I’m constantly encouraged to celebrate observing drunk people behaving boringly

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

We have to like public drunkenness. It is a moral imperative. Commentating on the Ashes over the next seven weeks, I will be encouraged to celebrate every intoxicated buffoon, probably dressed as a giant panda, who falls over in the stands, spilling his pint of lager over half a row of genuine fans who’ve paid £100 for the right to watch a cricket match and have ended up with an obscured view of the sport, replaced instead by the full panda experience. What japes, what larks, what good times had by all, so much to celebrate! This is the media’s default position: the more empty bottles on the terraces, the greater the occasion. “They’re having a great day out, eh?”

I am baffled by several elements of this narrative, which will be repeated throughout the Ashes. First, that pouring alcohol down your throat, scarcely a challenging athletic feat, is considered an achievement. Second, that it contributes majestically to the sense of sporting occasion and the gaiety of nations. Third, that the long-suffering, quiet majority don’t summon the courage to object – perhaps they are wary of being told to lighten up and have some fun. Finally, is anyone enjoying themselves anyway, including – indeed especially – the panda?

Attending a major sporting event is like boarding a plane. The same question looms, laden with frightening potential: who am I sitting next to? You anxiously scan both sides, assessing where problems might arise. Will the bottom belonging to the oversized American break the seat? Is the flip-flop wearing fake hippie en route to Goa going to rest his foot on your travel blanket indefinitely?

The difference is that taking a flight is a means to an end. The pleasure, in principle, will follow soon afterwards. A sports match, in contrast, is the final destination, the fun itself. So it is no small issue if the fans in front of you spend half the match standing up and shuffling along to buy and consume beer, and the other half standing up and shuffling along to release from their bodies the beer they have just consumed. The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, before and after play, so that no second is safe from invasion. Earlier this season, after a one-day international in Nottingham, I took the late train back to London. A group of spectators, well-dressed and articulate, clearly wealthy professional types, arranged themselves nearby in the same carriage. They swayed and swore, shouting as though silence might kill them, manfully keeping up the pretence that this was wonderfully enjoyable for them and for everyone else. The traveller in me began to shuffle away. The writer craned forward.

Their conversation, such as it was, began at a low level, from which point it lurched downwards. Cheerful descriptions of their own bodily functions gave way to self-congratulatory estimates of how much they’d drunk so far, then calculations of how much more they were about to drink, how much the whole thing had cost them, before settling finally and unconvincingly on mutual reinforcement about how “great it is to be completely free and away from the missus”. But the unsettling question hung over them: total freedom and this is the best we can manage?

Their grimly determined drinking was accompanied by even more effortful laughter, as though a joke had to come round the corner eventually. They half-heartedly proposed stag jaunts to exotic locations. But enthusiasm for another bout of drinking and canned laughter waned as soon as actual dates were suggested.

For everyone else in the carriage, the journey was excruciating. The more curious aspect was that the protagonists also seemed uncertain they were enjoying themselves. None of us can be sure where another finds pleasure. But there was the sense of dutifully acting out a part, falling into a script that had been written for them. And as they lost confidence, the whole performance became more of a struggle.

They ran out of spectators, too, and selfconscious “indulgence”, expensive and cheap at the same time, is partly fuelled by a sense of display. As everyone else nodded off, the energy drained from the act. By the time we reached London, hints of looming shame mingled with the prospect of relief – the act could soon be dropped and the “fun” replaced by just living.

No day has ever been damaged by the spectacle of genuine joyousness. It’s the fraudulent stuff that leaves a bad taste. Authentic fun is infectious, inauthentic fun the opposite. I am no puritan. I pursue pleasure wherever I can. I enjoy drinking alcohol almost every day. My objection is that these people are amateurs. They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s hard to know which is worse: that they’re damaging everyone else’s day, or that they’re failing even to enhance their own. Observing people drinking ineptly has the same desperate quality as overhearing ham-fisted attempts at seduction.

What does a pleasurable day at the cricket really look like? Breakfast (with serious coffee) near the ground, taking in the nervous excitement on the faces of both sets of fans; arrive before play, to hear the hum of the crowd slowly find its full voice; a glass of wine at lunch; the interweaving of cricket and conversation, one taking up the slack when the other wanes, with no pressure on either to fill all the space; a cold pale ale, the bottle frosted with condensation, in warm sunshine at 6pm; finally, over dinner, shared reflections on the match, memories deepening with friendship.

No one will single you out for eye-catching displays of “fun”. Your memories will be unique, but your contribution was anonymous. That is not to say you didn’t do anything special. You were part of a crowd and you played your part fully. The game and the day were better for you being there. Let’s celebrate that.

The celebration of drunkenness fills the whole day, so that no second is safe from invasion. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.