Now Then, Are We Getting Anywhere?

By Buchan, James | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1999 | Go to article overview

Now Then, Are We Getting Anywhere?


Buchan, James, New Statesman (1996)


For most of history, people thought it had been downhill all the way since the Trojan wars. Then 18th-century philosophers invented progress. James Buchan asks if this has turned out well

The sight of Emmanuel Petit or Patrick Vieira playing football in gloves never fails to cause in me a faint tremor of annoyance. This small disturbance in the pleasure I take from watching football arises not from the gloves themselves, but from my objection to them. I fear I may have come to resent all progress or innovation in sport, like one of those old chaps in blazers: have become, if only in sport, conservative.

For that reason, I have subjected my mental attitudes to the most scrupulous analysis.

My objection is not to those players' Frenchness or Arsenalness or tendency to feel the London cold. I do not believe they are a fall from some British footballing grace, epigones of Danny Blanchflower or Nobby Stiles, who wouldn't know what gloves were. I do not mind the self-consciousness of modern life, which has created in our easy age not so much the division of labour that so fascinated the 18th century, but a division of leisure so that every skateboarder or weekend gymnast must wear emblems of his sporting allegiance as garish as the coat-facings of the Beaufort Hunt. People dress for sport with the professional decorum once reserved for the undertaker.

Nor is it that, in drawing the attention of the fans and television to their hands, those players are parading a limb that, for the purposes of football, has no legitimate existence and anyway lies athwart the true tendency of the pastime, like a blank in Russian roulette.

No, I object to the gloves because football is a game and therefore has rules that are supposed to be timeless, unhistorical and, because they are rigid, brittle; so that each innovation of a fashionable character -- long hair, short hair, gloves, tights, booze, cocaine, sarongs -- threatens the survival of the game; and one day it'll end up like a children's kickabout in the park on Sunday, when one of the children, who is tired or out of sorts, sits down on the ball.

It is in the nature of a conservative to see society as rigid and vulnerable and any alteration in it to be catastrophic. The penalty shoot-out is introduced, the parliamentary rights of hereditary peers are abolished, the conservative screws up his eyes and shuts his ears. A minute passes and then another. He opens his eyes and unbinds his ears. The familiar world, minus tied matches and lords, smiles back at him. The progressive, in contrast, sees society as robust and just waiting to be pushed and pulled about at will. If one is timid, the other is rash.

Those political stances correspond roughly to the psychological conditions known as pessimism and optimism. Writing this, in the first cold weather of the last year of the last century of the second millennium from the incarnation, in a mood of mild pessimism, I try to summon enthusiasm for the next item in each of those series and to believe that humanity has something to show for its years. I want to know if there is such a thing as progress, if we are getting anywhere.

Except to the Christian, the millennium is no sort of anniversary. It commemorates not so much the incarnation, about which few people in this country appear to care, but the calendar now in general use. In this vacuum of significance, the least trivial item is the millennium or Y2K bug. Immanent, transcendent, quite beyond the control of individuals, it reveals the triumph of the English-language computer programmer and the Gregorian calendar. A content-free succession of ones and zeroes has conquered the lands of Islam and the obstinate heathen where Christianity failed. The bug is thus one of those modern inventions, like Coca-Cola or Windows, whose very lack of content permits its dominion over palm and pine.

Speaking simply, there are two ways of looking at history: as progress or decay. …

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