The faces on those kids. They don’t know what they’re singing about. Thirty years of hurt? Fifty? Most of the people in that crowd weren’t born when England lifted their last footballing trophy.
You might think it’s all about the kids, but it really isn’t. While their faces lit up our screens during the EUROS and we spoke of a utopian future where boys wore shirts with women’s names on the back and girls dream of being Chloe Kelly, for many of us it was something else too. I’ve been watching the men’s game for over twenty years and have never felt as much excitement, as many nerves and as much pride as I did on the final whistle.
I’ve also never felt like I’d missed out on something as much as I did on that day.
You’re an alright bloke, y’know. You were a decent player, blah blah, you’ve given a home to a Ukrainian refugee, you trigger the Daily Mail and its associated panto villains on an hourly basis, and mostly you know what you’re talking about on Match of the Day (something few pundits can state with confidence). You also really piss people off by shamelessly selling crisps. I respect that.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know how much I dig Villanelle from Killing Eve. Barely a day passes without my using one of the several thousand epic gifs that exist to express feeling or emotion. If your defaults are boredom and sarcasm, you probably do the same.
It was the summer of 2009 and the biggest transfer in football history was about to be announced. The gangly eighteen-year-old with crooked teeth, greasy hair and dodgy trousers, that arrived at Old Trafford four years before was about to take the next step on his journey towards becoming a global icon. 70,000 people would turn up to see Real Madrid present Cristiano Ronaldo as their new player.
It took a hell of a lot of coincidences and unpredictable events to get English football to where it is today.
A country voted to remove itself from a union by pissing all over its legs until the other party let them go. That heady cocktail of disenfranchised nihilism, inherent mistrust of outsiders, and picket fence parochialism radicalised some into believing the most present threat to the average person is a handful of people arriving on the Kent coast in dinghies. Successive governments looking for short term financial gain privatising services, pushing a service economy that grudgingly supplies shit money for work that may or may not be available tomorrow.
A global pandemic widened the fissure. George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in a manner so heinous it should feel otherworldly but that sick feeling in your belly tells you it lives here now.
Footballers took the knee in what was a moment of great pride for some of us, tired of the constant ‘spoilt, overpaid nancy boys’ narrative. Some club fans booed. The players kept kneeling and the boos got louder.
Liv isn’t an action hero. She works in a bank, hangs out with her friend Nick and has turned off all the social notifications on her InVision headset because they make her anxious. When a car accident leaves her disoriented, she assumes nightly visits from a tech nerd and a starched nurse in strange hat are vestiges of her trauma that will eventually pass. Until the nurse tells Liv she’s the least competent but most available person to avert a crime that could damage humanity irreparably.
If I Were You describes a near future in which tech has embedded itself into our souls. What happens to people when they can order food, watch immersive porn and sign into work via a chip embedded in their head?
From a distance, it feels like you can get away with a lot when you’re a porn star. Having sex with people on camera and getting paid for it, for a start. A unique freedom to express yourself because anything goes, right? There’s no room for prurience in porn. Especially today, when algorithms are uniquely capable of connecting a provider of niche services to an unusually eager customer base. It makes money, therefore it’s an economic model and legitimate.
At the time this photo of Kathrine Switzer was taken, Boston Marathon race manager Jock Semple genuinely believed she was doing something wrong and it was his place to stand up for what was right. It was 1967 and at that time women weren’t ‘officially’ banned from running the marathon, but this was due to an admin error as opposed to any desire for equality. Switzer went through the correct channels with her application, received her number and prepared to race.
According to reports, Switzer was a few miles in when Semple began shouting, chased her and tried to grab her number. She was able to wriggle free when her running companions intervened and completed the race, albeit losing an hour or so from her estimated finish time.
What space does Sir Lenny Henry occupy in your hearts? Honestly.
Are you struggling?
Assume the correct answer is “Whew, Lenny Henry.” *shakes head, mops brow*. “Lenny was the bold champion of black comics when Great Britain had none. Revered as the man who hacked his own path through the undergrowth of working men’s clubs of the seventies and eighties to mainstream television and beyond, Sir Lenny now occupies that most coveted of roles in public life: National Treasure. We’re very proud.”
That’s what it looks like. Nice, isn’t it? Everyone comes out of it looking like a thoroughly good chap and Sir Lenny Henry receives his due for a career spanning some forty years and counting.
Lean in, though.
There’s a touch of revisionism going on here, isn’t there? Not with personal comedy preferences – for the purposes of this conversation, they’re not relevant – but with our cultural history and our almost pathological insistence on rewriting history to make ourselves feel better.
I knew you’d understand. You can move away now.
The fact remains, I probably wouldn’t have bothered listening to an interview with Lenny Henry if Amanda Palmer (white, cis, female, author, musician) hadn’t chosen to speak to him on her pod, The Art of Asking Everything. I’m not proud of it, but if I’m going to lightly admonish English culture for being fucking awful, it’s reasonable I take my share of the blame.
I love comedy, just not ‘that’ kind of comedy. As I was growing up and developing my taste, I was attracted to alternative performers, although at the time I couldn’t have defined that for you. I just knew that Rik Mayall’s love affair with Cliff Richard and Neil the hippie sneezing into a binbag made me laugh so much I hurt. Lenny’s output, in comparison, felt a little tame.
Even as I was pressing play, I wondered what the host might have to say to this man, and what could possibly be interesting about it. Last week’s episode, ‘Bullshit Is Everywhere’ with author Elizabeth Lesser, demonstrated Palmer’s skilful and sensitive technique as an interviewer – a surprise from a performer so expressive and dynamic – and my curiosity was piqued.
Only a white child growing up in England could believe that having your own sitcom on national television at twenty-four years old was dangerous. That’s not to say that Mayall, Edmondson, Planer and Elton don’t deserve the plaudits they’ve received over the years, far from it, but having listened to Lenny discuss performing comedy to a crowd of mildly inebriated and unapologetically racist blokes in what’s essentially a glorified outhouse, I feel I now have a better grasp of the term ‘dangerous’.
If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to miss the clues. Despite heavy indications to the contrary, I don’t believe the majority of us on this septic isle are racist. I still believe in that now beleaguered cliche that we’re a friendly, hospitable bunch who will inevitably be let down by some twats who like to shout.
But dwelling between these comfy binaries is the truly British trait of ‘ooh, that makes me mildly uncomfortable, let’s never speak of it again’. Lenny Henry lives here too. A man who, for many years, was one of very few black faces regularly appearing on television. Who had little choice but to force himself into a box that didn’t fit him so he could stay there, all the while watching fellow comedians (and I use that term loosely) like Jim Davidson perpetuate unpleasant stereotypes and get rewarded with more screen time.
Henry was still there though, wasn’t he? As an advocate of representation, I understand the importance of seeing others like yourself in powerful positions, so surely that’s enough? The man’s got a knighthood, right?
Via this conversation, I learned more about Lenny’s early life and career than I ever picked up from watching him on TV. He discussed his memoir, ‘Who Am I, Again?’ and the necessity to tell his story in its entirety, rather than the sanitised version which TV execs and viewers preferred. The one that won’t frighten an audience only capable of coping with black people who don’t make a big deal of being black. Even better if they play along with the tropes. Henry himself did this for five years as a member of a touring stage version of ‘The Black & White Minstrel Show’; a source of shame that he himself should not be forced to bear.
Even Ricky Gervais, a man who should know better (an article in its own right), riffed gently on Henry’s position in English popular culture as recently as 2006.
I’d expect a guy as smart as Ricky to have figured out the reason Lenny might be perceived as ‘unfunny’ in some quarters is quite simply that he’s built a very successful comedy career despite being unable to tap into his own personal history. I can’t think of a single creative type who wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown upon reading that statement, including myself.
Please listen to it. Especially if you grew up in the UK in the seventies and eighties. In 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement wavers between catching fire and burning out, it’s our job to ensure the former happens and we do this by listening. Don’t assume you already know or you have nothing more to learn. The world can look completely different if you take a second to move slightly and change your perspective.