THE IN-CROWD

Are you a part of the in crowd?

Have you ever been?

It’s likely that at some point in all of our lives, regardless of environment or situation, we’ve found ourselves on the outside looking in. From school to college to work to family to hobbies, there will always be a time when you didn’t know the ‘cool’ joke, or understand the ‘cool’ saying. You may have found yourself overlooked. “We all thought someone else had invited you”, “We didn’t think it would be your thing”, or indeed you could be outright excluded.

Schools are terrifying places and can show a very clear picture of the very worst of human experiences. Cliques and groups are formed by shared interests but also by shared dislikes. And it’s from here the vines of bullying can take root.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been heading off to conventions all over the country with my banner and bag of books, doing my best to tell my tales, and I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of people attending these events would have received some form of derision for the hobbies and passions they have.

Whenever I admit to my obsession with science fiction and fantasy, of my love for both Star Wars and Star Trek, (gasp!!!) or speak animatedly about dragons and magic, very often I can see the other person kind of glazing over. Then comes the ‘Aren’t you a bit old for that?’ or any other of a hundred responses which question the sanity of me liking what I do. There are not many like me in any of the places I’ve worked and there’s always the sniggering from some at the thought that a man of my age would like such nonsense.

I’m very much outside of The In-Crowd’.

So when I witnessed someone being heckled and berated at a sci-fi con because they not only understood, but also enjoyed, sport, it made me wonder.

Conventions for TV shows, films, books or any genre idea should always be a welcoming place for the diverse fandoms which are out there. When I sat at my table at Em-Con Nottingham over the weekend, there were countless examples of cosplayed characters which I recognised but there were also countless that I didn’t. That didn’t matter. Everyone there knew that this was the place to let their geek flag fly ( including someone with an actual flag from the show Community – E Pluribus Anus).

But having one hobby that you’re passionate about doesn’t preclude you having another.

I’m also a massive rugby fan. I used to play (including getting representative honours for my county so I was pretty good) and I always do my best to find a TV to watch Wales play – which included at a sci-fi convention where I ended up watching with another welsh man, Gareth David Lloyd, from Torchwood.

So I consider the way the populations of these two groups would behave if someone from each was switched around.

I suspect no-one would really care too much but there would be loads of odd looks at the one who was out of place. But it would only take one person to start making comments of a confrontational manner and that individual is quickly on the outside and being made to really feel it.

Now, the examples I’ve given here weren’t driven by malice in any way shape or form. The comment at the person at a convention was in jest and everyone concerned recognised the fact. I myself have never been picked on openly in that way and I happen to think that when push came to shove, the populations of my passion’s fandoms are decent people who just want to talk openly and happily about their loves but there still lurks that darkness of the human condition which wants to point at someone or something which is different from everyone else and to mock or attack it.

Are we all so obsessed with fitting in to our in crowd that we can resort to crushing anything which doesn’t agree with us? Our group mind says X so if you don’t agree then you must be evil or must be mad. If, for so long, you were one of the ones on the outside looking in and you found a place to belong, shouldn’t you then want to be more understanding of what it feels like to be on the other side? Shouldn’t we recognise that opinions counter to our own will never be welcomed into discourse if all we want to do is expel anyone who doesn’t agree?

The melting pot of humanity is a wonderful thing and I enjoy looking at things in a different way than expected. At so many points in life, it’s when we do that that we start to make real strides in a positive direction.

You can see in these pictures that everyone is just having a blast regardless of what they have a particular passion for. I’d certainly advise people to come and join in with all manner of new hobbies.

ARE YOU SITTING COMFORTABLY?

I understand the need for comfort when settling in for some time reading and can see clearly that the importance of comfort for anyone being read a story is equally as vital. I’m sure we can all imagine the sheer delight of a fidgety child while we’re trying to keep them still to listen to what is being said.

But should we always be comfortable when we read a story?

Horror stories are the first port of call and it’s easy to see that they need to be unsettling and scary but is that the only place that we get to unveil the really uncomfortable things?

I’ve come to this consideration thanks to the radio.

Recently, on a very mundane journey home from work, Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffri started playing. A good song from 1987 which, thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia, I can tell you, peaked at number four in the UK charts. Now that doesn’t really make anyone think anything. Those facts are nothing more than nuggets of information and you can nod your head as you register the facts, and then you’re on with the rest of your day.

But there is a great deal more to the song.

Labi Siffri penned the song after watching a TV documentary on Apartheid in South Africa where white soldiers were seen shooting at black civilians. The lyrics he wrote conveyed a message of steadfast resistance to the horrors of the inequality in South Africa but that resistance would come in a non-violent form of just being more than those looking to grind people down.

The song was an easily accessible route for the world to be exposed to what was happening in another country and for the world to take notice. The song, as with any and all others, formed a plank which a wider understanding was then built upon. People were then able to make their voices heard about a brutalising topic which seems to be very much at odds with the usually relaxed and cheerful lands of the popular music charts. By using a medium not usually associated with such things, a message was passed on.

Now this isn’t the only example of the music industry making comment on social issues. Band Aid being possibly the greatest example but there have been many more examples where a serious topic is used as a focus for a narrative. Sunday Bloody Sunday by U2 was aimed at the Troubles from Northern Ireland, Bruce Springsteen never ducked away from a controversial topic but music wasn’t alone.

Sport had the international boycott of teams playing in South Africa and everyone is familiar with the raised, gloved fist salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics.

In each of these examples, an uncomfortable point is made directly within the belly of a situation where it isn’t expected. The viewer / listener will be caught off guard by the subject matter and suddenly they are forced to acknowledge a truth they may not be happy to. After their gloved protest in Mexico, the two US sprinters received death threats and the IOC were more concerned with the potential breach of it’s rules on political statements rather than the racism it was highlighting.

Those kind of statements should be kept away from sport / music / film etc. This isn’t the forum for your political views. After an event  of statement like the above the world is regularly then treated to all kind of talking heads pointing out that someone had gone too far or that sporting events or music shouldn’t be used in this way.

If it happens all of the time, the effect is watered down, everyone knows what’s coming. By making people uncomfortable, by shining a stark light on an issue without any kind of warning, you can shock the reality into the eyes of so very many more people. Yes you’re going to make people angry in some cases and there will be more than a little chance that fingers will get pointed at you as being irresponsible or callous but that is often the best way to cross the lines a great many people refuse to cross on their own.

In the best way imaginable, long live the discomfort.

FUN?

Now this post isn’t going to be about comedy.

I have my thoughts about comedy which I’ll be unpacking at a future date but this time I want to look at the importance of fun in all of our lives.

How much fun do you have on a daily basis? Do you draw a life affirming sustenance from all of the things you do or do you suffer through each day just waiting for something positive to present itself almost out of the blue?

I’m not saying that we should be running around with a permanent smile plastered across our faces but shouldn’t we be looking to have as much fun as we can?

I used to work in the fitness industry and one of the major points which always had to be kept at the forefront of all the training advice and exercise was we must always do our best to make all the activity fun. Without there being an element of enjoyment people would be all too ready to cast off the program and resume the lifestyle they were trying to break away from.

So when did the fun go away?

Running about, getting up to all kinds of stuff was the day to day life of a child. Left to their own devices, kids can do all kinds of things because they find it amusing, interesting or compelling. Games of make believe, exploring the local area, riding a bike everywhere because that was the easiest way to get about. At no point did anyone suggest that it would be too tiring to do all of these things, we just did them because that’s what we did. It’s only as we age that our games suddenly become more ordered.

Pretty soon we’re playing games with set rules which in turn become being a part of a sports team. Riding your bikes off just to have an explore was now ‘just kids stuff’ as more important draws on our time took over. Homework, sports, music and computer games all started vying for attention. Now I played computer games as a kid but my sporting career quickly overtook my desire to play on a computer. I was having fun out there on the various fields playing sports because I had a level of skill at the sports I played but over time, the game of rugby turned into the match of rugby.

The result was becoming more and more important and there were becoming more and more in depth reviews of how the game had gone, where mistakes had been made and what needed to be done to be able to improve.

Now I’m not saying that I hated my sporting career and that it became a soulless grind of hunting for the desired result, but rather that the pure fun of play had been replaced by the structure of conflict. That sheer unadulterated enjoyment was altered as I grew up to fit in with my more adult mind.

So we see, as adults, our free time is quickly filled with all kinds of needs. We have to do the housework, decorating, gardening, looking after the kids (as they have fun) and a million other things that we all have to do, but so often that can leave us with precious little time to just have simple fun.

Maybe that’s why I enjoy the genres of books and films that I do? It’s a fair bet that my own writing has been driven by the desire for fun and immersing myself into the stories in my head is a really relaxing thing to do. Hell, in the wider world maybe that’s why we can see a rise in adult colouring books? There doesn’t need to be a monumental expenditure of thought to complete the task, instead we do it because we want to, because it’s relaxing and fun.

The world has the potential to be a very dark and unforgiving place where we can, if we don’t stop to recognise the good bits, fall into a chasm of despair. I think we all owe it to ourselves and all those we love to make sure there is as much fun in all of our lives as we can find. Without it, we’re done for.

NO ‘I’ IN TEAM

I wrote a few weeks ago concerning the possible negative impact sport could be having on society as a whole, highlighting and celebrating a conflict between different groups. I kicked about the idea that something which is so deeply rooted in our collective mindset, sport and competition, could be divisive, subtly reinforcing the walls which could be erected between us all. Now it’s time to look at the other side of the coin.

We’ve just seen the end of Wimbledon and the European Football Championships and in the blink of an eye, we’ll be enthralled by the Olympics in Brazil. Actions of supreme strength and skill will be showcased and the titans of the arenas will do battle to claim the ultimate prize of Olympic gold. Yes there will be conflict in each event along the way but it has to seen as more than just an allegory for warfare.

To be involved in any of the events in the Olympics there isn’t any short cut. Years of dedication to perfecting the skills to compete. The correct diet, the correct practicing, the correct medical support all combine to mean that the athlete has the chance to take part. They could have done all of everything correctly but all they’ve managed to earn is the right to be involved. On the day it could all go wrong and all of the work could fizzle away.

And that’s just the athletes.

The Games Makers at the last Olympics in London were highlighted as having a massive effect. Volunteers coming together to give their time to add to the whole for others to enjoy without the need for payments. Giving so others get something.

I played as much sport as I could growing up. You name it, I gave it a go. I was really lucky that we had a big garden and that lawn became every sporting stadium around the world. I practiced football, rugby and cricket as well as generally rushing about doing stuff all kids do. When I then wanted to try sports at school, my teachers were there to oversee the inter school matches and I’m sure that early Saturday mornings would rather have been spent doing their own thing rather than looking after us kids. Then I played at local clubs. Coaching and matches needed my long suffering parents to drive me to all manner of locations around the county, then to other counties as I played representative sport.

Every person who is involved in sport will have people who have given their time and dedication to help them along. We all learn that working as a team can help us conquer tasks beyond us alone. We learn to both win and lose with grace, to accept that if you’ve done your best and still come up short, no-one can ask any more. We see just that in the Olympics when an athlete breaks their personal best, they’ve run or thrown or jumped to beyond anything they’ve ever been able to manage before, but they still came last. That person has delivered everything and more. They’ve shown that they have given all they could and for the fact that they’ve done the very best they could, no-one could expect anymore.

Sports are beyond two teams warring on the field of play. Sports allow each of us to test ourselves, to have fun in doing it and to give us the chance to give back to others. We are given a selection of vital life lessons which can help make the world a much better place as we all strive to achieve.

Sports could bring out the worst in people but it brings out the best in others. Seeing how the Wales fans have reacted to what the team did in the Euro tournament has been a testament to the positives. Huge groups of people following the team and celebrating the success. And they weren’t the only ones. Iceland for starters.

As with so many things in the world, there are two sides to each consideration, both fighting for supremacy. It’s vital we see that fact and try to take that view into everything we do.

I’ll leave you with this clip from the 1992 Olympics where the British sprinter Derek Redmond was injured mid race but needed to finish. He just couldn’t not. Limping on in pain, he was joined by his father who helped him make it over the line. The act encapsulates everything of sport. This is why sport must remain.

The video can be found on YouTube here.

MY TEAM’S BETTER THAN YOURS

I’m not sure if you know this about me but I’m a massive fan of a great many sports.

As I grew up I was involved with so many games and sports. I can remember one particular week at school, at the bridge between the summer and winter seasons, where I played in a cricket match on the Monday, a basketball match on the Tuesday, county rugby training on the Wednesday, a football match on the Thursday and a cricket coaching session on the Friday. Now this wasn’t every week after school but it gives you an idea what I was getting up to. I’ve played rugby and cricket at different clubs and, despite the various injuries, I’ve had a blast.

When I started writing The Circle of Fire, a love of sports was something that I wanted my main character to have. I’d regularly heard, as no doubt so many of us did, that taking part in sports was a wonderful way to help build character and teach all manner of life lessons which would have a positive impact on later life. In short, sport was a massive plus to anyone’s life.

Now we’ll leave the sport there for the time being.

This week, the UK will be voting in a referendum centred on membership of the EU. We all have the chance to give our opinion on the topic of whether or not we remain a part of the European collective and for weeks we’ve been hearing from any and every possible source the potential pros and cons. In the US, all the attention is on who is going to be running for president and the media is going nuts with opinion and speculation aplenty. All of the time we’re all being bombarded with messages of negativity for each and every position, with an honest assessment of the facts being avoided in preference to scaremongering.

We’re being told that ‘THEY’ are out to get us. We’re being threatened by a shadowy figure of imagination that has the destruction of everything we hold dear as its sole goal. All of the time, we all hear that we need to be separated from everyone else to preserve what we have and stop those out to take it from us having their way. Amidst all of this, the European Football Championships are taking place in France and every day we’re treated to images of violent clashes between fans from different nations all doing their best to impose their belief that their country is the best. In addition, the world is preparing for the Olympics in Brazil, where again, the nations of Earth will pit their best athletes against each other in pursuit of the prize.

Despite teaching people about the discipline and teamwork that we all recognise as being virtues, does sport also teach us, subconsciously, that our team is better than all others and those who’re ridiculous enough to think otherwise need to be ‘corrected’?

From international sport downwards, there are ever decreasing layers of separation which can act as barriers between us. In rugby terms, I’m a Wales fan but I’ll happily shout for the British and Irish Lions regardless of the number of Welsh players selected. The same could be said from the Wales team. As an Ospreys fan, it makes no difference if there are any of those players selected. The players from any other club could be seen as the ‘enemy’ week in week out but they’re all a part of the same group in the red of Wales. The further down you go, to region, then senior club, then junior club, there are walls being raised which separate us all and pit us all against one another.

Sports now can act as a substitution for warfare. Our forces are pitted against those of rival nations, regions, towns, all in the hope of conquering the enemy as proof of their, and by extension our, superiority. The violence which can be seen around the football in France is where the more primitive aspects of our species spill over and is found around so many sports around the world.

So should sport be moth-balled to allow the human race to grow away from the more barbaric elements of combat?

No. We all need to see the importance of what sports can give the human race but, in much larger terms, we need to all see that separation and walls will do nothing but destroy us. We all need to come together as a race of people. We’re all humans. The media drives a narrative of fear because that’s what sells, the sensationalism. Religions are all fighting each other about which is the right one and nations are being pitted against nations because the powerful deem it to be right.

This world is filled with people who, for the longest time, have been separated by so many things but we’re all just people. Every single one of us is the same and as we’ve grown as a species, so many of the walls which have kept us apart have already been torn down but it does appear that those that remain are being lauded and people are trying to rebuild those which have fallen.

We all need to be working together to improve the world not dividing it up. We need to put aside our collective differences and understand what we all have which is the same. We need to understand and believe, as a race, as many true things and as few false things as possible and divisions and conflict need to be cast aside.

But we should always remember that sport doesn’t have to be the start of bad things. I pointed out earlier that I could shout for the Lions without there being any Wales players present so shouldn’t we all be able to recognise the importance of the game as being just that. Just remember that testing ourselves as individuals and groups is now no longer a metaphor for warfare.