There are times, when I am in front of the TV, watching some bit of pomp and circumstance in some fancy, ancient building in this green and pleasant land, feeling strangely proud to be British, wiping a red, white and blue tear from my eye and ready to swear my allegiance to whichever celeb is this week’s ‘national treasure’, I do have the most random of thoughts.
That will come as a surprise.
As after all TLF doesn’t often do random (ahem).
One of these recurring random and yet I would argue fundamentally practical thoughts is generally associated with big churchy type places – St Paul’s that kind of thing. I do think, during a break in the proceedings or maybe a very dull bit, “blimey what if you needed to go to the loo?” Not only are there unlikely to be facilities immediately on tap (BOOMBOOM!), but with sufficient VIPs in the audience any sudden movements while trying to conduct a covert search for the bogs might lead to some secret service body guard, rugby tackling you to the floor in case they need to defend the honour of some ‘notable’ person.
As it happens last week I found myself playing the part of a ‘notable’ at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, on the terraces of Westminster Abbey. (I know, not the smoothest segue but it’s been a tough week.) I have claimed the word ‘notable’ as Nicolas Witchell apparently used it to describe the attendees at said event. So if Prince Charles’s fave royal correspondent said it then it must be true, This is a little more generous than my colleagues who referred to the attendees as, ‘a lot of VIPs and you.” It is true that the phalanx of the international press did seem to ignore TLF’s appearance, but maybe it was cos I wasn’t wearing the right hat, foolishly eschewing (BOOM!) my South African beanie hat at the last minute.
Being a notable…but not a VIP does mean that you have to get there early…and so even as you celeb spot and tap your toes along to the brilliant Soweto gospel choir it does leave you a lot of time to DWELL before anything actually happens. And let me tell you 55 mins of not-having-a-lot-to-do can leave you focussed on the glaring fact that there REALLY IS NO TOILET and how am I going to get through the next hour of the service when it finally starts, without causing a small international weeing incident, potentially recorded for posterity by the BBC?
So what did I do? Tried to take my mind off it. Think about something else. Think about the beautiful game (see we got there in the end). And in particular, as there is huge eff-off picture of Nelson Mandela sitting above us, think about football and its role in the struggle against apartheid. I know that sounds a bit extreme, but trust me. History tells us that on Robben Island, where your Mandelas and Sisulus, other activitists plus non-political felons were imprisoned, football did, in its inimitable fashion become a focal point of a community. Giving a sense of purpose to those whose entire prison lives were generally limited to smashing up rocks in hideous conditions and being humiliated in as many ways as the regime could dream up.
And we are not just talking any random, ragtag, jumpers for goal posts, rush-goalie occasional game. Oh nooo. We’re talking full-on organised leagues, with all the necessary supporting admin, team colours and designed badges and the occasional brouhaha type scandal – the biggest of which involved the Atlantic Raiders and was still causing uncomfortable silences years after the prison had shut.
It started with prisoners tying together a couple of jumpers for a ball and managing some late night five a side in the cells. Possessions were pretty much banned on Robben island but of course a football made of clothes quickly came apart and looked like its original constituent parts. Over time international pressure and a desire by the prison authorities to give a veneer of respectability to the whole place led to slow change and the opportunity for the prisoners to get their hands on proper kit and organise themselves (prison authorities clearly not bright enough to work out how empowering this would be -HA!). The prisoners created their own football association; the Makana FA, and taught their referees via a book written by Labour MP Dennis Howell that was for some reason lurking in the prison library. Like everywhere else refs were frequently the villains of the piece, with 47 complaints in one season being an all time record.
It did occur to me that 24 years after football ended on Robben Island we could have at least formulated our own tribute with a touch of 5-a-side in the Abbey while we were waiting. There were some hideous hats that I would have happily liberated in the interests of forming a football. Fortunately (for all concerned I imagine) the allotted hour had arrived and the Very VERY VIPs arrived. Distracted by them and then a service really of celebration, that wasn’t mawkish or too pompous, before I knew it I was wiping a tear from my eye and hot footing it to the loos in Westminster subway.
International incident avoided, great statesman and inspirational figure duly honoured and TLF prompted to re-read the book, ‘More than just a Game: Football v Apartheid’. That counts as a successful and memorable day in my book.