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A View from the Bridge

2009年12月11日 19:15

World Cup Psychology

On a bright, crisp December morning I waited in the departure lounge of the Osaka International Ferry Terminal. A great day for the voyage to China: mirror-like sea, very few passengers, golden autumn colours.

A young man in uniform came up to me, demanded to see my passport. He squinted at every visa from many different angles, flicked back and forwards through the pages at least a dozen times, checked the details of every name, date and city over and over again. Then he repeated the procedure. A minute passed, then finally, he handed the document back, looked up and said: "Football!"

He told me he had five days off the following week, and he was flying to England to see his favourite team, Manchester United, in action. And I was spending two days just to sail to Shanghai!

Why would someone fly halfway round the world to see a game of football? And why do people need to become fans, support teams, paint their faces, wave flags, let off firecrackers? What is this human need - this desire to identify with a team: MY team, the blue team, the red team?

Actually this seemingly irrational behaviour makes a lot of sense, both socially and psychologically. For since the end of traditional, village-based communities, where else do people get to be members of a tribe, to share the rituals, symbols, rites and ceremonies of an almost sacred order? Where else can people experience such highs and lows, week in, week out?

On a psychological level, the sports fan will use his team to create a social identity as a member of a group. If the team is successful, the fan shares in the success, experiencing raised self-esteem. Of course, if the team fails, this comparison is no longer psychologically useful to the fan who, refusing to share the idea of failure, is left feeling angry or upset. Put simply: your success is OUR success, but your failure remains YOUR failure.

Many of these processes are unconscious. Raising self-esteem also requires negative feelings to be projected onto the other team's fans - the "out" group. Comparisons with the opposition thus allow the members of the in-group to feel a stronger sense of psychic security and self-worth.

For a while, I had thought I was beyond these influences, and I had become tired of the corruption, excess money, cheating and over-emphasis of football in modern life - the way it had been marketed, turned into a commodity. But last week, as I sat in a pub in Mayfair, the TV burst into life - the World Cup draw! I thought I wasn't interested, but I was wrong. Suddenly I had to know: who was in "our group"? Ah, the USA, Algeria, Slovenia. And Japan? Tough group: the Netherlands, Cameroon, Denmark.

Then the memories came flooding back - where I watched Maradona score his miracle goal against England in 1986, a pile of bodies on a sofa celebrating an England goal against Germany in Italia 1990. Walking into a bar in Milan just as Italy scored their winning goal in the 2006 World cup semi-final. As I pushed into the bar, the whole crowd had jumped in unison, knocking my glasses high into the air then trampling them into a thousand pieces on the floor. The next day, as I retrieved the twisted frames from the bar manager, I didn't really mind...

In his novel Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby describes the suffering of a fanatical Arsenal supporter - the huge joy of celebrating a win, or the total and utter dejection of a loss. In no other area of life, he argues, is it possible to experience such a range of emotions. To some it may seem silly, childish even, for grown men to react like this to the result of a football match. But the fans are fortunate in one respect, since through experiencing these emotions they feel a brief surge of full, total life. And that may be the drug that the fanatical fan seeks.

On another level sport, and especially football, may be seen as a "metaphor for life", and this is something the ancient Romans understood very well, providing free wheat and circus games to the population to keep them happy and under control. Of course, if we look at sport like this, we may see it as one way a power elite can exert control over the masses. However, from another angle, it could also be a way for people to experience group loyalties and inter-group competition in place of nationalism, political violence and war. And surely football, even hooliganism, is better than war?

I won't be painting my face for the World Cup next June, and neither will I be waving flags, wearing football kit. I won't be crying when, as usual, England lose to Germany on penalties. However, my place on the sofa is already booked; the beer is already in the fridge.
I won't be missing any games.

2009年11月17日 18:14

West Berlin '87 - Fractured psyche

Last week the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, when armed guards stood aside as a trickle of people became a flood, pouring across the border from the East. At that moment East and West Berlin ceased to exist, a nation was reunited with itself and the Cold War was over.

Since 1961, West Berlin had been a psychological construction as much as a tangible, physical city, existing in the mind as much as in reality. If ever a city had acted as a mirror to the unconscious, this was it. "People never stop partying in West Berlin!" people would say. "You must go there - you've got to experience it! The atmosphere is incredible! It's so hedonistic!" But what exactly created this atmosphere?

One rainy night in November 1987 I found myself in Amsterdam station. The day had not gone well. Earlier two North African men had flicked a knife under my overcoat in the Damrak while I paused in front of a shop window. Money had been demanded, I had resisted, but the knife rose to my jugular. I had surrendered.

Later, with my one remaining credit card (hidden in my luggage), a police report and a European rail pass, I stared at the indicator board in the station. I needed to get out of here! Anywhere! The letters on the board clacked and crackled into life - spinning and clicking, finally settling on the destination: "West Berlin". An island city! A walled city!

In 1987 West Berlin really was an island - a capitalist enclave hundreds of miles inside communist East Germany. The only way in was by plane, or through a few heavily-guarded rail or road "corridors". For the citizens of the East, there was no way out. Berlin was schizophrenic - a wall separated East and West, there were bombed-out church spires, disused tunnels, abandoned government buildings. It was a city of ghosts, a fantasy city of the imagination.

As the train rolled through the damp Dutch night I settled into my seat - there was no budget for a bed - enjoying the empty compartment and the silent night. Even the fact of nearly being murdered seemed less shocking now.

The silence was shattered as five British soldiers threw the door open. These Cold War warriors opened beer cans, shouted questions "Where you from mate?! What the **** are you doing here" One unscrewed the light bulb; another prised a picture off the compartment wall as a souvenir. They swore about the Germans, they sang rude songs but, at Osnabruck, they vanished from the train as quickly as they had appeared, laughing into the night...

Next morning, after we pulled into Berlin's "Zoo" station, I took a walk in the Tiergarten, found lodgings in Spandau - famous for its prison that had housed just one inmate, the Nazi Rudolf Hess, for over 20 years. Now, though, the prison lay empty - Hess had died three months previously. A prison with one inmate, an empty jail - this could only make sense in the battered psyche of West Berlin.

The Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the watchtowers and the grim-faced guards: what had once been the centre of the old city was now a no-man's land of barbed wire, search lights and guard dogs. The area was mined: escapees were shot on sight.

The cracked psychology was emphasised by the subway. The Wall did not follow a straight line, so an ordinary subway ride in West Berlin could pass through, or rather under, the East, where stations had been sealed off to avoid people escaping. As we passed through these "ghost" stations, the train slowed, revealing a spectacle of dimly lit platforms, 1961 advertising hoardings and bored communist guards. The West Berliners paid no attention and continued on their capitalist carousel: humans will get used to anything.

In the middle of this ghost-train subway ride was Friedrichstrasse, where the train DID stop. Here were the border controls, here was Checkpoint Charlie, where I exchanged 25 Deutschmarks (compulsory), got a stamp in my passport, and walked into the communist zone. I found a world of drab shops, unspoilt architecture, almost no cars and few people on the streets.

There was little choice in the restaurants, but what there was cost almost nothing. There was no mad consumerism, no expensive department stores, flashy sports cars or designer clothing. People didn't look particularly happy, but they also seemed calmer, less stressed than their western counterparts. The atmosphere was tranquil, peaceful almost.

That afternoon I had spent only 10 of my 25 Marks (there was nothing to buy) but taking money out of East Berlin was forbidden. There were no tramps or beggars on the streets, so I left the rest under a lamp post, and walked back through Checkpoint Charlie.

Back in 1987 the two parts of this city really were like a fractured psyche - a yin missing its yang, a conscious without an unconscious. Each part existed only in relation to its opposite: neither was complete without the other.

On reflection, Cold War Berlin was an extreme example, but really ALL cities can be thought of in this way. The way a city is constructed, with its underground tunnels, passageways, box-like offices and skyscraper apartments, the way most of it is hidden from view, unknowable, compartmentalised. We can only ever know a tiny part of its reality.

And come to think of it, isn't this just a replica of our own brains?

2009年10月22日 09:34

The Art (lost) of Letter Writing

Two weeks ago I visited the offices of my former employer in Milan. There, deep in the cellar, were two boxes that I had happily abandoned when I left the country in September 2001 - the day before the 9/11 terror attacks.

Over the last eight years men had flown planes into sky scrapers, wars had raged in Iraq and Afghanistan and, as always, people had lived, died, loved and cried. But while the world changed, my books just sat in the swirling dust in the half light from a ventilation shaft, surrounded by old flipcharts, ancient 1970s tape recorders and the fading records of a thousand students.

Like an archaeologist exploring an Egyptian tomb, I shone my torch round the cellar, saw my boxes, and hauled them to the ground with a bump. Slitting them open, I turned them upside down, and the books fell into a pile in the dirt, followed by eight old lightweight aerogramme letters fluttering slowly to the ground like paper planes. These letters were all from Australia, and all from the same long-lost friend.

Gathering them up, I threw them into the refuse bag, but then I had a sudden pang of guilt. Wasn't I destroying a part of my own life history? How could I even have considered throwing them away? These were LETTERS, an ancient form of communication soon to be spoken of in the same breath as hieroglyphics, the scratching of prehistoric man on cave walls, and writing with a feather quill.

No one writes letters anymore - not even my mother. Email is a wonderful invention that affords us daily contact with friends and relatives anywhere in the world. Gone are the days of waving tearful goodbyes to emigrating relatives on ocean liners gliding out of port and, most likely, gliding out of our lives forever. We stay in touch.

But all this comes at a price. Letter writing was above all a physical activity, one that involved all the senses: the act of writing, the sound of the pen, the feeling of folding, sealing the envelope, even the smell of the paper itself. For the reader this meant the physical action of collecting the mail, tearing open the envelope, the visual impact of an individual's handwriting - spidery, curly, neat, expansive - revealing so much of the writer's character.

I picked up a letter from the cellar floor and began to read. Triumphs, disasters, sickness, health, happiness, depression, marriage, divorce, all rolled off the page: memories came flooding back. The depth of communication - the emotional honesty - truly surprised me, although I had not been surprised ten years ago. Maybe I had changed too, along with the world...

As the memories returned I remembered how I had responded to these aerogramme letters long ago. Every six months I would take a sheet of the finest Basildon Bond writing paper, fill my 1950s emerald-studded Parker fountain pen, and sit down in the window seat to summarise the last six months of my life. This had been a powerful, comforting ritual, but it was one that I no longer practised.

Expressing detailed emotions, following rituals and the physical involvement of the senses are all important to human beings, but are largely absent in written communication today. We need to find a way to compensate for this loss. The world may have changed beyond belief in 20 years, but surely people are more or less the same. Or are they?

Given the fact that letter writing is not coming back any time soon, how can we stop ourselves becoming, literally, computer-people?

Answers on a postcard...

2009年9月24日 13:30

Fool's Gold

We've got money problems, or rather, we've got problems with "money".

Wedge, wonga, grand and shrapnel, dosh, fivers, bucks and greenbacks - no word has so many synonyms, not even "sex". We are endlessly obsessed by it, we think about it morning, noon, and night. We can't live without it, though sometimes we can't live with it...

"Hey! Big Spender!", "Money Makes the World Go Round....", "Money! Money! Money!", we sing about it, we shout about it, we dance to its tune, though we rarely choose it as mood music.

We have our reservations: "Money can't buy happiness"... "Money is the root of all evil". The bible warns that "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven". Greed is one of our favourite seven deadly sins.

In Greek mythology Midas had one wish - everything he touched should turn to gold. This was fun at first, but soon became a problem when his food became bars of gold and his daughter turned into a statue. Soon he was begging the gods to reverse his deadly gift, jumping into the river to wash away his golden curse.

Croesus was so rich that he allowed his guests to take away as much gold as they could carry. One, greedier than most, asked to come back later. Croesus agreed, and the guest returned with hundreds of pockets sewn into his tunic, his body and hair greased so he could roll in the gold dust, his mouth crammed with coins. The Gods surely frowned on this golden fool.

We love to hear stories of lottery winners who waste it all, footballers jailed for speeding, pop stars blowing the lot on drugs. But isn't this more than just gloating at others' misfortune? Perhaps we really do believe in the curse of excess wealth and, deep down, aren't we secretly convinced that there is a price to be paid in the end?

We must remember Shakespeare: "All that glisters is not gold". And we should ignore the advertising men telling us to buy more, the politicians shouting "Consume!", the friends endlessly trading up to bigger houses, at the cost of a ruined work-life balance. Who do we trust more: the voices of antiquity, the Bible and Shakespeare, or the politicians, marketing men and newspaper headlines?

To stop racing mindlessly round the hamster wheel, to get off the carousel, to freeze the movie, there is one simple question to confront, and that is this: "How much do I really need?" This question, so easy to ask, is so very difficult to answer. Any answer, though, provides a snapshot of who we are and what we should do next, as well as a fixed point of reference in an unstable world. It is also the question "they" don't want us to ask, because maybe, probably, surely, we would not buy their baubles. But in responding  we take back control, we assert our will and we define our own destinies. We draw a line in the sand, and we know ourselves all the better for it.

In their search for the philosopher's stone, the Alchemists spent their time turning lead into gold. But it takes an expert eye to make sure this gold is real and, anyway, who said lead wasn't useful?

Don't be fooled by fool's gold: how much do you really need?

2009年8月17日 10:11

The Moon and Sixpence

The human race is endlessly fascinated by the Moon. How its symmetry changes our moods, from the rounded wholeness of a yellow sphere, to the pointed edges of a jagged crescent. And we, at one with our primal instincts, never fail to react.

Artists, singers and poets respond in turn. Blue Moon, Paper Moon and Moon River will ring down the centuries; Moonlight Serenade brought big band style and romance to the most unlikely occasion - the Second World War. Frank Sinatra insisted that his lover "Fly me to the Moon and let me sing among those stars". And sing he did.

For Shakespeare the Moon was "...an arrant thief, her pale fire she snatches from the sun", while the thin crescent moon shines like a jewel in Van Gogh's night skies. Li Bai, the Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, loved the Moon as much as he loved the wine cup. So much so that he met his end in the Yangtze, drowning in a drunken attempt to embrace the Moon's reflection. What a way to go....

But though we paint it, sing about it, read about it and write poems about it, are we sometimes forgetting to look at it? Walking across open parkland one night last week, a full moon stopped me in my tracks. This perfect, sombre yellow disc is the one thing every human being can gaze on, and not even the sun can claim that honour. Surely it is marvellous, I reflected, that under this same moon Shakespeare composed sonnets, Van Gogh raved and raged in his final madness, and Li Bai sat with his shadow and his wine cup, slurring poetry at the black night?

However, two minutes later the vision had faded as I turned into the high street. The Moon had disappeared, banished by tall buildings and street lights, shouted down by the roar of taxis and buses. People bustled in and out of bars and restaurants, loitered at bus stops. No-one looked up. The Moon was dead.

Forty years ago the Americans landed on the Moon. Just for one day, the world put down its tools and its weapons, stopped whatever it was doing, and huddled round radios waiting for news from the skies. The ultimate peaceful competition, the Space Race, was over, and the winner had been declared. For once, and only once, inter-group hostilities were suspended and the human race became one single group, with one of its kind walking the Moon. We were, briefly, united - there was hope for a new dawn of peaceful cooperation.

Of course this state of affairs did not endure - we soon lowered our gaze, lost the new perspective and forgot the space dreams. Petty jealousies, rivalries, the urge to fracture into small groups, the bloodlust of war, have continued unabated. The new dawn of 1969 has been eclipsed by a bad moon.

Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence is based on the life of Gauguin. In the book the central character - Strickland - throws up his job as a stockbroker and becomes a painter in Tahiti. The Moon in this sense is the pursuit of Art and Beauty, while the Sixpence represents everyday life and human relations.

Chasing the Moon comes at a cost for Strickland - he abandons his family, and he eventually dies of leprosy in Tahiti. The message, though, is clear. We'll soon run into trouble if we wander down the high street, ignoring the sixpence at our feet. But just so often, every now and then, we need to look up to the skies, and remember the Moon.

プロフィール
Simon Patterson
Simon Patterson
Simon Patterson has worked for 20 years in management communication and business langauge training. A trained scientist, he also has a financial career background as well as academic qualifications in psychology. He has lived in South Africa, Italy and Japan, and is now based in London.
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最新記事
World Cup Psychology
West Berlin '87 - Fractured psyche
The Art (lost) of Letter Writing
Fool's Gold
The Moon and Sixpence