Archive for the ‘Sports’ category

“As usual, everyone answers these questions according to his political predilections.”

June 10, 2010

With the non-North American’s world’s attentions about to be reset away from oil spills and volcanoes and the long, slow, bleed to anarchy, the preparations for tomorrow’s World Cup had me thinking about Orwell’s famous essay on the Moscow Dynamo tour of 1945 England that caused a fair amount of Russkie anger in that delicate country.

I, personally, have a tendency to, as Orwell puts it in the essay, “blah-blah about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football field” (or hockey rink). And, all things being equal, if I was forced to remove either the World Cup or the collected essays of George Orwell from the march of 20th century culture, I’d have to think it over. This being said, the way the Footy Show pundits talked today of lineups and striking and tactics without ever coming clean on the militaristic root of sports strategy had me thinking back to Orwell’s little op-ed. I’m not sure if this is in the public domain or not, but, here’s hoping. I’ve reprinted the original essay, with a handful of interruptions. I don’t disagree with it, per se, and I’m more than willing to believe that the things that I like are bad for me, but I can’t shake the idea that I’m watching someone play to his audience in, at times, the easiest possible way.

And for the record, if anyone wants to compare notes, I’m willing to divulge a couple secrets from Vox’s Wicked Unbeatable World Cup Bracket. It’s highlights are an all-Southern Hemisphere final four, an all-South American final (Brazil d. Argentina) and the Americans topping the English in their Pool (and thus insuring their cultural and militaristic dominance within the Anglo-American alliance for at least another four years). For God and Country, as they say. Ole, Ole. These colours don’t run. You’re either with us, or you’re with Paraguay.

Essay: “The Sporting Spirit”, by George Orwell.
no rights claimed or owned.

Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, 
it is possible to say publicly what many thinking people were saying 
privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, that sport is an 
unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any 
effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them 
slightly worse than before. 

Even the newspapers have been unable to conceal the fact that at least 
two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling. At the Arsenal 
match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player 
came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone 
else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start. And then there 
was the controversy, typical of our nationalistic age, about the 
composition of the Arsenal team. Was it really an all-England team, as 
claimed by the Russians, or merely a league team, as claimed by the 
British? And did the Dynamos end their tour abruptly in order to avoid 
playing an all-England team? As usual, everyone answers these questions 
according to his political predilections. Not quite everyone, however. I 
noted with interest, as an instance of the vicious passions that football 
provokes, that the sporting correspondent of the russophile NEWS 
CHRONICLE took the anti-Russian line and maintained that Arsenal was NOT 
an all-England team. No doubt the controversy will continue to echo for 
years in the footnotes of history books. Meanwhile the result of the 
Dynamos’ tour, in so far as it has had any result, will have been to 
create fresh animosity on both sides. 

And how could it be otherwise? I am always amazed when I hear people 
saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only 
the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or 
cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even 
if one didn’t know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for 
instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, 
one could deduce it from general principles. 

Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive (Vox’s Note: Ya don’t say, George…). You play to 
win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win. On 
the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local 
patriotism is involved. it is possible to play simply for the fun and 
exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you 
feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the 
most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even 
in a school football match knows this. At the international level sport 
is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour 
of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the 
spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these 
absurd contests, and seriously believe–at any rate for short 
periods–that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national 

Even a leisurely game like (Vox’s Note: Awkward colonial overtones ahead…) cricket, demanding grace rather than strength, 
can cause much ill-will, as we saw in the controversy over body-line 
bowling and over the rough tactics of the Australian team that visited 
England in 1921. Football, a game in which everyone gets hurt and every 
nation has its own style of play which seems unfair to foreigners, is far 
worse. Worst of all is boxing. One of the most horrible sights in the 
world is a fight between white and coloured boxers before a mixed 
audience. But a boxing audience is always disgusting, and the behaviour 
of the women, in particular, is such that the army, I believe, does not 
allow them to attend its contests (Vox’s Note: …or its army). At any rate, two or three years ago, 
when Home Guards and regular troops were holding a boxing tournament, I 
was placed on guard at the door of the hall, with orders to keep the 
women out. 

In England, the obsession with sport is bad enough, but even fiercer 
passions are aroused in young countries where games playing and 
nationalism are both recent developments. In countries like India or 
Burma, it is necessary at football matches to have strong cordons of 
police to keep the crowd from invading the field. In Burma, I have seen 
the supporters of one side break through the police and disable the 
goalkeeper of the opposing side at a critical moment. The first big 
football match that was played in Spain about fifteen years ago led to an 
uncontrollable riot. As soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, 
the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. 
People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and 
they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the 
intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don’t 
intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own 
side and “rattling” opposing players with boos and insults. Serious sport 
has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, 
boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing 
violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting. (Vox’s Note: But if the alternative is war plus the shooting, then what? Not that I’m subscribing to the easy masculine-catharsis view of competitive sport. And we’re still talking about soccer here, right? The sport where it’s illegal to touch the guy with the ball? It’s not the World Cup of Raping, George.)

Instead of blah-blahing about the clean, healthy rivalry of the football 
field and the great part played by the Olympic Games in bringing the 
nations together, it is more useful to inquire how and why this modern 
cult of sport arose. Most of the games we now play are of ancient origin, 
but sport does not seem to have been taken very seriously between Roman 
times and the nineteenth century. Even in the English public schools the 
games cult did not start till the later part of the last century. Dr 
Arnold, generally regarded as the founder of the modern public school, 
looked on games as simply a waste of time. Then, chiefly in England and 
the United States, games were built up into a heavily-financed activity, 
capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions, and the 
infection spread from country to country. It is the most violently 
combative sports, football and boxing, that have spread the widest. There 
cannot be much doubt that the whole thing is bound up with the rise of 
nationalism–that is, with the lunatic modern habit of identifying 
oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of 
competitive prestige. Also, organised games are more likely to flourish 
in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or 
at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative 
labour. In a rustic community a boy or young man works off a good deal of 
his surplus energy by walking, swimming, snowballing, climbing trees, 
riding horses, and by various sports involving cruelty to animals, such 
as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats. In a big town one must 
indulge in group activities if one wants an outlet for one’s physical 
strength or for one’s sadistic impulses. Games are taken seriously in 
London and New York, and they were taken seriously in Rome and Byzantium: 
in the Middle Ages they were played, and probably played with much 
physical brutality, but they were not mixed up with politics nor a cause 
of group hatreds.

If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world 
at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of 
football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and 
British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be 
watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators. (Vox’s Note: Strange how many of these rivalries remain to this day. I disagree, however, that the matches “add” to the ill-will. Rather, they display it. Surely a lesser crime, and sometimes a utilitarian action…) I do not, of course, 
suggest that sport is one of the main causes of international rivalry; 
big-scale sport is itself, I think, merely another effect of the causes 
that have produced nationalism (Vox’s Note: Ah, I forgot about this caveat. Ignore the previous note, George). Still, you do make things worse by 
sending forth a team of eleven men, labelled as national champions, to do 
battle against some rival team, and allowing it to be felt on all sides 
that whichever nation is defeated will “lose face”.

I hope, therefore, that we shan’t follow up the visit of the Dynamos by 
sending a British team to the USSR. If we must do so, then let us 
send a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten and cannot be claimed 
to represent Britain as a whole. There are quite enough real causes of 
trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to 
kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.

The Glorious Underground Life of the Lonely

May 22, 2010

I’ve been finding myself more and more grateful to be a participant in an art form with exceptionally deep roots but very little breadth, an art form made by individual people, in seclusion, for small groups of readers who all approach the final product in solitude. This was my first thought when I read Tabatha Southey’s hilarious piece on the travesty of human cooperation that is the mascot for the 2012 London Olympics, published in the Globe Online today.

To paraphrase the Southey article, things that result from the input of thousands of voices and pressures (from advertising professionals to focus groups to the concerns of corporate sponsors) tend to suck. To add to that argument, I think it’s important to say that many things made by just one person also suck, but the failure rate trends towards 100% whenever the full creative tumble-dry of corporate decision making comes into effect (and here I don’t specifically mean corporate as “to do with corporations”, but rather in the more general sense of “cooperative + structured”). From the Academy Awards to the US Healthcare Bill to the script for the film adaptation of “G.I. Joe”, very few creative solutions can stand up to the pressures exerted on them by someone else’s creative solution.

So the world can have their trend targets and their Olympic mascots that look like Tellytubbies designed by sex offenders. I’ll take books. Books created by a single, specific entity for consumption by some indeterminate number of single, specific entities, all in isolation. And maybe sometimes I’ll watch TV. Or see a movie. But, for the most part, I’ll live inside a beautiful secret that very few people know: that, whenever it’s not an absolutely necessity of its medium, the idea of artistic collaboration is bullshit.

“It’s easy to be taken seriously if you hate everything.”

March 21, 2010

Coverage of The Optimisms Project from OpenBookToronto. Thanks to Paul V. for the interview. Submissions are coming in, but we need more. Tell your friends, folks. That email address for submissions, again, is

On an unrelated note, tomorrow I wander east to the Rogers Centre Skydome to buy two tickets for Blue Jays-White Sox, Opening Day 2010. Two awesome things to look forward to in April. And counting. Lucky boy.

On Meaning It (An Incredibly Circuitous Apology to Brad Cran)

February 14, 2010

Earlier in the week, I jotted down some quick reactions to the Brad Cran/VANOC fall-out. All the background story you’re going to need to know what I’m talking about can be found here and here. I wouldn’t say that I want to apologize or retract any part of that quick hitter, but I do want to dismantle and reassemble a couple of the points I made therein.

First off, I believe the guy when he lists his long and detailed reasons for not wanting to participate in the games as Vancouver’s Poet Laureate. They are a list of believable, conscientious and legitimate reasons for seeing the Olympics as a pending scourge on the history of Vancouver, and not worth the financial, cultural, and social deficits they threaten to create.

That being said, before I give up my original argument, I’d like to explain my first reaction, which was a mix of cynicism and despair. Again one of my poetry contemporaries had been invited to play with the greater society in some public way, to bring the beauty of our underworld into the clear light of day, and again we had found enough things to be outraged over that we abandoned ship and retreated to our classrooms and our libraries. As I said before, we are always so eager to be our own martyrs. What’s more, that part of me who, for a time, put himself through college writing political speeches took notice of the contrast in demographics between those who saw Cran as a hero, and those who called him a whiner. His decision to walk away from Vancouver 2010 was the kind in insular public act (that’s not an oxymoron, the public turn of a cold shoulder is both private and demonstrative) that seems likely to make him a folk hero among that tiny slice of Vancouver (namely, artists and thinkers) who also happen to be the sole remaining consumers of his underground art.

I don’t want it to look like I’m introducing a number of hypothetical motives to distract from the validity of the ones Cran has stated in his essay. People do things because they are impacted by the political necessities of their world, and people (even poets!) act on their consciences. What I’m suggesting is that there might be something in the worldview of many of my poet that takes an assertive political urge like the need to speak out against censorship and corporatism and manifests itself in a retreat from the larger world, not a pro-active invasion of it. And for anyone who thinks that the essay and the public dissent qualify as an assertive move, not a regression, I invite you to apply the following formula: estimate the number of engaged Canadian citizens who know who Brad Cran is and what his politics are, and subtract it from those who knew those things two weeks ago. Now, do the same thing with Shane Koyczan. Which poet is left with the larger number? (Note: That’s a rhetorical question, and not even really a fair one. Like I said in the title, this a retraction, an apology, so please just let it sit there with its upward lilt and don’t rush off to the comments section to voice your disapproval).

I think a hint as to the source of this instinct lies in the published reactions of readers of The Globe and Mail’s story on the announcement. The story may have been slightly sensationalized in the paper, but surely no more than most stories are sensationalized in the paper. The 161-and-counting comments from what people tell me is Canada’s left-leaning National newspaper (Fun Facts: It is neither a national newspaper, nor left-leaning) included maybe fifty or so supportive messages, but most of the rest can be summed up in the following selection:

Dear Johnson: “Boo hoo. The Olympics are for sports, not for reading frickin poems. Go find a coffee house….the lit-named Humbert Humbert (who likes quotation marks almost as much as I like parentheses): “It makes me real sad to know that this nitwit won’t be reading his crappy “poetry” at an event that he and his fellow “progressives” find so offensive”….HarryP1: “Does anyone really care about this twit?”…Michael Manning: “Egads! How, pray tell, does anyone make a living writing poetry? Wait, lemme guess, government subsidies funded through the taxes of people who actually work for a living.”…E. Seldon: “Maybe the little beatnik should stop protesting and sucking up my taxes for useless poetry. Maybe he should get a nine-to-five.”

Okay, now to explain the oncoming turn in my opinion on this issue, I need to first explain something about myself. I think there’s an important and often overlooked criteria we could be using in the often arduous task of comparing and classifying each successive generation of artists. This spectrum could very well be labelled: To what degree is this individual comfortable with the idea of being seen (by both the public, and him/herself) as an artist? I think some poets (and I suspect Brad Cran might be among them) would look at the above paragraph of pull-quotes and say, “Gosh, there are some real idiots out there”. Others (and I know I’m in this group) look at it and, for some length of time, before their brains intervene with their knowledge of cultural policy and the working realities of the struggling author, say to themselves, “Gosh, most people don’t like poets, do they?” It’s hard for some people in my group to look at those in the other group (which includes, besides Cran, folks like Andy Warhol and Lord Byron and, in the most Canadian of examples, Al Purdy, who decided one day to be a full-time poet, even if it killed him) and not see traces of arrogance, of egotism, and of the “All About Eve” notion that the room ceases to exist once you stop filling it with your persona.

I imagine that, likewise, it’s hard for the Cran-Purdy contingent to look at the rest of us and not accuse us of being less than fully engaged in the political identity of our class. And that’s valid, because we’re not. Because of this, we’re also less likely to perform the kinds of great, courageous acts of self-sacrifice that put the integrity of our artform over whatever utilitarian role it has been drafted into playing, because our uncertainty in the validity of practicing that art in any sort of professional way makes that utilitarian role so much more valuable when it comes calling. I imagine lots of people see Cran’s retreat from the Olympics as an example of that courageous self-sacrifice, and I have no doubt that, for him, it is. As much as he doesn’t want himself to be associated with this event, he doesn’t want his art to be their either. But please understand that there are those of us who see this as another opportunity wasted, another excuse for people who hate us to remain unchallenged in their hatred. I don’t think that fear is correct, per se, but I do recognize it and refuse to blame it one the middling uncertainties of the undedicated artist. At the nitty-gritty level of making good art, I’d argue that Uncertainty is just as fertile a campsite as Confidence, that the edges of the artistic persona keep you honest, just as its deep and confident centre keeps you inspired.

All this aside, I’m opting to applaud what Brad Cran has done these last few days not because I would hope that I’d make the same decision were I fortunate enough to be in his shoes (I don’t, not in the slightest in fact I imagine I’d do the exact opposite). Rather, in light of the actions taken I see the Brad Crans of the world (and the handful of other vocally oppositional Vancouverites) on one side, and all the HarryP1s and Micheal Mannings on the other, and I make the easy choice. I leave the comparative pettiness of the division described above behind, and I reintigrate. If there’s a wistfulness attached to that, call it the delayed disappointment of maturity. After all this deep thought and the romance of post-modern relativism and unpigeonholed self, it turns out many things really are about choosing what team you want to play for, and planning your conflicts accordingly. And I’d rather be a poet than hate everything. Who wouldn’t?

Back to the Laptop, a Round-Up

February 12, 2010

I’ve been a busy little boy over these last 48 hours. The reading at Pivot went very well, and the TPL’s Book Lover’s Ball (I sat with banking executives, they loved me in a way only grim-faced stoicism can express) was full of high-fashion, gourmet food, and lots of other things I know nothing about.

I’m glad to see the conversation I had started about annotation in poetry collections has taken-off without me. I’ll make an effort to read my way back to being abreast of the argument and try to weigh in again. These sorts of conversations are why I started the blog: smart people, having thought about something of importance for a long period of time, arriving at the polar opposite opinion on an issue.

Those of you who can brave the National Post long enough to get in under the hard crusty shell of failing neo-con print culture to the delicious spongy cake of their tops-in-the-country book blog, The Afterword, may already know this next update. Somewhat disappointed, as I have been, by the move in recent years to more mainstream, pre-approved Canlit titles by the CBC’s book discussion club, Canada Reads, the boys at The Afterword thought up an idea for a sort of Canada Reads Shadow Cabinet. They are calling this (of course) Canada Also Reads and have asked me to be one of the eight appointed Book Defenders. I’ll be vouching for Leon Rooke’s sublime new short story collection, The Last Shot. I think you should read it. There, see how good I am at vouching?

The way this will work, I think, is there will be a parade of personal essays on the eight selected books later this month, then a live-blogging Battle Royale of some sort in early March. Stay tuned.

The Olympics start today, and I’ll be watching. I know there’s legitimate reasons to ignore and even dislike them, but I can’t be asked. Censorship and arts funding and the homeless and whatnot are not to be ignored, but are also not to be pinned on a group of young competitors with stubborn ambitions and poverty statistics to rival any poet’s. Sports have some things figured out that us artists are centuries away from understanding, and there are things we can learn from them. Imagine, a playground reserved for only the people who are the very best in the world at whatever tiny, repetitive thing they do. And we get to watch them do it this on the T.V. And it even happens in our country. I’m sold. The Vancouver poet laureate turned down an invite to participate in the games, which is what they call, in politics, “playing to your base”. Though, as I said above, he had his choice of legitimate reasons.

However, for this viewer, it remains one of more undigestible traits shared among poets that we withdraw from participating in any element of the larger society that troubles our delicate morality. We are always the martyrs we’ve been looking for. And in two weeks, when this is all over, we’ll go back to complaining about how the rest of the world ignores us. If only there was a gold medal for being more noble than everyone else.

Fun Internet Things

December 18, 2009

I’ve been wasting a lot of time browsing the internet for shiny new mind-nuggets lately, and thought I’d share the highlights. There may be other good things on the internet, I’m not saying this is the entire list, but I haven’t found them yet. This post goes out to all the teachers and students who are reading this sentence when they know full well they should be either marking or studying. You know who you are. Click on the Locales for the links.

Conspirator: Brian Foley
Locale: HTMLGIant, that oft-interesting hub of electronic poetry and hip thinking.
Gimmick: Brian has concocted a list of the 25 most important English-language poetry books of the decade. Consider it “Knotting-Off the Everywhere”. I’d give it more space here if it wasn’t for A. It’s basically a list of known quantities we should all be reading anyway and B. It’s doing that annoying list-making thing where it’s a list of “important” or “notable” things, not “favourite” things, which is the way we do it here at Vox Pop: personal, honest, and thoroughly invested in my own ego. Thanks to poet, performer, and noted Vox Pop amigo Aisha John for the find.

Conspirator: Alessandro Porco
Locale: OpenBookToronto
Gimmick: A Mississauga native, Alessandro inexplicably lives in Buffalo, where there is apparently a university set among the endless sadness and the people who look like misshapen old birch trees. Anyway, he has a really wonderful article in the new OBTO magazine about a Canadian poetry festival set in Buffalo circa 1980 that involved a pretty incredible breadth of Canadian poets (bissett to Atwood, and more than a dozen in between. It’s the kind of poetry journalism I wish we saw more of: diligently researched, broad-minded, and open to everything from cultural analysis to the bawdy joke.

Conspirator: David Brock
Locale: Spartan
Gimmick: A writer, condo owner, and noted Vox Pop poker enemy, David keeps this little sports blog running in the background, and occasionally weighs in with cogent and hilarious commentary on the stories and scandals of the day. He has this great piece about the recently deceased historical footnote, former Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chris Henry, whose baffling death was lost in the endless Tigergate newstrap this week.

Conspirator: Lauren Leto
Locale: Her eponymous blog
Gimmick: Leto, whose major blog creation is the amusing Texts from Last Night, has posted a hilarious re-imagining of the old “ideal readership” idea. She’s expressed it as a lengthy list pairing famous authors with their stereotypical fans. It’s close, but my favourite might be: O. Henry…Men who have names like Earl or Cliff and were really close with their paternal grandfather. Full disclosure–I completely stole this link from the folks at The National Post’s Afterword blog.