Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Ollie Robinson and the toxic time capsule

I have very mixed feelings about the furore surrounding Ollie Robinson. As someone who grew up in the pre social media era, there is no chance of any embarrassing tweets or Facebook posts emerging. As a paid up member of Rock Against Racism, I can see zero possibility of me posting anything of such a nature had there been such an opportunity. I've always abhorred such mindless behavious. Rock Against Racism was founded when Eric Clapton made blatently racist comments at a gig in Birmingham. New Wave and Punk musicians, who were generally cut from a very different cloth reacted furiously and Rock Against Racism was born. We organised gigs, badges were made and a sister movement, the Anti Nazi League was formed. Free gigs were held, with musicians such as The Clash, Aswad, Elvis Costello, Misty in Roots and The Ruts performing. I was proud of the musicians I supported and the stance they took.

The other love of my life is football. In the 1970's there were very few black footballers. The terraces were hotbeds of racism, something I always found uncomfortable. When Manchester City recruited the brilliant black goalkeeper Alex Williams, I was shocked to see him play at Fulham, supposedly a friendly family club, and get pelted with bananas and subjected to racist chants. As a goalkeeper, Williams was uniquely exposed. He was a strong character and was quite prepared to give as good as he got with the crowd. Once they realised that they wouldn't win they shut up. It made me proud of Alex Williams.  At the time there was no taking the knee or players walking off at the first whiff of a racist chant. The likes of John Barnes, Lawrie Cunningham, Cyril Regis and Williams were expected to 'man up and take it' and 'do their talking on the pitch'. For the stronger ones, I assumed they won. A few of years ago I went to see 'an evening with John Barnes'. He was clearly a strong character who survived with flying colours, but we don't hear from those who were driven out. We never hear the of the damage.

As for cricket. I was never a big fan. My Dad was an excellent cricketer, who told me he may have played professionally had it not been for the second world war. He told me that English Cricket was full of ingrained racism and snobbery when he started playing locally after the war. He told tales of how an Indian batsman at his club never won player of the year despite easily topping the batting averages for the club and helping them win trophies. As an Aussie, my Dad believed in meritocricy. His Indian friend told him 'I play because I love the game, not because I love these idiots'. Things have changed since 1946, when my father was playing. Nowadays local cricket is completely multi racial and no one would tolerate such things. As to the national team, in 1976, South African cricketer Tony Greig was appointed England captain as a test series against The West Indies loomed. The West Indies had an amazing team, but Greig vowed on National TV to make them 'grovel'. My Dad was enraged. He didn't like the England team at the best of time, but put a weeks wages on the Windies as soon as he heard. He said that the the likes of Sir Viv Richards needed no incentive to win, but as Greig  had said he'd make them grovel and in the minds of the West Indies, he was a figurehead for the Aparthied regime, they would make sure that England were stuffed 3-0. 

Ezeikiel realeased "Who's grovelling now" to celebrate

My Dad banked some fat winnings. He told us a story that makes me laugh to this day. When he was in the Royal Australian Air Force, he was drafted into a cricket team of Aussie airmen to play the Royal Navy. I am not sure of his role, but Prince Phillip, then not a Royal and just a naval officer was present. The game was meant to be an excuse to have some fun and a few drinks. The Aussies had some top class cricketers in the team. After a couple of overs, they'd taken a few wickets. Prince Phillip shouted "Come on lads, you can't let these convicts beat you". This was a red rag to a bull. The Aussies stepped up a notch and absolutely stuffed the Navy. After the game, Prince Phillip, realising his faux pas, approached the Aussie captain, in front of the team and said "Chaps, I am sorry if I upset you". The Captain shot back "Upset us? mate you can be our mascot". In short, such insults fired them up and my Dad knew the Windies would react in the same way.

But we thought that was all behind us. You'd think that people would learn. Which brings us to Ollie Robinson. The Prime Minister and the Culture secretary have said "He did it a long time ago and he's apologised". Does this wash? There are two things to consider. At that age I was quite aware of what racism was. As for sexism, I was brought up to be respectful. However, that was an accident of fate. My family was one where we learned respect from a young age. Is it an excuse if someone is brought up in a different environment? Do racists and sexists change their spots? As this was ten years ago, and Mr Robinson was just becoming an adult when he posted them, whereas he has lived a third more of his life now, he will have played cricket with all manner of people and had far more life experience, there are circumstances where he should be given the benefit of the doubt. 

I was clearing out some rubbish a few years ago. I found a box marked '1980 time capsule - Do not open until 2012'. It was a box of letters from friends. I have to be honest that I couldn't remember it, but for my  18th birthday, I'd asked friends to put something in an envelope, with plans to meet on my birthday in 2012 when I was 50, to see what we made of it all. Sadly a couple of friends are no longer around, a couple I've lost contact with. The first couple were pretty banal and they clearly hadn't bothered". The Third was a list of predictions of what the world would be like, all hilariously wrong. The fourth shocked me. It was a mate who'd clearly put a lot of thought into it. It was a list of all the girls we knew, with lewd comments and predictions for where life would take them. It was blatently sexist, racist and anti semitic. What especially shocked me was that I'd never have associated that person with those comments. It was clearly meant as humour, but was quite revolting. I still see the chap and he has a very responsible job. For a few moments, I toyed with the idea of sharing it with him. I then thought about it and thought 'what is the point, he'll be really embarrassed' so I binned it. 

A few months later, I met up with a few mates and he was there. I mentioned that I'd found the box. He turned pale and said 'did you open mine?'. I said that I had. He was clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable. He confessed that he'd done it as a joke, but had been terrified that I'd open it and share it with one of the girls, who he subsequently dated. I'd forgotten he'd gone out with her, but he said that he'd been terrified of the list emerging at some point. 

It is clear to me that 'the list' was a bad attempt at macho bravado, gone wrong by an immature boy, who had grown up. Which made me think of Ollie Robinson. As a member of the England Cricket team, where does this go? A simple apology is not enough. He is representing the country. If he wants to do this, he needs to show that he is a different man. That should be easy if it is true. Marcus Rashford has shown us the power of sports people making a stand. Ollie Robinson should not hide. He should come out, be honest and explain whyt he did it and why we should believe he's changed. He should commit to doing something for our community to demonstrate that he cares. What? That is up to him. I don't judge my friend by his juvenile mistake. He's shown that it does not represent the man now (or even a couple of years after he wrote it). Ollie Robinson needs to prove to his audience the same thing.  

What worries me slightly is that he's not had a bunch of his peers, who know him well, coming out in support. If black team mates and female friends had come out and said 'This is not the Ollie we know and he's profusely privately apologised to us for his past misdemeanours' I'd believe him. When we see players like Monty Panasar unable to support him, you do worry. I agree with what Monty said
“I think Ollie Robinson should take ownership of this and actually tell the pubic, tell us what you’ve learnt as a 27-year-old man now from when you were 18."
That is really the crux of the matter. As for Boris, given his form with racist comments, a period of silence would be welcome. God only knows what Boris would have tweeted when he was 18. 

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