Underground Man by Gabriel Tarde


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Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

– “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

In Gabriel Tarde’s 1896 utopian novella, “Fragment d’histoire future”, which was translated into English by Cloudesley Brereton in 1905 as “Underground Man”, the last surviving members of the human race are forced to withdraw into the Earth’s interior because the cooling of the sun has turned our planet’s surface into an uninhabitable realm of ice. If you replace this catastrophe of ‘solar anaemia’ with global warming, there are parallels to be drawn between the reactions to the fictional disaster described by Tarde and the response to climate change in reality. Of course, the change in the temperature in the book is downward rather than upward, but it remains a catastrophic change in temperature nonetheless.

Tarde was a French sociologist, criminologist and psychologist, and it is because of this background that he had a unique insight into human behaviour and was able to make uncannily prescient observations about the reaction to a catastrophe on a global scale. The cooling of the sun begins by being ignored:

“Whatever the reason was, the public concerned itself little about the matter, as in all that is gradual and not sudden.”

In her history of the climate crisis, “Our Biggest Experiment”, Alice Bell evaluates a study produced by the CIA in August 1974, long after the discovery of the ‘Greenhouse Effect’ and the warming of the atmosphere through increased carbon dioxide had been established, by saying that the report “had a point that climate change wasn’t getting the attention it could have and there was a lack of urgency in discussions. There was no large public outcry, nor did anyone seem to be trying to generate one.”

The catastrophe in the novella then “become[s] the subject of several rather smart articles in the reviews”, an obvious analogue to climate change being mentioned in newspapers. An example of this from the aforementioned history is the 1980 New York Times headline, “Global warming has begun, expert tells Senate”. Bell adds that: “The New York Times wasn’t the only place covering the story. The resulting coverage was the first time climate science really made a news splash.”

Even the scepticism about the disaster and whether it will truly have any impact is foretold:

“A few unorthodox persons of heretical and pessimistic temperament remarked, it is true, that at different epochs, if one believed the astronomers of the remote past, certain stars had gradually burnt out in the heavens, or had passed from the most dazzling brilliance to an almost complete obscurity, during the course of barely a single year. They therefore concluded that the case of our sun had nothing exceptional about it.”

Compare the above quotation to Bell’s description of “Global Warming: What Does the Science Tell Us?”, a 1990 book written by conservative think tank, the George C. Marshall Institute:

“It wasn’t out-and-out ‘denial’ of climate change or the greenhouse effect. They simply argued the sun had caused the slight warming of the past century, and when its natural variation calmed down again that would balance out any future greenhouse warming.”

You could even end the second paragraph with the sentence that concludes the first and it would not seem out of place.

In response to the solar cooling, Miltiades, a man who has been wounded in the face and therefore given the nickname, “scarred face”, (not Scarface, as even the original movie had not come out in 1896) proposes that the remnants of humanity retreat to the interior of the Earth. The parallels with the colonisation of Mars propounded by certain billionaires are clear.

Finally, there are the forecasts of the future. In the novella, a “chief of the fashionable school in sociology” predicts that mankind will, in time, continue to migrate and dwell in ever deeper recesses of the Earth. The modern parallel is interplanetary space travel, and, once the habitable and terraformable planets of the present solar system are exhausted, interstellar colonisation. Tarde’s sociologist foretells that the last member of humanity will be a “sole survivor and heir of a hundred successive civilisations, left to himself yet self-sufficient in the midst of his immense stores of science and art”. Imagine, if you will, a long time in the future, in a galaxy far, far away, a scion of the Musk dynasty, sitting on their own in a sports car in a rocket sending memes to themselves in order to try and make themselves laugh one last time.

I think I know enough of hate

It would be remiss of me not to remark on the racism in the text. This is not the accepted view of the time seen as problematic in retrospect, but pure unadulterated racism. The first hints of it appear at the beginning of the chapter entitled “Prosperity”, when Tarde refers to the ‘barbarous tribes’ of Oceania and Central Africa who are ‘incapable of assimilation’, but he reserves his most explicit racism for the Chinese. It is prefigured by the abominable sentence:

“The meadows were no longer green, the sky was no longer blue, the Chinese were no longer yellow, all had suddenly changed colour as in a transformation scene.”

It later happens that the underground civilisation comes across a separate community of Chinese people who have had the same idea as Miltiades. Tarde says that “they had hastily crawled underground without encumbering themselves with museums and libraries, and there they had multiplied enormously”, “they had shamelessly given themselves up to ancestral cannibalism” and that “The words of our language refuse to depict their filth and coarseness”.

Somehow, the description of this Chinese community as filthy, uncultured cannibals is not the worst part. This is:

“Several proposed, it is true, to exterminate these savages who might well become dangerous owing to their cunning and to their numbers, and to appropriate their dwelling-place after a certain amount of cleaning and painting and the removal of numerous little bells. Others proposed to reduce them to the status of slaves or servants in order to shift on to them all our menial work. But these two proposals were rejected. An attempt was made to civilize and to render less savage these poor cousins, and once the impossibility of any success in that direction had been ascertained the partition was carefully blocked up.”

So, despite being a good predictor of human behaviour, it is a shame Tarde’s crystal ball did not show him that his racism would not be tolerated in the future.

Talk on Corners


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“(Still) Hittin’ them corners in them lo-los girl”

From “Still D.R.E” by Dr. Dre featuring Snoop Dogg

In their first season in the Premier League for 16 years, Leeds United have been accused of being too vulnerable to set pieces and especially corners. This defensive fragility has been apparent from 20 minutes into the opening game of the season against Liverpool, when the German centre-back making his debut, Robin Koch, lost his man and allowed Virgil van Dijk to make it 2-1. Conceding from corners has continued to plague Leeds until the last game before the international break, when Joachim Andersen got the better of Luke Ayling at the far post and volleyed Ademola Lookman’s out-swinging cross into the net.

Between these two games, Leeds let in another nine goals from corners, bringing the total up to 11 in the first 29 games of the 2020/21 season. During this period, Leeds have given away 160 corners, meaning they have a 6.875% chance of conceding from one, the worst record in the whole league:

TeamGames PlayedCorners ConcededGoals Conceded from Corners%
Leeds United29160116.875%
Brighton & Hove Albion2911986.723%
Sheffield United2917795.085%
Wolverhampton Wanderers2914374.895%
Manchester United2912464.839%
Leicester City2915274.605%
Crystal Palace2916174.348%
West Ham United2914264.225%
Newcastle United2916863.571%
West Bromwich Albion2918742.139%
Aston Villa2813821.449%
Tottenham Hotspur2914821.351%
Manchester City308811.136%
Goals Conceded from Corners

My brother has a theory as to why Leeds are so bad at corners: He conjectures that because Leeds rarely score from set pieces in matches, and especially corners, they also rarely score them in training. It therefore creates the illusion that the defence is amazing when corners are practiced, but it is actually just symptomatic of a wasteful attack that makes them look good.

If this was the case, then Leeds would not only have the highest rate of conceding from corners, but also one of the lowest rates of turning corners into goals. Leeds are actually the fifth worst, behind Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion:

TeamGames Played Corners WonGoals Scored from Corners%
Crystal Palace2911021.818%
Leicester City2915231.974%
Brighton & Hove Albion2917042.353%
Leeds United2917252.907%
Sheffield United2913143.053%
Aston Villa2816353.067%
Newcastle United2912343.252%
Manchester United2915053.333%
West Bromwich Albion2910143.960%
Manchester City3019984.020%
Tottenham Hotspur2911754.274%
Wolverhampton Wanderers2915274.605%
West Ham United2913096.923%
Goals Scored from Corners

So, while I think the inability to defend corners reliably is partly attributable to this, I do not think it is the whole story.

There is another aspect of training under manager, Marcelo Bielsa, that the players talk about with inappropriate smiles and have nicknamed ‘Murderball’. It involves 11 players against 11, the same as in a normal match, but there are no stoppages. If the ball goes out of play, staff are waiting to throw it or another ball back in. Jermaine Jenas has said he would have loved Murderball because it would have avoided people wasting time arguing whether there was a foul or free kick or not.

Murderball keeps the players extremely fit, to the point where some of the players say that the Wednesday training is harder than the actual matches, but like everything, it has its disadvantages. It does not reflect the reality of competitive matches and may be another reason Leeds concede from corners. I am not saying that Leeds do not also practice set pieces and corners, but part of Bielsa’s philosophy is for players to repeatedly try things that are difficult in training so when they are faced with having to do them in matches, they become natural. Playing a game in which there are essentially no boundaries could, potentially, make something that could not happen in a game the first instinct.

It is also worth noting that the heightened state of fitness that drills like this create, combined with weigh-ins and timed runs, is the great equaliser that got a team mostly comprised of players who finished mid-table in the Championship into the Promised Land of the Premier League, but it is less of an advantage at set pieces and corners.

The above possibilities suggest ways that the whole team is responsible for conceding from corners, but there is also the matter of individual errors. I looked through all 11 goals that Leeds have conceded from corners to see if there was a particular player who was out of position or some other pattern.

I have already mentioned Koch and Ayling’s mistakes against Liverpool and Fulham, respectively. In the 4-1 away defeat to Crystal Palace, Koch and Liam Cooper both jumped with Scott Dann but were unable to stop him from heading it in. When Kurt Zouma scored for Chelsea, Cooper, who was marking him, ended up sitting on the floor with his arms spread out and appealing for a foul because of what I think is a trip by Olivier Giroud. In the 2-1 home defeat to West Ham, Tomáš Souček rose above Stuart Dallas to head in from a Vladimír Coufal corner.

In the 5-2 win over Newcastle United, it was Ayling who lost Ciaran Clark. In the devastating 6-2 loss to Manchester United, Patrick Bamford should have been in front of Anthony Martial and Dallas should also have challenged him before he flicked it on. When Lindelöf came in at the far post, it was Kalvin Phillips who was beaten. In the 3-0 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Bamford got caught out and Phillips was beaten to it by Toby Alderweireld.

Perhaps the most egregious of the corners was in the 2-1 home loss to Everton, when Ben Godfrey beat both Dallas and Cooper to flick the ball across goal, where Dominic Calvert-Lewin escaped both Pascal Struijk and Ayling to launch a diving header into the back of the net. There were a few more passes leading up to the only goal in the 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa, but it was ultimately Helder Costa who lost the scorer, Anwar El Ghazi. For the last corner, it was Diego Llorente, who has only played seven matches this season due to injury, who lost Craig Dawson in the second defeat to West Ham.

The common denominator in all of these is not a player but that each player lost their man at the corner, which makes all the above hypothesising irrelevant. You can make complicated theories based around statistics and training methods all you like, but to paraphrase Gary Lineker, football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball around for ninety minutes and at some point, Leeds United will concede a goal from a corner.



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“Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”

– Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom

There are presently two bands that go by the name Slaves that are made up of white men, one from the US and one from the UK. The US band has vowed to rebrand following the release of their latest album, To Better Days, although their UK namesake has no such plans.

The two bands have both put out statements regarding their names, the US one in June 2020 and the UK one all the way back in May 2015. The two statements contain many similarities; the origin of their names, how they have evolved, the purpose of their music; but they reach different conclusions about how to move forward:

Slaves (UK): “Our band name relates to people not being in control of their day to day lives. […] Our name and music is aimed at being a slave to day to day life and routine, it is a metaphorical use of the word. […] we are all slaves in this modern age, whether it be to our jobs, corporations, social media or society in general.”

Slaves (US): “The name ‘Slaves’ was conceived as a reference to the band’s battle with substance abuse in the past, to the idea that we became enslaved by our addictions and by our own demons.” Lead vocalist at the time, Jonny Craig, also described the origin of the US band’s name in an interview after they had formed: “Men have been enslaving men for as long as we’ve had gods to hide behind. Every man is a slave to what we love — whether it be women, drugs, music or sports.”

Both bands chose the word ‘Slaves’ because it represented their respective struggles in a figurative sense, the UK band in 2012 and the US band in 2014. It is unlikely the US band were aware of the UK band when they formed because the latter did not become widely known until the release of their 2015 debut album, Are You Satisfied? and its subsequent nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. As music attorney Bob Celestin noted in a Rolling Stone interview about Lady A’s name change, which was discussed in a previous blog: “This problem with [the same] names is not too common, because it’s easy to do a Google search.”

The two bands also agree on the purpose of their music:

Slaves (UK): “The music we make is motivational and aimed at people personally as well as collectively.”

Slaves (US): “Our goal has always been to tackle these difficult subjects head on, as well as to build a community and share stories of hope to let others know that their inner demons can be defeated.”

Both claim their music encourages people to metaphorically emancipate themselves, but their conclusions diverge, as the UK band is gearing up for a defence of their appellation while the US band is prefacing an apology and announcing their upcoming name change:

Slaves (US): “This definition of the name neglects to take ownership of its racial connotations. As obstinate supporters of the BLM movement, we cannot continue to tie our music and our positive message to a word associated with such negative weight and hurt.”

Slaves (UK) “On this point we would like to highlight the Oxford dictionary definition of the word Slaves; “(Especially in the past) a person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.” As you can see, there is no mention of race. All different slave trades could be discussed now, but it would be futile.”

One reason for the different responses is their nationalities. The US has a long history of confronting racial issues, from slavery to the Civil War to Civil Rights to the modern Black Lives Matter movement, so there is an awareness of the term ‘slaves’ referring to African Americans embedded in the culture in a way it is not in the UK, despite the latter’s instrumental role in the Atlantic slave trade. The uproar over Edward Colston’s statue being toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour proved that the UK has yet to seriously reckon with this ugly part of its history.

Although the US band say they are changing their name because they are “obstinate supporters of the BLM movement”, there are other advantages. One was the departure of lead vocalist, Jonny Craig, who had been the only permanent member, as bands often change their name when they get a new singer, and he was also the one to explain the origin of their name. It also avoids confusion with the UK band. It is difficult to estimate the outfits’ comparative popularity, but at time of writing, the UK band has 922,594 monthly listeners on Spotify and the US band has 515,222, it will help cut through the noise of internet search results.

Before these two bands came to be, there had previously been a band of white men called Slaves from 1997 to 2000, forming from members of The VSS and becoming Pleasure Forever in 2000. In an interview with online publication, Westword, drummer Dave Clifford gave his explanation for choosing the name: “I’ve also always been intrigued by the human will toward slavery. This isn’t any new revelation, but more of an artistic interpretation of Wilhelm Reich’s writings about fascism and human nature. We all seek authority figures, whether to ultimately rebel against them or for the comfort of having someone make our decisions for us. Ultimately, all of us are slaves to one thing or another, and we all revel in that.”

What Clifford is referring to is a hypothesis put forward by Wilhelm Reich in his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. Reich contended that the suppression of sexual desire in a patriarchal society created an anxiety that manifested in the political sphere as a propensity for authoritarian idealism. The patriarchal family is therefore the most fundamental of the institutions supporting fascism, whether the resulting internalised desire for an authority figure was unconsciously followed, or, as Reich proposed, consciously fought against through a revolutionary sexual politics. Reich would later go on to obfuscate this fascinating idea with baffling pseudoscience based around the debunked concept of the ‘orgone’, which he claimed to have discovered, and makes any attempt to research it on the internet lead you down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and online lunacy.

In an interview with the Phoenix New Times, Clifford explained why they chose to stop using it: “The name ‘Slaves’ was easy to be misinterpreted, and didn’t fit what we were doing [at that point]. We were addressed as ‘The Slaves’ a lot, like we were saying as a band, ‘We are slaves,’ like getting into some victim ideology. The real, actual impetus for the name was an interest in slavery as an idea, the different forms it can take — as part of something that’s human will, or an external force that guides someone’s life. That was more involved and heady, and that was difficult to get across.”

To avoid confusion, they could have called the band ‘How humanity’s repressed sexual desire subjugates people to authoritarian idealism and other implications of the word slaves’ but it’s difficult to fit that onto a bass drum.

The three bands independently chose the name because of the sheer all-encompassing nature of the how the term can be applied. In these statements, people are described as being enslaved to day to day life and routine, jobs, corporations, social media, society, personal demons, women, drugs, music, sport, family, authoritarian thinking and fascism.

Remember that each of these three bands used a version of the phrase ‘we are all slaves.’ To explain their name. The 1997 to 2000 band: “all of us are slaves to one thing or another”; Slaves (UK): “we are all slaves in this modern age”; Slaves (US): “Every man is a slave to what we love”. Aside from the androcentric formulation in the last quotation, the same basic idea crops up in each of their explanations.

As the UK band noted, slavery has happened to many peoples. In fact, the the foundation of music is tied-in to the history of slavery, as Ted Gioia noted In an interview with the Syncopated Times about his book, Music: A Subversive History:

“Take for example the most basic building blocks of music, our musical modes. These simple scales are usually the first thing students are taught when they study the theory of Western music. And each mode has a name. So students learn about the Lydian mode or the Phrygian mode, but no one ever tells them that the Lydians and Phrygians were the slaves who performed music in ancient Greece. These enslaved outsiders came up with the most exciting and disturbing sounds—so much so that the Greeks became very concerned about controlling which modes people were allowed to hear.”

However, slavery is not just “(Especially in the past)”, as the OED so quaintly puts it, but often used in contemporary parlance as part of the phrase ‘modern day slavery’, which has been used to describe, among others, kafala workers in the Middle East, debt bondage in South Asia and sex-trafficking in Eastern Europe. It may initially bring to mind the enslavement of African Americans, but that is a bias of the present moment and Western culture. The word ‘slaves’ has had and continues to have hundreds of other connotations throughout the world and throughout history. It is why three bands chose the name separately and why yielding to pressure to change it, subjugating themselves to the will of others, only makes the original moniker more appropriate.

John Lennon – Imagine


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“Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom
and the people will be a hundred times happier.
Throw away morality and justice
and people will do the right thing.
Throw away industry and profit
and there will be no thieves.”

From Chapter 19 of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

In a recent survey conducted on behalf of the book series, Little People, Big Dreams, it was found that 15% of children aged six to 16 had never heard of John Lennon and a third of them did not know why he was famous. Imagine, the most well-known of his solo offerings, is one of the reasons why Lennon was famous not just as a member of The Beatles.

Imagine by John Lennon is not, as the title would suggest, a song about imagination. It is concerned with reality without the imposition of human preconceptions. The means of achieving peace it advocates is not idealistic dreaming, but rather the unlearning of several ideas that have been invented by humankind, and which have become so entrenched in society that it is difficult to imagine a world without them.

“Imagine there’s no heaven…”

This is a strange line to open a song about a desired world peace. Surely heaven is a positive idea, or, at least, not detrimental to society? Lennon, however, is not singing about a utopia. He is proposing a world that no longer needs heaven because life is enough. As Douglas Adams said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

The first verse continues:

“It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us, only sky.”

Heaven and hell are the concepts in the song most demonstrably the imagined creation of humankind. The existence of these posthumous destinations for the soul can be neither confirmed or denied because nobody can experience death and return. Lennon is arguing that without the expectation of reward or punishment in the afterlife, people would instead focus on the importance of the journey and living in the moment because life, which it is much harder to argue against the existence of, is all that matters: “Imagine all the people living for today”.

He expands on this theme in the second verse with the line “and [imagine] no religion too”. Like heaven and hell, religion is also the invention of the human mind. (If you are religious, at least admit that the religions you do not follow are such). Religion can have both good and bad consequences. It follows the line ‘Nothing to kill or die for’, so the emphasis is on the negative effects, such as religious fighting, but since he is imagining ‘Above us, only sky’, it is not only these but also the positive repercussions, such as being a good person to get a ticket to paradise, that he imagines not existing.

The second verse begins with the line “Imagine there’s no countries.” Countries are also the invention of humankind. The world is just the world and it is only people that have divided it up into separate entities like a spherical blue-green cake. The world we live in has countries only because of a consensus that they exist, and even then, the boundaries are unstable. Look at Russia reclaiming Crimea in 2014, the fighting between Armenians and Azeris over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, and the revelation that President Trump enquired about purchasing Greenland from Denmark in 2019. Sometimes there is no consensus: Kosovo, Israel and Taiwan are all unrecognised by some states.

If this is hard to accept because the idea of countries is so ingrained in how people view the world, a passage in Book III, Chapter VII of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, when the world population is reduced to less than 100 people journeying from France to Switzerland, might help explain it:

“We first had bidden adieu to the state of things which having existed many thousand years, seemed eternal; such a state of government, obedience, traffic, and domestic intercourse, as had moulded our hearts and capacities, as far back as memory could reach. Then to patriotic zeal, to the arts, to reputation, to enduring fame, to the name of country, we had bidden farewell. […] To preserve these we had quitted England–England, no more; for without her children, what name could that barren island claim?”

Without people, there are no countries. Of course, Lennon is not imagining a world without people but with “all the people living life in peace”. What he dreams of is a world not without humans, but without the delineated borders of countries created by humankind.

The line “Nothing to kill or die for” follows this after “It isn’t hard to do”. Take, for example, the current Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: The two belligerents are fighting over control of the enclave to say “that region is in my country”. If there were no countries and borders imposed on the world by humans, such fighting would never take place and there would be nothing to kill or die for.

The final verse begins with the line “Imagine no possessions”. Possessions do not exist without the human belief in ownership. There are things, and who owns them is, like the borders of countries, a matter of popular consensus and legal definition created by governments, rather than unmitigated truth. The line reminds me of a verse in the Billy Bragg song, “The World Turned Upside Down”:

“The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain.”

Lennon is asking the listener to imagine a world without the concept of ownership. As the quotation from the Tao Te Ching at the beginning of this piece says: “Throw away industry and profit/and there will be no thieves.”

There is a concept in Taoism called ‘Pu’, most commonly translated as the ‘uncarved block’ but which is perhaps better translated as ‘unworked wood’ or ‘unhewn log’. It refers to natural simplicity without any unnecessary complication or human interference. (It has other connotations, but this is the most relevant to Imagine.) What Lennon is actually asking the listener to do is to return to this state of being, before humans imagined these notions; the afterlife, religion, borders, countries, the concept of ownership, and possessions; to perform a miracle and uncarve the block of life by undoing the layers and layers of concepts humankind has constructed and sewn into the fabric of our perception.

Imagine, therefore, is not about imagination. It is about a reality unencumbered by the intervention of human preconceptions. The children who do not know who John Lennon is, whose minds are yet to be ‘carved’ by the preconceptions of their ancestors, are perhaps the ideal form of this concept, the people who could grow up to make Lennon’s dream a reality. Can you imagine that?

Confederate Band Names in the Court of Public Opinion


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“What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?”

“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied, a little too quickly.

“Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.”

 – Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Lady Antebellum and The Dixie Chicks have ditched the Confederate allusions in their names and become, respectively, Lady A and The Chicks.

The word ‘antebellum’ refers to the period before a war and commonly to the years preceding the US Civil War. It is often used in the phrase ‘antebellum South’ to refer to the Confederate states and to describe a style of architecture then popular in the region, particularly on plantations where slaves were worked. Given these connotations, it is no surprise the band chose to remove it from their name.

The change of appellation, however, has resulted in a conflict with the Seattle-based African American singer, Anita White, who has been using the name Lady A since the early 1980s, first as part of Lady A & The Baby Blues Funk Band and then in her ensuing solo career. Upon hearing about the change, Lady A (the singer) responded“It’s an opportunity for them to pretend they’re not racist or pretend this means something to them. If it did, they would’ve done some research.”; “now [they] want to take my professional name and brand.”; “I don’t even know how much I’ll have to spend to keep it.” In the American songwriter article, Paul Zollo wrote: “Given that the world knows what that A stands for, to many this change does little more than add extra insult to this ongoing injury.”

Lady A (the band) then apologised and the two parties held talks about co-existing. On receiving the contract offer from Lady A (the band), Lady A (the singer) said “I’m not happy about it. […] Their camp is trying to erase me.” She submitted a counteroffer that either the band would choose another name, or that she would change hers for a $5m fee plus a $5m split between Black Lives Matter, Seattle charities, and a legal defence fund for independent artists.

Lady A (the band) have now filed a lawsuit against Lady A (the singer), which, as Natalie Maynes of The Chicks has said, is ‘kind of going against the point of changing their name’. I would agree with Lady A (the singer): In an effort to eradicate the Confederate reference from the title, they have appropriated the name of a black singer, sued her to use it, and have retained the A as a reminder of what it used to stand for. The tokenism of the gesture implies they believe black lives matter but their actions suggest they think the voices of black musicians do not.

The word ‘Dixie’ also refers to the 11 states that comprised the Confederacy. The Dixie Chicks said they had wanted to change their name “years and years and years ago” but were finally roused to action after they saw someone on Instagram refer to the Confederate flag as “The Dixie Swastika”. Emily Strayer of The Chicks said she saw the image and thought “I don’t want to have anything to do with that.” In contrast to Lady A, The Chicks also reached out to a New Zealand duo of the same name requesting permission to share the moniker and received their blessing. The group also removed the whole word rather than reducing it to an initial, but that may just be because a band called The D Chicks has other unwanted associations.

There were warnings that changes like this had been coming. The band Confederate Railroad were removed from the bill of the Ulster County and Du Quoin State Fairs in 2019, officially because they used the Confederate flag in their logo, but most likely because of their name’s link to the antebellum South. In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Danny Shirley espoused this view, saying he had no intention of changing the name and that the removal was because “You had one political blogger bring it up”.

The larger question in all this is why terms like ‘Dixie’, ‘Antebellum’ and ‘Confederate’, words associated with the side that lost the US Civil War, found their way into the names of bands in the first place. One answer is that the popular perception of what the words meant when the bands were formed has changed: Confederate Railroad are the oldest, starting out in 1987, The Dixie Chicks in 1989 and Lady Antebellum most recently in 2006.

You can trace the change in attitudes through the evolving perception of what the Confederate flag symbolises. The earliest nationwide poll to ask what the Confederate flag symbolised to the public was in 1992, when 69% of all Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride. The previous year, a poll of Southerners found that whites thought the flag was a symbol of Southern pride, while blacks thought it was a symbol of racism. As Shirley notes in the Rolling Stone interview, “To us, we were taught that [the Confederate] flag means you like the part of the country you come from.”

But times have changed since Shirley was taught. In June 2020, a poll found that 44% of Americans saw it as a symbol of Southern pride and 36% as a symbol of racism, while a separate survey the following month found that 56% saw it as a symbol of racism and 35% of Southern pride, with those from the South reflecting the national averages at 55% and 36%. Despite the considerable difference in responses, both show that recognition of the flag as primarily symbolising Southern pride has declined over the 30 years.

It is not known whether this change in understanding of what the Confederate flag, the Confederacy and associated terms signify will prove to be a continuing trend or simply a blip. I do not expect the defence of such things ever to entirely disappear: History may be written by the victors, but the self-delusions of the defeated have a tendency to persist.


Jeffrey Lewis – Keep It Chill! (In The East Vill)


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“No, my prophecy will come bright, charging full at the eastern rays of the sun!”

 – spoken by Cassandra in Agamemnon by Aeschylus, as translated by George Theodoridis

On 24 March 2020, the singer Jeffrey Lewis posted a video of the song “Keep It Chill! (In The East Vill)” to his YouTube channel. It was a solo piece on acoustic guitar written in response to the COVID-19 outbreak reaching New York and the subsequent shutdown. Just over three months later, many of the worries and fears he enumerated in the lyrics have become eerily prescient.

In the third verse, Lewis predicted that rats are ‘gonna run out of things to eat’ because there’s ‘no one in the street’ and ‘it won’t take long ‘till they’re a billion strong.’ There were more sightings of rats after the implementation of the lockdown in both New Orleans and New York, and the reopening of outdoor restaurants and other eateries in the Big Apple has brought a surge in visible rat activity.

The verse continues with the lines ‘They’re sure the food they’re missing’s/now stored in out kitchens,/so look out, here they come!’. In the UK, a report by Aviva found that there had been a 42% increase in rat infestations for JG Pest Control between January to March 2020 (Q1) and April to June 2020 (Q2), a 120% increase in rodent-related callouts between Q2 2019 and Q2 2020, and that residential rodent cases for the first half of 2020 was equivalent to 90% of cases in the whole of 2019.

Lewis finishes the prediction with the lines ‘So each virus life we save/is gonna die in a mighty rat tidal wave’, which has not happened yet, thank goodness, and may never happen. Recently, however, the first case of tick-borne babesiosis was diagnosed in England. Babesiosis is a disease ticks acquire after they have fed off infected cattle, rodents or deer and then pass onto humans with bites. At present, there is no evidence to suggest this case was because of rodents, but the aforementioned increased human proximity to rats will likely lead to the spread of other diseases.

In the second verse, Lewis forecast that ‘the teeming hordes that can’t take no more is gonna loot the stores and then they’re coming for us’. Following the police killing of the African American George Floyd on 25 May 2020, there was widespread civil unrest that included, but was not limited to, looting, although the vast majority of it was peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. The section is concluded with the line ‘there’s blood that’s gonna spill’, and (graphic content warning) blood did spill, but from police brutality rather than rival looters.

In the fourth verse, Lewis refers to President Donald Trump as the ‘orange clown who runs DC’ and provides a list of actions he expects the leader to take. This begins with the President seeing ‘there’s perfect cause to declare martial laws’. Although he has not, in fact, declared martial law in response to the civil unrest, he has taken it upon himself to use a military general for a photo opportunity, threatened to deploy the National Guard, and sent federal agents in unmarked vehicles to detain protestors. So, while martial law itself has not been invoked, everything but martial law has been.

Later in the verse, Lewis sings that ‘all his Klu Klux kranks/patrol the streets with tanks/saying “Behave and you’ll be spared!”’. The use of ‘Klu Klux kranks’ to make reference to the Klan carries with it the connotations of racism the police have been accused of, and their anonymity, hiding under the hood, also anticipates the anonymity used by the officers in unmarked vehicles.

Lewis follows the ‘perfect cause to declare martial laws’ with ‘and pause elections indefinitely’. On 30 July 2020, the President tweeted: ‘Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???’, saying it will be the most ‘inaccurate and fraudulent’ election in history because of ‘universal mail-in voting’. Although later in the verse, Lewis opines that ‘you can’t send mail out’, the coronavirus outbreak means that a lot of people will be choosing to post their ballots. In Nevada, for example, lawmakers are looking to provide every registered voter with a mail-in ballot, much to Trump’s chagrin. The President has dangled this proposition of a rescheduled poll, and although the constitution clearly states that only congress has the power to authorise it, it would not be surprising if he attempted to carry out such a threat.

Another thing Lewis expects Trump to do is ‘call the banks’ and say ‘let’s all join ranks/unless their money might get shared’. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package passed in the senate on 25 March 2020 included a provision of $500bn for businesses in what was criticised as a ‘corporate slush fund’, as well as $400bn in loans for small businesses to be made available through banks and credit unions, which resulted in ‘larger companies with connections to major national or regional banks’ getting ‘priority treatment’. It did, however, include sending cheques to individuals, so Lewis’s fear that ‘you won’t get no bailout’ proved to be unfounded, but not far off, given the unprecedented increase in unemployment and the lapsing of rent protections paving the way for mass evictions.

Lewis also worries that “if the internet’s not a memory yet/it’ll get surveilled outright at will’. On 29 May 2020, President Trump signed an executive order targeting Twitter after it fact-checked one of his tweets. A lawsuit against it has been brought by the Center for Democracy and Technology, claiming the order could ‘discourage other platforms from exercising their free speech rights’. Add Trump’s intention to ban TikTok from the US to the mix, and the internet is not just being surveilled, but the wild west of the world wide web is becoming increasingly regulated.

Despite all of this, Lewis ends the song on a happy note, claiming there is a chance humanity will take ‘total warning about global warming’, that the shutdown will ‘slow greenhouse gases’ and ‘makes things greener and the whole world cleaner’. He also says there could be a ‘full-on call for healthcare for all/and better safety nets rolled out’. The hope is that these calls are answered and, unlike Cassandra, the warnings are heeded, because Lewis’s future-telling hit-rate of ill omens in one song is frighteningly high, so there is grounds for optimism that his harbingers of happier times will be too.

Emmy The Great – Dandelions/Liminal


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“Funny, although [Malaya] was going through civil war, in lots of ways it was more straightforward than Hong Kong. You’d know where you were most of the time. Not really like that here, is it?”

“No, it’s all about layers here,” I said.

“Layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.

 – John Lanchester, Fragrant Harbour

Emmy the Great’s Dandelions/Liminal, the first single released from her upcoming album, April, is about the final stages of a relationship when you know the end is coming but some of the embers of that first flame still glow. It also examines the dichotomy between societal expectations on the one hand, the natural world and intuition on the other, and the blurred edges between them.

The forward slash in the title gives the song three potential names: it can be either Dandelions, Liminal or Dandelions/Liminal. Dandelions is a concrete noun, while liminal, which can mean either a transitional or initial stage of a process or occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold, is an abstract adjective. This is a reversal of the expected grammar: an adjective is usually put before a noun to describe it. It also means the title itself has a certain liminality to it, unable to settle on either word or both.

Emmy The Great was born in Hong Kong, a fact mentioned in both the press release for the single and an interview on Sunday Morning Live that aired on 19 July 2020. Having also lived in the UK and New York, Emmy occupies a liminal space where she is able to sing in both English and Cantonese. I first heard her sing in Cantonese when a friend of mine, Laura, and I went to see her at the Village Underground, and Laura identified one song as a version of Faye Wong’s cover of Dreams by The Cranberries featured in Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express.

Hong Kong, which was a British colony until 1997, is a liminal space, sitting, historically, if not geographically, on the threshold of East and West. As a special administrative region of China under its ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy scheduled to last until 2047, it is in the process of changing jurisdiction. At present, with the controversy over its National Security Law, democracy protests, and threats by the Chinese Government to stop recognising the British National (Overseas) passport, it is also a battleground between Western, especially English-speaking democracy and control by the mainland.

The artwork released alongside the single is a diptych of historic photos of Hong Kong, taken from the vantage point of Hong Kong Island and overlooking Kowloon across Victoria Harbour, a natural division within the territory of Hong Kong itself. The photos overlap, so that the leftmost edge of the first photo comprises the rightmost edge of the second photo. This is the same structure as the title, with the word/photo you expect to be on the left appearing on the right. There is also a picture of what I assume is a dandelion on the left-hand photo, although it is hard to tell, and a clash of the natural world and urban settlements in both, but more distinctly in the right-hand picture.

The very first line of the song, ‘Oh it was terrible the trembling/back when the leaves were turning brown’, introduces this idea of liminality. The first clause is backed by tremolo strings, reflecting the trembling in the lyrics as they slide back and forth across the notes, while the second recalls the process of autumn, one of the subjects Emmy has said the album was about in a pinned Tweet.

But there is also the overlap between societal expectation and natural intuition, as demonstrated in the first verse after the first chorus. It opens with the desire to have a leisurely riverside stroll, but undercuts it with the question, ‘Isn’t that what people do?’, transforming it into a romantic ideal the couple is attempting to imitate without the underlying affection required to rekindle those spontaneous early days.

The next line, ‘You say we’ve lost touch with Mother Nature’ follows perfectly on from this, because the natural experience has been subordinated to societal expectation. By the time the final line, ‘And I say, I need to call my mother too’, comes around, we’re back completely to societal convention, away from intuition and without a mention of the natural world, as Emmy needs to use technology to fulfil what is expected of her.

An earlier couplet, ‘Let us dance a little more/they’re playing music in the store’, also deals with the way these two ideas interact, as the primal need to dance is changed once you realise that they are in a store, where that urge is not expected to be satisfied.

In fact, the other person in the song, her lover, acts as a sort of proselytizer for natural world. The three times they communicate are a note to say they are leaving town, saying that they have lost touch with Mother Nature, and that their official line is that heartache is healthy for the body. The last of these is followed by Emmy singing ‘If pain is healthy for the body, baby, you too could have a body like mine’, referring to a real advertising slogan used for several products, most notably for bodybuilding. The ‘official line’ becomes blurred because, depending on whether or not heartache is healthy for the body, the following line could be a validation of their outlook or a sarcastic joke.

This verse also introduces backing vocals singing ‘da da da da da da da’, which, aside from being much more interesting to hear than to read, is the first syllable of dandelions, the other half of the title, repeated as if literally scattering all over the place. Various other text painting techniques are used throughout to evoke this scattering.

The first time Emmy sings ‘scatter all over the place’, the first four syllables are quavers or half-notes, taking up a period of half a beat, and the fifth note, the second syllable of ‘over’ lasts for a dotted crotchet, or one and a half notes. The ‘the’ lasts for one quaver or half note and ‘place’ lands on the first beat of the next 4/4 bar.

The drum pattern also changes during the singing of this phrase, with the snare drum now landing on the first beat, the second half of the second beat and the fourth beat. All that has really happened is that one beat has been dropped and another moved half a beat, but the effect is that the backing seems stretched out, reflecting the scattering, which is further emphasised when combined with the rhythmic pattern of the lyrics.

The second time Emmy sings ‘Scatter all over the place’, the pattern changes. The six notes of ‘scatter all over the’ are stretched equally over the four beats in a set of crotchet triplets. The effect of this is that the words themselves seem to scatter over the beat. The fact that it is a different pattern of notes singing ‘scatter all over the place’ to the previous one calls further attention to the randomness of the scattering dandelions.

This scattering is also reflected in the final passage, where Emmy sings ‘Don’t give me anything except your time’ and a chorus of voices sings ‘scatter all over’. The chorus then echoes ‘your time’ and Emmy takes up ‘scatter all over the place’, so that the words themselves switch places to echo the scattering of dandelions.

The song combines this series of liminal motifs; the bittersweet twilight of a relationship, the inevitable passage of time, the natural changing of the seasons, intuition versus societal norms; into a song that slides effortlessly between conflicts. A breakup song without a breakup is difficult to categorise, to the point where it has a choice of titles, but that’s the point. It’s about the porousness of boundaries, the liminal spaces between layers. That’s a good word for it. Layers.

Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America – The 1975


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“Of footprints left behind Him, in the earthly path He trod,
And how the lowest may find Him, who straitly walk with God,”

From “The Object of a Life” by G. J. Whyte Melville

In The 1975’s Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America, lead vocalist, Matty Healy, and guest artist, Phoebe Bridgers, take on the personas of people who are concealing their same-sex attraction because it conflicts with their Christian beliefs.

The theme is set out in the opening two verses, where Matty’s character says ‘I’m in love’ twice because he is in love with both Jesus Christ and a boy he knows. In trying to reconcile these supposedly incompatible feelings, he concludes in the opening line of the chorus that ‘fortunately, [he] believes’.

This establishes the idea that he is ‘lucky’ to believe in God. Finding it fortunate to believe in God when it creates a guilt about his same-sex attraction suggests that other people are unlucky and unfortunate not to believe, because they will not have the guidance of God to cope with their feelings.

The line, ‘Searching for planes in the sea’, is likely a reference to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which went missing and was never found, even after a thorough search of the oceans it was most likely to be in. The reference means he is searching for something elusive and almost impossible to find, a solution to his dilemma, an answer from God. The quest is ‘ironic’ because planes do not belong in the sea, but also because the searching itself may be for something that is not there to find.

In the third line of the chorus, the characters sing that ‘soil just needs water and a seed to be’, or to exist as a living thing, which in this context also represents the water of life, the Holy Spirit that is needed to nourish the seed of a soul. But, the characters ask, if they turn into a tree, can they be the leaves? What they want to know is whether they can change, whether this part of them they feel but do not want to admit to the outside world, will pass like the leaves that fall away. If they receive the holy spirit, will they be able to alter who they inherently are, what they want to become?

The line in the second verse, ‘for I am just a footprint in the snow’ is a reference to a poem of disputed authorship called ‘Footprints in the Sand’. In the poem, a believer looks back on his life, represented by the titular footprints, in the company of God. For most of his life he sees two sets of footprints in the sand because God walked beside him. When he was at his most desperate and in need of help, however, he sees only one set of footprints. He questions whether at these times God had abandoned him, but God replies that ‘it was then that I carried you’.

In the song, the lyric follows the line ‘I’m in love but I’m feeling low’. The narrator is also at his most desperate and in need of help, but he is only one footprint. There is a greater ambiguity here, for the song exists in a world where God does not explain himself: The single footprint could be because God has abandoned him, or because God carried him, or because there is no God. The fleeting nature of life is further emphasised by the sands of time being replaced by the more ephemeral snow.

Another deviation from the poem’s analogy is that in the song the footprint does not belong to him but IS him. In the poem, the footprints represent the stages of the believer’s life. In the song, Matty’s character is saying is that he is just a stage in his life that will pass; not at a stage, A stage.

An ancient Greek philosopher called Heraclitus is famous for saying that you can never step in the same river twice. This is true because the water you are stepping into is constantly changing. It follows that people, composed of the same star-stuff as everything else, are also constantly changing. Matty’s character realises this, and although there is hope in the possibility of change, he also realises the insignificance of his being, which results in him feeling low about his love.

Phoebe Bridgers’ verse is also about sublimating her same-sex desire. She is ‘nice’ when her beloved, Claire, ‘comes round to call’ but will ‘masturbate the second she’s not there’, which adds a second so-called sin. The word ‘nice’ was also used in the first verse, where Matty sang that Jesus is ‘so nice’. The repetition suggests that when Claire comes around, the Phoebe Bridgers character is acting in a godly way, which she immediately stops doing when Claire leaves.

Although it is not mentioned in the lyrics, the year 2005 is part of the title because it was a pivotal year for gay rights. In the UK, the home of The 1975, it was the year that civil partnerships between same-sex couples were introduced, while California, the birthplace of Phoebe Bridgers, became the first US state to legalise gay marriage. It was therefore not just a confusing time for the characters in the song, but also for the statute books. In the UK, partnerships between same-sex couples were legally recognised, but marriages, the domain of the church, were not. Part of the US had accepted gay marriage, but other parts still held out. It also might explain the second part of the title, “God Bless America”, because a part of America had accepted gay marriage while the UK still had yet to do so.

The sound of the instruments being set up at the start of the song create the illusion of immediacy, as if the characters are desperate to articulate their current dilemma. The acoustic guitar also lends the tune a confessional tone. There are muted trumpets in the background, partly representing the trumpets of God and the angels, but because they are muted, also capturing the inability of the two characters to fully express their feelings.

When you think of a duet, especially by singers of opposing genders, you tend to think of love songs: Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”, Dolly Parton and the late Kenny Rogers’ “Islands in the Stream” and Elton John and Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”, the latter of which features one of the most famous gay musicians in history, but is still about a heterosexual relationship. In this instance, there are two people of opposite genders singing about their longing for someone of the same gender, subverting the expectations of such a duet.

In short, The 1975’s “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America” is a duet between people who are not lovers but share the same internal struggle, a confessional about concealing your own nature and a song of praise caveated by several reservations. It is a mess of contradictions, but by embracing these, it articulates a difficult struggle and becomes a beautiful representation of the truth.

The Emoji Code by Professor Vyvyan Evans


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“meanwhile the people are dead in their droves
but nobody noticed

well actually

some of them noticed.
You could tell by the emoji they posted.”

– Kate Tempest, From ‘Europe is Lost’ in Let Them East Chaos

Sometimes when I go to my local supermarket on my lunchbreak, I pass a shop selling emoji-shaped backpacks. It is a marker of how ubiquitous they have become that they have escaped the confines of the digital realm and can now be sold, bought and worn as an accessory IRL (‘In Real Life’, for those not savvy to internet abbreviations.).

In The Emoji Code, Professor Vyvyan Evans explores this pictographic phenomenon and posits that Emoji, (capitalised when referring to the system as a whole and not when referring to individual symbols,) rather than substituting for a language, is primarily used in the same way non-verbal gestures, expressions and paralinguistic signals (grunting, coughing, intonation etc.) are used in face-to-face communication. Perhaps a further distinction between physical cues in face-to-face and vocal cues in telephone conversations would have been nice, but since it is not central to the argument, the omission is not a problem.

Evans is very good on historical context and how language is always in flux but I would have liked to have read a comparison to the change between face-to-face conversation and the invention of the telephone, which seems to me the most pertinent previous linguistic transition, as the removal of any facial expression or gesticulation from communication to only words and paralinguistic signals.

He uses plenty of examples and research, with perhaps a little too much reliance on the former, but I doubt there is a wide variety of statistical data available and the anecdotal evidence is, however, illuminating. It is useful to know that some emoji have different meanings in different languages, like that the hands ‘praying’ in the UK would mean ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Japan.

Another invaluable insight I discovered from the book, among many others, is that anyone can nominate an emoji, that ‘An individual Chinese-American businesswoman has as much influence as […] an American corporate food-giant.’ Professor Evans states that persons living or dead are not eligible for consideration as emoji, but I know that the footballers Neymar Jr and Paul Pogba were promoted as having them, although they may just be downloadable ‘stickers’ without a Unicode character, so I would venture they are not true emoji. If that is the case, they should not be presented as such in the media. Whether the system will continue to be as democratic as Professor Evans declares it is anyone’s guess.

Because of the resistance to change from those who the author refers to as ‘language mavens’, the book often reads like a defence of Emoji use, focusing on the benefits and none of the downsides. I’m not saying he’s in the pockets of a hypothetical ‘Big Emoji’, but Professor Evans appears to be firmly entrenched on the pro-emoji side.

He points out that Emoji is usually used at the beginning or end of a sentence and is therefore used as a form of multimodality. He mentions people who are actually substituting language with Emoji, such as the artist who rewrote Alice in Wonderland using only the symbols and a journalist who wrote an article the same way, but these are exceptions to common usage. He rarely includes examples where people use single or few emoji, as referred to in the quotation above, where a single emoji is hardly an adequate display of feeling. They may be comparatively rare, but because of the huge amount of usage, might constitute a significant number.

One particular bugbear of mine is the use of the smiley face emoji with tears coming out of the eyes. Like the preceding internet abbreviation for ‘laugh out loud’, lol, which was often used when the person had not actually laughed out loud, how many people are actually crying with laughter when they use this emoji? Is this hyperbole an advantage in communication because it cannot be misconstrued and accurately represents their interior emotion, or is it a disadvantage because it inaccurately depicts the state of the sender? At the present time on emojitracker.com, this particular emoji is the only one to have been used over a billion times. If that many people were actually crying with laughter, we could probably solve any impending water crisis with desalination equipment and the tears of our joy.

What it doesn’t examine is the cause for the lightning-quick proliferation of emoji.  My (admittedly speculative) guess would be that although it is not as expressive as video or face-to-face communication, it is more expressive than text, and although they were more convenient than video, previous emoticons and pictograms were not as convenient as text. I would venture that, when the latter obstacle is removed, and each emoji, with some combinatory exceptions, inhabits a single Unicode character and is displayed as an option for predictive text, it is no surprise that Emoji, with its happy synthesis of expressiveness and convenience, has enjoyed such popularity.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which has aspects of speculative fiction, he explains that videophones never took off because people were too vain to get made up for video calls and would often be distracted during the conversation, which led to them being less popular than the telephone, where the illusion of attention can be maintained. I wonder if something similar is not also happening with emoji. After all, they don’t need to get ready and they never seem distracted.

It is possible you may even be limiting your digital emotional vocabulary by not using emoticons. In the epigram at the beginning of Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’, there is a quotation form Arthur Scargill: ‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ Whether there will be a circumstance in which your life depends on your power to master emoji is up for debate, but that they are useful is hard to question.

On the whole, The Emoji Code is an excellent primer on a young subject and I can wholly recommend it. I expect there will be a more detailed analysis soon, but for now this serves as a great introduction. I have definitely moved from regarding them as occasionally useful symbols to invaluable as a means of modern digital communication and will probably start using them more, which, if not the book’s aim, is at least the effect.

But I’m still not buying a backpack.

Georginio Wijnaldum and the Bullet Header


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“One of the things I did that would indicate my apartness, if it even had developed at that point, was that I would announce baseball games. I remember walking along the street with my cousins, announcing the game, and one of them just slapped me in the back of the head and said ‘shut up’. That didn’t last very long, my sports announcing.”

– Don DeLillo, Interview in The Guardian

If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’.

How I came to discover this scintillating revelation I am unable to disclose because a magician never reveals his secrets and a thirty-one-year-old man never wonders what it would sound like to hear the announcers on an AM radio across the street, places a hand over his mouth to simulate such an imaginary noise and then pretends to join in with the commentary. I am not Don DeLillo indicating my apartness, if only because there are presently no cousins in the vicinity to do me the service of slapping me in the back of the head, about which important organ the majority of this blog concerns.

In the much-anticipated fixture between second-placed Liverpool and third-placed Manchester City at Anfield yesterday, a high-scoring result was expected due to both sides’ lethal attacks and porous defences. The immutable Law of Murphy dictated there would actually be only a solitary goal scored by Georginio, or Gini, Wijnaldum, who I now prefer to think of as the gagged Ronaldo, with what was described by more than one commentator as a ‘bullet header’.

The beautiful game is replete with militaristic terminology – aiming, attacking, armies of supporters – err, – Arsenal – and that’s just some of the As. (Ed: You can’t make both these jokes, the one suggesting you’re struggling to think of examples and the other contradicting the first by suggesting there’s a plethora.) (I can and I will. The reader will understand my inconsistency is sincere.) (Ed: Okay, but on your head be it.) (Ha! That’s good. I’m gonna include this whole conversation.) This particular example of martial lingo infiltrating the parlance of the country’s most popular sport has always struck me, like the bullet that fortunately never has, as particularly misguided.

First, let’s dive like Steven Gerrard definitely never did into a bit of what I shall call ‘footymology’, a portmanteau of ‘football’ and ‘etymology’. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘Header’ meant executioner or headsman in the mid-fifteenth century, while ‘Bullet’ with its present meaning as ammunition was first used in English in the mid-sixteenth century, meaning that if a time-traveller from these earlier ages heard the phrase ‘bullet header’, he would think it referred to a person whose occupation was shooting people’s heads off, which is a ridiculous role for a footballer. Everyone knows that’s the manager’s job.

When a footballer strikes a ball with his feet, it is called a ‘kick’. When a goalkeeper is unable to catch a ball, he will often scramble to parry it away with his hands, and that is called a ‘punch’, or if he does not have ‘command’ of his arms or the necessary foresight, he will ‘fumble’ it away, or flap at it like the man who was nicknamed ‘Flappy-Hands-Ski’.

If a goal comes off the shin, the player has shinned it, but it is not called a shinner, or if it is it is only to disparage the goal. If a player uses his chest to knock the ball down he has chested it, but it is not called a chester, partly because that sounds stupid and partly to avoid confusion with the Roman city where Hollyoaks is filmed. Shinned or chested are used as verbs but only because the action is unnatural. To the best of my knowledge, nobody goes into hand-to-hand combat with the intention of shinning or chesting someone as far as I am aware, but if there IS such an obscure martial art, I imagine practiced by Zlatan Ibrahimović in order to score dangerous and skilful goals that get disallowed, then I would very much be interested in enquiring further about it. When there is a handball, the questions usually asked are whether it was intentional or whether the hand or arm is in an unnatural position, but clearly your head is never in an unnatural position, unless you have been the victim of the aforementioned ruthless time-travelling bullet-header from the Renaissance.

Neither of the verbs ‘punch’ or ‘kick’ seems to bear any etymological relation to the extremity performing the action in question like the word header does. The hyphenated ‘head-butt’ or just the second half of that word would seem the closest without using ‘header’ but they are simply never utilised: Nobody except Zinedine Zidane in a World Cup Final head-butts in football, and using the sole word ‘butts’ sounds anachronistic and needlessly filthy. (Had I the time and inclination, of which I have far too much of the former and less than a little of the latter, I would create a highlight reel of ‘bullet headers’ to the soundtrack of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back”, making sure to include an accidental ‘bullet header’ own goal under the line “And a round thing in your face”.)

Nobody hits a bullet free-kick or bullet penalty, no defender makes a bullet tackle and no goalkeeper bullet punches the ball. The action of a header is not a bullet. If anything the ball is a bullet, the header is the shooting of a shotgun, but ‘shotgun header’ is probably too on-the-nose, or whichever other part of the head from which it is controlled, usually the forehead.

What a ‘bullet header’ implies is a swift and straight trajectory. As far as I am aware, although the bullet’s design may assist with the speed and direction, the gun is very much necessary for these to have any effect. I expect nobody has ever died from having a bullet thrown at them. If anything, the speed and trajectory are related to the barrel of the firearm. ‘Barrel header’, however, sounds like it’s either been rolled in off slanting platforms like the kegs launched at Jumpman by Donkey Kong or luckily gone in like a dipsomaniac managing to get his key in the lock first time.

This leads us to the problem of how best to describe what has previously been called a ‘bullet header’ if shotgun header is too violent and barrel header sounds too clumsy. I therefore propose removing the human volition from the phrase and replacing it with something that is naturally quick and direct: the meteor header.

If you take nothing else away from this blog, let it be this: If you put your hand over your mouth and say ‘Ronaldo’, it sounds like you’re saying ‘Wijnaldum’, and yesterday he scored a meteor header.