Neville Southall: Twitter’s unlikely poet laureate

Neville Southall: Twitter’s unlikely poet laureate
A surreal interview — The former Wales international footballer dislikes Tories, defends LGBTQ rights and is fascinated by skeletons. ‘I don’t like normal stuff,’ he tells us, in a world exclusive chat.

Twitter is Hell; a constant drip-feed of micro-information that nudges most of us further into an all-consuming anxiety with every in-joke, snide remark and racist tirade. The hope that its users had a decade ago – that it was a naturally creative medium, that the free movement of information would open up societies, that the platform would naturally democratise our reality – looks pitifully arrogant now. We are living in Hell and Twitter is its infinite notice-board.

There is only one exception: Neville Southall.

Neville Southall was one of the greatest goalkeepers of his generation. Born in Llandudno in 1958, he grew up playing football but doubted that he’d ever get the chance to turn pro. But after working as a waiter and a binman in his teens, he joined Bury FC in 1980. The next year he moved to Everton where he’d go on to make almost 600 appearances. He represented Wales 92 times and made his final appearance in the Premier League in the 1999-2000 season, at 41 years old. He is the last goalkeeper to win the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year Award. He had quick reflexes, a fearless attitude and a full moustache. As a footballer, he was – still is – an icon.

Now, he has become a hero for different reasons. Since the turn of the year, while working as a teaching assistant at a school in South Wales, Southall has become a cult figure on Twitter. His profile is a mix of animal charity retweets, thoughts on the Premier League and uniquely poetic missives. It is constantly brilliant.

His tweets are anti-Tory, pro-LGBTQ and usually framed as very short stories about skeletons. For Southall, our differences are frivolous—beneath everything, we are all roughly the same assemblage of bones. He wants us to spend some more time meditating on that.

This isn’t frivolous. As Tristan Cross wrote at ShortList last week, there is “something genuinely quite affecting and inspiring” about Southall’s presence on Twitter. He engages with his followers, asking for advice on how to address thorny issues of identity politics while blocking out the stubbornly ignorant accounts that respond to him. Southall’s not looking for praise. He’s sincerely trying to be more thoughtful while the rest of us use the illusion of thoughtfulness as a currency.

But, despite Southall’s willingness to answer questions online, there’s still plenty left unanswered. So I called him to talk about skeletons, the Conservatives and the blandness of modern footballers. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Did you expect your tweets to take off like this?
Not really, no. I just do ’em cause I want to do ’em, really. I enjoy doing them and the more people that don’t like them, the more fun it is to do.

Are you interested in poetry?
How it comes out on the page, that’s how I think. I also know I have to condense it down to a number of characters, so if I want to say something, I have to try and fit it in, but get a meaning into it, in the shortest way possible. It’s quite difficult at times. I would rather have 500 [characters], but I haven’t. So, when I read them, that’s how I read them. Sometimes people moan about full stops and commas, but for me, I just read it as I read it. And if people have trouble reading it, well, that’s not how I read it.

I don’t read poetry. I do read books, but I don’t read poetry that much. It’s more about trying to say what I want to say.

So, where did the skeleton motif come from?
The only reason I did the skeletons originally was because I did a talk for funeral directors, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I just ended up saying something like, ‘Everyone thinks you’re all miserable. Maybe if you started making furniture out of dead bodies, you’d have your uncle as a table and your auntie as a chair.’ I just went on with that for about half an hour and then I sat down. That was it.

How long ago was that?
Oh, it was a few years to be fair. But they seemed to like it.

It’s just better for me to use two skeletons. Sometimes I want to say something and I want to use the skeletons, but it takes me a long time to think of what a skeleton would say… if at all they do speak. Who knows? I try to use them because everyone knows what they represent as well. They’re obviously dead.

But it seems like a positive thing. You don’t do it in a morose way.
No, because for me, the skeleton was always commentating on something. They’re dead, but they’re not. They’re basically commentators for me. If I say I think the Tories are shit, you know, we can all say that. But if I say, well, two skeletons think this, then it becomes a little bit different. Look, I just do the same stuff basically, over and over again. I don’t like normal stuff. I like, if I can, to be slightly funny with a decent point. Or I try to go the other way and be as harsh as I possibly can, so it makes a real point.

There aren’t many footballers or ex-footballers now in the UK who really do talk about politics. Do you find it strange that you’re one of the only people talking about politics like this?
Well, if you look at a modern-day footballer now, his social media is controlled by somebody else. For me, I’m not playing anymore. If I offend somebody, who gives a shit? I’ve got nothing to lose. I ain’t really that bothered. If I was a footballer [I’d worry], ‘Oh is somebody going to cancel my contract?’ They’ve got so much to lose now and they have to tread on eggshells and you never get a fair reflection of what a footballer thinks anymore because they say nothing. You can tell in all the interviews that managers do and footballers do, they say nothing. They say nothing because, whatever they say, they get absolutely hammered for.

What I worry about is the kids in our school and the kids in all the other schools – where are they going to get the support? Because it still is: ‘you can’t be that, that’s not right.’ Well, is it right that you’ve got somebody who can fire a nuclear missile but somebody else gets slaughtered for being gay? Is it right that you can starve your own people but if you’re a lesbian you get tortured? I don’t think that’s right.

Have you ever thought about getting into politics?
I can’t talk like them and I can’t think like them and I can’t do the politician talk where, if someone asks me a question, I can spend four hours not giving you an answer. To me, the best politicians are the ones you don’t see, you don’t hear, but they graft like mad. And you know they’re grafting because of the effect they have on the streets.

In all fairness, Jeremy Corbyn—this is how stupid they are—he’s come in and because of the way he was dressed, wasn’t deemed to be a good politician. Now, that to me is rubbish. What does that mean? It means because he was different, because he didn’t wear a suit and rolled his sleeves up and loosened his tie, that means he was no good. Be normal. Just dress how you want to dress. What really matters in politics is what you do.

Most of all, people want to have a chance at a future and they want the same things for the kids. I’d just like it to be more honest and open.

Have things got better or worse since your playing days?
Things have got better in lots of ways; in some ways things have got worse. But I am really glad I played when I did. I’ve got Twitter now, right. I get a little bit of abuse. I can imagine if I was playing now how much abuse I would get. It’s alright for me, because I can turn it off and I don’t really give a shit. But if I’m a young kid at school and someone’s calling me a slut or trying to bully me, then it becomes a nightmare, because you can’t really control it.

Technology’s made a massive difference. I don’t understand why people go to concerts and bloody film them. You just remember it. When you’re lying on your bed at death’s door, you haven’t got your phone to look back on your memories, you’ve got your brain. Technology’s fantastic when used the right way, but it’s so bad when used the wrong way. It’s horrendous.

Sport has been at the centre of the debate over social justice in the US recently. Have you been following that?
America’s always had problems with black and white. Having somebody like Trump in charge is just mad. I don’t think it was all massively above board. In your right mind, you wouldn’t let him drive your car for you. I wouldn’t. Because he’s bonkers, man. He is what I think of as a white supremacist. He’s one of them that wouldn’t mind if 15 black people got shot as long as no white people got hurt. He doesn’t seem to bother about who he offends, but at the same time, he’s making more enemies than he’s making friends.

As America, you should be making friends and making allies. It’s your job to not alienate everybody, not alienate the planet, not kill the planet off by not having green stuff. You’ve got to be a leader and you’ve got to be seen leading on the right values. His values are the same as… he hasn’t got any values.

Do you think that Twitter can be a force for good in the world? 
In general, I think it’s 50:50. It can do harm, but it can do loads of good. It’s all personal to your situation I think. For me, I would say 90 per cent has been great; 10 per cent has been shit. But you know, I could say the same about my football career. I was decent for 90 percent of the time, but I was shit for 10 percent of the time. So there you go, it works out.

Nobody knows everything. If I want to know something, I’ve got 80,000 people I can ask. People answer my questions as if they know me, which is great. It’s been really good for me. And you can talk anywhere in the world. Overall, we’ve just got to get used to it.

Alex Robert Ross is a staff writer for Huck. You can follow him on Twitter

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