Mental Health: The Priceless Necessity of Romanticism, Escapism and Pro Evo
Disclaimer: I'd better give a warning here; some of what I say in this article concerns abusing mental health, as well as mentioning thoughts of self-harm and suicide.
It is just over a year since I last attended a live football match so it felt fitting to write about something we all crave; something found near the turnstiles and touchline, yet just as tantalisingly out of reach.
For over the last year, it has become more apparent than ever that within the boundary brick and restrictive white lines of the football ground, resides unshackled liberation, fuelled by that elusive something that takes hold of us and swallows us whole for two hours at a time.
We know this exists because we've tasted of it many times. We've felt it crawl up our spine just before the striker who's missed sitters all game converts the last-minute penalty. We've sensed it grow, swell and sway as a murmur becomes a chant, becomes a song, becomes an anthem. It's intangible and ethereal in nature. A bit mythical and often misunderstood, but once encountered, few have met a force so irresistibly powerful. It is why we love football. Why we breathe it and play it and talk it and write it. In a word or three, I'm dubbing it 'romanticism and escapism', but to define it is to saddle the unicorn, and some things aren't meant to be tamed. Legend is real. Mystery is good.
Or maybe it's just a 'bit of rubber being kicked up and down a pitch' by wee 'tin gods', cheered on by neanderthals and it doesn't matter at all. Aye, cheers for that, Joan.
Perhaps you're like Joan Birnie, in which case, I don't know why you're here, but you're welcome to stick around, maybe you'll leave more open-minded if I've done a half-decent job by the end.
Similarly, maybe you're the type of football fan who sincerely believes they alone operate from a basis of 'judgment' with 'neutral' facts and cold, hard stoicism. If that's your 'hing' - you'd best look away now, you have been warned, for this one is probably closer to the feeling of faerie than of fitba.
For those of you who remain, let us go a 'dawnner' where compatriots MacDonald, Scott, Stevenson and Burns might've tread before us - let's embrace our romantic heritage, and whilst we're at it, let's talk about why football\matters.
The Father of Faerie and Fantasy, proud Scot, George MacDonald
Although perhaps blessed with more great literary figures than any other nation our size, to begin with, we'll extend a hand of friendship across the border(s) with a story about an Englishman and an Irishman who counted MacDonald as their 'Master'... but that's as funny as it gets.
They did walk into a pub, however.
Two intellectual giants of the 20th Century, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, had a wee club. They called it the Inklings, because they were witty like that, and they met in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford weekly for years alongside other writers and thinkers. It's on my bucket list. If you've ever seen Richard Attenborough's excellent film, Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins as C.S. 'Jack' Lewis, and Debra Winger as his late wife, Joy, you'll see 'The Bird and Baby' represented there.
Winger received an Oscar nomination for her role as Joy Gresham; the American poet and 'child prodigy' that fell in love with Lewis' mind before his person, from across the Atlantic.
These men, and the award-winning poet, Gresham, were such wonderful examples of vast intellect finding freedom in the complex simplicity of fantasy. Whether the rich interwoven fabric of Middle Earth is your fancy, or you prefer the childlike wonderment of Narnia (I love both in equal measure for different reasons), it's hard to disagree that the stories formed in these professorial minds wanted to achieve at least one thing; to contribute positively, and beautifully, to the world.
Yet there is also a critically incisive element to these stories, a value hidden in weight until placed on the scales. There's a reason people continue to do their doctorates and write book after book on these works: their worlds are closer, and go much deeper, than you might think - just like an old wardrobe with fur coats might eventually lead to an icy breeze, a jaggy conifer and thick snow.
In fact, Lewis died with a secret that was only revealed by a person doing just that - delving into the wardrobe. Incredibly, Dr. Michael Ward found a hidden code in Narnia, one that Lewis folded in for his own amusement. It truly is absurd in its genius, and you can learn about The Narnia Code via the eponymous BBC documentary (below). Of course, if you're quick to judge a book by its cover [sorry], maybe you thought it was just a 'children's story' and wrote it off, Joan-style.
For what did Joan miss with regards to football fans, and what might she miss if applying the same level of studious dedication to these men? Lewis and Tolkien were more than just brainiacs who enjoyed a pipe and a pint. As young men, both served in the First World War, losing their best friends and seeing more pain and sorrow first-hand than I know how to describe (though if you're interested, I'd recommend Lewis' biography, The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, or The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien).
After the horrors of the Somme, it is a miracle that they emerged able to form and structure sentences, much less such compassionate and cohesive thought. It is astounding. But why did they choose this format, fantasy novels, when both could have commanded a large audience by speaking engagements? After all, both were renowned fellows in the most distinguished of universities. C.S. Lewis in particular, was an incredibly skilled orator.
'The gateway to a magical world'
Well, perhaps the rawness of reality was still too near. Perhaps liberation from night terrors was only relieved by escaping to the mythical time and again, and sharing that with one another in the pub. Maybe this vantage point alone granted them a vista by which they could most accurately describe their deepest feelings on an increasingly complex, and apparently bleak, world.
It's why people journal. Why they write or make music until exhaustion. Why they consume and talk about football match after football match.
In Shadowlands, Lewis meets one of his old students with whom he did not always see eye to eye, much less take time listening to. Spoilers aside, he meets the student again, when his heart is most tender, and this young man says something to him that has always stuck with me.
'We read to know we are not alone.'
I'd say we read and write and talk about football for the same reason.
In other words, perhaps cold, hard, logic didn't cut this one, and so Tolkien and Lewis escaped somewhere else in order that they might send the most beautiful letters back home; speaking into our complexities and shining a much-needed light 'when all other lights have gone out'; just like Frodo with Eärendil in Shelob's cave.
All this is to say, perhaps the Ring, the Wardrobe, Sauron and Aslan have more in common with the matchday 'realities' of luke-warm pies, away-day train tickets, turnstiles and bouncing over seats than we think. Perhaps they're both halves of the same coin.
How can we deduce all this? Well, as well as both authors struggled to find peace, or sleep, in the years following the trenches, both the Narnia and Middle Earth sagas were crafted in late nights during the years surrounding WWII.
If like me, you're also struggling to sleep at the moment, perhaps battling pain, anxiety or depression, and you think lockdown is almost impossibly hard at times... and it is... then perhaps, again like me, you'll find comfort that previous generations have fought their own wars of both body and mind.
In impossibly hard times, many have gone before to record their struggles before re-emerging, in-tact and victorious, often clutching something beautiful as their prize.
Sometimes, in the darkest of nights and on the emptiest of canvases, we need the most colourful spectrum that only escapism brings. We need it to paint the nearest and tenderest of tales... to make sense of our place in the world; with brushes and strokes of allegory, legend, football or myth, lit by the light of Eärendil... or floodlights.
Sometimes, we need the light of abstraction to navigate reality.
We crave the indefinable fruits that an escape into art, creativity and expression alone yields.
We need art, desperately.
We need sport, and football, for the same reason.
You might still be unpersuaded by Tolkien and Lewis, but I hope in understanding a little of their background, their soil, that you might begin to appreciate that to them, (and millions of others) these stories are not just fairytales. They bring light, and life, and they were born of friendship, and chat at 'their wee club'.
Similarly, you might be like Joan and fail to see the importance of a bit of rubber being kicked around. That might even be objectively 'true' in the grand scheme of things, but when David Marshall saved that bit of rubber with his big left paw, no one on this planet could tell me it didn't mean something. I haven't felt anything like it.
Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.
- Bill Shankly
So why is football so important to some people? Well, I'm not sure how to say this next bit, so here goes; I've often had suicidal thoughts. I haven't ever spoken of them before, much less written them down, but again, I hope it's a help to someone, so I'll share a bit of that story with you now.
When I was younger, I had a bit of a crisis in my head.
To all observers, I must have appeared happy, and probably happier than most. I was young, enjoyed life, had relationships and friendships and was talented in different areas.
I wanted to live life with a zeal that meant I often spread myself too thin, 'like butter, spread across too much bread', to quote Tolkien, leading to one of my best friends saying I was like a chameleon in school because I was 'friends with everyone.'
He didn't mean to convey I was disingenuous, rather he meant it as a compliment. As discussed in a previous article, this was probably because my Dad treated everyone the same so I felt I must too. I didn't, and still don't, like to judge people for that reason.
If only I had held onto that belief with respect to myself.
I was talented at football and this meant I had my football pals from various teams. I also had my bandmates, who were and are still some of my closest friends. Because I liked computers, I also had my 'geeky' pals too. Simply put, I wanted to do everything, I still do. And so I tuned in with a passion to the same frequency Freddie sang in my Queen: Live at Wembley DVD that I'd watch every night as I fell asleep, 'I want it all, and I want it now.'
The world didn't seem big enough and it was rich in flavour.
Then, all of a sudden, everything lost its taste.
A relationship fell apart. I couldn't write any music for the band. I stopped playing football. I stopped watching football. I stopped doing anything. I quit my job, then quit another job. I increased my debt limit. I launched myself into a year or so of excesses, the likes of which I can't remember most of, doing daft things like stealing drugs, funnelling vodka and seeing too many girls. Everything was fast but not fast enough. Nothing fulfilled. Nothing satisfied.
It came to a head one night after waking up in bed with a girl I didn't know the name of after a party I couldn't remember. I hadn't been eating and looked skeletal in my reflection in the mirror at the end of the bed. I had eye shadow and makeup on, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I honestly didn't recognise my own reflection at first. I looked like what I thought might be cool in a Tim Burton movie, but now actually being that person, I found I was frightened beyond description of what was inside, and desperately, desperately lonely.
I was skint and unable to lift any more money to get home. Literally only had a fiver more, so couldn't lift it. Fortunately, a mate had stayed too, and paid for my taxi home... my mates paid for a lot at that time.
One thing I remember doing was journaling throughout all of this, and my diaries at that time made for really sad reading, and I've since burnt them, but I distinctly remember writing some very dark things. I wasn't being 'emo' here. I really meant it.
Hope seemed suddenly stripped from me, the light that The Smiths sang about had indeed gone out and I didn't know where to go, so I thought about just not being here anymore. I thought that quite a lot. I thought that'd be best for everyone. The light had gone out after all... there was no Eärendil, no Morning Star.
Except it hadn't gone out.
Because I'm still here, writing this.
Just as Frodo got caught in the web and wrapped up by darkness, so I had a Sam following behind who was willing to do the same. Truth be told, I had more than one, I had a whole 'fellowship' willing to run across country to get me back, slaying and confronting the darkness with me. But it took me to speak first before the light flooded in. I wasn't alone, no matter how lonely I was.
Eventually, I picked up a job at a bar through a uni pal, mostly inspired by my addiction to the 'Cheers' re-runs on Ch4 at that time, and my conviction that this could be where I could solve my problems, just like Ted Danson. Told you I was romantic.
'You want to be where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came. You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name'.
Except - I did find my 'Coach'. For during this time, I had a mate who would make it his mission to arrive at the end of the bar just as I was finishing my shift. He'd do it all the time. We'd grown up together, our families were similar. We loved writing, football and music. He was a few years older and had gone through a similar experience a few years earlier. He'd moved back to Glasgow and I looked up to him and was pleased to see him every time, aware that he'd taken the time to travel into town to meet me.
We talked about things with an openness that is easy for old friends. He mostly listened as I fumbled about words, feeling incredibly self-conscious and self-loathing. He wasn't afraid to challenge me, or talk about the 'big questions' I had going on. I loved these chats, and they became the highlight of my week.
I started watching and talking about football with him again. I started playing Pro Evo at his house. We'd just play Pro Evo and chat, nothing big, but it was special. I don't know if he knows how special it was for me but he has since shared that it was incredibly important for him. You see, my friend struggled with depression too, so did his flatmate, who committed suicide only a few months before. He said that hanging out with me and chatting with me helped him to get through it. I would've said the same. What looked as simple as two pals playing Pro Evo and having a blether, occasionally hitting each other and going mental when Pippo Inzaghi bagged another knee-shin-roller to win our customary Juve-Milan encounters.
'Born offside, that lad'
I wonder what Joan might've made of that scene.
I wonder if she'd have understood the significance of our apparently crazy passion?
A pint at the end of the bar, and cups of tea with Pro Evo, led to going back to watch football, which led to going back to stadiums, which led to standing next to him as his best man with a new future ahead of me.
I wasn't alone, no matter how lonely I felt. Football gave us the foil to explore our feelings honestly with one another in a way nothing else could.
I thank God for my pal. I thank God for football, and through time, this has led to thanking God for life itself. Life is worth living. You're not alone.
I don't know how to close except to say that Tolkien and Lewis had their wee club, and my pal and I had ours. It doesn't matter if folks made fun of them for their wee made-up worlds or ridiculed our wee 'tin gods'. For one person's fantasy might be another's reality. One person's Lothlorian might be another's overhead kick.
We read to know we're not alone. We write to know we're not alone. We watch to know we're not alone. We tweet to know we're not alone. We shout, jump, bounce, sing, sway, laugh, cry, celebrate and commiserate, to know we're not alone.
If you feel alone, you're not, and lots of superb initiatives have been launched to support the mental health of young men, but I'd like to draw attention to Aaron's work at @TimeToTackle.
There is light, hope and a future.