Archive for Love

Thank you, Unicorns. X

On Saturday I played my final game for SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, the football team I joined shortly after arriving in Berlin in late 2014. SFCF Inter, or “The Unicorns”, have been and will continue to be a huge part of my life. The team, as its name and nickname suggest, is a unique and diverse group of very special human beings. The squad is about twenty-strong, and features people with almost as many nationalities; in that sense, it is the essence of Berlin. It’s not the kind of gathering you readily leave, but my increasingly brittle left ankle and right knee have had other ideas.

 

It’s not as if I’m truly leaving them: I’ll still train with them whenever my work schedule allows each week. But this moment briefly felt a little poignant, as it’s the first time that I’ve had to admit that my days of regularly playing 11-a-side football are over. At such times, being a poet by disposition, I tend to get a bit misty-eyed and reminisce. I’ve been part of several clubs since the age of nine – first Golden Eagles U10 B, the reserve side so poor that when we lost only 4-0 we were delighted, and who were once defeated 35-0 in a match lasting only an hour and during which the ball entered their half just once. Then there was the all-conquering Sunningdale School 1st XI, which was my redemption for Golden Eagles having been so terrible; a few years playing for various school sides at Eton College, but sadly never once playing for their senior first team; the 105 Club; St. John’s College, Oxford; Mansfield Road; Ferry Hinksey; Brasenose Old Boys; Lovells; Stonewall; and finally, of course, the Unicorns.

 

Of course, it was never ultimately about the football; because I never played well for a team where I didn’t love those with whom I shared the dressing-room. Love is a strong word, and still not one that many men are comfortable using about one another: and that’s why I use it. I loved all those team-mates from my favourite teams, and I still do. It’s a delight to see them all on Facebook, on WhatsApp, or during the odd visit to any city where they might be living now – Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai. Many of them are fathers now, and far stiffer of joint than they were when we all first met. But their passion for the game remains the same, as does their affection for each other. At various points, in a world so often brutally unfair and cruelly complex, the simple joy of chasing a ball around the field has been a rare form of solace.

 

Of course, it was about the football to some extent, which is why I’m not playing any longer. I only really play for teams where I feel that I can make a consistently strong contribution, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. German football, at this level, is just as quick and physical as it is in the UK, and it is technically far superior too – there are people doing things in training and in matches that were almost unimaginable in the UK. (Alexis Lannoy, my God. You are not fully human.) Playing for the Unicorns has been very humbling, in that sense. When I was playing in the UK, I would often take the field confident in the knowledge that I was one of the quicker and more skilful players there. By the time I came to Germany, that was not remotely the case. I had lost pretty much any acceleration I had ever had (some will laugh, at this point, that I never really had much pace at all) and I found it almost impossible to dribble past players. As a result, I can now admit, I was sometimes very worried when matchday came around: doubtful that, in my greatly diminished state, I would be good enough to deliver what my peers needed.

 

That’s been the beautiful thing about playing for the Unicorns, though. For the overwhelming majority of my time with them, I relied not upon speed or skill but upon hustle and guts. I have never gladly chased so many seemingly lost causes, hunting down centre backs as they passed the ball gleefully between themselves. I now know what Harry Boyle, one of the first and best captains I ever had, meant when he ordered me to “play this game for as long as you can”. The ritual of matchday is a profound one: the arrival at a ground so alien and hostile that it may as well be the surface of Venus, the Deep Heat searing through your nostrils, the clatter of studs in the hall.  

 

During that time – over those many hundreds of matches – I’ve played in conditions from sub-zero to tropical, and in all manner of different positions. I’ve worn several shirt numbers; 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17. I started out as a striker, a traditional centre-forward; then I was a number ten, a left-wing and a right-wing, a defensive midfielder (no, seriously, ask Rory da Costa and Peter Nedd), a left-back, and latterly even a left wing-back. I was never deployed as a keeper, but that’s probably best for all concerned. At first, I was obsessed with scoring goals – there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure – but, after a while, I lost the hunger for that. As a striker, you’re oddly distant from your team-mates, often as proud but isolated as the prow of a ship. Playing in central midfield for Stonewall, in a team of gay and bisexual men competing against a league of heterosexual teams, I learned just how wonderful it could be to do all the small things that went unnoticed but which were utterly vital to your team’s success. If Golden Eagles was where I first found my love for playing football, then Stonewall was where I rediscovered it.

 

But this post is getting long – what was meant to be a short piece has now tumbled on into over a thousand words. I have started this with the Unicorns, so I will finish it with them. After my last game, a 4-2 defeat to Traktor Boxhagener, I ended up being the final person out of the dressing-room, which was as fitting and melodramatic as it sounds. It’s a good thing no-one else wandered in during the few minutes I sat there, because I might have welled up in tears if they had walked in. Somewhere, almost thirty years back, there was a much younger me scraping the mud off his boots. Now, with a grey-haired goatee, I was gazing at the chalkboard where Andrew Weber, the most inspirational of coaches, had scribbled that game’s starting line-up. I had to take a picture of it all: the firmly-worded tactical instructions, the deserted space, the sacred enclave. I took a selfie in which I tried to smile, but didn’t quite manage it; and maybe that was fitting too. You can’t quite be euphoric at a time like that. I packed my things, took one last look round, and turned off the light. I then headed out to the club’s bar and a post-match beer with my friends, before going off to play a seven-a-side football tournament on the other side of town, where I was one of the younger players taking part. This game has been one of the greatest journeys of my life, and it always will be.

Thank you for everything, Unicorns; and I’ll see you all down the pub, or in that WhatsApp group, where I hope you will lovingly and mercilessly mock this sentimental post as fully it deserves. I won’t mind, though. From start to finish, it has been the greatest pleasure.

On Asian-American men: John Cho, Hollywood, and inter-racial dating.

So: inter-racial dating. There are a few topics I don’t discuss that much in my writing, mainly because for all my openness as a poet I am reflexively very private about some things, and one of those topics is dating. Every now and then, though, I see something which frustrates me enough to take the leap. I have just listened to a short radio piece on Hollywood’s historical reluctance to cast Asian-Americans as leading men, and – perhaps it was the black coffee, the Monday morning, or the slightly early start – something tipped me over the edge.

John Cho, who is a fine actor and something of an ambassador for Asian-Americans making their way in the film industry, spoke of the boundaries he had encountered when growing up. “Girls would say in an almost benevolent tone that ‘I just (have) zero attraction to Asian men’,” he told the BBC World Service. “It wasn’t considered taboo to say something like that.” I can remember being told similar things, and so his words resonated with me. Whilst who you are attracted to is of course a deeply personal matter, the reasons for that attraction often go unexamined. Cho spoke of the way that Hollywood portrayed Asian men as weak, and not as natural leaders, which had implications for how they were viewed in wider society: including, in some cases, the fact that some would not readily consider them as potential romantic partners.

If you think about it, “I have zero attraction to white men”, or “I have zero attraction to black women”, is actually a really odd thing to say to someone’s face. The response I first think of is “what – all of them? There are millions, you haven’t even met each of them yet”.  Look – it could just be their preference. But it still seems a little strange, particularly when you announce that to someone out loud.

I mean – what do I know. Maybe sexual attraction really is as visceral and uncontrollable as the type of food that you like. Or maybe, at some level, we have been socially conditioned to say No! to the possibility of ever fancying someone from a particular ethnic group, to the extent that we feel entitled to look into their hopeful eyes and say it. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that, should I ever again be in a situation where someone ever says “I just don’t fancy black guys”, I will say “OK, so you’ve not met the hot ones so far. Give me a few moments, let me me go through my phone book. I’ll change all that.”

Well played, Ireland. Well played.

So it looks as though Ireland has said Yes to equal marriage by a wide margin. What a day. As John Amaechi recently wrote on Twitter, it really is “restoring faith in humanity” to see that so many Irish people travelled home to vote on this referendum. The reported margin of victory represents a fantastic validation for LGBT people from the society around them – a validation that for far too long they have to draw only from themselves. How remarkable that, in a Catholic country, LGBT people will be able to walk the streets and think “the majority of my nation is on my side”.

Of course homophobia won’t disappear in Ireland overnight. Of course the abuse and the attacks won’t all magically disappear. But that cynicism can take a ticket and wait its turn.  Because this is the type of change that was resisted for years with terrifying aggression, and which was brought about through endless courage, compassion and love.

Every LGBT person remembers the day they came out. For so many, it felt not so much like stepping out of the closet as stepping into flame. For so many, the fear of living life as they truly are will have subsided sharply, to a degree that can never be measured by any public vote. And this outcome will hopefully resonate far beyond Ireland, in deeply religious countries where homosexuality is still illegal, if not punishable by death. LGBT people in those places can look at this referendum and think, “look, the world is learning to care”.

The poet Jessica Horn has spoken of “love as a revolutionary force”, and that is what the Yes vote in Ireland represents today. Well played, Ireland: well played.

 

 

Notes for your exit interview.

If you’re about to break up with your partner, and you’re reading this the night before you’re going to tell them it’s over, then here are some tips or guidelines as to how you should conduct that fateful conversation. Unless you are a sadist, no-one particularly enjoys the exit interview, that time when you look into the eyes of someone who cares deeply about you and sever all ties. Of course, you may want to inflict pain upon them for all the terrible wrongs they have done you during your relationship, in which case my advice is irrelevant: I have written this only for those who retain some significant amount of compassion for their doomed lover, and who therefore want to make the breakup as painless for them as possible.

Obviously, the news that you’re leaving them is going to hurt. At the same time, there are degrees of agony, and if tomorrow will be a car crash for their emotions then you have the choice to pass them an airbag. Because you are going to break them tomorrow – the only question is how much. You’ve presumably already chosen the venue. Here’s hoping it’s a coffee shop at a neutral location, safely in the middle of town and close to transport links for your speedy and relieved escape immediately afterwards. If you’ve selected a restaurant, that may not work so well if you’re aiming for urgency and discretion – people tend to eavesdrop when hunched over their meals, it’s just one of those things, and your partner, oblivious to their fate, may order food, which will string the whole miserable experience out.

Wherever you do go, make sure that you sit near the door, or in the corner nearest the street, so as to avoid too much scrutiny. And when you begin to speak, to utter the spell that will release you, please remember two things. The first is that your partner will probably have no idea what is coming. Only the very smartest animals can sense the day when they are being summoned to the slaughterhouse. As a result, there will be a moment when they slow the chewing of their food or the sipping of their coffee and sit up with wide, terrified eyes, a moment when they realise, my God, this is the exit interview, this is actually happening. When that moment comes, and it will, keep your tone as level as you can. You have come this far with conviction; do not fail yourself now.

The second thing you must remember is that, during the course of your once-joyous and now-terminal romance, your partner solemnly gave you possession of a series of weapons. At the time, your partner was not aware that these were weapons. Instead, they were your partner’s greatest fears, their most vulnerable truths. Each of those fears and truths is now a nuclear warhead that you can aim at their self-esteem. When you sit there tomorrow morning, with this silently-seething array of nukes for which your partner had the good grace to hand you the launch codes, there may be a moment when you are tempted to use them. Perhaps one of them, perhaps all of them. Who knows – when your chest is rumbling with emotion, maybe even the thrill of imminent freedom, you may find it cathartic to set off these detonations deep in your partner’s heart. But please be careful. The news that you are leaving them will, of itself, be sufficiently devastating. Any additional bombs that you explode run the risk of being gratuitous and therefore cruel.

That being said, say what you feel you must. Please know, though, that whatever you say to them tomorrow will stay with them for months or years afterwards, like radiation. And know that your mark is already on them. For far longer than they will like, your partner will think they see you walking by in the street, reminded of your gait by a stranger; they will pick up their phone to text you a joke, before remembering that they no longer store your number; they will wander down a supermarket aisle, and then stop themselves, realising they only came this way to collect that food you loved. And every now and then, when they pause the frenzy of tasks they’ve taken on to stop thinking about you – at a traffic light, maybe, waiting for the green to beckon them across – their eyes will fill uncontrollably at the loss of you. Or maybe it won’t be there, in public: maybe they’ll make it back to their home, under merciful cover of night, and shudder with tears against a pillow that they hold unusually close.