the death and hardship of millions. Nestle is everything that is wrong with corporations. It is a company which owns and operates a huge amount of brands to engage with, from foods, to hygiene products, and are very hard to avoid consuming, but I have been trying my best to for years now after learning about their practices. Again, many more have written better and in more depth than I will, but if you can think of any unethical corporate practice, Nestlé have done it with incredulity. Most famously, their promotion of their baby milk formulas in developing countries where poor sanitation made the process lethal to many babies, and their bribing of doctors there to push their products on mothers is perhaps their most infamous scandal, killing as it did, babies. That is just the tip of the iceberg though, and again, please seek out detail in more depth, but Nestlé have also practiced child labour and trafficking in their chocolate production in the Ivory Coast; systemic pollution; forcing famine-stricken Ethiopia to pay them a ‘debt’ of $6 million; promoting mis-labeled products as ‘healthy’ when they are not; and of course, good old fashioned price fixing and tax avoidance. What led us here though is another of their major scandals: their bottled water business practices.

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Credit: Rachael Romero and the Inkworks Press Archive

There are so many rotten layers to this it is almost hard to follow. Two days ago, WWE announced they were ‘teaming up’ with Nestlé for their ‘Nestlé Waters Challenge’, a ‘campaign’ which aims to get people to choose healthy options and choose water. Fair enough. But wait, Nestlé are the ones selling you water. In fact for them it’s a multi-billion dollar business. And wait, not only are Nestlé selling you the water, but more accurately, they are selling you back water which they have effectively stolen from the public. The Nestlé water business model is a simple one: they pay next to nothing to monopolise what should be public water with the promise of jobs and economic benefits in return (but which rarely materialise), and then sell the public back their own water in a Nestlé branded bottle. They have outwardly said that they don’t believe access to water is a human right, and they practice what they preach, repeating this model in whatever vulnerable communities they can find with water springs. They do it all over the world: in Nigeria, in Pakistan, and in Michigan. In Michigan, the state where Flint is and which hasn’t had safe drinking water in years, Nestlé hog the only safe water around, and sell it to the desperate residents. In this context, Nestlé encouraging you to ‘choose water’ is transparently disgusting, and WWE providing a friendly platform for them to do so, is equally as bad.

Again, WWE is helping whitewash the crimes of an rotten organisation, helping characterise Nestlé as the friendly corporation which wants the best for you and your health while they steal your water behind your back. WWE are again, for money and exposure, aiding and abetting Nestlé’s evil, and are again using a charitable promotion as the very thinly veiled vehicle to do so.

I may write soon about my current hiatus from watching wrestling, but this relationship with Nestlé may make my hiatus permanent, at least for WWE.

The idea for this article has been bouncing around in my head for some time now and from a slightly different angle from the arguments above, so I will move away from the WWE microcosm of the problem now to talk about some other phenomena.

As discussed earlier, a big driver for corporations to do charitable work is pure PR, which is really a form of marketing themselves as a kind company who you should want to give your hard-earned money to. ‘Pinkwashing’ was discussed earlier, but perhaps the cause which has become most linked with this, to the point of parody, is LGBT Pride. Pretty much every organisation, and every product going, displays the rainbow during Pride month. There are positives to this of course. Seeing people engage with that throughout the month helps remove stigma and make people feel more accepted, or more able to be themselves, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. It is important though that you don’t mistake the gestures of brands as friendliness. If there was no money in it, far fewer would bother to do it. Selling a pride version of your product is still selling your product, and the financial benefits of this are inconsistent at best. If a company says they will give a certain proportion of profits to an LGBT charity, they still take a share, and even if they give all profits charity (which is a rarity), it’s a tax write off for them which gets you in their place of business. In the grand scheme of things, this is not the most egregious form of corporate social responsibility, but it is nevertheless to be wary of, and audited when you consider engaging.

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A positive action, but also an infamous example of what might be considered ‘Pridewashing’. Credit: Pinknews

There is another element to this kind of corporate social responsibility, where companies sell a product and donate some of their takings, and it’s that it’s not really them donating the money, is it? At best, they are curating your donation. They decide who that money goes to, not you, and what’s worse, they get the credit and good PR for their ‘donation’, not you, the customer. This is what I mean by the slightly tongue-in-cheek use of the term ‘stolen valour’ – that the power and presence of large corporations allow for them to undertake seemingly charitable endeavours, profit from it, and take the credit for the money flowing from their customers with them as a middle man. Think of whenever you go in to a McDonalds or a KFC. There are always little boxes for your change that goes towards their charitable foundations. Aside from the same old story of fast food companies ‘investing’ in healthy food programmes by way of apology for serving addictive and unhealthy food to children, those customer donations go some way towards funding their charitable endeavours. Now i’m not naive enough to think that the change from your Big Mac alone funds these causes, but it certainly subsidizes them. Now again, the work of the Ronald McDonald house, for example, is good and valuable, but they are there with your support, while McDonald’s gets to pat themselves on the back and get forgiven for their promotion of unhealthy foods.

There has also been another recent trend within Corporate Social Responsibility which is even more transparent as sheer marketing – the ‘engage to be good’ model, if you will. I first saw this with an infamous charity tweet (though not so infamous that I can properly remember it or find it online) along the lines of ‘1 like = 1 meal for a hungry child’. While donating a meal for such little effort seems like a nice gesture, the tone of the tweet betrayed the intent – i.e. you were being held hostage, and the company will only give the hungry kid a meal if you engage with them. It was roundly lambasted at the time, but amazingly, not enough to kill the trend. Just last week, the makers of the film Aladdin started a twitter campaign whereby Disney would donate $5 for every public post including the hashtag #FriendLikeMe. Cool right? Yeah, except #FriendLikeMe refers to a song in Aladdin and is accompanied by a custom emoji of Aladdin whenever posted. Twitter users were literally being asked to help promote the film in return for a donation to Make-a-Wish. Disney would in fact only make the donation if  you first promoted their film. Now of course, there will be benefits as a result of this campaign, but we mustn’t treat this as a selfless act. It is blatant emotional manipulation for profit, and unfortunately, it is a trend that we are just used to now.

So why does this matter? In cases like #FriendLikeMe, maybe it doesn’t matter all that much – its the least we can expect from corporations; that every good deed comes with a price, but that it doesn’t really harm anyone. Even if that’s true, I think it’s important to be cognizant of it – be aware of what your engagement with these campaigns do and consider if you really support it. Always remember, as well, that it would be far more effective to just tax these corporations effectively and let the state decide where their money goes, rather than corporations doing a small amount themselves instead and getting a tax write-off for it. In cases like the WWE and their legitimising of Nestlé though, there should be no forgiveness. The top brass of these companies don’t care, but especially in WWE’s case, they have high profile faces that they link to these campaigns, and they might. I think it’s important to let them know the implications of what they are lending their faces to and if they still want to do it. Also, frankly, if you are boycotting Nestlé, it may be time to extend that to it’s partners, like WWE. I’m lucky in that I was already on a self-imposed hiatus, rather than a boycott, but when that hiatus is up, a difficult decision will have to be made. I don’t believe I will ever pay for their Network again though, at least while they are in league with Nestlé.

From the point of view of someone who works for a small charity, I would suggest the following. Firstly, investigate what the corporation is trying to achieve in their charity work – it won’t always be something ethical. Secondly, if you want to support a cause via a corporate campaign, at least look in to where the money is going – it won’t always be to an appropriate place, even if it’s masquerading as a charity. Thirdly, related to that, if you want to support a cause – research it, and choose who you want to support directly – you don’t need a corporation as a middle man, taking a cut for themselves and choosing for you. Finally, and perhaps with some bias – small charities are facing a tough time now, and are always reliant on income. While larger charities do fantastic work, they don’t always need your donation as much as your local, hard-working, coal-face organisation does. Find out what small charities are around you, and if there is one you like, consider offering them your support instead. They will likely never have the pull to benefit significantly from corporate input, but you can always help.

Game of Thrones and A Song of Toxic Headcanon and Hyper-reaction

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Far from being a fable of heroes or villains, the finale ‘The Iron Throne’ showed what Game of Thrones has always shown – that our leaders are kinda disappointing. We shouldn’t have expected anything else. Credit: HBO

I started thinking about this article between episodes 5 and 6 of the final season of Game of Thrones, and am finishing it after the season finale. Game of Thrones won’t be the only TV show I discuss here, but it will be the main one, and is the one that best exemplifies the phenomena I will be discussing: ‘headcanon’ and hyper-reaction from fans and critics. So for the purpose of clarity, ‘headcanon’ is a term I have seen used to mean fan’s individual understanding of the show they like, and also their view of how it will, or should, end; and by ‘hyper-reaction’ I mean the largely online culture of criticism that is based around a cycle of microscopic viewing, reviewing, previewing, and theorising which manages to be fairly simplistic despite the detail they go in to. It is this recipe of influences which can be so toxic, and which we have seen recently with Game of Thrones.

I do not enjoy fantasy really. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but magical realms of elves and demons and what-have-you has never appealed to me. I think it is because I always enjoy human stories the most and fantasy seems a bit removed from that. Game of Thrones, however, has been a mighty big exception. This show featuring magic, various gods, dragons, and resurrection became one of my favourites ever as soon as Ned Stark’s head left his body. By this time, the reality that this was really a story of personal and political intrigue first, was clear, and the fact that it’s rich setting included such fantasy elements was no longer an issue for me. This slow introduction of fantasy elements is part of what has made the show such a smash hit. Perhaps if the dragons and magic were prominent from the off, I would have been less enamoured, but surely, these elements were introduced as a crucial part of the universe – more pieces on the ever-developing chess board. It was clear that expectations, as well as sentiment, could be thrown away. The game would play out as it would, not as fans expected.

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Ned’s beheading is cited by many as a quintessential Game of Thrones moment that set the scene for the rest of the show. Credit: HBO

I started watching Season 1 in early 2017, between Seasons 6 and 7 and made my way through the show fairly (and increasingly) quickly, until I caught up with the show and everyone else for Season 7. I have therefore consumed the show both as a binge-watcher, and now as an episodic watcher, and these two experiences are different in many ways. Of course watching multiple episodes back to back leaves you with a different experience to waiting a week between episodes, but one specific way I will primarily write about is the ‘quiet time’ between watching episodic shows, the time where all you have is the speculation of yourself and others. A lot has also changed from 2011 to now from the show being a cult hit and there being less of a review/’deep dive’ culture online to now when the show is perhaps the most popular show of all time with countless fans ready to make as many reaction videos, blogs, and tweets about it as possible, either out of love, or good business sense given the traffic the show inevitably brings.

Fandom has never been so intimate, and the intimacy comes in cycles. Unfortunately, the cycle itself and the online output it encourages is almost exclusively harmful to enjoyment of the show.

I am as culpable and vulnerable to it as anyone else. Here is my unofficial Game of Thrones schedule for this season:

1) Watch Episode > 2) Tweet reactions > 3) Listen to multiple reviews of episode > 4) Listen to multiple previews of the next episode > 5) Watch next episode > 6) Repeat.

Mix in to all of this conjecture, predictions, and discussions with others about the overall narrative journey of the show, and thoughts about how it will end, and it becomes all consuming. It becomes something almost apart from the show. This seems to be the case for many people too. People have their own individual view of both how they would like the show to behave and end, of how individual characters should behave and end their story, and how the show and characters will behave and end. This is all independent of the episodes already in the can and waiting to be televised. Viewers are obsessed with all facets of the show, and, like Littlefinger himself, imagined multiple different directions for the show at different times – some they like, and some they don’t. This is what is meant by ‘headcanon’: an imagined version of the show that exists only in the fans mind (and hopes). There is a degree of personal and even emotional investment involved with headcanon. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of creating several characters we care about or are interested in, that we think we understand and can predict, but this creates expectations for fans that the show cannot possibly cater to singularly.

Most Game of Thrones characters are, and are celebrated as, morally complicated and hard to predict, but in a culture where predictions are prevalent, people will still do it. They perhaps want to believe they understand the show closely, and even know how it should, and will, end. So when it doesn’t happen in a way they like, something feels amiss, or even missing. I’m perhaps playing pop-psychologist a bit here, but they may even feel their fandom is invalidated. This is where people get defensive, and where at least part of the problem lies.

Let’s take a couple of examples which are being talked about a lot currently:

1) Daenerys becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys has had an interesting character journey, from abused sister to powerful Queen in waiting, the ‘Breaker of Chains’, to now, where she has become a murderous tyrant. Criticism has been multiple and emotional, claiming that her turn to ‘mad queen’ has come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the rest of her ‘arc’* given how much she spoke of breaking chains and wheels of power. It is certainly a disappointment if you admired her, that much is certain, but what it isn’t is unexpected or unearned**. If you view Dany in broad strokes, then yes, the progression seems nonsensical. But remember, the characters in this show all show what George RR Martin calls ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ – they are morally complex, and situationally torn characters, and as such, can be powerfully human, even in their inhumanity. Look at Daenerys in more detail, and it is clear that violence and strength are always tools near to her. She has incinerated multiple people who she believes has done wrong or got in between her and the Iron Throne, she talks of burning cities to the ground and using ‘fire and blood’, has crucified scores of people, and her advisors are there explicitly to try to curb what are the more vengeful and violent aspects of her Targaryen bloodline. Throughout the eight seasons, it has been made explicit that as much as Daenerys may speak in purple poetry about being a liberator, her primary ambition is the throne, and the possibility of her using violence has always been just below the surface. My personal reading of her is that when she was conquering lands away from Westeros with relative ease, and was receiving the love of the people, she was happy to imagine herself the revolutionary, and maybe even believe it, but when challenged significantly, and when unable to inspire that same love, she was more than happy to choose fear over love if it meant reaching the throne. Even further, when the common people of Westeros didn’t immediately rally to her cause, that was all the excuse she needed to follow her father’s example and ‘burn them all’. None of this is inconsistent. How many times have we seen coups from people claiming to bring some sort of ‘change’ only for them to become tyrants? How many times do we see politicians support both humanitarian aid as well as military interventionism? Bad people rarely think they are bad, and in Dany’s case, I think she has convinced herself that getting the Throne, and the steps she has taken to do so, are absolutely necessary to her cause. The degree to which she will actually break chains or wheels is in doubt though when it’s compared to her wielding power.

Is this a pleasant direction? Absolutely not, but does it make sense? Does it fit? Absolutely. People were shocked and stunned to see the grisly images of her fire bombing of civilians, but that doesn’t make the story bad, it makes it affecting. There seems to be some confusion in this differentiation. Viewers of Game of Thrones should know now to expect a pleasant show with clear saviours or heroes, and getting upset when they don’t get it is astounding to me. Many viewers pictured Dany liberating Kings Landing either with or without Jon Snow by her side, they imagined a peaceful transition of power and a life of happiness and freedom for all. That is rarely the case in real life, let alone this universe, and if you expected that, you were watching the wrong show.

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Perhaps the defining image of the season, and the most divisive. Dany’s fall was foreshadowed, but not enough for some. Credit: HBO

2) Jamie Lannister comforting Cersei as they both died. Jamie Lannister is perhaps the most morally ambiguous character on the show. In the early seasons, he is an infuriating, incestuous golden boy and (attempted) child killer, as well as a ‘Kingslayer’. He’s about as hateful as it gets aside perhaps from his son Joffrey and, later, Ramsay Bolton. But a funny thing happens as the episodes and seasons go on. We spend more time with him as a captive. He loses his hand, explains that he killed the king to save the lives of civilians from a bloodthirsty tyrant, knights Ser Brienne of Tarth, and generally seems to have good intentions. He becomes so close to Brienne that fans started to imagine them together – something that comes to pass in season 8 before he suddenly leaves for Kings Landing to be with his sister/soulmate Cersei. It is true that the rehabilitation of Jamie is remarkable from hated to almost revered, and when Jamie chose being with Cersei over being with Brienne, some fans presumed he must be going to kill her himself. Prophecies and presumed neat narrative arcs drove this belief, but when Jamie instead held Cersei as they died, rather than killing her himself, the consternation was powerful. Fans saw it as the ‘destruction’ of one of the show’s most powerful ‘arcs’. Again, in broad strokes, this makes sense, but in finer detail, and with nuance of reflection, it seems unfair.

There are two things that are certain about Jamie: 1) is that he was indelibly linked to Cersei and had a deep love for her, even when she drove him away, and 2) He was never an uncomplicated good person. Even during his redemption ‘arc’ he was killing relatives, supporting a tyranical regime, forcing himself on his sister, and threatening great acts of violence. If he knew a person, he would generally fight for them, but otherwise, he had no qualms about his actions. I was surprised when he left Brienne in Winterfell, and disappointed in how he did it, but again, I didn’t feel it was particularly out of character. His bond to Cersei, and love for her was so strong, that she would always be a consideration for him, and I believe that once he heard Cersei was about to be in a war, whatever happened, he knew her had to be there, either to stop her from doing anything evil, to save her is needed, or yes, possibly to kill her himself depending on how the situation unfolded. When he makes it Kings Landing, his aim becomes to convince Cersei to stand down and surrender – whether he would run away with her or go back to Brienne is an open question. As events unfold though, he reaches her with the walls crumbling around them and himself mortally wounded. The time for surrender has already passed, so they try to escape, and when escape is impossible, they comfort each other. Whether he quite believes it in the same way he once did, he repeats to her an old refrain that ‘nothing else matters’ and dies as he once told Bronn he wished to – in the arms of a person he loves. None of this means he doesn’t also love Brienne (in a different, less complicated way), and there was also no reason for him to kill or confront her. These were obviously desperate moments for them, and every action and reaction of his made total sense.

*I wanted to add an aside about the term ‘arc’ because I swear I have heard it 1000 times during this season from fans and critics alike. For a show where characters can obviously develop and change, people’s tolerance for this seems to have totally disappeared. I have heard the phrase ‘destroyed their arc’ countless times, and it goes to show how people now understand the show – they have predetermined expectations for every character, and if the destination isn’t the same as they have imagined, or changes course from what they understand, they read it as the breaking of this holy structure of the ‘arc’ – not even imagining that change and development can be part of a larger journey. Maybe Jaimie’s journey isn’t so simple as arsehole golden boy to loved up honourable knight because he isn’t either. People, in fact, are rarely so simple – they can fall back in to old habits, do irrational things, and have special bonds with people even if they are bad people. Jamie’s ‘arc’ isn’t a simple redemption story but the story of a person who has been torn his whole life between honor and immorality, depending on the situation, and who, in the end, reverts not to type, but to Cersei, the one constant in his life. Is it something I was happy about? Not really, but was I surprised that Jamie was drawn to Cersei? Absolutely not. This unthinking use of the word ‘arc’ has not only started to sound like fingernails on a chalk board to me, but is used recklessly and unthinkingly. I think what people mean by it is the journey to change for a character which is gradual but definite, and which they have personally perceived. No character in this show does, or should, however, develop like that. Narrative isn’t simply about change – its how people act or change when they do, and why. It’s not always some clean A to B journey, and yet many of the most prevalent criticisms continue to treat it as such.

** The second term I have taken aside is ‘earned’. Critical fans have been saying of these plots and others that certain moments were not ‘earned’. What they mean by this, I think is, something happening which they didn’t see coming and which they think is at odds with what they understand of a character. That nothing they have seen previously has hinted at a certain action. Not only does this term scream entitlement and arrogance, but it is also incredibly simplistic, asserting that every action or twist must have the ingredients carefully laid out before it. There are times where that is satisfying, of course, but that cannot be the only way to execute drama. Again, as with humans, sometimes actions can come from nowhere obvious, we can be surprised by others or by ourselves when confronted by difficult choices or situations. I would argue that plenty of the shocking moments in this show and others weren’t ‘earned’ in the way some use it, but were still effective. What is more, perhaps such surprises aren’t going against a character, but are instead adding to it. Perhaps your pre-determined feelings for a character are actually constraining the story as well as your enjoyment of it.

Now, despite my righteous typing, I can’t help but feel a little odd about defending such a juggernaught franchise so passionately. So, even-though, on balance, I love the show, I will discuss a few recent aspects of the show I have been disappointed in.

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Arya’s interaction with this white horse seemed silly and didn’t lead to anything. No one said the season was perfect. Credit: HBO

  1. While I defended the way Jamie gravitated to Cersei and dies with her, one element I was disappointed in was how he left Ser Brienne. As easily as I believe his continuing love for Cersei, I also believe in his different kind of love for Brienne. Their scene together in an pool in an earlier season is one of the most emotive scenes in the show and that as well as the rest of their time together sells their bond well. So when they finally spent the night together post-Long Night, it made sense. Their real feelings mixed with the post-battle energy makes that completely believable. However, him leaving her the next morning felt a bit flippant, even if it wasn’t. To sleep with Brienne then leave her feels cold in a way that doesn’t fit him I think, and seemed to rob this hugely honourable character of some of her dignity. The same story without the sex would have been better I feel. While Brienne eventually found herself in a strong position as the first female head of the King’s Guard and so wasn’t defined by Jamie, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more from her rather than her dutifully updating his pages in the Book of Brothers.
  2. With regards specifically to everything up until the finale, and especially to do with the Battle of Winterfell, while I presume Bran was doing a lot more than was shown, it feels like his role until the finale was less memorable than it felt it would be before the season. He seemed like he was going to be a crucial chess piece in everything, and even if he is, that hasn’t really been shown. Some mystery is necessary, but not even knowing basically anything about his role in the grand scheme of killing the Night King is a bit much. Obviously more is revealed when he assumes the throne, and with regards to that, there is some interesting mystery – i.e. did he know/intend to be King, and will that be a good thing or the protection of a status quo?
  3. The closing scenes of episode 5, with Arya escaping King’s Landing were a little over the top for me. Her escape cut alongside The Hound’s final defining battle was a nice bit of storytelling given their connection, but once it was over, her being seemingly the only survivor of the attack, completely alone save for a white horse to help her escape felt like gilding the lily. This is especially the case now episode 6 has aired, and it became clear that not only was Arya not going anywhere, but the horse was never seen again. What, did she just go up the street? It’s really a small thing, but this may have been the most egregious moment of the season.
  4. The way The Hound spoke to Sansa about her rape bothered me. I should stipulate that I don’t share the common criticism of this scene that it wrongly attributes Sansa’s maturation to her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. I think that was always a short-sighted and a simplistic reading of the scene where I saw it as a moment for Sansa to show that probably the worst thing that ever happened to her would not be something that would define her. This is also Sophie Turner’s reading of the scene according to a recent interview. Naturally, it was part of a series of tragedies, which also included her experiences with Cersei and Littlefinger, that helped shape her view of the world from innocence to experience, but it was never portrayed as something ‘beneficial’ to her. What I did find troubling, however, was the way The Hound spoke to her about it, about her being ‘blooded’ violently. I thought it was needlessly raw and harsh, even for a character like the Hound, and I don’t think it achieved anything really.
  5. Most importantly, the one thing which I think has unquestionably somewhat damaged the show, and which I think the vast majority of people agree on is that even if the events make sense and are entertaining, they seemed to happen in a rushed fashion, without much of the quiet time or breathing space which allows for extra development and contemplation. While I am still enjoying the show, I would enjoy it even more with this extra storytelling time, watching people on their journeys to their battles and making plans; and in the case of those who claim to ‘hate’ the show, that might have been enough to improve their experience. This was especially the case with Daenerys’ short reign in the final season. While the writers and actors portrayed her tunnel-vision for power and delusion that she was doing ‘good’ well, I would have liked more time to see her in the triumphal aftermath of her sacking of the city. I think this would have built more tension with regards to the fate of both her and Jon, and the lack of this did take away a little from an excellent conclusion for them.

One caveat I would add to this is that it makes sense that at a time of climactic wars that the action becomes quicker and more packed together than at times of intrigue or relative peace. A show should be able to change pace at times. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtable that this show and the last two seasons needed more episodes and more time left for contemplation. This part made a great show a little weaker.

YT Criticism

There is plenty of simple and dismissive clickbaity content on places like Youtube. Credit: Youtube and these channels.

While these aspects of the show left me cold, it is important to see them in the context of the wider show. If they lower an episode’s stature from ‘masterpiece’ to a more tempered ‘excellent’, that is fine, it’s the ability to properly critique. Unfortunately, in a world where the ‘hottest takes’ and most eye-catching thumbnails, released to the public the quickest grab the attention, and clicks, this kind of nuance is not encouraged in online criticism especially. Saying that you enjoyed Game of Thrones except for a a few moments or plot points is probably a more accurate, but less attractive read in a place where binary reactions are the most common currency. So you see videos with titles like ‘Game of Thrones rant’ or ‘Why Game of Thrones sucks now’ and so on and so on, and people watch, and these criticisms become more widespread. In some cases I believe this leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy that the writing will be bad or the ending unsatisfying before the final episode has even aired. If you create a framework of negativity, it’s hard to see the show in a more nuanced and truly critical light.

This is especially infuriating when criticisms feature calling the writers of the story ‘stupid’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘lazy’, like these professional screenwriters are clueless iconoclasts while these amateurs could just write it perfectly themselves. I’m all for democratizing writing and criticism, but these criticisms rarely come with viable or interesting alternatives, and indeed, usually when they do suggest something, it’s dull, without nuance, or has similar problems to what they have complained about. Again, there’s no need to over-defend these writers, and they aren’t flawless, but I think if people consider what they would do instead of what was written, it would show them the delicate balance it entails and maybe temper some of the nonsense I have outlined.

It must be said that when there is such a groundswell of opinion, there may be something to it, and that the greatness of the writing is undermined by the fact that it couldn’t convince the fans that what it showed was better than their headcanon. That said though, I really worry that the (sometimes financial, in the case of Youtubers and other critics) encouragement of this obsessive prediction/breakdown/review culture is becoming more influential. The media we are consuming is being swarmed by multitudes of opinions that really clouds the experience. Yes, I am aware you can avoid all of this, but it can be difficult to if you’re genuinely interested. Ultimately, this is not an attempt to convince disappointed fans that they are wrong or anything like that, and even if I don’t understand it, if you don’t like the show, then fair enough.

An extra effect of this is that there are a lot of mediocre shows that end up getting lauded almost by flying under the radar of this same criticism. Rather than being adventurous or subversive, they play it down the middle, do it well, and so don’t leave themselves up to much specific criticism. In the context of hyper-reaction described above, something mildly pleasing and inoffensive can have it’s quality inflated simply by virtue of not rattling any cages. Any show that can do this consistently may be able to get enough momentum to encourage the opposite reaction from fans and critics. The other side of the negative clickbait coin is a trend towards overly-complimentary content, describing safe, decent shows as ‘masterpieces’.

stranger-things-westworld

Shows like Stranger Things and Westworld play simple tunes and get lauded for it. Credit: GoldDerby, HBO, Netflix

There are many, many examples of this, but the two most prominent are other recent smash-hits which have been received far more positively than Game of Thrones: Stranger Things and Westworld.

Stranger Things is a visually entertaining show featuring talented cute child actors playing a story which is not only pretty shallow ‘monster of the week’ fayre, but even worse, effectively repeats the same story in it’s second series. It dines out on there being a big audience for 80’s nostalgia, and this mixed with the other elements has made it very appealing to a large audience. In terms of the depth or layers of story, it can’t compare with a show like Game of Thrones, for all it’s faults. In fact, nothing is special about it at all, but nevertheless, it is lauded as a great show.

If you’ve ever read a ‘philosophy for beginners’ book or taken a beginners philosophy class, or even if you haven’t, you will be familiar with the major themes of Westworld. Part of my lack of reaction to Westworld is that it is fundamentally not a human story, it is about, almost exclusively, robots and artificial intelligence. This is, admittedly, a personal bias, and even though a story featuring artificial life forms can meaningfully reflect on human life, this show does not. Again, it is interesting visually, and certainly not poorly made or acted while trying to elucidate on the nature of consciousness, self-determination, and sentience. Critics and online reactors fall over themselves to laud this aspect of the show like that’s anything, frankly speaking, original, interesting, or particularly intellectual. It relies very heavily on countless timelines and the fact that anyone could end up being revealed as a robot, or ‘host’. When you do this, no action really has impactful consequences because any action can always be overturned with a plot twist. The risks and the stakes are low. It tells the story in it’s stylised way, while still effectively playing it down the middle, and again, this can be enough to establish it as a quality show.

When anything is hyper-criticised – in this case, TV shows – and any perceived inconsistency is treated so unforgivingly as ‘bad writing’ or ‘stupid’, it limits the parameters of ‘successful’ television, and  discourages shows which genuinely experiment and explore the human condition and complicated human stories. People act like characters are algorithms who would only act in certain specific ways and would always act logically, and if they don’t behave within these parameters it ‘doesn’t make sense’, is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad writing’, or heaven forfend ‘BETRAYS THEIR ARC’. I’m not saying these people are always wrong when they raise talking points like this, but that their approach to criticism and review is fundamentally flawed. When you hold characters, and plotlines, to higher standards of consistency than you do real people and real life, you are heading for problems. Sometimes people do weird, stupid, or out of character things; sometimes they learn and change, and sometimes terrible or unexpected things happen to you. If a TV show can show this in a realistic way, that is something to be treasured, and I believe that Game of Thrones is a show that regularly does that.

Dresden

Dresden, in the aftermath of the Allied Forces. Credit: Business Insider

If you think Dany the liberator burning King’s Landing to the ground is unrealistic, look in to the history of the Dresden bombings the sequence is largely based upon. Game of Thrones is an anti-war show, and for a fantasy show featuring dragons and the un-dead, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the evils and madness of war you will ever see on television.

Similarly, with Jon, in the context of the finale, people seem confused about why Jon needed to be revived and/or discovered to be a Targaryen and/or why he didn’t end up on the throne as the ‘rightful’ king, because they don’t feel his ending was appropriate given these plot directions. In answer to the first question, I suggest that his being the one to kill Dany was fairly significant and justifies his resurrection having meaning. As for the second question about his heritage, their contention seems to be that the tension this created with Dany didn’t come to pass because she seemed keen to rule with him during their final scene. This is another simplistic reading – even lovesick Jon Snow could see that this was her way of neutralising the threat he posed by making him complicit, and that no one could control her expansionism. It was the basis for much of the paranoia she had towards him, and what’s more, it is a good example of how the show doesn’t treat every ‘arc’ as some clean journey of destiny. Just because Jon was a Targaryan, it doesn’t mean him on the throne is the only plausible result, and in fact, given that a Stark ends up assuming the throne anyway, it probably was a hindrance to that outcome. Answering the final question is easier. Jon never wanted to be King, and what’s more, the Greyjoys, Unsullied and probably more didn’t want him as King due to what he did to Dany. What’s even more is that the different houses decided that a monarch should be chosen, not a role that should be simply inherited, so his claim by inheritance meant nothing anyway.

As Tyrion, and others in the show, have said, a good compromise is when no one is really happy. I think this is a line emblematic of the show’s message. War is terrible and corrupting and our leaders are disappointing and corrupted. Yes, Westeros progressed from a monarchy to an oligarchy, but a democracy is some way off; and yes the existential threats to life are gone, but will life be better for everyone. Time will tell. In many ways though, it’s more of the same. Again, this is disappointing, but then again, look around you. How many radical progressives hold any power? Society craves the status quo. If you expected a revolution, you’ll be disappointed, but in a world where Theresa May is about to be replaced by another flaccid Tory or an impeached Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, can you really call that disappointment unrealistic?

Ultimately though, who cares? As I said earlier, I know I don’t need to seek out the opinion of others about the shows I like, and I’d go further to admit that it is strange to continually listen to the opinions of people online that I don’t agree with. That said, it is perhaps the curse of the invested fan. I enjoy listening to people discuss the things I like, and in this case, it has become habit. Aside from that, it worries me that the general discourse around shows is becoming increasingly influenced by hyper-reaction and is even bleeding in to mainstream criticism, and ultimately in to the consciousness of the screenwriters themselves. I just hope that writers don’t start to write shows with this kind of criticism in mind because it will just lead to more mediocrity which people will laud at the time but won’t ultimately have much of an impact. As with everything, I would rather we have art which tries to do something special, and doesn’t necessarily please everyone than art that is successful by playing it safe and relying on crowd-pleasing tropes and aesthetics.

Pattergeddon: Scottish Exceptionalism and North Britishness

Still Game

Still Game, like other popular Scottish comedies, relies on funny words, swears, and stereotypes. Credit: BBC

February has seen the launch of the new BBC Scotland television station, and in order to send it on it’s way, some staple Scottish hits with the first episode of the new (and latest) series of Still Game, and a Burnistoun special. I have been planning an article about popular Scottish humour for a while, but these shows especially have been the catalyst for me actually starting. Now as a so far failed comedy writer, far be it for me to just criticise these shows for not being funny, though my personal opinion is that they are not; instead, this article exists to explore their comedic style and characteristics, as well as why they might be popular, and indeed, the further implications of this. The more I have thought about it, the most popular Scottish comedies carry with them a provincialism which caricatures not only Scotland, but Scotland’s poor. Even further, the packaging of ‘patter’ from comedians and its fans both contributes to a cultural North Britishness which simultaneously is aggressively Scottish as well as paper-thin in depth and style. The commercialisation of ‘patter’ is just one of many areas where Scots succumb to an exceptionalism which has some merit, but also leads to a cultural complacency, be it in our history of innovation, our progressive self-image, or our cultural output, and these are areas that this article will also explore.

It is worth laying some ground-work before getting in to the meat of this. Firstly, this article really is much less ‘op-ed’ and more just raising questions about trends I have felt. I am not super confident in my assertations here, but just confident enough to start the discussion which will follow. It is also worth explaining my own understanding of ‘North Britishness’. North Britishness as a phenomenon peaked in the lifetime of Walter Scott, with Scott very much a driver of the trend. It is the framing of Scotland as a proud, unique, and exceptional place, but one that is so within the Union of Great Britain. It is a philosophy which treads the line of both celebrating Scotland and what makes it unique, while in doing so, placing it very much as a smaller province within the greater Union. Characteristic of North Britishness is a vigorous, almost gaudy expression of ‘Scottishness’ best exemplified in the promoted aesthetics of tartan, kilts, bagpipes and the like. Proud but ‘other’ and unthreatening.

It is this gaudy packaging of Scottishness that I am interested in here. Something has always bothered me about the patter in shows like Still Game and Burnistoun, and until recently, I thought it was just that is actually isn’t that funny and that Scottish people seemed to enjoy our own humour a bit much, but in the context of North Britishness, I see another reason to feel uncomfortable about it. Shows like this are exporting a view of Scotland which actually doesn’t represent us and actually goes some way to strengthen stereotypes about ourselves.

Before I write this, I want to make it clear, that there have been, and still are, a lot of great Scottish comedians who don’t adhere to the styles I will talk about and are very creative in terms of comedy. That said, when it comes to at least the more popular Scottish comedies I will discuss, I think 90% of Scottish comedy is not joke based, but instead saying basically normal things in slang or a mad accent with swears to furnish it and people laughing because it’s familar to them.

Let’s look at some examples from the shows mentioned at the start, Still Game and Burnistoun. In the painful first episode of the new series of Still Game, Winston becomes a viral hit after he is filmed taking down a bag snatcher with his false leg and shouting ‘shut it tadger!’ As he gets less and less famous, he goes to an event where he is lambasted, the crowd getting laughs for calling him ‘shite’, calling him a ‘patter thief’ and an ‘old shagger’ before he hits back with a rhyme that culminates in him calling the crowd ‘cunts’. The premise is wafer thin, but is held up simply by the swearing and the Scottish dialects. The joke is the dialect in action. The show simply isn’t funny; it’s lazy and ill-conceived, and without the crutch of the funny talking, it would have absolutely nothing. Burnistoun also does this, and if anything, more egregiously. While Still Game has at least established characters people like over the years when it was a better show, Burnistoun is sketches, and though it as the occasional hit, it is mostly more of the same funny Scottish sweary talking. Their colour chart sketch is almost exclusively this while they have another where there are just two characters who can’t stop saying ‘up the road!’ and another one in a game show setting where they are just saying ‘tottie scone’ in a variety of ways.

These kind of jokes are everywhere and have travelled down through the lexicon. Look at any Facebook or Twitter page with a name like ‘Scottish patter’ and you’ll see reams and reams of this repetitive material. People saying stuff in a funny slang or sweary way, and followers replying with how amazing Scottish patter is. Now again, don’t get me wrong – i’m not the joke police. If people enjoy these shows and these pages, then i’m happy for them, but I think it verges on embarrassing. Probably the last thing comedy should aim to do is refrain from laughing at yourself, but I don’t think this is what these comedies do, at least not generally. Instead they display a cartoon Scottishness – a modern version of a shortbread tin. Scottish people playing Scottish for the Scottish – and the British. The dialect, the accent, the culture is played for laughs and also have a following across the UK, and in fact, when you think of crossover comedy shows, every Scottish one – Even Limmy’s Show, which was more sophisticated in places – falls in to the same patterns regularly. There’s nothing wrong, with silly, broad comedy, but when this is the vast majority of what a country produces, and pats itself on the back for, there is a trend. This is where ‘North Britishness’ comes in.

As I have previously said, these shows are aggressively Scottish, consistently mentioning Scotland or more specific place names in a way which is almost jarring at times. In this latest Still Game episode, for example, Winston is known as ‘Scotland’s Angry Grandpa’ and is told that ‘Scotland thanks you’. Scotland, and other more specific places therein are routinely listed as settings in a way that is out of the ordinary for most comedies. Scotland is at the forefront, but it is weak performance of Scotland – the equivalent of the Royal Mile draped in Saltires – almost like it is for the tourists. Scots and Brits alike holidaying in a caricature. Comedy has no obligation to display Scotland in a certain way, but to me, it has started to feel like the Scottishness is the joke. The comedy being produced for the BBC may be aggressively Scottish, but it does not go beyond being a provincial product to be added to the UK comedy lexicon.

An even more troubling characteristic of this comedy is the Scotland it lampoons. The vast majority of the premises or sketches are set in deprived areas, with ned characters playing up to those stereotypes – even if the joke doesn’t demand it. There is one sketch in the Burnistoun show which is a poorly executed version of a half-decent premise, a gameshow where someone who is drunk has to get in to bed and not get caught out as drunk. For some reason it is set in the ‘Burnistoun high flats’ eventhough that has no bearing on the joke. The sketch doesn’t need a setting so why do the writers feel compelled to link a drunk guy with high flats – a kind of housing normally associated with social housing? Throughout Still Game and Burnistoun especially, there are an inordinate amount of neddish characters. For some reason, the creators find poverty and poor people to be inherently funny. The writers are all from poorer areas of the North of Glasgow, so they can’t be accused of simple elitism, but the portrayal of caricatures of poverty is still troubling, especially as it could be interpreted as people who ‘got out’ going on to mock the communities they came from.

Scottish people understandably hold some of these shows dear. Still Game during it’s conception was a show that afforded it’s characters some dignity as well as some laughs, even if the dignity and the laughs have fallen away; Burnistoun has, among the mediocrity, some stronger sketches; Bob Servant, Independent was underappreciated genius which bucked the trend a little; and Limmy’s Show, despite displaying some of this performative Scottishness, did often contain unique and funny sketches. This, for many Scots, in enough to laud Scottish humour as something exceptional, but while we still dine out on the legacy of Billy Connolly, our current crop usually fall short, and sell an idea of Scotland which also sells the country short. The new BBC Scotland channel has an opportunity to show more diverse and frankly, more dynamic comedy rather than the regular motions the shows mentioned have been going through. I hope to see Scottish comedy where Scotland is an ingredient, not the joke itself.

VAR From Imperfect: The Cleansing of Football and the Magic of the World Cup

VAR

The comic, ‘iconic’ image of referees helping make game-changing decisions from a truck no where near the pitch. This is VAR. Credit: digitaltrends.com

Football, even at it’s highest levels, is a fairly messy, frustrating game. There are more scrambling, flukey or mundane goals than any other, but when the game truly becomes beautiful, when everything is put together to score a beautiful goal, it makes the wait and the messiness worth it. It is this mixture of imperfection, scrambling to success, and sometimes, sheer poetry in motion that makes it truly the sport of humanity.

It comes with the territory then that football, and especially those in charge of it professionally, is far from perfect. This game of the world has become tainted by money and commercialism; it caters increasingly for the middle and upper classes with game tickets pricing out grass-root fans and coverage increasingly being held hostage on subscription channels like Sky or BT Sport. The World Cup, however, has managed to hold off a lot of these regressive progressions, being found more on free or more accessible stations world wide.

That said, there have been some new facets to the World Cup this year which have worked to undermine this higher level of engagement with the game. One of these ‘advancements’ is goal line technology, but while a lot of what this article will say applies to that, it’s been around for a while already. The main subject here will be the introduction of VAR, and how it is part of an ongoing insipid campaign to cleanse football of it’s imperfections, and some of it’s character.

Theoretically, I understand why some fans have called for VAR in football. Refereeing mistakes happen, to some degree, fairly commonly, and that can be frustrating for fans; but when you think about it, what are the most memorable, passionate moments you share with football? First, I would argue, are the rare moments of sublime beauty, like Archie Gemmill passing and ‘megging the Dutch to score in ’78, or Maradona running through the English to score; but secondly, I think it’s the moments of controversy, like Scotland definitely being cheated out of Euro 2008 qualification or Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’.

Scotland

The pain remains, as does the memory of what should have been after Italy end Scotland’s 2008 qualification hopes in controversial circumstances. Credit: Getty Images

Whether it creates something memorable like the Hand of God, or something painful, controversy creates conversation, debate, and something to wonder about. Righteous anger, disappointment, and sadness are as important and meaningful to the human condition as joy, and as dark as that sounds, they aren’t feelings we should be scared of. Often, they shape us. At the very least, having controversial incidents occur that allow you to talk about the football, be it in a friendly way or a more heated debate, is part and parcel of what makes the game so special. It’s part of it’s lifeblood.

Then enters VAR.

Now it’s crucial to note that VAR hasn’t ended debate in football altogether – talking heads seemingly can’t get enough of discussing ‘whether VAR has worked this time’, but what it has done is shifted the arena of contentious footballing incidents from the interpretation of the action on the pitch, to a swithering discussion about the purpose and processes of VAR itself. The memories of the incidents are muddled with images of referees looking at screens and hand-wringing over whether the ‘correct’ decision was made. The moments of joy, anger, or despair we might witness are dulled by the inevitable period of second-guessing while we wait for VAR to clear the incident.

My issue isn’t that I actively wish for refereeing mistakes to happen; rather, that I see the collateral value in them when they do happen. To use an example I mentioned earlier, as a Scotland fan, there is a certain righteous comfort I take in knowing (well, believing) that Scotland were good enough to qualify, had the World Champions bang to rights, and were just screwed over. In this World Cup, the specific issue that spawned this article was the Spain vs Iran match in which Iran had a goal disallowed that could have ultimately sent them to the knockout rounds and ‘dreamland’.

Group B Iran vs Spain

The whole Iran squad and coaches in ecstasy before their equalising goal was disallowed. Credit: EPA

By the letter of the law, the goal being disallowed was correct, Ezatolahi was offside. All I remember though is what a downer it was. Iran scoring against an – admittedly wilting – historic Spain side would have been memorable enough, to do so to earn a point against them would be even more significant; to do so on the way to progressing to the knockout rounds would have been the most significant moment in Iranian football history, and you could see it in the sheer outpouring of joy from the Iran players and coaches. Five minutes later though, the jobsworths at FIFA had overturned the goal, Spain went on to win, and Iran were later knocked out after another valiant effort against Portugal. A moment of joy became a mere talking point after the game, and while Iranians might won’t forget it for a while, they don’t have the same recourse as before – either the wry enjoyment of getting something past the ref, nor a real controversy to at least hold on to for consolation or motivation. It was the correct decision, there’s not much else to say.

Again, I don’t rub my hands at the prospect of a wrong decision in football, but in cases such as this, I see the value of them. That moment for Iran was a beautiful outpouring that was also truly relatable as a fan – it must be said – of a currently smaller nation. In previous competitions, the fallibility of the officials mixed with the power of the celebrations would have been enough to carry the day for the goal to stand, and I just don’t think that’s a bad thing. It would have been a defining moment of the tournament that would have helped shape it if Iran would have progressed. But no, the fun police were called, and normal service was resumed. It’s part of the obvious worldwide trend towards the automation of work taking the humanity out of society, but football is something that needs it’s humanity to maintain it’s magic.

I have been genuinely disheartened to hear commentators, pundits, and some fans alike praise with relief that VAR has led to the correct decision. Of course it’s good in a sense that the right decisions are made, but this obsession that ‘the correct decision must always be made’ fundamentally people’s relationship with the sport – it’s a space where all aspects of humantity, good or bad, wrong or right can be shown off, and it’s always beautiful in some way.

 

Hand of God

One of the most infamous, iconic moments in football history. A moment that would have been erased by VAR. Credit: ITV

An opening and closing argument for this is the Hand of God. Of course Maradona cheated, no one disputes that, but it made for one of the most memorable moments in World Cup history, and one that fed in to the aura of Maradona as a roguish nutter-genius. It’s almost anti-football (he literally handballs it) but it’s also a pillar of football experience. If VAR had been in place though, the goal would have been disallowed, Maradona booked, and an iconic match may not be remembered really at all. It whitewashes the game, and while there will be times the reviews will be welcome, it surrenders too much of that humanity away from the sport.

Another element of the game that is a rather dull talking point, again, at this World Cup is how to dissuade players from ‘unsportsmanlike’ behaviour, things like crowding the referee or most notably, diving.

Starting with the element I’m perhaps least protective of, the crowding of the referee has been an ‘issue’ for as long as I can remember. I must say, it’s not something I revel in, and it can be uncomfortable, but I think the hand-wringing over it has reached a bit of a critical mass, especially after the Colombia-England game in which the English pundits were falling over each other to demonise the Colombians. There are two ways to look at this, and the purists want you to see it both ways: either that they were intimidating the ref, or that they were using it as slight of hand to scuff up up the penalty spot. In the latter instance, it’s a bit of clever gamesmanship where the Colombians took the opportunity to try to salvage the situation; not something you would applaud, so to speak, but understandable. It’s harder to defend them intimidating the referee, but I also stop short of condemning them – heaven forbid they get a bit hot after giving away a penalty in a knock out game at the World Cup that was nearly the deathblow of their four-year journey! As bad as it is, the referee was never assaulted or anything, just noised up a bit. The fact that the talking heads want robotic ‘role models’ doesn’t mean you should expect it, and as a football fan, I like seeing some fire from the players.

Colombia v England: Round of 16 - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Surrounding the referees, diving, and generally cheap or dirty play was much maligned after the recent Colombia-England game. Credit: Metro

Next up is the monster bug bear of the modern game: diving.

To sound repetitious, I should state that I don’t condone diving, so to speak, but I also see it’s place in the game. Whether we like it or not, fouls and free kicks are a fundamental part of the game, and with football being such a free form of expression, of course players are going to engage with them and try to gain an advantage. It’s an aspect of football that I wouldn’t describe as beautiful as I would others, but I admire the extra element it adds to the game, even if it frustrates me too at times. For me, if someone takes a dive rather than stay on their feet for a viable attack, it doesn’t even really make sense, and when done badly, it certainly looks pathetic. That said, it’s a phenomenon of evolution and not worth existential concerns it creates in some people.

Here’s the thing – it already self-governs to a large extent. The players pundits tear their hair out over for diving, like Neymar especially at this World Cup, aren’t gaining much of an advantage. Those who overdo it, or do it without smarts are well-known and referees often look upon them with extra skepticism. Indeed, earlier in this competition, the deeply unpopular Pepe hit the deck after being overpowered by Diego Costa, stayed down, and wasn’t around to stop Costa scoring his excellent individual goal in that game. Between embarrassment and the risks of doing it, diving doesn’t go unpunished anyway.

That said, a simple solution to help address the issue in a more sensible way. Calls for every single dive to result in a yellow card will never be successful because no one likes dishing out yellows. I think they should be treated as normal fouls and judged on severity. Diving should only be an automatic yellow card if someone is trying to gain a penalty, otherwise, players should get yellows for persistent diving. That’s manageable and not too much of a puritanical solution I think.

There’s a saying that ‘rules are meant to be broken’, but I think something more along the lines of ‘rules are meant to be played with’. Maybe it’s because I love wrestling and Eddie Guerrero, but I admire the attempts of some players to try to gain an advantage for their team by getting one past the referee. Any structure or framework is just that, something man-made that can, and maybe should, be challenged. It’s where the greatest art and expression comes from, and while it may not always be pretty, it’s part of human curiosity, expression, competitiveness, or all of the above.

Think of the football that those with voices and power are trying to create: one where the players are all well behaved, reserve their passions for goals, and any controversy on the pitch is quickly mopped up. It’s not the same – it’s a procession lacking in the imperfections which make the sport accessible to everyone. Rather than aspiring to being kinda crazy geniuses like Cantona, Zidane, or Maradona, the ultimate footballer role-model will be clean, unquestioning cyphers.

Pogba

When Paul Pogba re-signed with Manchester United for near £90m, it was announced with a hype video cross-over marketing excercise between Pogba, Man Utd, Stormzy, and Adidas. It explains how a player can even be worth that much money in the first place. Credit: Adidas

I don’t think this is accidental. As with everything else, follow the money. The financially bloated, sponsor-dependent cottage industry that football has become doesn’t have much time for true individualism, and certainly not for controversy. It deals increasingly in idealised visions, nothing to do with the actual game but with image – haircuts, kit designs, video game covers, and social media impact. TV stations love being able to spend money on new graphics for goal-line technology and VAR but start wringing their hands after even harmless acts of character, like a delighted flipping the double fingers at the Nigerian fans after surviving their challenge. He got excited and expressed it in his own way, and people are still practically tutting at him. There’s no room for that. Well-behaved, quiet, humble players and clean games are better for the image of the millionaires and billionaires holding the purse-strings.

Even worse is that, those who call for a clean VAR process and demonise ‘dirty’ players take these positions while propping up far worse instances of questionable behaviour and corruption. They throw up their hands about the effect Neymar taking a dive has on the game while sat at a World Cup in Russia, and preparing for one in Qatar, while sat next to stadiums which will barely be used again, that local people were displaced so they could be built.

The World Cup should be hosted around the world in succession for sure (and I plan to write at length about that and related subjects in the near future so won’t expand too much here), but it needs to be done with a genuine understanding that the people want it and will genuinely benefit from it. The World Cups in Brazil, Russia, and Qatar don’t sit right for many different reasons. Brazilians protested with vigour hosting the World Cup, despite their love of football, because they knew they would never see the billions being spent on it again, billions that could go towards improving some of the country’s desperate social and infrastructure issues while this Russian World Cup is seen as a propaganda exercise for Vladimir Putin and his evil, oppressive, intolerant regime. Qatar provides a mixture of both issues. All three will leave their countries and maybe more beyond in worse shape. These are giant, troubling issues that are the real rotten core of the football bureaucracy, not controversy or foul play.

Maracana

The Maracana, treated during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil like the sacred home of Brazilian football, at a cost of around $500m, now lies practically abandoned and unusable. Credit: AP

On this topic, I see hosting major competitions  like the World Cup as a huge honor and morale boost. It’s not inherently bad as an idea, just in current practice. Scotland will beat England 7-0 in the World Cup final before this happens, probably, but this could be a hugely positive process. If FIFA actually worked with potential hosts in genuine good faith to help fund needed infrastructure improvements, to build stadiums, if necessary, and to only accept proposals which agree to do this in a sustainable way which doesn’t disrupt ordinary people’s lives unreasonably without costing tax-payers too much. Of course it’s possible – those with the coffers have no interest in them being lighter though.

Controversy, and players diving, or acting aggressive is no existential threat to the game, but the continuous inflation of ticket and jersey prices, and the ongoing process of excluding the working classes from the magic of the game is. We can trust the fans, we can trust the players and all of their personal flaws; it’s just those with power in football that we can’t, and that is the real existential threat to the game.

ICW Wolf of Sauchiehall Street Review and the Current State of Indies in Scotland

ICW WoS poster

Wolf of Sauchiehall Street poster, credit: ICW

A few years ago, Glasgow seemed like the indy wrestling capital of the UK, and maybe even beyond. That was something I took a maybe misplaced pride in, but it inspired pride nonetheless. A few things have shifted over the past year or so though, and when looking at shows to attend recently, I really struggled to find something. The rise to greater prominence of feds like Progress, Attack, IPW, Defiant, and in outer Europe, OTT and wXw have expanded the pool of talent with notoriety and added more varied competition while in Scotland, the talent seems like something of a gold-fish bowl of the same faces.  As passionate as most fans and the workers remain, the scene up in Glasgow has started to seem pretty stagnant.

Then of course, there is Bram. The domestic violence allegations against him are shocking and upsetting, making many of those I know who follow Britwres uncomfortable with promotions that book him. That includes me. It’s made worse by ICW, SWA, and Pro Wrestling Elite, the main promotions in Scotland, closing ranks and apparently booking him feverishly with misplaced righteousness. Indeed, many of his colleagues including the likes of Lionheart, Kenny Williams, Viper, Session Moth and more came out to publicly defend Bram and endorse him. On a human level, they are clearly friends with Bram and it’s hard to blame them for supporting a friend, but to address a point they kept making, of course their friend who they are more of an equal to hasn’t treated them that way, and the fact that they’ve only seen his good side does not make him innocent.

Regardless of that, it’s a bad hill for ICW et al to die on and one that at least makes it harder to choose ICW in the aftermath. I myself had eschewed some cards thereafter due to the booking of Bram but have now been caught out a couple of times. The first time was last year when I went to see Pro Wrestling Elite in Ayr specifically to see Pete Dunne and was upset to see Bram on the same cared. Yesterday was the second time. After the excitement I saw on Twitter to do with wXw 16 Carat, I got a hankering to see a live show, and I saw a version of yesterday’s card which didn’t include the Bram match and snapped up a ticket, only realising he was booked a day or two before the event. I decided I would still go but would leave for the bar/bathroom during his match. Unfortunately, when the time came, I was so jammed in that I couldn’t really get out easily and so I decided to just watch the floor. Unfortunately, there is so much crossover between promotions here and such an old-boy style protection of Bram that if you want to see wrestling in Scotland, you may have to choose between supporting an alleged domestic abuser or not seeing wrestling which is a real sad state of affairs.

With all that in mind, I want to give some thoughts on the show and the talent there.

ICW DCT

DCT soaking in the chants before battling Big Grizzly. Not really pictured: Coach Trip who helps make DCT a very entertaining act. Credit: Me.

I had seen DCT and Coach Trip a couple of times before, but this was the first time I really got in to the fun of it fully. Big Grizzly is a huge impressive figure but wasn’t getting much of a reaction and seemed somewhat irrelevant to the hugely popular DCT.

Next up was Stevie Boy w/ Kay Lee Ray against the replacement for Jordan Devlin, Dickie Divers. Out of the three, i’m only really particularly familiar with Kay Lee Ray so while I was disappointed she didn’t have a match of her own, it was great that she was so involved with the match. I slightly recognised Divers but given the way Stevie reacted to him, he was clearly set up to be a jobber, but building on that first impression, these folks put together a really cool, interesting match. Divers kicked off the match, literally, with a stiff strike to Stevie and was chasing the upset. KLR kept involving herself to try to help put Divers down, and this was mixed with some more light-hearted moments surrounding easter egg shots and mini-eggs-as-thumb-tacks comedy spot which worked well. One spot I really loved was Divers nearly outsmarting the two to win. KLR was ubiquitous in the match and eventually, Divers put her in a figure 4 before rolling up Stevie so that she couldn’t interfere. That only led to a 2-count but Divers did manage the shock pin after Kenny Williams interference. Really a way to build to the Kenny Williams-Stevie Ray match at Barramania, but one of the most entertaining matches on the card and a great showcase for Divers. If he is indeed more of a jobber, matches like this should push him up the card.

ICW KLR

Was pleased to see the renowned Kay Lee Ray, even if it was in a secondary role on a card with no women’s matches. Credit: Me.

While I was happy to see Kay Lee Ray wrestle, her appearance as essentially a valet highlighted all the more that there were no women’s matches on the card at all. That’s really not acceptable in 2018, and while no particular match deserved to be bumped from the card (except for Bram-Lionheart, but that wouldn’t happen), ICW should have made more effort to book a women’s match. This may be a reason it’s lost a bit of an edge. She is an excellent inter-gender competitor too. I’m hoping to write about that topic in the near future.

I enjoyed The Kings of Catch vs The Purge, and it was a good match though The Purge seemed a little like another version of a gimmick we’ve seen a million times. I can’t really fault them for it, I just hope they get to develop it a bit more. The match was interrupted by a genuinely freaky video featuring a man in a Texas chainsaw monster mask which got actual reactions from the crowd. Unfortunately it was followed up by two people (I don’t know their names) from the video with the monster in a slightly different, cheaper-looking mask, playing the simple country monster and seemingly affecting some sort of hand deformity like you might see a disabled person have and if so, that it really disappointing. The country monster wasn’t that impressive to be honest and led to some ‘shit Mick Foley’ chants. I don’t think it worked. Anyway, a decent match undermined by that weird stuff.

ICW BTG

BT Gunn is definitely ‘over’ but I didn’t see much in this match to convince me of why. Credit: Me.

The came the Triple Threat for the Zero G title as the main event of the first taping. This was one I was very interested in because I wanted to see what the fuss was about regarding BT Gunn. I hadn’t seen that much of ‘The Oddity’ but didn’t think anything particularly much of him, so I was surprised to see ICW get behind him so much as to give him the heavyweight title as well as the Zero G title which is unprecedented I believe. His reputation has been growing and I wanted to see if it was justified. He was in a match with ‘The Phoenix’ Jody Fleisch and the ‘Power Forward; Mark Coffey, which is the first time I’ve seen him with that nickname. This match was pretty good, but hampered by a couple of things. First and foremost, Fleisch seems to be a very talented high-flyer but he seemed limited by the environment at The Garage with the low lights. He did some aerial moves, but it seemed like he had some things that he couldn’t do.

The second issue was that this highly-anticipated title match was essentially an angle, with masked henchmen of Mikey Whiplash abducting Gunn half way through, leaving just Fleisch and Coffey who would go on to double-pin each other. I rolled my eyes a little at this, but was more intrigued when Dallas announced that the title would be vacated, rather than it just being a shortcut to allow a normal rematch. Nice to see a different way of treating that finish. I’ve mentioned that I didn’t feel I really saw the full potential of Fleisch but the same goes, unfortunately for Gunn. He did some OK work, but spent a lot of time knocked out of the ring and being kidnapped, so I will defer judgement for now. As for Coffey, I was a bit taken aback by the ‘power forward’ monicker. I’m stuck between not really getting it, or getting how it relates to anything, so in that sense it doesn’t really work for me, but at least it’s different to some of the overdone staples in wrestling currently.

ICW Leyton Buzzard

Leyton Buzzard ‘in concert’ with his ukelele. A very entertaining segment. Credit: Me.

To start the second show taping seemingly, we were treated to ‘a concert’ from Joe Hendry intern, Leyton Buzzard. They leaned in to the Elias parody but Leyton made it his own by making it a more cheeky kind of funny and he really won over the crowd with it. Then came out Chris Renfrew. My enjoyment of Chris Renfrew has shifted greatly over time. When I first saw him a few years back, I didn’t really get him or the New Age Kliq, I thought it was a bit try hard and didn’t think the writing on himself was as cool as others did. I then watched his match with Grado at Square Go a few years back and enjoyed it a lot and was more content with him. On Sunday, I really enjoyed him. He has become something close to late-era Steve Austin in that he has an aura of unpredictable danger around him, and of course, he has a Stunner in his move set. His coming out and being unironically moved by Buzzard’s performance was warmly funny and even though it ending up in a Buzzard vs ref match with Renfrew as the special guest referee didn’t make a lot of sense, it was a lot of fun. I also enjoyed the closer of Renfrew and the victorious ref getting stuck in a trance pointing at an imaginary sign. Now at this point, WrestleMania sign gags are pretty tired, but this worked because of how much they committed to it. Both had to be carried/led out by several crew members while maniacally pointing at the imaginary sign. I am super impressed by Renfrew’s range from being psychopath to being genuine comic relief.

Next up was Ravie Davie vs Iestyn Rees. I don’t know much about Ravie Davie as a real guy, but I’m not a huge fan of the gimmick. It has the same issue as Session Moth Martina which is it strikes me as a classist caricature aimed at hipsters. People from all backgrounds like wrestling, but in the case of these indies, a big portion of the fans are middle class and it comes across as utilising a tabloid view of the poor. Iestyn Rees is a very different wrestler. I’ve seen him three times now and while i’m impressed by him and his look, he’s ultimately a bit of a Chris Masters which, to me, means he’s got everything expect for a unique charisma and stand-out skills. He’s very clean, but ultimately doesn’t create a lot of tension or excitement. He needs a bit of seasoning, but with that could be a bigger star. Not much of a match to be honest.

Lionheart vs Bram next. As I said before, I did my best not to watch, staring at the floor and I won’t acknowledge it more than that. I will talk briefly about Lionheart. Currently he’s working a veteran face character but it’s not one that works for me. He had two talking segments across the whole taping and both struck the same tone. He was going for a sort of badass pipebomb style promo but he says it with only imagined fire and with very little of interest to say. I must say he’s over with some people, but I don’t know why.

ICW Tag

A rare glimpse of traditional tag team wrestling. I welcome rest holds breaking up the action in such a high octane show. Credit: Me.

I really enjoyed the next match of Ashton Smith & Rampage Brown against Kenny Williams and Aaron Echo. I don’t really understand Echo’s gimmick, but I like Williams a lot and I really dug the brutality of Smith and Brown. They looked like they wanted to hurt Williams and Echo, and maybe even more. A good mix of styles and excellent tag team spots – something that ICW often loses a bit due to them frequently going to a tornado-style because of the no holds barred style.

The main event of the whole evening was Jimmy Havoc vs Mikey Whiplash. I don’t often like matches quite this violent, and I also don’t like the style of some of the sports in this match, but … this match really ended up working for me. It started out with each inviting the other to staple them. Watching live, I thought it looked stupid, like one of those (great) Laurel & Hardy slapstick sketches where they offer up themselves to the other for more punishment. The reality isn’t really far from that I guess in that it seems like some early bar-setting, trying to ‘out-hardcore’ the other and when I got that, I got in to it more. This was really just a brawl and while it didn’t make for a great wrestling story, it was a great experience. This match culminated with a Death Valley Driver from Whiplash to Havoc which led the pane of glass to explode with glass flying everywhere including in to the crowd. Whiplash took the victory and both paid their respects to the other, before agreeing to a rubber match in the future. In fact, I loved how Havoc addressed that. After being pinned following such brutality, he signed and then very casually said ‘that’s 1-1’. It was very funny and showed me something about the normality Havoc’s character attributes to violence and that makes for a cool character.

ICW Deathmatch

The aftermath of the Whiplash-Havoc death match. You can’t help but admire the heart of both men. Credit: Me.

I went away thinking the most about Whiplash. I’ve always liked Mikey Whiplash’s presentation but I was blown away by this event, not just his incredible heart in the match, but how significant he seemed. Some of the roster can feel they melt together a bit but while there are some who pretend to be dark or ‘alternative’, Whiplash is one of the few who really achieves it in ICW. He believably seems like a somewhat psychopathic sadomasochist with a kink to him. He stands out more than anyone on the roster by a mile. His entrance music is an absolute banger too.

If it was me, while I know he’s an older performer, I would put the title on him and let him put ICW on his back for a while, and I think Kenny Williams would be an excellent foil for him. I don’t know what history they have together, but you have the purest babyface there against a really dark cultist character. I think they would have excellent chemistry.

Overall, I enjoyed the card this Sunday. There were some fun matches and an excellent main event. That said, there is definitely something stale about the company now. I think they rely a little bit on the swearing and loud Glasgow-style banter in an attempt to seem cool and adult. While some of that is needed to give the fed some character, I think it is definitely over relied on and gets a bit grating. I can see why existing fans like it, and I like it in places, but I can also see why it would alienate new outside fans a bit. It just seems like it’s spinning wheels and I hope they can freshen up the regular roster a bit and take some cues from from other feds in terms of presentation. There is a bit of compromise to be had.

During an interview segment I didn’t review here, Dallas alluded to ICW maybe not being as successful as before, acknowledging the success of other promotions, but I put it down to scene-setting. Then, after the taping had finished, he came out again and did the same. This wasn’t being filmed so I don’t think it would really contribute much to the story, so maybe there is a feeling of distress in ICW. I want it to succeed and I want to be proud again of having something so impressive on my doorstep. This evening showed me what it can offer, but it also showed me reasons why it still might have a while to go.