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Cult hero No 40: Ilie Nastase

This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald

Sir Jackie Stewart famously compared women to motor cars, but in his autobiography Ilie Nastase, Romania’s most famous sportsman, lit upon an even less romantic analogy when he likened them to showers. In his pomp Nastase tended to have a different girl every day, see. He later estimated his total number of showers at around the 9,000 mark, on hearing which his current and third wife, Amalia – whom he met at a Sting concert – declared she was happy to have conquered such a clean man.

In the 1970s women literally threw themselves at Nastase, so you can decide for yourself whether to deplore his utilitarian approach to sex, but there were other reasons for his dividing opinion. For this long-limbed, raven-haired tennis champ’s illustrious playing career was blighted by fines and disqualifications brought on his head by an inability to control his temper and a fondness for giving umpires the bird. He was, however, a good-natured sort off-court by all accounts – all the sex probably saw to that – and ever the entertainer, amusing spectators with mimicry and horseplay. And the ‘Bucharest Buffoon’ also happened to be one of the most naturally gifted players in tennis history – lightning quick, a masterful shot-maker, devastating from the baseline but equally adept at serve-and-volley.

Nastase was World No 1 for a year in 1973-74 and in a career spanning almost two decades won over 100 pro titles, including seven Grand Slams (albeit five of those were in doubles, either with Jimmy Connors or with countryman Ion Tiriac). He beat Arthur Ashe in five sets to win the US Open in 1972, won the French Open the following year without dropping a set and won the end-ofseason Masters Cup four times. After his retirement in 1985, Nastase wrote two novels and made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Bucharest. Earlier this year he followed in the footsteps of his doppleganger, that other great “swordsman” Gerard Depardieu, when the French made him a Knight of the Legion d’honneur.

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The pardoning of Jack Johnson

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

Kansas Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins’ timing really couldn’t have been any worse when, in August, she called on a “great white hope” to emerge from Republican ranks and challenge Barack Obama. She hadn’t been aware, she subsequently claimed, of the origins of a phrase that was first used by the writer Jack London in 1908 willing the restoration of white ascendancy after Jack Johnson had had the audacity to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world. Her gaffe was made all the worse, though, for the fact she’d not long before voted in favour of a resolution calling for Johnson – who was sent to prison on somewhat equivocal charges after putting several “great white hopes” in the shade – to be given a presidential pardon.

Spurred on by the campaigning of film-maker Ken Burns, whose 2005 documentary Unforgiveable Blackness charts the boxer’s life, and the sponsorship of Senator John McCain, a boxing aficionado, that end now looks to be within reach, Senate and Congress both having given their seal of approval. Fevered debate in cyberspace in the wake of President Obama’s silence on the matter to date, coupled with reactions to Jenkins’ blunder, have served as a reminder, however, of just how deeply Johnson’s career divided America, and how issues of race continue to map onto boxing to this day.

By the time London – a man of the political left – was citing the white man’s “30 centuries of traditions … all the supreme efforts, the inventions and the conquests” as evidence of his racial supremacy, Johnson, the son of freed Texan slaves, had won dozens of fights against both black and white opponents. Already World Coloured Heavyweight Champion, in 1908 he took the belt that mattered, from Canada’s Tommy Burns. Revelling in his status as America’s first black superstar, he then laid waste to several challengers before James J Jeffries, who’d refused to fight Johnson and retired undefeated in 1904, agreed to a comeback “for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”

When they eventually fought, in Reno, Nevada, in 1910, the ringside band played a song called “all coons look alike to me” and an all-white crowd chanted “kill the nigger.” But Johnson, faster, stronger and smarter than his opponent, knocked him down twice before Jeffries’ minders called time, after 15 rounds, in order to avoid a knock-out. His title now undisputed, Johnson walked off with $225,000 and black America erupted in spontaneous rejoicing. In more than 50 cities, however, there were riots, as the celebrations drew a violent response from white mobs. At least 20 men were killed in what was the most widespread racial turbulence the US would see until after the 1968 assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.

The day after the fight the Los Angeles Times intoned: “A word to the Black Man… No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of your victor at Reno.” Johnson, meanwhile, refused to condemn his fellow blacks for having “provoked” whites and was not forgiven: two years later he became the first person to be prosecuted under the Mann Act, which forbade the transportation of women across state lines “for immoral purposes” and was designed to stop the “white slave” trade in prostitutes. The charge involved a young white prostitute, Lucille Cameron, whom Johnson subsequently married. She refused to co-operate and the case fell apart, but another prostitute with whom he’d been involved four years previously testified against him and the authorities got their man: he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail but chose to flee, first to Europe and then to Mexico, before eventually surrendering seven years later and serving 10 months.

While in exile Johnson lost his title to Jess Willard in Havana after being knocked out in the 26th round. He tried to resurrect his fighting career on his release from jail but Jack Dempsey, heavyweight champion from 1919 until 1926, refused to fight him, and in 1928 he retired, aged 50, having lost seven of his last nine bouts but with an overall record of 91-14-12. In 1946, he died in a car crash after racing away from a diner in which he’d been refused service.

The recent resolution on Capitol Hill stated that “the racially motivated conviction in 1913… unduly tarnished his [Johnson’s] reputation.” Others, though, deny this version of events. In April the Chicago Daily Observer noted that Johnson certainly violated the spirit, if not the letter of the law, “as he openly consorted with prostitutes” and even bankrolled a brothel madam.

Like Muhammad Ali half a century later, Johnson made boxing an act of defiance and he was loved and hated for it in equal measure. He refused to know his place in white man’s America, lived his life as he saw fit and courted controversy by marrying three white women. The first, a Brooklyn socialite named Etta Duryea, he beat up several times. The second, Cameron, he wed less than three months after Duryea’s suicide. Johnson’s career unfolded against the backdrop of religious revival in America but there are few yardsticks by which he could be judged a saint.

Some have argued that a pardon in this context would amount to an empty gesture and that it is too late to do “the right thing.” Others go further, resenting the impugnation of the whole of white society at the time and pointing to Bernard Hopkins’ outburst before he fought Joe Calzaghe in 2007 (“I would never let a white boy beat me… I would never lose to a white person”) as evidence that boxing is a sport in which race seems still to count and in which racism cuts in various directions.

Johnson wrote in his autobiography that he had been determined to “act as if prejudice does not exist.” Obama has been clear that it did, and does. Whether that’s enough for him to see a pardon as meaningful remains to be seen.


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Cult hero No 38: Hugh Dallas

This article appeared as part of a year-long weekly series by the author in the Sunday Herald

Was there ever a more beloved arbiter, a more respected peacemaker, a more venerable man in polyester black, a more just custodian of the cards in all of Scottish life? Hugh Dallas united Old Firm supporters, soothed their hatreds and made placid bilateralists of the most rabid partisans.

Dallas, born in a schoolbook depository where as a child he nearly talked Lee Harvey Oswald out of a red-card offence, first brought his tranquil presence to bear in an Old Firm match at Ibrox in 1995. With the likes of Andy Goram, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Paul Gascoigne all playing, it was not a contest many considered governable. But Shug of the Beatitudes, for such was his handle, held tight to his peawhistle and kept proceedings in order, dispensing only nine yellow cards.

However, it was in a championship-deciding fixture at Parkhead in 1999 that Dallas demonstrated the full scope of his equability. With Rangers 1-0 in front, a flare-up in which Stephane Mahe responded angrily to being fouled by Rangers’ Neil McCann resulted in the Celtic man being sent off. Mahe, recognising the referee’s inherent rectitude, apologised for his effrontery, and one Celtic supporter manifested his esteem for the offical with a cash donation. Unfortunately, his proferred coin nearly took Dallas’s eye out. But if the target was put in fear of his own safety, he did not show it: moments later he gave Rangers a penalty when Tony Vidmar decided he didn’t like the look on Vidar Riseth’s face and went down in the box.

In 2002, Shug was Scotland’sole representative at the World Cup in Japan and South Korea. After receiving a ticker-tape sendoff at Hampden, however, he was to alienate his American fans by declining to award the USA a penalty when Germany’s Torsten Frings handled the ball on the line. Dallas was later awarded an MBE for his services to Scottish football and is now generally regarded as an avuncular Tony Benn-type figure.


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Two decades of house and techno

A version of this article appeared in The Herald Magazine

IT will doubtless be to the indissoluble chagrin of old hippies and old punks, in whose daydreams still lurk fragments of counter-cultural zeal or situationist argot, that they have been outdone and outlasted by a youth movement that’s as disinterested in political posturing as it is in guitars and leather.

Dance music – electronic dance music, consisting primarily of programmed, repetitive beats, lest you presume we’re talking about sarabandes and minuets – accounts for the most enduring youth phenomenon the UK has ever seen. Prone to constant self-renewal and reinvention and despite the best efforts of rock critics at proclaiming it dead every 18 months or so since about 1992, it is also the most diverse.

Bubbling up from the fag-end of the disco era in the US, “house” music – so-named after the Warehouse club in Chicago – came spluttering and cranking out of America’s north-eastern cities in the mid-1980s. Chicago DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy effectively played about with the raw materials of sound: experimenting with computer technology and already-vintage drum machines, they looped samples and collaged existing records, then laid down the results on new tracks or live in clubs. In Detroit, their contemporaries evolved the sparser, more alien and futuristic sound that would become known as techno.

At the legendary gay New York club the Paradise Garage, DJs fused these novel sounds with their own extended and distended mixes of funk and disco records. It was frenetic, euphoric underground music that found a captive audience, thanks in large part to a new club drug of choice: Ecstasy. Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, the “love drug”, induced overwhelming sensations of well-being and empathy and made it just about possible to dance all night.

Received wisdom has it that this potent, heady mix only breached the consciousness of young Britons after a few hundred bohemian drop-outs and itinerant suburban south Londoners experienced it in the bars and clubs of Ibiza – which had long been a haven for hippie jetsetters – in the summer of 1987. In truth, house records were being heard in clubs in places as far north of London as Scotland well before the Balearic-inspired scene began spawning its own records and its first distinctively British sub-genre, dubbed “acid house”.

At any rate, 1989 was the year dance music made Britain sit up and take note, the year it jumped from the underground into the charts, the newspapers and even the countryside. Twenty years ago, parliament and the tabloids were in the grip of consternation about illicit all-night “raves” at which young people were taking a new drug whose effects their moral guardians were smart enough to perceive were not those of alcohol. In England, rave entrepreneurs and the police were locked in a contretemps – having had events in disused inner-city warehouses busted, the former were staging huge parties on farms and greenfield sites around Oxfordshire. Alarm in the press – one scare story in the Sun reported that youngsters were “so drugged up they ripped the heads off pigeons” – gave the whole scene the oxygen of publicity and numerous events attracted upwards of 15,000 people. At one of them, Scottish proto-ravers the KLF demanded their fee of £1000 in Scottish pound notes, scribbled “we love you children” on them and showered them on the crowd. But by the following summer the government had passed new legislation introducing harsher penalties on organisers.

In Scotland, there was little of the same tension at play, at least according to Ricky Magowan, a promoter whose company Streetrave – now Colours, the biggest organiser of dance events north of the border – was also putting on its first parties in ’89. “We didn’t really do anything to that level that was going on in England so we didn’t get the same flak for it – we were in established buildings and had health and safety certificates,” he says. “When we started, it was about us as clubbers creating a new scene. We were already running buses to different places like the Hacienda in Manchester, so we thought ‘why not start something for ourselves?'”.

“There was already a scene that existed with stuff like the soul all-dayers, but then this new generation came through in 1988 and 1989 and it became something totally new and different. We started doing a monthly night at the Ayr Pavilion, which got 1300 people every month and things just grew from there.”

Another former promoter, Andy Unger, who still DJs in Glasgow, says the years 1989-1992 represent something a “golden age”. “There was this whole package,” he remembers. “You didn’t need the drugs because the music was so good, but they were there for whoever wanted them. I think it was similar to what happened with punk rock but on a much bigger scale. Dance music felt like a revolution at the time, it was very inclusive and it triggered an enormous reaction in people. It was the last form of music that was entirely unlike anything else, and it inspired a lot of people to do something for themselves, like produce their own records or DJ or run a club night.”

Various commentators and social historians have argued that dance music in the UK both tapped into the individualism being championed by the Tory government and catered to a deeper need for communal experiences. Dance music and Ecstasy are variously credited with uniting black and white, straight and gay, and even pacifying football hooligans. A lot of vocal dance records rhapsodise along preposterously utopian lines, but notwithstanding anti-capitalist techno-hippies’ attempts at using ear-blisteringly awful hardcore techno to “hack the consciousness interface”, for the most part it’s been hedonism first, second and third on the agenda.

But just as the naive, loved-up idealism of dance music’s pioneers became diluted by gangsterism, the drug economy and rampant commercialism, throughout the 1990s the scene itself splintered and forked into scores of specialist sub-genres and sects. Some clubs stuck to the basic diet of house and techno, others branched off into hard dance and trance, and the burgeoning rave and hardcore scenes snowballed – ever-harder, ever-faster – with a logic of their own. With the emergence of jungle, breakbeat and drum n bass, all rooted in London’s long-standing black soul and funk subcultures, there was genuine innovation – this was music which sounded to mid-1990s ears every bit as radical and spell-binding as had Chicago house a decade before, and, in turn, it would go on to spawn sunnier subgenres like speed garage and two-step, as well as the more menacing grime. But by about 1995, rave had changed from being breezy, silly and fun into something aggressive, intoxicated and downright daft, due at least in part to people experimenting with more debilitating drugs – for some Ecstasy was no longer enough on its own; it had to be mixed with the likes of temazepam, cocaine, speed and ketamine, and with strong drink.

Ian Kinghorn, a 36-year-old Edinburgh-based artist, admits he was a “late starter” with dance music, but his experiences with Ecstasy – though fairly “melodramatic” – are not atypical. “I started going clubbing in 1999,” he says. “I went to mostly gay clubs that were playing trance and progressive house, but it was really Ecstasy that got me into it because I never really understood the music before that. When I took E everything made sense and sort of locked into place – I was converted almost overnight and after that it became almost a religious thing.

“I went through a sort of honeymoon period – you’re just in love with everybody and everything. I had suffered from depression before and I never knew that happiness like that was possible. For that time, in the club, I realised I loved who I was and because everyone was on the same wavelength it was a really beautiful, friendly atmosphere.”

Over a period of about two years, however, Kinghorn’s Ecstasy intake increased. He also started experimenting with cocaine and ketamine and while his weekend highs were “still worth it”, he began experiencing crippling mid-week comedowns. “The scene itself became a bit stale and predictable,” he says, “and I think I was trying to compensate for that, chasing that initial rush. There came a tipping point where it became too much and I just had to stop it altogether.”

Tales abound of Ecstasy users experiencing burnout – Kinghorn ultimately suffered a “sort of breakdown” – but for many more moderation militates against any real ill-effects. And for others the drug’s seemingly inbuilt provision of diminishing returns prompts them simply to realise good things don’t last forever. That which goes up comes down, and so it was with the superclub and superstar DJ phenomena that came crashing about the ears of the UK’s super-annuated dance music megaliths in the early years of this decade. Dance had forced the liberation of licensing hours up and down the country and become a part of the entertainment establishment, but large swathes of the population suddenly realised it just wasn’t worth paying £50 to stand in front of Judge Jules for five hours.

These are, perhaps, slightly saner times, and if you can drag yourself away from binge-drinking and fights in kebab shops- corollaries of what now passes for this country’s primary entertainment industry and by-products, in part, of dance culture’s all-night sensibilities – it is a comfort still to be able to sneak off to dark, underground spaces like Glasgow’s Sub Club and tune in to the universal language of house.

Daisuke Nakajima, a young Japanese journalist who spent four years in Glasgow reporting on Shunsuke Nakamura’s exploits at Celtic, knows the truth of this. Nakajima fell in love with dance music after seeing Underworld play in Tokyo in 2000, made most of his Scottish friends on visits to “the Subbie” and illustrates pointedly the music’s international, cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal. “Dance music brings people together,” he says. “To me it’s about friendship and being open-minded; it’s not about drink or drugs. In Japan no-one thinks of it as being American music or British music, either. It’s just truly global.”