Still Reaching for the Stars

As well as being a big sports fan, I harbour another obsession. One that has been the subject of much mocking and eye-rolling over the years. My confession?

I am still a little bit in love with S Club 7. Go on, laugh.

I was the perfect age when they first exploded on the scene in 1998. I was six years old, and ripe to be exploited by Simon Fuller and the slick marketing machine surrounding these seven exciting young people.

I was in the perfect position to watch their TV series on CBBC, to learn the lyrics to all their songs, to buy their CDs, to get far too excited at their appearances on Top of the Pops and to generally absorb as much as I could before they unfortunately split up in 2002.

That said, I remember not being the only obsessive at school. In fact, I remember one individual who loved them more than I did. I don’t know what’s happened to him since, but I don’t think he’s covered himself in glory since those heady days of Year 3.

The thing is, I never really grew out of my S Club 7 obsession, even to this day. I was similarly infatuated with Pokémon, but managed to grow out of that by the time I reached secondary school. This, however, clung on and never disappeared.

If you think this sounds a bit tragic and ridiculous, hear me out. I have my reasons.

It’s the songs, with the lyrics filled with hope, of a desire to make things better and a knowledge that they will do just that with a bit of hard work and determination. That, and the fact that their songs are incredibly catchy.

Consider a personal favourite: “Reach”.

Don’t the lyrics “Reach for the stars/Climb every mountain higher/Reach for the stars/Follow your heart’s desire/Reach for the stars/And when that rainbow’s shining over you/That’s when your dreams will all come true” make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside? They do it for me.

How about another, “Bring it all Back”? This is a similarly hopeful song with plenty of life lessons. Here’s a snippet, the very first words that they sing:

“Don’t stop, never give up/Hold your head high and reach the top/Let the world see what you have got/Bring it all back to you.”

That’s pretty profound, if you ask me. Basically, if you look beyond the catchy melodies and scratch the surface a little bit, S Club 7’s lyrics contain some really valuable nuggets of life advice for young people.

This isn’t a general rule when it comes to S Club 7 lyrics, however. Consider this from “All in Love is Fair”, an album track from their second album, cunningly titled “7”.

“Get it right, get it right, get it right/Don’t get it wrong.”

Terrible, isn’t it?

However, hidden within their vast collection of brilliant songs I think there’s some great advice, which has endured from when I was very young until now. It might be a little bit tragic, but I think this band still has plenty to offer, even as a 21-year-old graduate. You’re never too old to receive good advice.

So laugh all you want, but personally when I need some encouragement in musical form, I’m more likely to reach for some embarrassing pop music from the 1990s.

After all, there ain’t no party like an S Club party.

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When in Rome, live (somewhat) like the Romans

Five months ago, I moved to this country. Those five months have flown past in a blizzard of highs and lows, but I feel as though I’m settled here.

This settling has taken many forms, none more so than in my day-to-day dealings with other people, which have forced me to adapt what I say and do on a regular basis.

Specifically, I’ve had to adopt American vocabulary and their way of saying things to ensure I’m understood at least some of the time. So I don’t tend to use words like “fortnight” or “rubbish bin”, unless I’m talking to someone I know who understands what on Earth I’m going on about.

Now, I sometimes talk about using the “sidewalk” and the “parking lot”. And, horror of horrors, I sometimes refer to football as “soccer”. In fact, I probably call it “soccer” more than I call it “football”. It’s odd how things turn out.

I also feel as though I’ve assimilated myself rather well into the mass of people in the Washington DC metropolitan area. I’m able to give directions, recommend places to go and I can even ride the Metro without a problem.

Mind you, I’ve not become so local that I’m yelling at people to stand on the right of the escalators in Metro stations. I reserve that honour for the man at L’Enfant Plaza the other morning, who yelled at an old guy with his dog who had the temerity to stand on the left. It’s a heinous crime, apparently.

However, at the same time I’ve kept my accent and intend to keep doing so. People around here love the novelty of a British accent, and I think it’s important to retain those parts of yourself that form who you are.

I’ve adapted to this country, I’ve needed to. But I’ve tried to do so while retaining my identity, which was formed over the course of 21 years in England. It’s important to live at least a little bit like the locals, but I feel I have to retain my identity and defining characteristics, which just so happens to be the fact that I was brought up in the UK.

It’s been fun though, and I hope it continues to be.

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‘How Long Are You Here For?’

“Where are you from?”
“How long are you here for?”
“I love your accent”

For nearly a month, I’ve been working at a bookstore on the National Mall in a desperate attempt to make some money while trying to further my career on my days off. The above quotations are just some of the things that have been said to me in that time – the latter is the most popular of all.

The tourists that come through every day (when we’re not threatened by a government shutdown) are fascinated by me, and I in turn am fascinated by them. I’m also fascinated by their fascination with me.

What is it about me that so interests these people? Or, more to the point, what is it about where I come from that they’re so interested in?

It can’t just be the “Special Relationship” between the UK and USA that politicians have talked about for many years. It’s too simplistic to suggest that Americans in the bookstore see me as some sort of natural foreign ally against all others.

That’s not the case. We disagree on healthcare, guns and whether it’s called “football” or soccer”, to name just three examples. And there’s many more where they came from.

I also don’t think it’s because they see me as being from an exotic, far-off land that is virtually inaccessible. The daily flights from various airports in the United States have largely put paid to that view.

There’s something else at play here. I think that Americans, once they’ve gotten over the initial shock of hearing my voice and my accent, are loaded with preconceptions about my country and about me as a British citizen. Then they want to see if these preconceptions are true.

I think the media has contributed to this phenomenon, as they have exported Britain to people’s televisions and radios and therefore into their homes. In a sense, people are interested in what they have watched and heard, and now they want to see if it is true. They’re truly fascinated by the British, and by extension they’re fascinated by me.

They want to know if we still love the Queen and the rest of the royal family (we do, generally), if we still love Barack Obama (we do, generally), and whether the National Health Service is a communist plot against capitalism and the free market (of course it is. What other possible reason could there be for its existence?).

It feels as though they want to test out everything they’ve heard about the British on the radio and on the television. They want to know if we live up to their expectations of how we perhaps should be.

I’m fascinated by it, and it’s definitely helped the days go by relatively quickly. I never thought I could appear so interesting to so many people. Who knew?

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Life’s (Still) A Happy Song

You may have noticed this blog has been (very) neglected for a long time. It wasn’t intentional by any means, these things happen unfortunately. However, with one part of my new life out here now closed and another part about to begin, I figured it was time to do some more writing on here.

As such, I’m going to use this far more for my “actual” voice, rather than simply use it as a depository for articles I’ve written. I’ve got an online portfolio at clippings.me, so this is going to be something different.

I’m thinking that this blog will be a bit more personal. I want to write about what’s going on with me, what I’m talking about, what I’m thinking about, what’s bothering me. In a sense, I want to try and write about what’s been going on for the last three months since I moved to the United States and what will continue to happen. It’s been quite a journey so far.

But the place I’d like to start is within the first month, when I went back to England for my graduation ceremony. It’s very strange how we can be finished with my degree to all intents and purposes in May but then not return to put the graduation robes on until July. Returning to the country I’d called “home” for 21 years made me realise that making the move Stateside was the right one. I’d made the break, I’d gone to do something completely different, and while I was glad to be back I was also glad to be a visitor that would be going away again.

Of course, it’s not all been plain sailing since my arrival into Dulles International Airport on June 1. At times, it’s not been very easy at all. There’s been new challenges and new things to face down, and I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I want to do with the rest of my life now I’m no longer a student.

I’ve now gained more of an idea of what I want to do, how I’m going to try and get there and also what I don’t want to do. Now, it’s just a case of working out how to make the next step and ensure that while that step may not be directly forwards it should be in a positive direction.

It’s been important to remember that the experiences I’ve gained since June have all been enormously helpful and educational. Now, three months in, I feel as though I’ve gained so much. The onus is now on me to put at least some of that into practice in the weeks and months ahead.

I intend to, and I’m very hopeful about what’s coming up. And that’s what this blog will document: what’s coming up and what’s going on in my life. I may even still write about sport.

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Ultimate players selected for GB sides

My final article for the sport section of Concrete, UEA’s student newspaper, released in print on 23 April 2013.

Four players from UEA’s Ultimate Frisbee team, known as Aye-Aye, have been selected for some of the sport’s Great Britain squads.

The sport has grown in popularity in this country and also at university level, with some of Aye-Aye’s players now having the opportunity to represent national sides.

Beccie Haigh is one of the team’s most experienced players, having already played at the University of Sussex and for the Great Britain Women’s and Women’s Beach sides.

She will travel to Cali in Colombia as part of the GB squad for the World Games, the international multi-sport event for sports non-Olympic sports, which take place from 25 July until 4 August.

Haigh first took up the sport as something to play during the summer, having played football for many years, and was immediately addicted to it.

She said: “It was mainly the people, spending the whole weekend with your team makes them become like family. But also the depth of skills required kept me hooked, whenever I felt I had learned to do one thing I recognised other areas I could improve on.”

Aye-Aye will also have two representatives at the World Flying Disk Federation World Under-23 Ultimate Championships in Toronto. Anna Trebble and Howard Storey will travel to York University to compete for Great Britain’s women’s and mixed teams respectively.

The event will last for a week from 21-28 July, with teams attending from across the world.

Storey has been heavily involved with Aye-Aye this year and has played the sport since being introduced to it before going to university. “A teacher at school, who I played squash with, represented the GB ultimate team,” he explains.

“He lent me his Frisbee and taught me the rules and some throws. I would get my mates together and we played a ‘jumpers for goalpost’ version of ultimate, we were all very rubbish!

“Once I joined the club at UEA, I was hooked both on and off the pitch and knew I was never going to leave.”

Meanwhile, Trebble came into the sport to try something new after playing hockey and netball previously, and has enjoyed the responsibility of leading the UEA women’s side while gaining a love for the sport.

She said: “I became women’s captain in my second year and started to enjoy the sport even more. Not only was I able to be fully involved in the club, but I was also able to push myself in my abilities in order to be a good captain, which inevitably got me where I am now.”

Matt Metcalfe was also hopeful of selection for Great Britain’s Under-23 mixed team, but unfortunately did not make the final cut.

Meanwhile, Alistair Middlemiss has been selected for the Great Britain Under-20 Open team, who will be competing at the European Junior Ultimate Championship in August, having also only got into the sport when he came to UEA.

The selections show how successful Aye-Aye have been in recent years, with the national recognition coming after victories against a number of other university sides.

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Homophobia in sport: small steps to equality

An article I wrote for the Sport section of Concrete, UEA’s student newspaper, for the issue published on March 5 2013. The original version is here.

It came as something of a surprise when ex-Leeds United and United States midfielder Robbie Rogers came out as gay last month, before announcing he was stepping away from the game.

Just the third footballer to publicly disclose that he is gay, there was an outpouring of support for Rogers from the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association amongst others, praising the 25-year-old’s bravery and honesty.

Rogers’ two decisions were not linked, but it would be nice to think that the level of support he gained from across the game of football might suggest that homophobia is gradually being eradicated. Unfortunately, like the spectre of racial discrimination that continues to linger, homophobia is still rife across the world of sport, with many conflicting messages.

One would hope things had improved from the days of Justin Fashanu, the first openly gay footballer, who was regularly criticised by his manager Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest in the 1980s for spending time in what Clough described as “poof clubs”. Fashanu eventually took his own life in 1998 in the United States after being charged by police in connection with the sexual assault of a teenager.

Sadly, it often seems as if very little has really changed in this regard, as in 2011 the president of the Italian Footballers’ Association Damiano Tommasi said he would not recommend players come out, as football is “different to every other profession” and that homosexuality in football is “still taboo”. However, that view was then contradicted by Gareth Southgate, who said a year later that players would accept a gay teammate, although some fans may not be so tolerant.

Manchester United goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard went even further, saying in his blog that homosexual footballers are “in need of a hero” and that any gay players would be scared of the reaction from teammates and fans.

Little wonder when earlier this month before the Super Bowl, San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver said that there were no gay players on the side’s roster and if there were they would not be welcome. However, Culliver later apologised for his comments and began sensitivity training after the showpiece event in the NFL season.

Consider also the first openly gay Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, who came out in 2009. When Thomas featured on Celebrity Big Brother three years later, and Oxford City Football Club player Lee Steele tweeted homophobic remarks about the Welshman, the comments saw his contract with the then-Southern Premier League side terminated.

Thomas was praised by many for his decision to come out, as was England and Surrey cricketer Steven Davies, who came out publicly in 2011 having previously been on tour with England to countries like Pakistan where homosexuality is illegal. However, considering the ever-growing tolerance which is growing in other areas of society, there are still very few openly gay sportsmen and women,.

At university level, the National Union of Students’ “Out in Sport” report last year revealed that homophobic and transphobic bullies are forcing LGBT+ students out of sport, with only a third of LGBT students participating in organised team sport, and 37.8% of those saying they are not open about their sexuality with their team-mates. Here at UEA, the number was even higher, with the Union’s LGBT+ survey revealing that 50% of LGBT+ students were not out to their teammates.

However, could Robbie Rogers be leading the way for more athletes to come out in sport? Gay rights groups in the United States believe his decision could represent a “tipping point” for sport, as more people feel empowered to talk openly about their sexuality. Patrick Burke, co-founder of You Can Play, an anti-homophobia in sports campaign group, certainly believes gay players in top American leagues will start to come out, and that it would make “no difference” to their teammates or opponents.

Only time will tell if Rogers’ brave step precipitates more following his lead. However, it is hard to ignore the memory of statements such as that of Brazil football manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who promised in 2002 to “throw [a gay player] off the team.”

Still, as more and more players are open about their sexuality without any public backlash, it is positive to think that sport can follow the lead of the rest of society and embrace players for their talent, regardless of their personal lives.

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Brilliant Benteke shows star quality to keep Bent out in the cold

An article I wrote for Goal.com after attending the game at Villa Park between Aston Villa and Reading on November 27th. See the original piece here.

It takes some players a good deal of time to settle in the Premier League before they really make an impact. Christian Benteke is an exception to this, as his goals have lifted Aston Villa out of the relegation zone and kept the club’s record signing Darren Bent out of the team.

Since moving to Villa Park from Belgian club Genk for around £7 million in the summer, Benteke has been nothing less than a revelation, improving game on game and finding the net on a regular basis despite his side’s struggles.

The 21-year-old caused numerous problems against the far more experienced defences of Manchester United and Arsenal, showing the youngster’s ability to give the top teams a hard time on a regular basis, particularly when you consider the relatively close proximity between Villa’s matches against those two.

Combined with his form for Belgium, for whom he has scored four goals in nine appearances since making his debut in 2010 for one of the most talented national sides in the world, it bodes well for his future when you consider that he may not reach his peak as a player for another five years.

Benteke’s manager at Villa, Paul Lambert, has continually sung his praises in interviews and press conferences, with more praise forthcoming after the youngster’s 80th-minute winning goal that gave the Villains a priceless 1-0 win at home to relegation rivals Reading.

In the aftermath of his latest triumph, Lambert said: “His general game is outstanding at the minute and he’s been brilliant for us. I thought the header was fantastic, as he’s up against a big lad himself. You always forget, he’s only 21, he may not hit his peak until his late 20s.”

Lambert clearly feels he can afford to leave Bent out of the club’s Premier League matchday squad altogether thanks to Benteke’s superb form, with the England international having made just nine appearances all season in the league, scoring twice.

Things had looked rosy for Bent at the start of the season, as Lambert named the striker as captain and had apparently decided to use him as the focal point of their attacking play, with support from Gabriel Agbonlahor and new signings Andreas Weimann and the impressive Brett Holman.

However, the Belgian’s goals and general play, starting with a simple tap-in against Swansea in September to open his account in English football, have made him a force to be reckoned with for opposition defences and could also perhaps attract the interest of other clubs both in England and in Europe.

Lambert is clearly a fan, not just of the Belgian’s goalscoring ability, but also his attitude and application since arriving in Birmingham.

He said: “[Benteke is] a strong lad, but it’s not just about being strong, he’s got good ability, which is important. He does get chances, the thing about Christian is he always seems to get a chance whether it’s a header or a shot. I’ve been delighted with him.”

With Benteke quickly becoming what Lambert describes as a “fans’ favourite” among the Villa Park faithful, it looks likely that the youngster with a bright future will continue to lead the line for a long time to come, with seemingly little chance of Bent being able to force his way past the big striker.

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