Flotsam and jetsam
By Jeff Dell
Shyamal is a portly, genial Bangladeshi man who makes the best Indian omelette this side of Islamabad. Tomatoes, onion and green chili - lightly fried in oil - a suggestion of garlic, served on two parathas fresh off the hot plate, seasoned with fresh coriander - and accompanied by tea from the estates of Sylhet.
The comfortable clatter of pots and pans comes from the kitchen where Shyamal does his magic. I hear the giggle and rustle of the saris of the Ayahs and cooks, coming in for the day's work. I sniff the warm smell of wood smoke under the pots that are being made ready for the midday meal of fish curry and rice. Already the grounds have been swept; neat piles of leaves await collection on the hot brown earth. It looks as if the plants have been washed too - this happens sometimes - the fleshy leaves of things I can't put a name to shine in a sun that is already warning of its intent. It's seven am in the Kurigram District of Bangladesh, close to the Assamese border. It's my project, Shyamal is its cook and all round decent bloke, and I am in heaven.
The guesthouse is a basic structure: the floor is bare concrete and the roof is made from corrugated iron, a gift of Empire. The compound is immaculately kept, the staff making up in hard work and pride for what the country lacks in infrastructure. There is no sewage system in the town, cooking is done over wood fires and the electricity supply is erratic. I'm normally woken at six o'clock - with 'bed tea' and a bucket of hot water outside the door.
If the mornings are beautiful the evenings are difficult. At four thirty the power goes off. Bangladesh doesn't have enough power generating stations so it rations electricity. This is called 'load shedding' a term that sounds more like a new-age natural therapy than a plunge into the stars. The sun goes down quickly, giving at most a further thirty minutes of twilight before the shadows give way to night and the mosquitoes take over. Kurigram is close to nature and nature knows no boundaries, respects no personal space. It drones around your ears and nips at the ankles in the way of mosquitoes, crawls over your bedsheets by way of cockroaches and scurries about the rafters of the roof in the form of rats.
I defy nature for a few minutes, zapping the mossies with a killer spray and searching for cockroaches around the bed, before sealing myself on my straw mattressed bed under the nylon mosquito net. No one can tell how long the power supply will be down and so I settle down to what might be a long wait with some reading materials, a torch and the Roberts. If I'm lucky I might have an old Watford Observer or even a relatively recent Watford programme. More likely its 'Health Care in the Tropics' or 'Nutrition for Developing Countries'. Usually I can rustle up a newish Guardian, if pushed, the Telegraph, bought in Dhaka before the flight north along with batteries for the torch and radio.
Sitting up on the bed, enveloped in my nylon mosquito net, the smell of perfumed chemicals fresh in the air and the reading materials all but useless with the torch, I turn to London. I am in touch through the push of a button on the trusty Roberts. The clipped Oxbridge tones of the BBC world service presenters are comforting with their understated confidence and poise, though for warmth I prefer the lilting Welsh tones of Gaynor Howles. "This is London" - I love that call sign. The Roberts keeps me in touch with the world's important stories - earthquakes in Tehran, tension in the Gulf, Robin Cook's tour to Israel and Palestine and the football results.
Shyamal will follow my lead. If the dungeon of my room is too much to bear for what might be three hours of darkness and straw mattress I'll lurk in the kitchen and get fed the Bengali Bombay Mix, called Chana Chor here in Bangladesh, and cup after cup of thick brown tea. Despite his generous proportions Shyamal is a keen badminton player - one of the best among the employees - and an avid cricket supporter. He knows who is playing whom where and what the latest scores are. He knows who needs to do what to win and whether he is more likely to be able to do it than the guy whose place he took in the team. He says little about English cricket, presumably out of sympathy for me as an Englishman, certainly not from ignorance of the shocking facts of our ineptness. We sit across the kitchen table from each other, the room sweet with the smell of burning wood and warm from the fires under the pots.
"I'm not really a cricket fan", I say, "I like football." Shyamal knows about football. Well actually he doesn't; he knows about football hooliganism. I am often asked about it, and, as a sort of supplementary, asked how I can support a game that has become so closely associated with racism and nationalism. It's not easy to deal with this; I've got to play a bad hand well. I'm a white man heading an all black team and I follow in the wake of Empire and the division of a sub-continent. I come from a country where until recently Asian families were welcomed to the community by dog shit through the letterbox. As the father of two Anglo-Indian kids, I support a game that attracts people who taunt black players with monkey chants and a shower of bananas and is commentated on by people who can't tell one black player from another.
The truth is, for a long time I did give up the game. Living in East London I only went to West Ham twice in over five years. I lost contact with football to such an extent that I wouldn't even bother to watch a Cup Final. I hung out with people who cheered Cameroon against England as an anti-racist protest, although this was and will always be beyond me. Football had become a game for the lumpen, for les exclus, for the under-class. Moreover, its supporters were dying under the feet of others - snorting and squealing in their death throes like pigs in a slaughterhouse as their mates scrambled to safety on their backs! What sort of game was it that people sat in death-trap wooden terraces on top of years of accumulated rubbish and burned to death in front of TV cameras? What sort of a supporter was it that waxed lyrical about falling into crash barriers and pissing onto the terraces through rolled up programmes, happy to be fed shite at inflated prices?
I don't say all of this to Shyamal. There's an analogy that I was once comfortable with but which I no longer use. I'd say that you couldn't blame the game for racism and nationalism any more than you can blame the motor car for drunken driving. More and more this felt like a cop-out. What you can blame is football's utter lack of leadership, it's refusal to challenge racism in the grounds, dressing rooms and boardrooms of its clubs. You can blame its administrators for the safe environment provided for people who made Saturday afternoons unsafe for black people and opposition supporters and intolerable for kids and you can call them to account for the lack of the most basic amenities for their customers.
When Shyamal asks about violence at football, I try to tell him something of the culture of British life, the way in which we manage and treat one another. I tell him about grounds fit for zeroes, of football food so bad that it is nothing more than a reflection of the contempt in which the supporter is held. I tell him of fans so pauperised of expectation and self-esteem that they would slop through the overflow of piss to a blocked trough that served as a urinal without ever thinking they deserved better or that they had a right of complaint. Why was it popularly believed that the 'working man' got his rocks off surrounded by the threat of violence under the driving rain on an expensive, cold Wednesday night? I tell Shyamal of the misguided attempt in the late sixties, when it first became a problem, to see soccer violence as a protest of the poor, part of a wave of social protest that was gripping the college campuses throughout Europe and the States. It was wishful thinking and, as an explanation, was mostly unhelpful.
Though there was no end of legitimate anger that the 'working-man' could muster as his rightful inheritance, he was innately conservative, as firmly set in the social order and as obedient to the demands of Dharma as was ever any Hindu in the sub-continent. The Arsenal fans were never going to march on Highgate and the Cassiobury Park Estate never really expected a siege from a politicised Rookery - Dharma wouldn't allow it. And neither would the police. If ever this was - or could have been - a political movement, it was unguided by insight, philosophy or vision and soon mutated into self-hatred. Brought up like animals, treated like animals, behaving like animals, caged like animals and finally dying like animals.
Such musings are no longer fashionable and, truth be told, I'm tired of dealing with it all. I'm not sure that the terraces of football grounds are the most appropriate stage for political theatre. Increasingly I take a management perspective and try to distinguish between crass leadership and low consumer expectations on the one hand and the game itself. Football administrators must answer for the unreconstructed racists who make the grounds their home but the game itself does not. A fine pint of Abbot Ale is only linked to the vomit outside the Dog and Duck by the landlord who sells it to his obviously pissed customer.
What remains when all the flotsam and jetsam are washed overboard is the glory of the game itself, its grace and beauty. I tell Shyamal about Gordon Banks. Picture him: the Dalai Lama with gloves, the Master of the High Passes. I tell him of the beauty and grace of his flip to the left to paw away Pele's header in the 1970 World Cup. Banks and Pele: in no more than a moment both had done their duty in an act of such intuitive brilliance that both will surely escape the pain of rebirth. Karma will see to that. Oh football, hallowed be thy name!
Were I a Hindu I'd add both Banks and Pele to the pantheon of the phantasmagoria and psychedelia that grace the God-cult of much of India. I'd add a sub-deity to Ganesh with Banks' and Pele's heads atop elephantine bodies for football worshippers. Shyamal is not impressed. He prefers the simplicity of a five-day game that ends with rain or in a draw. His preference is for silly mid-offs and googlys. This is his language and I sense in him the love of his game that I have for mine. When Shane Warne sends that ball down the line, its serpentine spinning transfixes the batsman with the fear of his own inadequacy. It's magic, I know it, but I'm not under its spell. For me, it's the pass that splits defences by its intelligence and precision - Johnny Giles or Glenn Hoddle come to mind - or the feint that can have a man falling over himself as his brain sends conflicting signals to his legs.
Football can never rid itself of some basic contradictions. One's support of a team is an act of exclusivity and ignores the merits of opponents; rather, it cherishes and feeds off their failures. Belonging is an act of faith that carries within it the seeds of tribalism and nationalism. This being the case, just as the sport has to be better managed, so its supporters must better manage themselves. Football, the game, is bigger than the paraphernalia that feeds off it and tarnishes its name. It means firm action against racism, grounds fit for kids, meat pies made of meat, urinals fit to piss in - and toilets for women. It means that the guy who I would invariably end up next to in the Vicarage Road end - the low-life who in one utterance would insult Jews, Blacks and Gays, and who once threatened to kill me for clapping a Glenn Hoddle pass - would stay at home because he no longer felt that football had anything to offer him. It means Directors who love the game and supporters who think of themselves as customers as well as fans, as people worthy of respect, demanding value for money.
Shyamal and I chew the fat like this for a couple of hours until the power comes back on and I either do a few more hours on the computer or go to my room with the mossies, cockroaches and the Roberts. Different lives have taught us to put different spins on similar matters: for him it's badminton and cricket and for me it's football. The Power and the Glory, for ever and ever, Amen.