Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Spangly Princess Interview, Director's Cut

Over at Du Nord, the Eleven Devils guest slot features an interview with Rome-based football blogger Vanda Wilcox, whose Spangly Princess, with its unique mix of Italian football coverage, historical insight and, whaddyacallit, personal whimsy, is one of the more fascinating football sites on this Internet of ours. I snipped a few Qs out of the DN interview—we journalists need to feel like we're using our "special skills"—so here, for you complete-freaks, is the whole thing:

—How and why did you start Spangly Princess, and how has it evolved?

I started my blog back in 2005 when I was still a doctoral student and living in the UK. It started off pretty randomly as something to occupy my mind during my part-time job which involved long late-night shifts in a university library, and I was trying to avoid studying... you know how it goes. I didn't even really choose a name, I just stuck with what I'd been using online since about 2000 on various message boards. I think this might be kind of offputting to people, especially now that I mostly blog about football, but it's too late to change it now.

—I have not done a comprehensive study, so I can't say for certain, but I would wager that Spangly Princess is the only football-ish blog that also contains long posts about World War I battles, philosophy and various retail obsessions. How would you define the thing? What makes you think, Aha! I should write about this on SP?

Is this a polite way of saying, why is your site so random? In general I try not to define it too much, because I don't really know how. I write about what's on my mind, which sounds terrifically banal, but basically if there's something which has got me excited, confused, depressed, infuriated, giggling or thoughtful, then it means I'll enjoy writing about it. And hopefully if I enjoy writing it, someone will enjoy reading it. Since I built up a readership – or rather, since a couple of people beyond my own family and friends started dropping by – I have developed a fairly good idea of what people would like to see on my site. That means that when there's any major news in Italian football, and especially in the world of fandom and the ultras, people (well, a few of them) expect me to have a comment on the situation. The same applies to the general trends in Italian politics, and especially Roman politics. And sometimes I buy a great new pair of shoes, and I just have to share. In the past I have more than once considered separating off the football stuff from the other bits, but people always tell me not to.

—When did you move to Rome? Can you tell us a little about how your love for AS Roma developed?

My family is part Italian and I grew up coming here every summer for a month or two, and speaking Italian at home part of the time. But I never made it to Rome specifically until 2002 when I came over here for a research trip. By profession I'm an historian and my main interest is Italian military history (y'all can insert as many jokes as you like right here) and specifically World War I. So I came to Rome to use the army archives here. I'm all alone in the city, not knowing anyone, and there's only so many hours in a day you can sit turning through dusty lists of military orders and piles of old newspaper. So I bought myself a ticket to go and see AS Roma. I've loved football since I was about 16, and my English side are Arsenal. Roma was meant to be a fling, a holiday romance, a bit on the side that my red-and-white boyfriend back home was never going to hear about. What goes on on holiday stays on holiday, right? Only, it didn't work that way. I fell in love, and badly. Don't ask me why, the heart has its own reasons. And I'd be lying if I said that the team weren't a factor in wanting to live here. I started coming over for months at a time (always during the football season, natch) and when I finished my doctorate, I got myself a research fellowship and moved straight over. That was February 2006; I can't see myself heading back to the UK any time soon.

—The Curva Sud. Discuss.

Ha. Seeing as in three years of blogging about it I feel like I've only touched elliptically on its manifold appeal and unpleasant undercurrents, I'm not sure what to say here. The Sud is one of the major reasons I fell for Roma in the first place: that first game, I had a seat in the Nord at the opposite end. I sat down, looked up, and saw in front of me something which I had never seen, or dreamed of, in any English ground I'd gone to (Highbury, obviously, but also Goodison Park, Stamford Bridge, or others besides). It's amazing and slightly scary and makes you feel alive like nothing else.

—So, at the risk of inviting a book-length answer, just what IS it about Italian football? Why is it so...uh, weird? And if that's not clear, maybe that is because I can never quite articulate the particular and essential strangeness that seems to make the Italian game so different from football in, say, Germany or France. Can you help?

Ah yes, this I can do. The answer is very simple, which is to say profoundly complicated. The answer is: Italy. Italian politics, society, culture and daily life are all that bit more…. weird than France, Germany, England, Scotland, Spain. Perhaps weird is the wrong word, but the difference you rightly identify in football is present in most areas. Passion, chaos, cynicism, love, despair, corruption, gambling, beauty, sophistication, violence, avarice, power, elegance, cruelty, delight. Just, y'know, everyday run of the mill things.

—Here's a question strictly from the perspective of American fans. We, who have long lived in a form of distant football exile, like some lost Old Testament tribe, often think we know a lot about the history of big clubs abroad, or perhaps I should say, we often form our random allegiances based on a few shreds of information. Like, no one really likes Real Madrid, because they're the "fascist" team, but everyone loves FC Barcelona, because they're...uh, cool, or something. Ditto Lazio/Roma, to an extent. So, how much of that is for real, how much is a simplification, how much is just irrelevant to the daily understanding of actual fans of these clubs?

This is a really great question and one that's hard to answer. But I can 'fess up slightly that when I first wanted to go to a game here, I chose Roma not Lazio because "everyone knows Lazio are fascists". So it operates here in Europe too, to some extent, it's not only a US phenomenon. I guess that many of these stereotypes have a basis in truth, but they are still just stereotypes at heart. The Barca/Real story can be read as a PR war which Barca have won in a pretty major way. But I've read that they took money from the Franco regime as well. The experiences of living under fascism for a long time are complex, and they don't generally reduce down to a simple good/bad dichotomy I'm afraid. Given that in mainland Europe, many if not most clubs' fans have an overall political alignment, at some level you can make a choice based on this stuff, sure. But it's never as neat as the simplified versions make out, and while not precisely irrelevant to the daily understanding of actual fans, as you put it, is kind of marginal for the majority. Because at least in the mythology of how these things work, you don't choose your team, it chooses you. It's your local side, your dad's team (or increasingly nowadays your mum's team) or because you wanted to be Marco Van Basten when you were 6, or because your best mate in the playground supported them. If the team of your city happens to have a strong element which is neo-fascist (as Roma sadly does) or perhaps supports Stalin (see Livorno) you just have to grin and bear it. I occasionally read a US site about my team and I find it very weird seeing what is important for these Roma fans, and how they perceive the club and their own support, compared to how it looks from inside the Curva Sud. But I wouldn't presume to judge other people's support for their side, however it is based or expressed. These guys who get up to watch games at 4 in the morning on TV… I'm not going to say "you're not a real fan, you've never even been to Italy." You can judge the level of knowledge someone has, but not how they feel. At heart being a fan is an emotional bond, and we can never know how someone feels on the inside.

—How do you think your various other interests—philosophy, politics, war, etc.—inform your understanding of and writing about football?

Oh, completely and utterly. At least in Italy, you can't follow football without following politics too. I find that there's nothing that can't be explained by an analogy to the First World War. This is one of those great universal truths, no?

—How do readers react to the different subjects you blog about? Do people seem to get the same joy out of a post about philosophy as they do from one about Totti?

Judging by the comments I get, most readers enjoy the fact there's a variety of stuff. I am blessed with some very intelligent and perceptive readers, many of whom will come up with far better ideas in the comments than I do in my posts. Sometimes I put up a match report and no-one has anything to say, then I'll ask people to help choose me a dress and they're all falling over themselves. When I post something historical, that tends to derive directly from my archival research. That means it's brand new material which has never been written about anywhere else, online or in print, and people seem to enjoy that.

—How has the football blogosphere affected your life as a football fan? I mean to say, has the fact that there are now innumerable people writing about football from innumerable perspectives changed the way you look at the game?

Yes, for sure. Good writing should challenge and inform as well as entertain, and I have both learned a lot and been challenged in my assumptions by many good football blogs. I write for Pitch Invasion [] which has an excellent selection of writing from around the world, including material from writers in Poland, Argentina, India and Egypt: this is amazing and something that was never possible before blogging. Then to name two very different but excellent blogs off the top of my head, sites like 200percent [] or The Run of Play [] offer inspiration and insight into whole new realms of fandom, and new ways of thinking about the game.

—Let's say there is no Internet. Would you be writing about football anyway?

Tricky. I guess not in any regular and systematic fashion, I'd be writing a it at home for my own purposes, because I love writing, but that's all. In the last year, at the insistence of my boyfriend who's a journalist, I have actually submitted some pieces for publication in real life actual solid paper magazines! Which I would never have dreamt of doing myself, and which was only possible thanks to the Internet. Weird, huh. I still find it pretty mental that someone on the far side of the globe might actually be interested in what I have to say about anything, never mind regularly want to read me drivelling on about Francesco Totti and the boys.

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