Who’d be a football coach now?

First published in sp!ked

It is nearly a month since former professional footballer Andy Woodward told the Guardian he was sexually abused as a boy by Barry Bennell, a former talent spotter and youth coach who spent most of his career at Crewe Alexandra and Manchester City. Woodward’s disclosure was the cue for other alleged victims to come forward and make allegations of sexual abuse, complete with suggestions of cover-ups, against Bennell and others (including former employees of Southampton, Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers). Now, with the child abuse scandal rolling through club after club – at the last count, over 20 police forces were investigating allegations at 98 clubs, and hundreds of calls have been logged by the NSPCC – questions need to be answered. How widespread is abuse in football? And is the current focus likely to stop would-be coaches from entering youth football?

Yet some have already made up their minds. Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC, says the scandal ‘reveals the worrying extent of abuse that had been going on in the sport’. According to Reuters, it is already ‘one of the worst paedophile scandals Britain has ever known’.

Surely a bit if perspective would be wise here. Not least because the hysteria about abuse in football is not conducive to establishing the facts. As it stands, we don’t know whether sexual abuse in football is on the same scale as the systematic abuse of young girls supposedly in the care of their local authorities, and for which the men responsible were convicted. We don’t know if it’s on the same scale as the Savile scandal, and the array of follow-on allegations, some true, many false, made against assorted public figures. We don’t know, because no one seems that bothered about establishing the facts before drawing hyperbolic conclusions.

The amnesia here is striking. Have those currently calling this ‘one of the worst paedophile scandals Britain has ever known’ forgotten about the collapse of Operation Midland, the Metropolitan Police’s completely groundless inquiry into the alleged sexual abuse and murder of children at the hands of senior politicians, army figures and spooks? Are they simply ignoring the folly of the now seemingly discredited Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which, with its impossibly broad remit, has proven nigh-on impossible to conduct? Too often, child-abuse hysteria has led to grave mistakes being made, from false accusations to ineffective suspicion-spreading inquiries.

Whatever the child-protection lobby might say, the truth is that child sexual abuse is extraordinarily rare. Most of what is recorded as suspected abuse is actually neglect, and few cases of abuse are suspected to be of a sexual nature. The official figures from the Department for Education show that in 2015/16, 50,310 children were subject to a child-protection plan, which means social-care professionals agreed that these children were suffering or likely to suffer significant harm. Of these 50,310, 46 per cent were recorded as possibly subject to neglect and 35 per cent to emotional abuse. The figure for suspected sexual abuse is not even cited because it is so small – tentative estimates suggest just six per cent of all ‘child in need’ assessments involve suspected sexual abuse.

The very scale of the national game, with 3.35million children aged five to 15 playing football in England, means that the child-abuse panic in football has far-reaching consequences. Yes, of course, one child abused is one too many. But one child denied the opportunity to play football at the weekend because their parents are scared that the local coach might abuse them is also one child too many.

That is the problem with the evidence-lite claims now being made about football. It is a panic that will eat away at people’s trust in coaches and clubs – and will ultimately further undermine children’s trust in adults. Instead of recklessly joining in the hysteria, the authorities owe it to young footballers not to overreact to allegations of awful but thankfully rare abuse. A measured response will ensure that children are able to enjoy their childhoods unhindered by very adult obsessions and suspicions.

In the past, those institutions and clubs now being accused of standing by while the abuse was carried out might have attempted a cover-up. Now they tend to the opposite, and open themselves up, issuing mea culpas and launching investigations and inquiries. So Martin Glenn, chief executive of the Football Association, wasted no time in announcing an immediate internal review committed to ‘openness and honesty and everyone exposing what has happened’. Such moves are meant to reassure people, but they actually succeed in eroding the longstanding trust football clubs have built up with local communities. It is bad enough when the BBC or parliament embrace child-abuse hysteria; but football is part of families’ everyday (or at least weekend) lives, bringing together parents in a way that doesn’t happen all that often anymore.

Introducing kids to local football clubs means placing them in the care of strangers, adults who will hopefully not only develop children’s football skills, but perhaps develop their character, too. There are no procedures or checks that can ever guarantee children are absolutely safe. But the minuscule risk that they might be abused should not be allowed to poison the adult-child relationships on which youth football is based. By actively undermining parents’ trust in football clubs and the people who work or volunteer for them, those who claim to be concerned about children’s welfare are actually ensuring that children will be worse off in the long run.

The abuse-in-football panic, as with the other child-abuse scandals of recent times, won’t help prevent rare and distressing cases of actual child abuse. But it will lead to the growth of yet more suspicion in our already atomised and anxious society.


Did Cathy Come Home? Homelessness Revisited

First published in Huffington Post

I was speaking at a debate on homelessness a few weeks ago at the Battle of Ideas Festival (a wonderful event that I urge you all to go to next year by the way!). What was most striking for me was that there was little battle over the fact that it’s at least as bad as it’s ever been. Which is quite a thing when you consider the hook for the debate was the 50 year old groundbreaking docu-drama Cathy Come Home, that so shocked the nation that it gave rise to the campaigning charities Crisis and Shelter that are still with us today.

How could homelessness have got worse when we’ve otherwise become so much more affluent? What is causing today’s homelessness problem and what solutions are being put forward to solve it? In trying to answer that question I found as many difficulties with the proposed solutions as I did with the problem they were supposedly designed to solve.

Homelessness comes in many different forms: from rough sleeping, staying in hostels, shelters and temporary accommodation; to those officially recognised as ‘statutorily homeless’ by their local authority, as well as those ‘hidden’ in overcrowded housing, squatting, ‘sofa surfing’, sharing or sleeping on the night bus. In the space of five years the numbers deemed homeless have roughly doubled. Those living in temporary accommodation have risen by 40%. In 2015, 30% of those recorded as statutorily homeless were private tenants forced out of their home because they could no longer afford to pay the rent; and in the same year it is estimated that 2.3 million households contained ‘concealed’ single people.

The government plans to build 400,000 affordable homes by 2021 – half of them starter homes and 135,000 shared ownership. Most experts will tell you that we need to build at least 250,000 homes (‘affordable’ or not) every year. There has been wide support for the Homelessness Reduction Bill; not least from my co-panellist Daniel Dumoulin at St Mungo’s who was involved in its drafting, and from MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee. Recently voted through to the next stage in parliament, it will impose greater duties on local authorities to advise the homeless, (somehow) prevent homelessness happening in the first place, and to provide relief or emergency accommodation where necessary. All without building more houses.

The problem is, of course, that you can’t legislate against homelessness or force local authorities to provide stock that they don’t have. So what should be done instead? We need to build at least sufficient housing to break even i.e. to replace aged stock, and then more again to reflect the growing population and the changing shape of households. This isn’t a ‘luxury’, as my co-panellist Rebecca Wilson of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness claimed. It is a necessity if we are to prevent further rises in homelessness, and if house prices and rents are to fall and become genuinely affordable. Policy-makers and campaigners need to stop accommodating to diminished expectations, and start accommodating people with the housing they need and want. That’s not to say that a bricks and mortar approach to the homelessness problem is going to be enough – as is clear from the mix of personal, socio-economic and policy determinants at play. There needs to be more targeting of more resources in more coordinated ways if the specific, complex and entrenched, needs of some homeless people are to be properly addressed.

We also need to stop expecting the homeless to play the vulnerability card. That would mean, for instance, abolishing the indignity of people having to prove that they are in ‘priority need’ and instead making common cause with them to demand more. I agree with Ken Loach, the man responsible for Cathy Come Home, who said in a recent interview: ‘People are not docile victims … they fight back’. He’s right, or at least he would be if he didn’t level this accusation at the Tory right alone – as my co-panellist, John Moss, chairman of an almshouses charity and Tory councillor, might agree.

Across the political spectrum the homeless tend to be treated as passive recipients, whether of abuse or pity. While bad housing and welfare policy are creating more homelessness, it is often the critics of these policies that are creating homeless victims. The left infantilise young adults, thinking 18-21 year olds are too vulnerable to have their benefits taken away, as will happen next year. And they think little of tenants too, campaigning against government policy that says they and not their landlord should receive their housing benefit. Our right wing government is, in this instance at least, doing the right thing by expecting tenants to pay their own rent. Apparently Loach is thinking of rejoining the Labour Party with the supposedly left-wing Corbyn in charge. If he knew this he’d surely think again?

Pop Go The Idols

First published in Huffington Post

I was lucky enough to produce and chair From Bowie to Bieber: What makes a music icon? at Battle of Ideas held at the Barbican, London, last month. The discussion was prompted by what looked like being a year defined by multiple celebrity (particularly rock star) deaths – Bowie, Prince and Lemmy (of Motorhead) prominent among them; and with the recent addition of the great Leonard Cohen, though at a somewhat grander age. That we have Brexit and Trump to thank for 2016 turning out rather differently – forcing our collective political futures onto the agenda, rather than shoe-gazing over our pop-cultural past – is no bad thing.

So you might ask why would apparently intelligent people devote an hour and a half to discussing the relative merits of Jay Z and Beyonce vs. Bowie et al, when there are other much more important things going on in the world? Why were so many of us so apparently overcome by a sort-of-mourning for those iconic strangers in the first place? ‘All of us, when we lose our cultural icons, are affected in a profound way because there’s a child in us who thinks they’re immortal’, said Sting in a recent interview. But surely there is more to it than that? For Barb Jungr, singer, writer and performer, icons are an ‘alchemy of image, intention, place and form’. At their height we were ‘watching the same things at the same time’; today iconography has given way to branding.

Tom Slater, deputy editor at spiked-online echoed Jungr, arguing that today’s pop stars come to us via ‘myriad channels’. They struggle to achieve iconic status: to be both ‘great and weird on a huge scale’ he argued – a combination, to be fair, that even in the past was rarely achieved. (Bowie was unique precisely because he could be mightily weird one moment, whether in his made-up Glamishness or his avant-garde starkness; and be wearing a chunky sweater the next, doing the intro for The Snowman or singing Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth with Bing Crosby for a Christmas special.) Icons were also, said Slater, identified with a ‘youthful spirit of rebellion’, but young people are too ‘scared of the world’ these days to be truly rebellious.

Chris Sharp, contemporary music programmer at the Barbican Centre, who broke off from rehearsals to join us, was also positive about today’s artists. Indeed he was critical of the ‘ossified idols’ of the past, describing Prince’s output as variable; and reminding us Bowie fans of his less successful work, for instance with Tin Machine. A reminder that we can worship our idols a little too much. And that there is still exciting music being made by intriguing young artists. It’s scattered and harder to find but discovering something new has its own appeal.

Still, there’s something missing. Lady Gaga may have changed her image, and rappers may be pushing boundaries musically, but this sense of play and exploration doesn’t have a wider impact. I’m not so sure that icons belong to the past, or that a multi-media world necessarily makes them obsolete. But there’s nothing dangerous about pop music today, it doesn’t unsettle any deeply held beliefs or sensibilities (not counting easily outraged ban-happy student bodies). Maybe that’s not their fault. We live in politically bland times after all. Or at least we used to. Perhaps the political earthquakes of recent times will play a role in the making of future pop idols.

Into the mind of David Bowie

First published in sp!ked

As psychologist Oliver James has it in Upping Your Ziggy, the young David Bowie, then known as David Jones, was haunted by the family curse of madness, which afflicted three aunts and his ill-fated half-brother Terry. Yet despite an emotionally stunted upbringing and, James believes, a borderline personality disorder, Jones flourished as the favoured child. He was able to ‘express his emotional turmoil’, rather than succumbing to it, ‘by creating musical personas’. But Bowie could be delusional, particularly when snorting industrial quantities of cocaine as the Thin White Duke; or imagining himself the ‘leper messiah’ of his most famous creation, Ziggy Stardust. But he would regain control: ‘I took that image off. I put it in a wardrobe in an LA hotel and locked the door.’

For James, Bowie is a case study in support of his argument with psychiatry regarding ‘the bogus boundaries between madness and sanity’. The music is treated as little more than a ‘sort of therapy’. What matters most for James is the idea ‘we can change who we are through our minds’, although these minds are determined by the ‘irreversible limits’ of our brain chemistry and the ‘parameters of our destiny’ imposed by childhood.

Paul Morley, Bowie fan and cultural critic, takes us beyond the psychological origins of Bowie to explore the making of, to use the title of his book, The Age of Bowie. It was in 1969, the hippy, happy year of Woodstock, that Bowie recorded one of his most famed songs, ‘Space Oddity’. This was an incongruously child-like novelty piece that was also ‘menacing and desolate’, both an uneasy commentary on the moon landings and a reflection on the recent death of his father. ‘Space Oddity’ launched Bowie’s career even if, as Morley drily notes, he was floating in his tin can for a couple of years before reappearing. In 1972, with the arrival of Ziggy, the ‘ultimate dreamcatcher for a new generation’, Bowie really looks like he’s been beamed down into the Top of the Pops studio from outer space. Still, as Morley recalls, the playground progs dismissed Bowie as ‘light, superficial, trashy’ compared with the ‘authentic roar of Led Zep, Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath’.

There was certainly a pretence about Bowie, something he would embrace. The music papers were creating a ‘riveting, semi-fictional framework’ and Bowie, too, in interviews, was ‘inventing as he went along’. But ‘he kept himself open enough’ for us to project our fantasies and theories on to him. ‘He let others make him up’, says Morley. It was only really in the Seventies, when pop music was a ‘seductive, influential force’, that Bowie was able to align himself with pop culture, from Ziggy through Diamond Dogs and the ‘plastic soul’ of Young Americans, to the Thin White Duke and the experimental Berlin albums, and personify the daring unbounded spirit of the times. Nevertheless, Bowie was still constantly renewing himself, observes Morley – he was always debuting, right to the end. In his final years, Bowie’s withdrawal from public life only excited greater interest. He even staged his own death, inasmuch as he made a performance of it; his final album, Blackstar, was released just days before his death.

You don’t hear about anything beyond Ziggy from James. He admits to not knowing much about Bowie beyond the quotes he Googles and an old biography, which he relies far too heavily on. As fascinating as he is on mental illness, James doesn’t tell us anything new about Bowie himself. It feels too much like a guess, a rush job and, dare I say it, a way of cashing in on a celebrity death. It’s not that Bowie’s backstory doesn’t tell us anything about him. His family’s history of mental illness was mined by Bowie as source material for his songs – indeed, it is one of the major themes that runs through his work. But to reduce Bowie’s music to a coping strategy, or his rock’n’roll lifestyle to addiction, to portray the sheer inventiveness of his work as no more than an expression of hard-wired early experiences, is to flatten out and completely misunderstand the significance of one of the most extraordinary artists of the past century.

It was Bowie’s ability to self-mythologise, and to weave this mythology into his songs without ever giving anything away, that made him so compelling. We’ll never know for sure to what extent he was grappling with his demons or just playfully drawing on his troubled family background to keep everyone guessing. While at the time it was enormously important, today the arm draped over Mick Ronson’s shoulder during a Top of the Pops performance of ‘Starman’, is of only historical note. ‘Do you like girls or boys? / It’s confusing these days’, Bowie would later sing on his 1995 album Outside. In the age of gay marriage and LGBT traffic lights, it is hard to appreciate how ground-breaking that gesture, however calculated, was. And I suspect the supposedly Nazi-like raised arm to fans in London’s Victoria station in 1976 would have him accused of inciting racial hatred today.

In the end, it is Morley who does the better job of getting inside Bowie’s head. The Age of Bowie is as much an act of imagination and devotion as it is research, so steeped in Bowie is he. He captures better than any other biographer I’ve read the essence of the man and his times. Morley understands that Bowie was doing so much more than just coping with a troubled and troubling past; he was also inventing something new. And he was doing it over and over again until nobody knew where David Jones ended and David Bowie began. For all that, he was a one-off, something that James fails to realise in his recommendation that readers do what they can to ‘up’ their own Ziggy Stardust. Bowie has left a gaping hole in the firmament. For the foreseeable future we are faced with a grim line-up of dying stars, thinks Morley. ‘The music that began as an articulation of youth and a making up of the future is entering a definite twilight zone.’ Where Bowie trailblazed his way through a decade upsetting conventions and orthodoxies as he went, today, ‘pop and rock music is essentially part of the establishment’.

From Bowie to Kanye: Death of an Icon

First published in WriteYou

Until June 23, when the UK decided to leave the EU, 2016 looked like it would be known as the year the celebrities died, one after the other, often unexpectedly.

A number of rock icons, David Bowie in January and then Prince in a lift at his Paisley Studios, among them. The very day Bowie died Julie Burchill wrote a piece criticising the ‘virtue sobbing’ over his shock passing by hangers on in the music industry.

There was certainly an embarrassment of middle-aged broadcasters claiming to be Bowie fans in the days and weeks that followed. But there seemed to be something more going on. There was a more widespread mourning or something approximating it. Was this our Diana moment revisited? Was it Generation X’ers very publicly contemplating their mortality? Sting, with a new album to promote including a song responding to the deaths of his peers, reflected in a recent interview: ‘All of us, when we lose our cultural icons, are affected in a profound way because there’s a child in us who thinks they’re immortal’.

Paul Morley, in his new biography The Age of Bowie, explains how in the seventies pop music had a ‘seductive, influential force’. Today it ‘is essentially part of the establishment’. The times are certainly a-changin’ when Bob Dylan receives the Nobel Prize for Literature; and Bowie gets his own commemorative Prom. Though I suspect this is more a case of the guardians of high culture having lost any sense of what it is they are guarding and why; than having any real regard for the work of the icons of the counterculture. After all, Strictly got itself a Prom too!

By comparison the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame looks conservative. That its 2017 nominees should only now include the 80s electronica of Depeche Mode (in addition to the seminal Kraftwerk), suggests the world of rock music is as dinosaur-like as ever. But as Paul Schrodt observes for Business Insider after seeing a father with his toddler at a Depeche Mode gig, even ‘the band that helped redefine rock in the 80s and 90s has literally become dad music’.

According to Morley, ‘The music that began as an articulation of youth and a making up of the future is entering a definite twilight zone’. That’s not to say there aren’t exciting artists out there doing interesting, and sometimes daring and innovative things. It’s just that the same names keep coming up. If it’s not Jay Z or Beyonce, it’s Kanye West. In the latter’s case at least rightly so. Lou Reed, just a few months before he died, praised West’s then latest album, Yeezus. There’s Lady Gaga too. Andrew Unterberger, writing for Billboard, admits she is ‘no longer the ringleader that all look to for what comes next’ but still ‘the sense of possibility in pop’ that she inspired anew ‘is as vast as it’s ever been’.

I hope he’s right. Closer to home the signs aren’t encouraging. There’s nothing original or daring about Robbie Williams singing “‘Aint no refutin’ or disputin’ – I’m a modern Rasputin’” but not, you understand, referring to the man the West loves to hate Vladimir Putin. And there’s Lily Allen of course, videoing herself crying in the Calais Jungle, and being rewarded with a fittingly gushing piece in The Guardian describing her as a ‘pop rebel’. Now that really is virtue sobbing.