Between a Rock and a Hard Place

I want to write a few words about cancel culture. That hackneyed term is ubiquitous now. There are several high profile examples bringing it into focus, not least the Will Smith/Chris Rock incident at the Oscars.

Frankly, enough was written about that and I’ve no desire to jump on the bandwagon. What interests me is what it (and things like it) say about cancel culture. Obviously, a world where a comedian telling jokes is susceptible to intervention is problematic. Equally worrying, though, is our overreaction to relatively minor indiscretions, blowing such incidents out of all proportion.

Cancel culture is an interesting phenomenon. In the modern rush to silence people and, well, cancel, we’ve lost the run of ourselves. The insidious thing about cancel culture is the way it shuts down debate. Perceived wrongdoers are arbitrarily silenced, often permanently. It’s the ultimate moral sanction, where public (usually online) critics are judge, jury and executioners.

There’s nothing new here, but the sheer scale of the problem is magnified by social media and the instantaneous reactions it provokes. Any transgression (either real or imagined) is dealt with in an immediate, often irreversible fashion.

And there’s logic to it. Bad decisions and mistakes should have consequences, right? Of course, but who in the online mob decides the scale and severity of the punishment? Who decides those that face and those that evade sanction? And where is the scope for forgiveness, rehabilitation and redemption?

Conventional justice systems allow for this, but the online mob not so much. Part of the trouble with this is the way in which it curtails free speech. Cancel culture stops people expressing sincerely held opinions, within the law, because those views may offend certain sensibilities. That is obviously supremely dangerous in a democracy.

Well meaning as much of this is, it is also profoundly unnecessary. In many ways, cancel culture seeks to influence something that largely regulates itself. In days gone by, we knew where the line was with free speech and hardly ever went over it. And on the rare occasions we did, there were certainly consequences, but the breaches were nothing that couldn’t be atoned for. It was a good system. But that’s not deemed good enough in the modern world.

We are increasingly unforgiving. These days, we don’t want solutions but want to apportion blame instead. That might be cleansing, satisfying even, but doesn’t solve any problem. And it absolves us of the responsibility for making things better. Human beings will always transgress, but we must allow for rectification. Otherwise, the law of the jungle applies. It’s mob rule.

Back to the Oscars. When a comedian gets interrupted for doing their job, the whole world loses its mind overreacting to the incident, and everyone involved is threatened by some form of cancellation (even if temporary), there must be a better way of doing things.

@rorymcgimpsey

Look for The Best

Modern life is tough. Everywhere, we’re surrounded by stresses and strains. It doesn’t get any easier. I’m in my 40s’ now. When you’re younger, (if lucky and privileged, as I am), you get away with it. Life insulates you from its more excessive elements. You’re sheltered from the extremes.

That doesn’t happen when you’re older. It changes. Every single person you know is going through something. Sometimes it’s mild, sometimes extreme. But there’s something amiss. Every single person in your circle is going through something stressful: career, family, health, finances. You can bet your life on it.

And it’s hard to stay stoic in the face of life’s pressures. Deflection works for a while, but the strain shows eventually. It seeps out. And, in many ways, the pressure’s never been greater. We’re expected to be so much and do so such for our families and ourselves these days. Nowadays, everything is judged against a supposed perfect standard that simply doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion. And a supremely unhealthy one at that.

And what’s more, everyone’s perpetuating it. It was not so long ago that only celebrities had carefully constructed images for public consumption. These days, everyone has one. Social media has changed the way we interact with each other and it’s not for the better. Most of us are putting out inauthentic versions of ourselves to impress complete strangers and with no tangible reward. Myself included.

What value is there in these myriad social media profiles where we’re all proclaiming our supposed greatness and exuding falseness through edited, filtered photographs? Where is the real meaning in any of that? This is surely one of the main reasons we all feel so discomfited in the modern world.

But it’s not the only thing by any means. In 2022, we’re more tough on each other than ever before. The world is a more sinister and unforgiving place. Just look at so-called cancel culture. Modern life compels us to judge the perceived indiscretions of others in an extreme and permanent way, while simultaneously seeking forgiveness and understanding for our own flaws. How can any society work in this way? It can’t.

My fear is this will only get worse. I’m genuinely concerned about the world my daughter (just turned five) will grow up in. We’re already fixated with image and insincerity to the point of ridiculousness. Where will this end? If this is what the internet and social media looks like in 2022, where will it be in ten, let alone twenty years time? It’s a sobering thought.

It’s impossible to avoid a lot of this, however. The syndromes described above are merely symptoms of getting older in the times we’re living through. The world is a tough and cynical place. Maybe it was ever thus, but you get a different perspective as you get older and navigate through life’s various obstacles, both real and imagined.

What’s the answer, then? Well, the antidote to falseness is authenticity. Truth is the antidote to lies. Kindness is the antidote to meanness and cruelty. That doesn’t solve all of life’s problems, of course, but, gee, it gets us much closer to where we need to be. And correction is definitely needed.

It’s important, as we get older and in such an increasingly cynical world, that we look for the good in all situations. That we see the best in ourselves and others. Not that we should be naive, but rather optimistic and open minded in the face of life’s nonsense. By doing that, we can not only make our own worlds better places, we can add to our collective joy and experience. In a world of such rampant individualism, selfishness and fickleness, we need society more than ever.

@rorymcgimpsey

Will The World Ever Learn?

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve all looked on horrified as the world descends into chaos once again. The scenes from Ukraine are scary and heart-breaking in equal measure. The unprovoked nature of the attack only adds to our sense of indignation.

What’s happening is definitely an escalation, and indeed re-ignition of post-cold war tensions. Certainly, we haven’t seen the likes of this in scale and intention for quite some time. I know, yes, that wars and conflicts happen all the time. Tragically, that’s true. But there’s something about this conflict that’s producing a visceral reaction in the west.

There’s good reason for that. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is resonating loudly precisely because it’s happening on our European doorstep. We’re more agitated when things like this happen close to home. That this is an uncomfortable realisation doesn’t make it any less true.

We haven’t experienced fully-fledged war as western Europeans for decades. In fact, all post-war generations in western Europe, notwithstanding the regular bouts of insanity in other parts of the globe, have lived their entire lives in unfettered peace, harmony and relative affluence. Yes, this war is having precisely the effect it is because it’s waged a little too close to home. That’s the brutal reality.

It raises fundamental questions. As a species, how do we do better? At this stage of our evolution, why is war, conflict and mayhem still our basic reflexes and recourses? Why, in 2022, are we still not better than this? Russia-Ukraine undoubtedly reflects tensions in the geo-politics of the region that were simmering for a while.

Putin may claim to be antagonised by the expansion of NATO, but the current conflict suggests much more. Russia-Ukraine speaks of the utter disintegration of diplomacy and cooperative government in the post-cold war era. Relations break down, on a global level, when sincere and productive dialogue stops. When politics and its systems fail, tensions, distrust and, inevitably, wars, fill the void. That’s the permanent cycle of human existence, I’m afraid.

Of course, there’s a better way and its incumbent on those with influence to help find it. We must always strive for solutions. War starts quickly, but it also ends quickly. That’s where hope lies. It’s not too late for Russia to pull back from the brink and end this insanity and unjustified aggression. Enough suffering and misery is inflicted already. This maddening, futile war must be brought to an immediate end.

For those of us that grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a lot of chatter about what World War 3 looks like. The idea of nuclear oblivion was never too far away, as crazy as that sounds. We’re a long way from that scenario, of course, but it’s nonetheless depressing to know how little we’ve learned in the ensuing years. Above all else, Russia-Ukraine shows how complacent we’ve become to those ideas. What a sobering thought.

P.S. You know, you’re never too old to learn. Every time you think you have it sussed, life bites you and shows there’s still much to discover. Every now and then, though, breakthroughs happen.

Always watch closely how individuals treat other people. It’s extremely important to observe that. Why? Because that’s precisely how they’ll treat you! No ifs, ands, buts or maybes about it.

This may seem like an obvious thing to note, yet it’s amazing how often, as humans, we ignore this truth. But it’s one that life teaches us over and over again. If others are treated badly, it’s only a matter of time before the same treatment is meted out to us. The only way to avoid it is to be aware. To observe. Here endeth the lesson.

@rorymcgimpsey

Back to Brilliance

I finally caught Peter Jackson’s brilliant new Beatles’ film, Get Back, on Disney Plus. As you probably know, the film supplements the original Let it Be film (1970) with hours of previously unseen and re-mastered footage.

The results are incredible. You are immediately transported back 50 years and watch, first hand, the greatest band of all-time, at work in the studio. It’s almost like a time machine was built with the specific purpose of observing one of the most pivotal moments in music history.

Yes, Get Back charts the making of The Beatles’ final studio album (second last to be recorded, of course!) and all the attendant politicking and fall outs that happened in that turbulent period. I don’t think it’s a spoiler, though. to state that the film shows a much more complicated picture-that’s well documented at this stage.

You see plenty of bickering, of course, but you also see love, laughter, creativity and friendship. And yes, for most of it, Lennon and McCartney get on very well, thank you very much. At one stage George walks out, of course, but that aside, the atmosphere is much more convivial than previously portrayed.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is a long haul. I can’t see too many non-fans patiently sitting through it. There is a lot of sitting around jamming, talking nonsense and not doing very much else. The most absurd element is the endless debates about where the ‘concert’ would take place.

As many of you will know, the premise of the Get Back sessions (what became Let it Be) was to capture The Beatles live. The whole project was to be stripped back and without all the trademark multi-tracking and overdubbing that was the hallmark of previous albums. Back to basics and naked, if you like. All this was captured, as it happened in the studio, in documentary form.

The project was to end with a live concert where he band would perform the songs they created in the studio. This is where Jackson shows the latter day Beatles at their most excessive and absurd. There are interminable discussions over this concert venue. Everywhere on earth, it seems, from the Pyramids, to a ship, to Primrose Hill, and scores of other places, are mooted as possible venues.

It’s ridiculous. Hours of discussion over something that was never going to happen. For me, it highlights, arguably, how directionless the Beatles were in 1969. Imagine the biggest band in the world now working through a project like this without the slightest, coherent thought about the logistics of what was going to happen at the end of it?

Remember, The Beatles were already a phenomenon and yet the film shows this mega-entity essentially making their plans and logistics up as they went along. Actually, it shows how basically rudderless the band was following Brian Epstein’s death two years earlier. If the institution (and that’s what they were in ’69) was better protected/managed, perhaps they wouldn’t have imploded less than a year later?

For all that, it’s a joy to see them at work. The initial Twickenham Studio sessions are often portrayed as tough and uninspiring and the film does little to challenge that view. It’s in those early days that we see most of the tension and Harrison’s temporary walkout. There is little in that early, disjointed jamming to suggest classics were being created.

But as time progresses, we see the album take shape. Amidst all the tedium, we see great songs like Let it Be and Get Back written almost on the spot. It’s simply wonderful. We also see the transformation when Twickenham is abandoned for the more comfortable confines of the Apple Building on Saville Row. Things pick up further when the band is joined by its old friend, Billy Preston, on keyboards. That’s where the magic happens.

It ended on the roof, of course. After all that hype and speculation, The Beatles’ final live concert took place on the roof of Apple, with the police interrupting as they hoped. How perfect and apt an ending. And Jackson captures the brilliance, genius and significance of it all. It’s essential viewing for any Beatles fan.

Beatles’ fans can talk all day about how the band disintegrated shortly after or the way in which Spector changed the record into something it was never meant to be. But in watching this superb film, none of that matters. For a brief moment, the greatest band there ever was, standing atop the Apple Building, was united, defiant and where it was supposed to be. They were back.

@rorymcgimpsey

Maiden Paradise

It may have escaped your attention but Iron Maiden released their 17th studio album, Senjutsu last month. Granted, hard rock isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The release hasn’t garnered as much attention as Adele’s upcoming new album, of course, but it’s a brilliant piece of work and well worth checking out.

I’ve been a Maiden fan for longer than I care to remember. I spent much of my teenage years in a state of semi-obsession with the band and devoured their work in minute detail. No matter that it was the most unfashionable thing on earth at the time. I had the Maiden bug and that was it. My fandom coincided with perhaps the lowest point in the band’s history, as contemporary trends left them far behind in the dance obsessed ’90s.

I still recall watching Maiden in a three-quarters’ full Maysfield Leisure Centre in 1996. That sums up their status at the time. Then the staggering revival happened. Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the band in 1999, acting as the catalysts for a new era that’s seen unprecedented success. Maiden has now sold over 100 million copies of their albums and sit atop the pinnacle as bona fide rock giants. My teenage self scarcely believes it.

Therefore, the launch of a new record is an event. Maiden has become such a polished and refined act, new music is greeted with a mixture of expectation and nagging doubt: can they really deliver after all these years? In short, yes! Maiden always produce the goods and deliver emphatically again with Senjutsu.

The new album has everything we expect and oodles more. The heavy riffs and booming guitars are measured by beautiful melodies, layered vocals and distinctly softer interludes. It’s an eclectic piece. Modern Maiden has long championed its progressive and folksy influences, and the band takes that evolution to a new level here. Lost in a Lost World is a novel departure, while remaining essentially Maiden at the same time.

The first single, The Writing on The Wall is a fine track and deceptively brilliant. On first listen it’s a little unremarkable, but the song subsequently establishes itself with admirable persistence. Indeed, it gets better with every listen. And it’s different. More mainstream, perhaps, than we’re used to, the song undoubtedly makes best use of Iron Maiden’s peerless musical assets.

In fact, there isn’t a bad song on the album. The Time Machine initially seems silly and whimsical in conception, but is actually a fantastic song. Days of Future Past is a much shorter track and atypical of the overall album. It’s another change of pace, but in a good way and wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Bruce’s solo albums from the late ’90s.

There are other departures, too. Darkest Hour is a brooding ballad about, ahem, Winnie Churchill. Yes, you read that right. Only Maiden can do things like that and make it work! But there are other more dependable elements. Maiden’s trademark gallop is reassuringly audible in Stratego, while the album concludes with a trio of epics from Steve Harris.

The final three songs aren’t for the faint of heart, but are well worth the investment. They form a majestic wall of sound that plays around with virtually all of Maiden’s signature topics and themes, utilising every trick in their vast book. It is a simply wonderful conclusion.

I enjoy Maiden more than ever, but it wasn’t always like that. Indeed, as I got older and delved into bands like The Beatles, I viewed Maiden as a little anachronistic and immature by comparison. What adult wants to listen to songs about medieval battles, mythology and movies? I drifted away for a time. But you know what? I was right the first time! Iron Maiden are superb and profoundly under appreciated for the brilliance of their work.

Actually, Maiden are the sort of act that you appreciate better with age. Indeed, it takes a little maturity to fully appreciate the intricacy, complexity and melodic consistency of their music. And, after all these years, they get bigger and better. Senjutsu charted Maiden’s best ever ranking on the Billboard 200 and they were only beaten to the UK no.1 album spot by a whisker, by Drake, on the new album’s release. Remarkable. Maiden’s Somewhere in Time album contains an epic about Alexander The Great. Alexander purportedly wept because he had no worlds left to conquer. In 2021, the same is true of Iron Maiden.

PS The United Rugby Championship has started. It’s early days, but already it’s plain to see that whatever problems pan-Celtic rugby has, the South African sides aren’t the answer. These are good players, but taken out of their cultural home and environment, they’re struggling to make an impact. It’s sad to see if rather predictable. Back to the drawing board?

@rorymcgimpsey

Wounded Pride

So, the Lions are back home after an underwhelming and flat series defeat in South Africa. On the bare facts of it, it wasn’t a disgrace by any means. In a Lions’ context, a 2-1 reverse is far from a disaster. However, the nature of the performances bristled.

It was a hard watch. After hammering poor provincial opposition, the Lions failed to sparkle in the four matches that mattered: South Africa ‘A’ and the three Tests. Little was created of note and the Springboks’ defence was never tested in a meaningful sense. A couple of decent maul tries scored but that’s it. Not much else.

There are extenuating circumstances, of course. South Africa was ravaged by Covid long before BIL and the boys came to town and the country’s vaccination programme lags behind our own. There are real questions over whether the tour should have gone ahead at all. There were viable alternatives. But that’s another matter.

It proceeded as planned but, alas, the rugby didn’t excite. The offering on the pitch was not just sterile but actually quite tedious. Keith Wood is right in his blunt assessment. We can’t blame the Springboks. SA have played the exact same way for well over a century. The Lions were never going to overcome rugby’s most brutal side in an arm wrestle and standing toe-to-toe.

The Lions needed to invent. And they didn’t. Not even a little bit. It was rugby by numbers. And gee, it was flat. It took about ten minutes of the recent Bledisloe Cup game to remind us that it doesn’t have to be this way. There were anomalies in selection, too.

Duhan van der Merwe is a decent, hard working player but out of place in a Lions Test team. And the exclusion of Owen Farrell makes little sense. On the biggest of stages, Test match animals are needed and Farrell fits the fill: a big game player and a leader. Even marginally out of sorts, he offers something tangible to any squad he’s in.

Selection aside, the biggest impediment to success was the style. Too often the Lions kicked down the hosts’ throats and engaged in the sort of hoof-fest the Boks lap up. And they went there repeatedly, even when palpably not working. Talk about playing into the other side’s strengths. The Lions only opened up with Finn Russell’s premature introduction in the third Test following Dan Biggar’s injury. But it was too little, too late. The opportunity was lost.

In the end, the mystery is how close the Lions came to pulling it off. Because this wasn’t a vintage crop and the tourists were too far off the pace to seriously threaten the world champions. Yes, they had their moments and just completing the tour in such tough circumstances was impressive, but the better side won. No doubt.

Actually, it wasn’t a vintage tour. If looking for keenly fought competition and tactical innovation this summer, Love Island delivered more consistently. At least, the action heated up at times!

P.S. The other big sporting event of summer 2021 was the Euros. And it nearly came home, against all the odds. In the end, England fell a little short but played well and are rightly proud of their efforts. And their likeable, humble manager, Gareth Southgate, played a blinder too.

What struck me most following England’s penalty loss to Italy was how quickly fans and commentators turned against the England coach. It was not just quick but instant. A manager and team hailed as heroes moments before condemned by a merciless and unforgiving online jury. Sport is a fickle place sometimes.

@rorymcgimpsey

Uniting Jack

I just caught up with the documentary, Finding Jack Charlton that aired on BBC 2 last week. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a butcher’s. The film recounts Charlton’s extraordinary contribution to Irish football (and Irish society in general), as well as providing previously unseen footage of Big Jack’s final months as he battled dementia.

It works well as a piece of nostalgia, but the film offers so much more than that. For, in modern Irish history, Charlton is a truly remarkable figure. Prior to his record breaking tenure, the Republic of Ireland had not qualified for a major tournament. Indeed, the 26-county team was the poor relation of the Irish football sides, Northern Ireland qualifying for the World Cup finals as recently as 1986.

By the time Charlton left the role, the Republic had qualified for two World Cup finals (famously reaching the quarter-finals in Italia ’90) and a European Championships. It’s an incredible turn of fortunes and testament to the sheer force of personality and charisma Charlton typified. It’s hard to imagine anyone else leading such an unlikely revolution.

Of course, Big Jack’s football was pragmatic and functional rather than a purist’s dream. The end justified the means, for sure, but any manager can only work with the resources at his disposal. The use of the ‘granny rule’ was equally controversial, albeit ahead of its time-rightly or wrongly-in international sport.

Charlton’s Ireland weren’t Brazil, but I think memory deceives us a little in that regard. Italia ’90 is the first major tournament I can remember as a kid. That Irish team was better than it ever got credit for.

But on-field progress was only a fraction of what Charlton brought to Irish football. He also provided (and this is clearly seen in the documentary) mentorship to a generation of Irish footballers. This is especially visible in Charlton’s relationship with the brilliant but troubled Paul McGrath. The most poignant part of the film shows Charlton, his memory now cruelly restricted by his condition, recognising McGrath in footage of Irish football’s golden era.

There’s also the intangible contribution those Irish sides made to the country at large. Without resorting to cliché, we know the sort of Ireland Big Jack came to when he took the reins in the 1980s. Rife unemployment, economic insularity and social conservatism were all still prevalent. The Troubles were at their height in the North. By the time Jack left, the country was transformed.

There’s much to explain the changes. So much happened. Internationalism, U2, secularisation of society, the peace process, and the genesis of the Celtic Tiger. Of course, we can over egg the pudding about how much Big Jack and his army contributed to any of that. But it’s equally wrong to underestimate the contribution. For Jack Charlton, and the football teams he created, undoubtedly helped change Ireland in a profoundly positive way.

It was remarked often after his death last year that Charlton was probably the first Englishman that the Irish really took to their hearts sincerely. A World Cup winner in 1966 that became an Irish institution. If he did nothing else, that’s a wonderful legacy. Actually, Big Jack Charlton was much more than that.

A unifying figure who brought hope to an island bereft of hope when he came. Someone who transcended national and geographical boundaries to deliver fantastic memories for the Irish people: sports fans and non sports fans alike. A Geordie who brought pleasure to a nation that his Irish peers could only dream of.

P.S. I’ve just finished James Haskell’s autobiography. I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I started but thoroughly enjoyed it. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but Haskell is that rarest of things in the modern game: a character. Through the years, rugby had its personalities. It’s one of the things that sets it out from other sports.

However, increasingly in the modern game, players come across as almost robotic; shorn of personalities or at least shielding their real personalities in favour of carefully constructed public images. You couldn’t accuse Haskell of that.

The book is a decent yarn that covers a good cross section of modern rugby history. And it’s hilarious. Without spoiling, he describes a bizarre photo shoot that took place after he signed for Stade Francais and his retelling of the episode had me literally laughing out loud!

The book is full of nice stories and anecdotes like that, although it’s not for the easily offended. Well worth a read for any rugby fans looking for a light hearted but interesting sports book.

@rorymcgimpsey