Will Self: It’s no wonder sport fans are angry so often, they’re the victims of a massive con

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

You’ll be aware by now that of all the frenzied crowds that trouble my uneasy sleep, sporting ones bother me the most. I mean to say, to be crushed to death by a mob that is rampaging because tyranny flies at its backs has a certain justness but to be stomped on by people driven berserk by a ball game would be a pitiful end. Sporting events by their nature embody the worst excesses of late capitalism: the spectators are mere passive consumers of the commodified prowess of the athletes and the seasonal character of the spectacles mimics the cyclic time that this new peasantry is trapped in, while the masters of money and power forge ahead. No wonder sports fans are so often pissed off: they’re the victims of a massive con.

When I stopped going to sporting events, the crowd at the Arsenal still strongly resembled an L S Lowry painting: rank upon rank of mufflered and capped men, raising their Bovril cups to their chapped lips with the monstrous synchrony of a group mind. Around this time – the early 1970s – I also went to Wimbledon a couple of times. This was a different sort of crowd – blazered and frocked, bourgeois – and the Centre Court also had a sort of hushed intimacy: the net stretched decoratively across the carpet of grass, the tiered seating somehow G Plan.

Nevertheless, here was the same disturbing unanimity, the eyes sliding back and forth like those of automata, the counterpoint of players’ grunts and spectators’ groans suggesting – even to my pubescent mind – participation in some mass act of sexual congress. (I may have been reading Brave New World at the time.)

Still, at least tennis had the virtue of a certain individualism – single combat, armed with catgut, wood and rubber – and I think I went on watching it on TV until at least the middle of that decade. Plonking myself down in front of the set some 35 years later, I was heartened to discover that little seemed to have changed with the Wimbledon crowd: there were a few more handmade signs and some garish tam-o’-shanters that I didn’t recall from the days when Ilie Nastase flipped his wig but otherwise it was business as usual. (Andy Murray was even drinking what was unmistakably Robinsons Barley Water.) Yes, you guessed it, the Championship bid by the down-home boy from Dunblane had lured me out of my sporting retirement.

True, I wasn’t court-side but the way the BBC chose to cover the Wimbledon crowd was surely indicative of this aspect of the zeitgeist: the distraught relationship between the particular and the many. Murray’s authenticity as a sporting hero derives as much from his intractability when it comes to the usual skill transfer of celebrity as it does from his prowess. As yet, there’s been no smelly water line or pseudo-styled sunglasses – his product placements at least superficially appear to be out of necessity and he even (for which I could’ve kissed him) appeared to pooh-pooh the idea of a knighthood when old buttock-face had him straight round No 10 the day after his win. I suspect that lurking behind this is a deeper level of crowd consciousness, because if modernity teaches us anything, it’s that the seeming omnipotentiality of the notorious – so you’re a cabinet minister: why not chance your arm at ballroom dancing? – rests on a correlative loss of true expertise. If you can be anything, how can your ability at one thing be credible?

Murray is a personification of the most physical possible impact between the anomie of the individual and the madness of the crowd; he is thus a hero twice over. No wonder, as the camera nosed about the arena, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of Messrs Cameron, Miliband, Clegg and Salmond-with-saltire almost sucking each other off, such was their desire to repose in the crotch of the champion.

Murray, meanwhile, submitted to the bizarre court-side interview – a ritual I cannot remember from the 1970s and one in which the well-known faces in the crowd, picked out by the camera, are integrated into the mass to reinforce the hoary new delusion that they’re just like us, really.

You may have detected a certain soft, emollient tone in this week’s column – but have no fear, readers, remember: Murray the Minted is a sports “ambassador” for none other than RBS. It’s given the feisty wee chap thousands of our pounds to play big pingpong, so mind, we own the fucker. Now, new balls to kick, please!

Andy Murray's authenticity as a sporting hero comes as much from his intractability as from his prowess. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.