‘Optimism bias’ is an undisputed psychological condition, first identified in 1980. The trait can be summarised as the seemingly instinctive tendency of humans to wildly overestimate future prospects and seriously underestimate future problems. Countless peer-reviewed tests on controlled samples of people over time show that this bias is a persistent, pervasive, prevalent psychopathology, to the point where there is almost always an extreme chasm between expectation and actual outcome. It is virtually a cast-iron law that, far from there being no happy endings, things usually get much, much worse than could possibly be imagined. The vast majority don’t need Eric Idle’s advice; they always look on the bright side of life anyway, driven by the perpetual panting ecstasy prescribed by the quack doctors of consumerism and filtered through the rose-tinted spectacles of their own self-serving I-did-it-my-way narrative delusions. Of course there are a few exceptions that prove this rule: people, for instance, like me…
For many months I have been warning Wales fans that strange, unpredictable events could still conspire to thwart our Euro 2016 qualification dreams, and now look what’s gone and happened to snatch away our fleeting pleasure: only World War bloody Three!
I am reminded of a hoary old tale relating to the original Newport County FC, one you don’t hear much these days. Under manager Billy McCandless (1894-1955), who used only 13 players throughout the season, County won promotion from Division 3 South to Division 2 for the first time in 1938/39…and then Hitler went and invaded Poland. The team broke up in the consequential seven year football hiatus and the ‘Ironsides’ (as the club were then nicknamed) were immediately relegated when league soccer resumed in 1946/47. It was a nightmare season that included the all-time record defeat in the English League, 13-0 at Newcastle – a result that prompted forward Len Shackleton (1922-2000), who had scored 6 goals on what was his Newcastle debut, to improvise the immortal quote “they were lucky to get nil.” Newport never returned to the second tier of English football and the club was eventually wound up in 1989. Back then County fans of my acquaintance frequently blamed it all on the Nazis – and they were only half-joking.
The point I’m making isn’t quite Abandon-Hope-All-Ye-Who-Enter-Here, more a combo of Fly-In-The-Ointment, Princess-And-The-Pea and Be-Careful-What-You-Wish-For. Suffice to say, the shocking attacks in Paris have already tarnished and tainted next year’s thrilling prospects. Although UEFA are stating categorically that the tournament will go ahead, in the same we-won’t-let-terrorism-win formula routinely trotted out by all the authorities, a shroud of uncertainty has now descended and, as we all know, unforeseen events could change the situation in the blink of an eyelid.
The 2-3 defeat by Holland in Cardiff last week illustrated what footballing mountains Wales will have to scale just to be competitive in Euro 2016, for which Hungary, Ireland, Sweden and Ukraine have now qualified via the play-offs to complete the 24-team line-up. Points of interest to arise from the match (apart from the obvious No-Bale-No-Win issue) include: the continuation of Wales’ appalling record against the Netherlands (now 8 matches, 8 defeats since the first meeting in 1988); the disappointing ending of a rare 8-game unbeaten home run; and the presence at one stage of four Williamses on the field (Ashley, George, Johnny and Owain Fôn). This surname surfeit has happened only once before, in 1889 when Wales lost 4-1 to England at Stoke’s Victoria Ground with four Joneses: Di Jones (1867-1902) of Bolton Wanderers, Dick Jones (1867-1936) of Bangor City, Humphrey Jones (1862-1946) of East Stirlingshire and William P Jones (1870-1953) of Druids. But these matters are mere baubles when set against the gnawing anxieties triggered by the slaughter in France.
Instead of the the happy-go-lucky, leisurely, hedonistic month I was planning – soaking up a carnival ambience and taking my (clears throat) wit and wisdom to a wider audience over a crusty baguette, artisanal cheese and fine wines on some sun-dappled Dordogne terrace – it looks like Euro 2016 will be an alienating high-security hell of armed police, constant surveillance, plain-clothes spooks, endless ID checks and general airport-style misery. Staying in Cardiff and watching it on the telly is starting to look much more appealing. Let’s admit it: the killjoy tactics of ISIS cause ripples that spread wide and deep.
There is one way to counteract and ultimately overcome the monumental, all-engulfing hatred that the medievalist shock-troops of religious fundamentalism are so proud to act out: by accepting unpalatable, indigestible facts that we have designed whole philosophies, economic systems and cultures in order to avoid. Hatred, the bastard child of fear and ignorance, has been mankind’s motive force since we first came down from the trees, and every brave attempt to do things differently has always been strangled at birth. Only when we learn that lesson, and so mature beyond the infantile wishful-thinking of feel-good hyper-individualism, will we have the cognitive equipment to organise a society based on universal liberty, justice, fairness, rationality, co-operation and equality, and thereby starve hate of the poison at its root until it withers and dies. Then, and only then, will we have earned the entitlement to talk of “love”.