The guide and the waiters – anger and intransigence in Israel

When violence erupts in Israel and Palestine, and especially when Hamas is mentioned, I always think back to 1995 when I spent a couple of weeks there. For part of the trip we had a local guide, a very pleasant and friendly Jewish woman. However, she lost her temper with me once, in a revealing way. She was very angry that I was using a guide book with a map that portrayed the West Bank as occupied territory, rather than an integral part of Israel. It wasn’t just a terse passing comment. She was furious at a book that she regarded as being anti-Israel. In her eyes my choice of book wasn’t just political, it was also a highly offensive gesture.

Another episode I won’t forget took place in a hotel in East Jerusalem, the Arab part of the city. I went down for a beer before dinner. The bar was shut, but there was a group of hotel staff sitting drinking tea. They cheerfully called me over. They said they couldn’t be bothered opening the bar, but I was welcome to join them and have a cup of tea. Their English was excellent and they couldn’t have been friendlier. It was very enjoyable.

The conversation gradually turned to politics. I was teased about the Balfour Declaration. The Palestinians’ problems were ultimately all Britain’s fault for promising the Jews their own homeland in Palestine. It was good natured and there was much laughter as they ribbed me. I shrugged and explained that there wasn’t much I could do about it since it had happened 80 years before.

All of them were Hamas supporters. “We’re all Hamas”. I asked why Hamas and not Fatah. The atmosphere instantly became serious. One said, “because Hamas kill Jews”. The others nodded and agreed. “Yes, they’ll kill Jews. Lots.”

It was a wonderful trip at a time when the country was peaceful, in between the 1st and 2nd Intifadas, shortly after the second of the Oslo Accords that set up the Palestinian Authority. There was a constant, awkward, nagging tension between the optimism of the peace process and the depressing knowledge that huge long term issues, i.e. Jerusalem’s future and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, were no nearer to being resolved. The incidents with the guide and the waiters made a deep impression on me. These people were a joy to be with, but there was a level of intransigence and underlying anger that left me pessimistic about the future and reluctant to take sides in the conflict.

My neutrality doesn’t mean I can’t be judgemental. Who is at fault? Everyone; every party that inflicts violence and panders to those who tolerate it; everyone who makes a decision to kill civilians, launch a rocket and bomb a school; anyone who says that it is all the fault of one side, anyone who tries to dodge moral responsibility by responding to criticism of their own side’s crimes by saying “what about the crimes that the others have committed?”.

Some might think this stance effectively absolves the real villains (insert faction of your choice) from blame. Perhaps, but the criticism I hear of each side is largely valid. It’s the justifications for violence, murder and oppression that are self-serving and unconvincing.

Is there hope? There’s always hope, but that won’t amount to anything while people are trapped into thinking one side is entirely in the right and the other in the wrong. The guide will have to accept my book, and the hotel staff will have to be as friendly to all those who share their land as they were to me. It might happen one day, but I doubt if I will ever see it.

Writing the dream

I started Dundee FC’s Championship winning 2013/14 season perched anxiously and gloomily at the back of Queen of the South’s main stand. I finished it watching in horror from the Dens Park press box, convinced till the 94th minute that the Dee were fated to be the fall guys in a last day turnaround which would feature in pub quizzes many years after I’d handed in my press pass. In between I watched and reported on every minute of the promotion campaign.

Sports journalists traditionally occupy a lowly rank in the hacks’ hierarchy, dismissed as fans with typewriters. As the match reporter for Dundee FC that places me amongst the lowest of the low. But so what? I really am just a fan with a laptop; MacBooks by preference. When they take a tumble in a rickety press box they bounce nonchalantly off concrete. Cheapo plastic laptops expire messily.

I write the official report for the club’s website and match programme. For a supporter the deal is a dream. “So there’s no money, but I get free entry to all the games, and free travel to away matches, with the odd free pie? Wow! Where do I sign up?”

The Dee have a recent tradition of heavy supporter involvement. The supporters’ trust owns a quarter of the club. Enthusiastic, talented and cheap volunteers have many important roles.

During the 2009 close season I was contacted by the club’s website editor, another volunteer, who had been impressed by my match reports for Dundee Mad, an unofficial site. Would I do the same for the club? I was enough of a supporter to regard this unpaid role as a massive honour, and I still do.

In the last five years I’ve covered one and a half promotions, one relegation, a horrible slump into administration, the longest undefeated run in the club’s history. Oh, and the Alba Challenge Cup. The Mickey Mouse Cup is its kindest nickname, but winning it did make a decent day out.

The flawed promotion was in 2012. Dundee were promoted, sort of, a couple of weeks before the start of the Scottish Premier League season. We had limped home in second place, several lengths behind First Division champions Ross County. After Rangers’ spectacular implosion we were an embarrassing afterthought, just there to make up the numbers. Rather like the sister’s disreputable boyfriend who has to be invited to the wedding, we eventually got a distinctly cool, last minute invitation. We were quite clearly the unwanted “…and partner”.

We weren’t remotely ready, and we got relegated. Only a spirited late surge lifted us from humiliating failure to mere embarrassment. The experience left the support with a massive itch needing to be scratched. We wanted back to the SPL and we wanted to be promoted properly, with the usual trappings. You know, winning games, playing well, an end of season party. And the trophy, above all the trophy.

The season started with a tough away game at Queen of the South, rampant champions of the Second Division. They would unfurl the champions’ flag before kick-off, they would be full of confidence, and they would hammer us. The tiny press box was full, and I had to sit amongst the home fans. Dundee took an early lead, but poor defending and inspired attacking by Queens saw the Dee collapse to a 4-1 deficit. Queens obligingly shipped two soft late goals to give the result a flattering gloss that fooled no-one.

It was my job to tell it like it was for the supporters who couldn’t make it. My report assured them that in spite of the 4-3 scoreline “there can be no hiding from the fact that this was, well, a hiding”.

Being the official match reporter is a tricky position. I’m representing the club, but the supporters expect honesty, and brutal honesty when necessary. I travel to many of the games on a supporters’ bus, and that helps me keep it real. Any bland, PR spin on abysmal performances won’t be tolerated.

Our second defeat was an even worse performance than the debacle at Queens. In September we got off lightly with a 3-1 spanking at Falkirk. I was travelling on my supporters club’s bus, and as I wrote the report on the way home I received constant advice, much of it defamatory, most of it obscene, none of it usable. This selection of words I did use gives an indication of the performance and my mood; dreadful, farcical, one paced, sloppy, error prone.

Next day I checked out a fans’ message board. My heart sank when I saw the discussion about my report. Everyone approved, but the consensus was clear; “he’s getting sacked in the morning”.

To the credit of the Dundee board and management there were no consequences. The word was passed on that my report had been “discussed”. My style should perhaps be slightly less personal, but there was no problem with the content. None of my reports have ever been amended after I’ve posted them. It still amazes me that the club trusts an ordinary supporter with administrator rights on the club website. That knowledge only strengthens the bond with my club.

So I kept my job. Straight after each match I’d bash out my thousand words. I’m a supporter, first and last; only a supporter, not a journalist. After a win I’m as high as any other fan. After a defeat I’m feeling as frustrated, but at least I have the chance to write it out of my system.

Dundee did recover from that bad start and the season brought far more highs than lows. By the middle of October we were in contention at the top of the table, chasing Hamilton, the early leaders. However, we were never truly convincing. Our longest unbeaten run all season was five games. The Dee settled into a regular pattern. We would predictably lose once a month, but win most of our other games. That allowed us to rack up plenty of points, but the supporters were on edge. We always knew the next disappointment was just around the corner.

Come the last day Dundee were two points ahead of Hamilton. Our goal difference was eight better; a point would surely be enough to clinch the single, automatic promotion spot. We were at home to mid-table Dumbarton, and Hamilton entertained a relegated Morton team who had belatedly found form and had beaten us a fortnight earlier.

The first half went to plan as we opened up a 2-0 lead. I was sitting in the press box next to Kenny who was typing the online text commentary for the club website. The news from Hamilton was worrying. Accies were piling in the goals and it was 5-1 at half time. But surely a draw would still see us up. Surely?

Midway through the second half Dumbarton pulled a goal back from a penalty. Still the goals were flooding in at Hamilton as Accies thrashed a Morton side who had started their summer holidays early. Eventually the word arrived that Hamilton had reached the eight goal margin; they were an improbable 10-2 ahead. If Dumbarton equalised, both clubs would be level on points and goal difference; Hamilton had scored more goals, so would go up as champions.

Kenny and I looked at each other, and shared the same thought. “It’s inevitable. Dumbarton are going to score, and we’ll lose out to a freak result”. We felt sick. Either of us could have done a flawless impression of Private Frazer from Dads’ Army. “Doooomed, I tell ye. We’re dooomed”.

Depending on your perspective our visitors were admirably professional, or annoying, wannabe party poopers; they gave it their best shot at writing us into pub quiz folklore. In the last minute, Dumbarton striker Bryan Prunty aimed a wickedly accurate downward header inside the near post. With promotion on the line, keeper Kyle Letheren pulled off the save of the season, the save of his career, and stretched to tip the ball around the post.

The Dee were up! I only believed it when I saw the referee stop and raise his hands, a fraction of a second before the crowd drowned out the peep of his whistle and surged onto the pitch.

As we waited for the helicopter to arrive with our trophy I dashed off my report. A supporter with a laptop? Of course! “Yaaasss! We’re up!” was how I started. I’ve never got my thousand words in so quickly. In no time the report was published, and I was down at the side of the pitch celebrating.

Being a supporter is great. Being allowed to write the official reports for the club you love? That’s priceless! And I don’t even have to pay the club. Seriously; they let me do it for free!