“What a Time to be Alive”

 

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The current Rustler’s microwavable meat advert depicts a bloke who is sat at his bland table in his bland living room, about to have dinner. He’s in the November of his years, closer to St Andrew than Guy Fawkes, and as he reaches for his snack, his life flashes before his eyes. It is a life unfulfilled and failed, where every dream is a lie, and every hope rescinds upon him, jading him ever further. Every cultural and political movement is but a moment in time, a spark of promise quickly extinguished. Beaten at school, waiting in line in soup kitchens, beaten by police batons in ‘60s peace marches, bored and jaded from then on. No other fad or movement would awaken him again. Until now. You see, it was ok that this struggle was pointless, because along the way somebody figured out that you could irradiate a soggy roll encompassing a lump of indeterminable meat to an acceptable temperature, cutting down dinner preparation time by up to half an hour. What a time to be alive.

The advert is called “80 years of torment.” I guess it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek but, after these last few months, for an activist soul it is trolling your effort, your ideals and your hope. It is telling you to GIVE UP, forget any such pretence of a better tomorrow, because the only progress is in rapid-ready snack food. Maybe pop a tub of pringles open for dessert – they are right there. What even is fruit anyway. A waste of time, that’s what. You don’t have time to prepare a proper meal, what with all the working you have to do. It’s alright though, because the politicians have your back. They are working late too, and what salt of the earth they are, they are also having a burger for dinner. No Rustler’s for them though, they have sent for a gourmet, onion-ringed affair straight from the heart of Dalston, moulded from a hand-fed beast that, before it too was sacrificed for the cause, had a bigger home than you, and a better diet to boot. It was sped to the Royal Mile through the streets of London by a brave cyclist, darting through the taxis and the tourists on her less-than-zero hours contract, risking her life and others to make sure the burger gets to the Chancellor of the Exchequer before it loses too much temperature. 

(Actually, he’s not Chancellor any more is he. He’s a tabloid hack, or a professor, or something.)

He can eat what he wants at whatever job he wants, because he is free to do so. That’s what they say they are about, freedom. They have so much freedom already, and all they want is more. They have always been mercantile, freedom is the silver in the mines of Potosi, the secret Porcelain recipe from Jingdezhen, grab it while it’s hot and hold on for dear life. You? You have to earn your freedom. As long as you live the right way, you too can have freedom. Put aside a penny a day for retirement, and you too can enjoy a microwavable burger when you are old. It’s triple-locked.

All this talk about liberty and they don’t even know what it is – they think it cannot be created, only taken away. So that’s what will happen next, now that they have purchased popular consent. Trickle down. The poor don’t want opportunity, they want stability, an unchanging, uncompromising dourness on the face of the Commons. A two-track broken record is comforting, when your work status is precarious, your rent fluctuates with the seasons – waiting for the eviction notice – “I’m sorry, we want families and young professionals to move into your dilapidated, ladybird-infested bedsit” – or the fire alarm. You never quite know who is waiting for you around the corner, these days. Do you feel safe? Not me. The promise of further change? Well that’s just terrifying. A microwave is reassuring, you know exactly when the beep will chime, you know exactly when your meal will reach lukewarm bliss.

It was a question of taking Britain back to the ‘70s, or maybe to the Age of Empire. Bring back the workhouse. Restart the Crusades, at a push. It would be good if everybody stopped time-travelling for a moment and looked outside the window. Capital looks after its initiates, the rest of us make their coffee and bring banquets to the door of another Junior Vice President. It’s in the nature of service. I love microwaves after long days, rip off the plastic and away we go. Technology isn’t simply there to improve our lives, but to make it possible to get more out of our bones. Afternoon tea allowed fourteen hour shifts, smartphone order apps allows two hour delivery. A paper-over-cracks health service allows a higher retirement age for those who haven’t spent their time living the right way, with chronic conditions as colleagues because ATOS said so. What a time to be alive.

You don’t get it, do you? Your grandparents never had a microwave. They had steady work, though. And here you have a smartphone. They aren’t for the poor, so you must be rich. Clive of India didn’t have a smartphone, and he never complained. Benefits aren’t for everybody, so they should be for nobody at all. People dressed in grey with grey countenance under miserable skies only see the world in blacks and whites, with us or against. A toasted Panini costs more than a week of mobile service, wealth has always been relative, dumbass. Thank you Rustler’s for feeding the people, one coronary at a time, relieving the pressure on our darling NHS. The population is exploding, and you want to keep people alive? You monster.

This is a time to celebrate. Haul your arse to the hypermarket (it might even be on offer), or your friendly neighbourhood food bank, take your meal from the shelf, remove all packaging, and wait for the beep. Take a seat, pick up the damp luxury that greets you, and eat every last bite. Don’t you dare complain you precious little soul about your life of diminishing returns, and remember the immortal words of Harold MacMillan – “you’ve never had it so good.”

 

The Ghosts of Stadiums Past

 

I moved to Manchester in 2007. It was not long after Man City fled from the old Maine Road in Moss Side to the wastelands east of Piccadilly, to take up residence at what we used to call The City of Manchester Stadium, before oil struck the town.

Getting the 111 to uni in 2011, you could see where Maine Road used to be from the top deck. There was a big pile of dirt, a large empty space where I suppose you could still kick a ball without twisting an ankle, and in the distance lay the first sparkling new homes to be built on the site of the old stadium. It was only later I learned that it was there that the Wembley of the North used to stand.

Man City play Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936

The Wembley of the North: Man City v Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936. Source: Wikipedia

There seems a particular sadness riding around football these days as West Ham, once said to be David Cameron’s favourite club, say goodbye to the wild and rusty venue known by some as the Boleyn Ground, and by others as Upton Park. West Ham fans have been busy in the press sharing their memories. East end emigré Mark Joyce told the Guardian that “going to the football was part of a wider routine of visiting family and going to the area.” Fellow fan Billy Bowring also contributed to the newspaper’s remembrance, with fond recollections of the old place.

My favourite memory is a pervasive feeling of collective support, a fevered passion and atmosphere. It was invariably in the face of impending defeat, but an important principle of support was enacted in every game; regardless of the score you stay to hear the final whistle. When I picture that atmosphere, I see a night game under the lights with thousands of Hammers huddled against the cold but in loud voice.

It was a fitting send-off, broken bottles aside, as the Hammers came from behind to defeat a tardy Man United 3-2.

An old stadium harbours so much more than goalposts and fossilised pasties. The pitch holds the echoes of great moments, crafted by players that Hammers fans lauded and made shrines of them in their bedrooms, their names ironed into the backs of their shirts. The seats in the stand become your seats. Year after year, returning to the same spot, seeing the same old faces, sitting through rain, snow, wind and Stuart Downing. The ashes of loved ones, indebted to the club for the memories, the friendship and the camaraderie, are scattered on the field every year. The place where you release someone’s ashes, that is where they remain. You say hello every time you pass. It’s reasons like this that explain why when Moseley RUFC left their old Reddings Road haunts in Brum, the fans came down and queued so they could take a square of the old turf home with them. In the same spirit, Hammers fans are now buying up the old seats at the Boleyn, which I’m sure will fit right in with their other furniture.

Highbury-now

Highbury, now providing luxury homes to fans of Jeremy Corbyn

West Ham’s decision to up sticks puts Upton Park at the head of a long list of old grounds abandoned in recent years. There was the Dell, Southampton’s courageous old stadium that looked as if it had been designed without a ruler. Now, as Oliver Gara tells us, it’s “a large set of apartment blocks and in keeping with the old ground, space in many of the flats is extremely limited.” Then there was gloriously mismatched stands that overlooked Leicester’s Filbert Street, before everybody’s favourite champions relocated to the ferociously-named King Power Stadium. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is now fittingly an allotment. Highbury was a bit different, nestled behind some Islington homes like some magical back garden. You went down somebody’s alleyway, and there was Thierry Henry. Best of all was Barnet’s Underhill stadium, surrounded by seven stands, and where if you were defending the north end, you had to beware as your backpasses might have trickled back toward you. The bees’ new ground, “The Hive,” is disappointingly flat.

filbert st

Filbert Street. The most striking stadium of all time. Source: Leicester Mercury

The ground formerly known as the Olympic Stadium will be West Ham’s new home, to the dismay of Leyton Orient. As an ever-present at the Paralympics, I have incredibly fond memories of the place – Jonny Peacock defeating Oscar Pistorious, the howl of the Weirwolf, and nearly being run down outside by Dame Tanni Grey, who was clearly very late for something. I tell you now in moments like that it can reach stranger-hugging levels of excitement in there – so I’m sure Hammers fans will he able to quickly fill the new place with echoes of a glorious past, especially if Dimitri Payet sticks around. But I think it will take more than that to recapture the soul of the Boleyn Ground.

Surrounded by luxury flats that sprung up in the ‘redevelopment’ of Newham, and a cavernous park dedicated to the Queen (as it was high time something was named after her), there is something dissociated about the Hammers’ new place. Old grounds sit in the heart of a community – while Upton Park rested between shops, pubs and houses, the new stadium has a gigantic Westfields in which you can soak up all the pre-game atmosphere you can buy. Nothing says Matchday like a Vanilla Latte and a morning of sock-shopping.

That is fuel enough for this week’s outburst of nostalgia (although that’s no excuse for bringing Marlon Harewood on the pitch last night). Mark Joyce believes “things will move on but for me and hundreds and thousands of others for whom West Ham is synonymous with Upton Park, something irreplaceable is being lost.”

For Hammers fans, the place that made them unique, their home, is being left behind and replaced by the heartless symmetry of yet another modern stadium. Unless they rename it Football McGroundface, it’s not going to be a place that easily harbours affection. But in many ways big clubs outgrow their old shells and need to move on. The old terrace-turned-all-seater can be a cramped, uncomfortable experience for today’s fan, and you can’t beat paying £40 to watch James Milner kick a ball from behind a load-bearing iron bar. The corporate boxes are not cavernous enough for today’s portly billionaire.

The Boleyn Pub

The Boleyn Pub, in front of the Boleyn Ground. Source: Mapio.net

But it’s more than that. Inner-city stadia can prop up a local community – matchdays can inject cash into the neighbourhood through Saturday afternoon trade provide an injection of cash, and put entire areas on the map. After City left Moss Side, many of the shops began to struggle, and the comfort of being spared the occasional old-fashioned football riot was little compensation. The pubs slowly boarded themselves up as the wasteland watched on. The demolition of Maine Road left a gaping hole in the community, and it took nearly a decade before any recovery came, brought with the opening of the first houses. Newham Council hope the new homes built in Upton Park will herald a new start for the area, but local traders are wary. Local publican Ron Bolwell said to BBC that “our rates are very high and our rents are high,” and the loss of matchday boozers marks trouble ahead. Osman Mustafa in Queen’s Fish Bar hopes the construction workers will prop things up, but said, with resilience and resignation, “after that, I don’t know. It will affect us terribly.”

There is optimism among the West Ham faithful, who feel the move into their grand new stadium could help foster good times ahead for the club. Bowring is hopeful, but hopes “that this move isn’t at the expense of the people and the history that have made this club something I’ve always been proud to support.”

I’m not one for sentimental nostalgia – I’m the first to throw a shady look at the ‘football was better in the old days’ crowd – but the closure of an old ground can be a loss of a community asset, replaced by something that offers far less to fans and neighbours of a club, and you get the impression that Sullivan, Gold and Brady would rather play the robber baron and cash in on the Boleyn’s assets than spend any worry on pondering that which will be left behind. It’s the corollary of the factory town whose factory has been boarded up, or the coal mining community who have no other option but to turn to the Sports Direct Depot for work. When a Hipster Burger Co. opens on your street, and your rent starts creeping upwards. When Herman Tillke designs a racing circuit. When anything moves to Milton Keynes. When a language dies. It’s the acceleration of things beyond your control, things you used to rely on, that are replaced with precarity and mediocrity. It’s the half-finished, snail-paced, shiny apartments built on the rubble of the Wembley of the North.

In a few years, some new students will sit the top deck of the 111 will look left at Claremont Road (before Crownchy Fried Chicken – the True Crowning Glory), and they might wonder why the houses look a bit different here, and why there’s a blue road here named after an American craft beer.

 

(Title Image – The Kippax Stand, Maine Road, being demolished, sourced from Urbanghostsmedia.com)

A Jury for the 96

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“The interests of justice must be served … The facts must be investigated and re-analysed in a fresh inquest when, however distressing or unpalatable, the truth will be brought to light. In this way, the families of those who died in this disaster will be vindicated and the memory of each victim will be properly respected.

“That is now our task; to investigate the facts, to reveal the truth in a public forum and to reach conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented. It will be a full and thorough investigation.”

– Lord Justice Goldring, 1st April 2014.

 

I was 3 days old when the Hillsborough Disaster occurred. On the 15th April, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died from injuries sustained during the FA Cup Semi-Final against Nottingham Forest, crushed in the overcrowded central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace.

Nearly 27 years later, families of the victims have still not received a proper answer as to why their relatives died. After a wealth of new evidence was revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, a new inquest into the disaster began in 2014, headed by Lord Justice Goldring. After the longest case hearing in British legal history, On Wednesday the jury was finally dispatched to determine the cause of the crush, and whether the deceased were “unlawfully” killed due to gross negligence on the part of South Yorkshire Police.

The ten nine jurors have been given a 31-page questionnaire, containing fourteen questions to be answered. After hearing 276 days of evidence over two years, the jurors’ responses will establish a new official account of Hillsborough, and specifically decide “by what means and in what circumstance did the 96 people come to their deaths.”

 

Write your answer in the space provided

The questionnaire has been made publicly available (I found it on this Guardian page), and the Coroner for South and West Yorkshire has provided specific instructions for the jury to follow. Point 9 leaps out at me.

9. When considering what should have been done on the day of the Disaster or beforehand, please bear in mind the following points.
(a) You should apply the standard of conduct of the time. So, when deciding whether individuals should have acted differently in 1989, you should apply the standards of 1989, not those of today.
(b) You should consider what those involved could and should realistically have done in the circumstances which they were facing.
(c) You should not make judgments which are based on hindsight, but should consider what those involved could reasonably be expected to do at the time.

Legally speaking, what point 9 asks of the jury is necessary – an action that may be considered ‘gross negligence’ today could have been seen as standard practice in 1989, just as said action could have been considered ‘unlawful’ then as of now. Yet difficulties arise from this instruction, due to the nature of this inquiry, its origins, and its purposes.

The primary purpose of the Goldring inquiry is to establish a history of the Hillsborough Disaster, to reconstruct, to the fullest possible extent, an account of the tragedy, in response to an increasing amount of new evidence previously unavailable to old investigations. The official nature of the jury’s task lends their conclusions an authority over the matter of historical truth, yet what becomes history is constructed from impartial evidence, and efforts to fill in the gaps to create a narrative are affected by prejudices. According to the late historian Michel Rolph-Trouillot, what is viewed and preserved as ‘evidence’ is itself selected through the workings of power. In the case of Hillsborough, evidence attained has been largely sought from (and provided at the discretion of) South Yorkshire Police, the emergency services, and Sheffield Wednesday football club.

 

3:06pm, 15th April 1989.

For the jurors, to send their thought processes back to 1989 holds major difficulties when tackling the standards of the day. Let’s unpack this. As established by the Taylor Inquiry of 1990, the crush occurred after congestion outside the Leppings Lane End led to an unmanned “exit” turnstile being opened to allow fans into the ground, leading them into pens already near-full capacity. In desperation fans attempted to climb up to the top tier, or scaled the fence between them and the ground. After six minutes the game was halted. Hundreds were injured, and 96 died as a result of the crush.

Immediately after the Disaster, South Yorkshire Police began to distance themselves from any hint of blame, instead  suggesting that the crush was caused by the behaviour of the Liverpool fans. Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had given the order to open the turnstile against previous precedent for matches at Hillsborough, initially claimed that the fans had forced the gate open. South Yorkshire Police subsequently emphasised observations of fans drinking, and suggested that many had showed up late and without tickets, planning to rush the gates to gain access.

 

“The Truth”

The idea of Liverpool fans as culpable chimed with the contemporary popular imagination, fed by a decade of images of violence in football, especially those of the Heysel disaster of 1985. During the European Cup final in Brussels, a group of Liverpool fans rushed the adjoining “neutral” section of the ground, comprised mostly of Juventus fans, and the subsequent flight of fans from the area put too much pressure upon a wall in the rickety old ground, causing a collapse that killed 39 fans, mostly from Italy. The following day UEFA observer Gunter Schneider declared that “only the English fans were responsible,” and Margaret Thatcher agreed, requesting that English clubs be barred from subsequent European competition. Just five days after the match, the ban was put in place. Subsequent analysis of Heysel suggested that along with the aggressors (of which fourteen would be found guilty of manslaughter), police and organisers were also culpable, but the prevailing attitude in 1989 was that Liverpool fans were dangerous. This was only exacerbated by class and regional prejudice against working-class Liverpudlians – Middle England has long held the stereotype of the Scousers as vandals, thieves and arsonists. To many in 1989, a person from Liverpool was seen as an inherent criminal.

It was no surprise, that the English press, long-time peddlers of such filth and nonsense, exacerbated the narrative that found the fault in the victims of Hillsborough. Underneath The Sun’s famous headline, “The Truth,” lay  lurid, false claims that Liverpool fans, “drunken,” had pickpocketed the dead, and urinated on the police. Scousers no longer buy The Sun, but other publications such as the Sunday Times also insinuated blame, highlighting the popularity of the opinion. It went all the way to the top – UEFA president Jacques Georges immediately blamed hooliganism for Hillsborough, characterising Liverpool fans as “beasts,” before later retracting the claim.

the truth

“The Truth.” Source – Wikipedia

The Lies

Such ideas have remained strong from 1989 to the present-day. The Hillsborough Independent Panel of 2012 noted the endurance of the narrative of fan aggravation as cause. Just last month in their Europa League match at Anfield, a few Manchester United fans taunted their opposition with a chant saying The Sun were right, you’re murderers. I’ve spoken to too many people who dehumanise the victims of Hillsborough as “typical violent scousers,” rather than attempting to find any sympathy with those who died simply for attending a football match.

The point is that to “apply the standards of 1989” is a historical, as well as a legal, exercise. In 1989, the idea that Liverpool fans were dangerous was commonplace and it was capitalised upon by South Yorkshire Police. Yet fans, relatives of the victims and victim solidarity groups have always rejected this widely-held and powerfully-backed notion. The Taylor Report, examining the available evidence, placed the primary cause of the Disaster on a breakdown of police practice as opposed to fan action, yet saw these failings as existing in poor administration rather than in negligence. The official verdict was, and remained, “accidental death.”

Yet as more evidence surfaced, in no small part thanks to the efforts of tireless Hillsborough justice campaigners, many of the claims made by Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police have unravelled. The notion that the crush was caused by ticketless fans was placed in doubt by the Taylor Report which highlighted that the stand as a whole was still under-capacity at 15:06. Duckenfield’s claim that fans broke through the Exit gate was shown to be false, and as further observations were collected (and heard), levels of drinking by the standards of the day were generally seen to be much lower than would be expected.

Over the past ten years momentum has slowly built up as those who campaign for Justice for the 96 have continued undeterred, and found increasingly sympathetic voices in positions of power. The Hillsborough Family Support Group (led by Trevor Hicks, father of two of the victims) had pressed for the release of documents previously disclosed, arguing that their release could greatly change the public memory of the Disaster. The Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009 to investigate this claim, and three years later released its findings along with 450 000 pages of documents relating to the crisis. It concluded that Liverpool fans held no responsibility for the tragedy, but its findings were damning for South Yorkshire Police.

It found that 164 witness statements had been altered, of which 116 had been changed to remove negative comments regarding police behaviour. It found that police had conducted an active search for information to smear the victims, and had run blood alcohol tests on the bodies (38 of the 96 were children). It found that the Sun’s “The Truth” article had been sourced from false comments by the Conservative MP of Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick. Its most chilling conclusion was that up to 41 of the deceased still had sufficient heart and lung function at the time the emergency services reached them, and perhaps might have been saved were it not for failings in an emergency response previously exonerated by the Taylor Report. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has since uncovered a further 55 altered statements. This evidence caused such a stir that it led David Cameron to apologise to the victims on behalf of the government, and in the resulting fallout it was decided a new official inquiry should take place.

 

The Historical Sorcery of a Legal Judgment

Therefore when our jury is instructed to ignore hindsight in its verdict, it is required to remove from its considerations two decades of historical sorcery conducted by South Yorkshire Police and those in the media and parliament who sought to protect them. This suggestion of a cover-up, beginning on the afternoon of the 15th April 1989, is at the very least evidence that Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police were aware that their failings that day were far greater than a system failure.

Once again, I wish to express sympathy with the legal thinking of Point 9, yet the primary aim of this inquiry is to establish an authoritative historical account, inspired by the quashing of the original “accidental death” verdict and the subsequent acceptance of later findings as admissible evidence following the HIP investigation. An inquiry that refuses prior acknowledgement of the two decades of gagging histories of Hillsborough that dissent from the SYP narrative must continually compete with ideas of fan culpability. Subsequent to the findings of HIP and the IPCC, Our questionnaire is designed to assess responsibility in various groups including and beyond SYP, including the emergency services and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

Question 7, however, asks the jury to consider whether there was “any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles,” and recommends that the jury consider “whether or not some supporters at the Leppings Lane turnstiles behaved in a way which was unusually forceful or resistant to police control.” To answer said question without hindsight, in light of what has become apparent since, is not only counterproductive to an inquiry that was launched specifically in response to ‘new’ evidence previously withheld, but also an incredibly difficult task given the events of the last few years.

leppings lane

Leppings Lane turnstiles. Source – Liverpool Echo

 

Duties of Care

Question 6 is the most important question to be answered.

“Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the Disaster were unlawfully killed?”

It comes with two pages of guidelines, importantly explaining that a juror “must be sure that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield owed a duty of care to the 96 people who died in the Disaster.” This too is a question difficult to answer using the “standards” of 1989. The 1990 Taylor Report, for example, wrote that “hooliganism at and associated with football matches has strongly influenced the strategy of the police.” The report deems this strategy “understandable and indeed commendable,” but notes the subsequent “imbalance” in police duties between “the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority.”Therefore, to ask whether Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died in the first place is to ask a complicated question.

If he did, by the standards of 1989, hold a duty of care to the Liverpool fans then the idea that killing could be described as unlawful due to gross negligence immediately gains strength. However, if one doubts that Duckenfield did not owe a duty of care, a possible scenario when judging the “lawfulness” of their actions, a juror thus opens the sinister historical question as to what the true purpose of the presence of South Yorkshire Police was that day.

Through this logic one might conclude that, whatever the answers to the other questions, the Goldring inquiry consequently endorses the notion that because of the dominant (though never universally-held) opinion that Liverpudlians were criminals and hooligans, the true purpose of South Yorkshire Police was to guard the rest of the world from Liverpool fans. This position would, historically speaking, implicitly legitimise institutional violence based solely on the modal attitudes of a period. Even if the inquiry finds the SYP and Duckenfield at fault for the Disaster, to answer question six in the negative would legally exonerate them. The question of “duty of care” is loaded with historical and legal meaning. 

 

Historical justice needs legal justice

Gramsci wrote that “truth is always revolutionary.” In history, truth is always multiple and contestable due to the partial and subjective nature of the archives, and what is known as history is so often affected by the workings of political and social power. The revolutionary truth of Hillsborough can be attained by shattering the decades of myths and manipulations that have distracted attention away from failings in the response and accentuated the actions of the victims. That requires the use of “hindsight.”

Can this inquest provide that truth? It is certainly possible, especially in the investigation of individual times and circumstances of death that can highlight potential failings in the emergency response, and in the reconsideration of evidence previously redacted from previous inquiries. Much depends on the ten nine jurors and their interpretation of the questionnaire guidelines and of Point 9, and in what manner the fourteen questions are answered.

However, the legal, moral and historical questions posed by the Hillsborough Disaster are so intertwined that if the actions of the South Yorkshire Police are not deemed unlawful it will be difficult to demolish the two-decades of historical manipulation to the benefit of the SYP, yet without the latter, legal justice for the 96 may prove difficult. It may prove beyond the scope of the jury’s decision to achieve this lofty task, but its conclusions will carry a weighty authority, and in this moment there is a chance that the Goldring Inquiry could yet bring vindication for the victims of Hillsborough and those who survive them.

They’ve been waiting for twenty-seven years.

 

 

The Strange Death of King Coal

Big K

The first six years of my life were in South Wales. I am from Abergavenny – it’s down in the Vale of Usk, but it’s more of a tearoom and market castle town than a “Valley” valley, most famous for its incarceration of Rudolph Hess, and a brief time in the 14th Century when Abergavenny declared itself independent from the rest of you lot.  I’m not from a mining town.

But Abergavenny lies on the very edge of the South Wales Coalfield, that stretches 90 miles west of the town, through Blaenavon, Merthyr, the Rhondda and Neath right out to Pembrokeshire. So in those few years I learned about the mines, as you do in that part of the world.

anthracite

South Wales Coalfield. Source: Flikr|thereggy

I remember the slag heaps on the hill side and the day trips to the Rhondda Heritage Park.  I also recall heading over the top of the Blorenge, the mountain that looked over my garden, to Big Pit in Blaenavon, the mine-turned-museum. The tour underground was run back then by ex-Miners, a few of whom managed to stay in the industry as tour guides, and I think a few are still there. I never did that part of the tour. I had a chance, when I was young, but I was scared of a cave-in, probably because I’d just been taught about Victorian kids (younger than me) dying in mines.

It’s silly really, but that’s how my generation, those of us who aren’t from a mining family or old colliery town, were told about the mines. They were something past relics of the days when kids and pit-ponies and men with rickets were sent away from the daylight to work the pits. It’s what kept them alive (that, and the canaries). That’s not what mining is anymore. Coal is still being hauled out of the ground. Mechanised and safer than ever before, but still tough, until the end of today’s shift it’s still the lifeblood of those who work the last face at Kellingley Colliery.

Nowadays it’s all about the environmental factors too. Coal kills the planet, and clean coal isn’t a sufficient alternative. Coal is choking us, so apparently we’re moving onto gas until that chokes us too. They’re closing the coal-fired power stations next, and everybody important is happy about this. It makes us ever-so-slightly greener as a country. Shall we build another runway at Heathrow?

Those in charge don’t really care about the green stuff. The government has made that pretty damn clear. But in any case, British coal isn’t going to be part of this country’s future. As life beats past us, it brings with it in the backwash a whole host of nostalgic feeling; you may have noticed some of it in my first few paragraphs. People love a bit of nostalgia, and it takes on many forms. There’s the nationalistic stuff, and in the week where Benedict Anderson passed, you can find tales of how coal built a nation, or built an empire – which in Brit-nostalgia, is rose-tinted, ignoring its brutal past and economic endurance (just think about where the coal is coming from now).

“The country used to be called Great Britain, and coal is part of what put great into that name” said Chris Kitchen, General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, last week. Britain is an imagined community built of coal and steam, and these images are frequently wrapped up in ideas of “Better Days.” This blog isn’t about that. Not today, at least. Kellingley’s closure isn’t about the death of John Bull or any of that Victoriaphilian nonsense.

There’s the other nostalgia. The moving stuff, the part that makes the Financial Times squirm  because other people are feeling emotions that they cannot comprehend. The centuries of stories of how entire communities went underground, mined the heart out of the place, looking after the town, their families, and each other. Because they were miners, and that’s just what they did. Many hands lighten the load, as the Haitians say. However outdated coal may be as an idea, Kellingley marks the end of a way of life, a popular culture complete with its own folklore, music, humour and so many histories. It is always sad when a way of life dies out, and deep mining dies today, not with a strike, but a whimper.

This isn’t Brassed Off, or Pride. The end doesn’t happen with a defiant march through the streets, with heads held high.

THAT’S NOT ENOUGH.

The resilience of downtrodden communities can be an inspiring thing to watch from the outside, and the capacity for human renewal in such places is symbolic of the most impressive qualities of our society. But all the obituaries of two centuries of life in the coalfields can be a distraction from the final act of the systematic destruction of mining life in this country. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

The death of deep mining threatens the existence of the NUM, once the most powerful, government-felling union in the land. Thatcher mortally wounded the miners and the NUM during the strike of 1983-1984. Incarcerating without cause, the police beat the picketers, they beat their partners and their children too. The press burned them in daily written effigies. Over the latter half of the 20th Century, mines were increasingly underfunded and the jobs ebbed away. Successive governments did not care about the future of such places. In the 1990s, the Major government set up a few generous pension schemes as it closed dozens of mines, but work never returned, and nor was it encouraged. Mining towns were given an expiry date, nothing more.

march glasgow

March in Glasgow in support of the Miner’s Strike, 1983. Source: BBC News

A few places found an economy in mining heritage. A couple of ex-Miners could run the tours down Big Pit, now part of the Museum of Wales, but really it’s plugging the dam with a fingernail. Blaenavon has tried a few things to stay afloat, even attempting to mimic Hay-on-Wye as another Welsh “book town,” but to no avail. They haven’t given up yet.

Modern, mechanised mines like Kellingley, first sunk in 1960, were able to carry on for longer. Extracting over 2 million tonnes of coal a year, Kellingley is full of cutting-edge tech. The miners drop down the shaft, at over 40mph, to a depth of 800 metres below the surface, before boarding a train for a five mile ride to the coalface, which is finally reached in one final commute aboard a conveyor belt (that itself can be another two miles long).

At temperatures of nearly 40˚C, the coal is extracted from the face using the Shearer, which resembles a gigantic pizza-cutter. While that works its magic, the seam, itself over 300m long, is held open by a series of mechanised roof supports that press upwards to keep the face clear. As the Shearer surges onwards, the roof behind the supports is allowed to collapse. Each supporting post in the passages holds at least three sensors to forewarn of danger. (More info here at UK Coal website)

uk coal

A modern mine. Source: UK Coal

These days, miners wear more than just a hard-hat, but it’s still a tough, risky business down in the pit. Collapses still happen. Miners carry a device called a “self-rescuer” that provides emergency air in case of fire. Three miners, Don Cook, Ian Cameron and Gerry Gibson have died at Kellingley in the last decade. Shifts at “The Big K” are 12 hours long, of which 3 is spent just getting to-and-from the coalface.

Romanticised accounts on these aspects of mining alone do not really exist; the sentiment of the closing of the pits is attached to the death of a way of life so important to many people alive today. Those who mourn the end of mining do not want people risking their lives in cave-ins and explosions. We do wish for communities to not be left behind in the past as evaporating towns where kids with prospects throw a bag on their backs and never return, and everybody else ends up on the dole or in a Sports Direct depot as in Shirebrook.

Modern miner

Modern miner. Souce: UK Coal

It’s at that point where we shake off the intoxicating nostalgia of the pit town. The end of deep coal is an end of security. As the NUM declines to almost nothing, and as the trade union movement itself comes under increasing threat, the ex-miners in these towns find their friends are also ebbing away. The canteen in Kellingley now has a makeshift career service – there are jobs advertised for a nearby Wind Farm factory in Hull. 14 of them (at its peak, Kellingley employed 2000). There are plans to build a Waste-to-Energy facility on the site, but that comes with just 38 full-time positions.

The NUM is angry about all of this; Dave Kitchen explains that the skills of deep-mining are honed and unique, and the miners have also been damaged from years in the pit. In any case, the planned re-training and re-employment schemes offered are little more than lip-service.

“Now we have miners at various stages of that journey entering the job market. Employers will be interviewing men who know how to work hard but who aren’t as healthy as they should be because their back’s not right or they have a weak chest.

We haven’t been in this situation before because previously when a pit has closed there’s always been the option of transferring. The Kellingley miners have specialised skills but nowhere to take them because theirs is the last pit.”

Many who came to Kellingley, like Welshman Carwyn Donovan, followed the coal to Yorkshire after their old mines bit the bullet. The pension schemes provided by a £10m grant to UK Coal from the Government are a shadow of those given out in the ‘90s. One miner, laid off in August, was only told at the start of his last shift that at the end of the day, he would no longer have a job. Even the UK Coal website claims to this day that its mines closed this year would be open until 2019.

This is a disinterested assassination of a town and the final stage of a thirty-year dismantling of the lives of coal miners. This isn’t about the Paris Talks or climate change or worker safety or merely the passing of time. Britain hasn’t abandoned coal yet, just its miners. Coal from abroad comes in at £13-a-ton less than from below our feet. The buyers don’t care about the welfare of those who brought that coal to the surface either.

The price is all that matters, and the overheads of a modern mine are high. It needs to be preparing the next face as the current one is worked to maintain profit. Starved of investment, UK Coal pulled the rug quickly from Kellingley and Thoresby (in Nottinghamshire) this year to cut losses. It’s cheaper for the buyers to buy no-questions-asked coal whilst the argument is spun that deep mining was an old nag who had to be put out of its misery.

The Kellingley miners are going to march tomorrow through Knottingley, the nearest village. Organised by two local women, the march will begin “one last pit party” for the town. But then the town will go into Christmas, short of 450 jobs and full of uncertainty. “We’re all off on gap years, aren’t we?” said one miner, wryly.

Pam Ross of the GMB Union, finds a flaw in the nostalgia.

We will lose skills, traditions and culture associated with coal mining, and obviously suffer the social deprivation from communities losing their source of employment. It’s ironic that there are so many coal mining museums in the UK – obviously the general public has a lot of empathy for miners and mining, pity the UK Government did not share that empathy.”

Ross would like to have seen mining continue until at least 2025. Maybe that wasn’t possible. But through better pension schemes, training and local investment the Government could have at least ensured a better future for ex-mining towns, so that mining need not be remembered as the better past.

The last tonne of coal pulled out of Kellingley is going to go on display at the National Coal Mining Museum next year. Like in the Rhondda and Big Pit, heritage is all we have left of the mining life. Perhaps in remembering the struggle and spirit of the mining past Knottingley, Blaenavon and other ex-mining towns can continue to endure the hard times and hope for a future that is more than a story of permanent decline. That is the culture of mining that doesn’t have to die.

Deep coal mining in Britain is over.

Kellingley-Colliery_0286

Dave King, Kellingley miner (left) and Keith Poulson of the NUM, at the Kellingley Miners Memorial. Source: Daily Mirror

PS I have read somewhere that the Memorial is being moved the National Mining Museum in Wakefield and Kellingley Miners are raising money toward this aim. If anyone has more info on this/how to give please let me know.

Source of header image: Julian Hamilton/Daily Mirror

Class of 1823: Rugby Union, a Fault Line through British Society

rugby

It’s Rugby (Union) World Cup time, which means the English press are in the midst of their usual dilemma of getting behind a sport so heavily associated with posh boys, but enjoyed by millions of people. The right-wing mag The Spectator acrobatically found its way around this, arguing that since the game went professional in ’95 these old stereotypes have eroded away into dust. Gavin Mortimer claims, in classic Spectator fashion, that playing the “posh” card is now just the preserve of the “left” (by which he seems to mean Guardian writers and (*ahem*) Tony Blair).

The article makes sense but, like many others, completely misses the point of rugby’s class tensions. For one thing, rugby union has never been solely the preserve of posh boys, which is why it has a much larger following than, say, polo. More importantly, the argument given isn’t true; a BBC Sport report, also released at the start of the tournament, found that 61% of male rugby union players in England are privately-educated, and that professionalism has actually concentrated this divide. English schools that play union are, for the most part, the same old schools, predominantly private or grammar.

The Spectator, as well as those it criticises, are both playing the same game – using rugby union’s enduring association  with elitism to spin their own yarns about Britain’s class tensions. Think carefully about the way rugby (both codes, but especially union) defines itself against football, as the “gentleman’s game” where everybody gets along, the referees are all-powerful, where values and sportsmanship trump the diving, the “softness,” and alleged thuggishness of football.

So where does this tension come from? We have to go back to the start, to the legend of William Webb Ellis, to circumvent the loaded arguments that symbolise rugby one way or another. And why does it even matter? It’s just a game, right? Maybe, but sport is often more than just a reflection of social and cultural tensions within a society, it can provide an outlet for their expression. Conflicts in British society have often spilled over into the sport, and rugby’s internal tensions, built on class, race and masculinity, have helped to mould larger stories of the past.

The Legend of William Webb Ellis, Praeposter

Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk

Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk

Back before the Victorian Era, sport was for the rich. The poor toiled for six days, and on the Sabbath sport was banned. The exception was public holidays, when massive games of ‘football’ were held on common ground, often with hundreds of participants, a pig’s bladder (hence the shape of the “hand-egg” rugby ball) and very few rules. Industrialisation saw the decline of these matches, but the wealthy, under the influence of “muscular Christianity,” adopted the game and began to codify it (so beginning rugby’s longstanding association with manliness).

One such rulebook, described by the author of rugby’s legend Matthew Bloxam, told that the best players would position themselves at the front, “hacking” the opposition and advancing the ball with feet, whilst anybody who caught the ball was able to “call the mark” (as it is now known) whereupon he was free to retreat, as the opposition could not advance past that mark. One day, it is said, in a match between Rugby School and Bigside, a boy, William Webb Ellis, caught a high ball, and in contradiction to the accepted way of doing things, ran forward with bladder-in-hand. A new game was born.

This legend, first told by Bloxam in 1876, is now widely held to be false. The truth of it doesn’t matter however, its importance as a founding myth in rugby’s history is undiminished, and the Rugby Union World Cup’s big shiny trophy carries Webb Ellis’ name. Webb Ellis, the creator, was from a family of modest means. Salford-born, his widowed mother moved the family down to Rugby to take advantage of Rugby School’s fee exemption for all “town boys” who lived within 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower. It was not a “posh boy” who invented the game, by this telling of the story.

But Bloxam pointed out that the creation of the game was dependent on the hierarchies of public school, that reflected patterns of domestic labour and class domination. Ellis, an older boy, was a “Praeposter” or prefect. Were he a “fag” (a younger boy who served the every whim of the upper school), Bloxam argues, “he probably would have received more kicks than commendations. How oft is it that such small matters lead to great results.”

For Gentlemen Only

Perhaps, or was it symbolic of the fact that, throughout the 19th Century as rugby separated from football and spread, the upper echelons of rugby’s participants held the keys to the running of the game. Rugby was now very popular in the industrial North, but the richer participants dominated its administration and were now obsessed with the concept of “amateurism.” This belief, that players should take no payment, was ostensibly designed to protect the game from bad sportsmanship, but underneath aimed to keep the sport for “gentlemen” only. Rugby’s hits were harder than football, injuries were more severe, and an uncompensated working-class participant risked losing vital wages and even a job if injured during a match.

If sport was to be for gentlemen only, it was the latter syllable that was especially enforced. Women’s football of all forms was met with fierce protests; matches were often abandoned due to violent protests. Women’s rugby was therefore largely played behind closed doors, but women have played some form of rugby since at least 1881. In Ireland, Emily Valentine is recognised as the first women’s rugby player, after she played for Portera Royal School’s team in Enskillen. But it was not until the 1960s that women’s rugby was tolerated in the public sphere.

Emily Valentine. Source: BBC

Emily Valentine. Source: BBC Sport

Amateurism became strictly enforced, as infringements were many. Rugby’s ruling class (including those in Lancashire and Yorkshire) feared losing control of what they saw as their game, after exactly that happened following the messy professionalization of association football in 1885 after similar tensions. Players caught taking any payment were often banned for life.

In 1895, the tension reached critical mass, over the issue of “broken time.” Northern clubs largely recruited their players from local factories, mills, and mines; physical labour that could not be done with a serious rugby injury. Broken Time would install a system of compensation for time missed from work and medical treatment. But the Southeastern self-appointed guardians of rugby were firmly against it; they saw it as a nail in the coffin of amateurism and the guarantee of a move to professionalism and all of its (largely-imagined) demons.

There was no explicit intention to go professional at this time, but the schism still came. The Northern players found an unusual ally at this juncture; their bosses. These industrial kingpins, often heavily involved in the local club, had a stake in Broken Time too – local rivalries had sprung up, and success for their club gave them regional prestige as well as bragging rights. At the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire announced their departure from the RFU to form the Northern Union, later becoming the Rugby Football League. The heartland of popular rugby had seceded; what appeared to remain of rugby union was a sport of the public schools and universities.

Salford v Batley, 2nd November 1901, showing the early popularity of Northern Union Rugby and its importance life to in Salford. Source: Salford Reds Heritage

Don’t Mention Wales

Rugby league, it’s been said, was the sport of the “new (trade) unionism,” getting its participants a fairer deal. It quickly developed in this manner, embracing professionalism, removing the lineout and the ruck for a faster, fan-friendlier version of the game. A “people’s game,” maybe, but union never completely purged the poor from its ranks, even as it clung dogmatically to the Gentlemanly code of Amateurism. “Don’t mention Wales, it gets complicated,” writes Stuart Maconie, endorsing the Masses vs the Classes tale of league and union. Well, in this story,…you HAVE to mention Wales. Rugby Union is the national game there, especially in the (traditionally working-class) Valleys, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is ingrained into the psyche of every person born west of Offah’s Dyke. But that’s not just why Wales must be part of the story, instead, it’s because even here class politics have shaped the game, once again highlighting the complex and essential relationship between rugby union and British society.

Rugby came to Wales in the same way; via Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Welsh students brought it back to Cardiff and Swansea, and the game slowly migrated up the Usk and the Taff. The Welsh People’s Game, in these early days, was not immune from privileging the Gentlemen; the earliest national sides were [controversially] comprised of the Oxbridge boys. Things changed, however, after the dragons got demolished by England 82-0 (on modern scoring) in 1881. A collective embarrassment, in a way, helped narrow the class divide. In the future they picked more miners at the front (known as the “Rhondda forwards,” they began a trend of increasingly-bulky characters in the front-row).

This alone wasn’t enough to ensure league didn’t take off in Wales. It helped that the WRU turned many a blind eye to broken time payments. Distance was probably the biggest roadblock. It was simply too difficult for Welsh clubs to find enough opponents nearby; a Welsh league club didn’t have the money to travel up to the North week after week. Pofessionalism costs money, and despite the efforts of the Northern Union, investment never materialised. Although clubs in Ebbw Vale and Mythyr Tydfil formed, they were not to last. Wales was, however, far from hostile towards league; the first every international league match was held there between Wales and New Zealand, who themselves were causing controversy back home receiving payment to play, slandered as the “All Golds” by a fiercely pro-union press.

Over the following decades, many Welsh players would go on to “take the Northern pound” and join the professional league, particularly when hard times hit the mining towns. In the tough 1980s, when many industries left never to return, the Welsh union team suffered. Players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs went North so they could afford to live. The success of the Welsh team has been linked to the physicality of mining; when the pits closed, they took the work and with it the primary source of conditioning. Professionalism rescued Welsh union, to an extent, but the Welsh clubs have struggled to hold on to their players, many of whom now play in the lucrative (and balmy) south of France.

The West Country, another region of widespread participation, similarly remained loyal to the old form of the game. Not coincidentally, Wales and the Southwest both had very popular forms of folk-football (Cnapan and Cornish Hurling, respectively) before all this codification began. Gloucester, a working-class club, was one of the strictest adherents to amateurism, ironically after its reputation was heavily damaged for frequent violations regarding payments prior to the schism. Union remains popular in that part of the world, increasingly so, if you look at the Chiefs and the Pirates. World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a proud Cornishman, former dairy farmer (and qualified cow inseminator, for what it’s worth).

Cornwall's county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics

Cornwall’s county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics. Source: Cornish Pirates

The Wrong SIde of History, Vichy and Apartheid

The two codes went their separate ways, but both went on to cross the channel. Rugby played a part in the establishment of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. The decade prior, league was growing in popularity in southern France, but as the Vichy regime was established, the situation changed. Philippe Pétain was suspicious of the “socialist” rugby league and moved to ban the game, encouraged in his actions by French rugby union, who informed him that league was “un-French” and a “corrupter” of young Frenchmen. The Fédération Rugby Française became Vichy collaborators, and French rugby league was stripped of its assets, worth millions of Francs, to help fund the Nazi-sympathetic regime. In contrast, prominent league players such as Paul Barrière would join the Resistance.

Back in Britain, rugby union again largely found itself on the wrong side of history as the Home Nations and the British Lions frequently played the Springboks, the pride of Apartheid South Africa, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, the Welsh flanker and school teacher John Taylor, otherwise known as “Basil Brush,” made himself an exception. What happened next speaks volumes.

“I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren’t supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were.”

He was instructed by the authorities to ignore the “politics” of it, told instead that “our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them” (another example of how the “manliness” of rugby was evoked). After ’68, he refused to wear the red of Wales, or of the Lions, when facing the ‘Boks. The WRU didn’t ban him, but inexplicably left him out of the team for four games.

“I had been told very clearly that had I been English I would have never played international rugby again.”

The episode is indicative of the enduring elite dominance of union administration into the ‘70s, how it reinforced itself on racism and global politics. The case of Taylor shows that their attitude was not shared by all of its players, but the significant pressure from above to unquestioningly prop up Apartheid ensured that dissenters remained the exception. At the time of the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa, Taylor recalled,

“’74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn’t be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all.”

(11min) Highlights of Lions ’74 tour of South Africa. Notice how it focuses on the sport and nothing but the sport. The only “controversy” mentioned was over a legitimate try not given. Also note how good JJ Williams was.

Rugby (both codes, but especially union) has correspondingly been a historically unwelcoming place for players of colour. The first black player to play for England was in union; another pioneering Salfordian, James Peters, made his debut on 17th March 1906 against Scotland. “His selection was by no means popular on racial grounds,” reported the Yorkshire Post, and he became known in the rugby world as “Darkie Peters.” In 1907 the RFU refused to select him against the Springboks, who did not want a black player on the pitch. A working man, Peters played and worked in Plymouth but was kicked out of the union for playing a single league match in the West Country. He saw out his career in the northern league.

James Peters, England's first black international. Source: England Rugby

James Peters, England’s first black international. Source: England Rugby

The first black league international was George Bennett who played for England in the 1930s. Bennett, by birth, was a Welshman, but was forced up north after ostracism within Welsh rugby by a governing body hostile to black players. The WRU, as the Taylor episode shows, did not cover themselves in roses when it came to racial equality. Until Glenn Webbe made his debut against Tonga in 1986, the Welsh team was all white. Colin Charvis would become Wales’ first captain of colour, leading his side at the 2003 World Cup. Although English league and union have become increasingly diverse in recent years, both codes have failed to make inroads amongst Britain’s significant South Asian population.

Women’s rugby union has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, despite hostility from the IRB, who attempted to undermine the second women’s world cup tournament in 1994. Participation is increasing in both codes. 11 000 women play union in England, and up north, the women’s RFL is the largest in the world. But rugby’s association with masculinity endures, and women’s rugby receives little mainstream coverage. BBC Sport, for example, since 2012 has extended its coverage of women’s sport; football is regularly on TV (with the BBC showing all of the recent World Cup in Canada), and the Ashes was broadcast on Test Match Special. But women’s rugby has not been as much a part of this. England women won the Rugby Union World Cup last year. Few people noticed. Progress is slow, but hopefully the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics can provide a catalyst for change.

Local elites, global elites

“Bagehot” in The Economist said it well. “Britain’s main team sports, football, cricket and rugby, have always reflected the big tensions in society: conflicts over wealth and class, of north against south. Only rugby has been rent by them.” But this, and many of the sources here, are inward-facing. As the Lions tours to Apartheid South Africa suggest, rugby union’s history and politics have also reflected the relationship between its participant countries.

Professionalism has exacerbated the one aspect of rugby union that intrinsically favours the wealthy – increased strength and conditioning (and with it, increased injury). And to the richest, go the spoils. During the group stages Tonga’s Epi Taione slammed World Rugby for its continued concentration of  resources in the hands of the “elite” of world union: the Home Nations, and the former settler colonies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So spoke Taione.

“Rugby is so out of touch. It’s run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago.”

The poorer unions in the Pacific Islands have to share World Rugby bursaries, and their national teams are increasingly forced to raise funds for tours, training and world cup campaigns. Before Japan’s heroics this autumn, it is worth remembering that it has been Samoa, who ran the formidable 2003 England team close, Tonga, who beat finalists France in 2011, and Fiji, twice quarter-finalists, who have brought what might be called the “spirit of rugby” to the RU World Cup, saving it from dull predictability. Yet these nations, poorer, distant, and so important to the history and character of rugby, are being increasingly pushed from a game that is ostensibly committed to increasing global participation.

Villiame Vaki scores for Tonga against South Africa, RUWC 2007

I’ll talk about them more in another blog post next week. For now though it is worth saying that, although never solely the domain of the wealthy, the class and imperial divisions of rugby, both in Britain and worldwide, have always and continue to affect and damage the game. As the world of rugby union pats itself on the back for Japan’s recent success, the increasing struggle of the Pacific Islands should be remembered.

(Title picture is of current England players dressed as “Gentlemen” (source Daily Mail), and a soggy mountain pitch in Wales)

1983 and its Misuses: Jeremy Corbyn and the “Lessons of History”

Ed stone

PART I: TRAUMA DENIAL

One of the most common proverbs of pop history is Santayana’s Warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

History has been well-remembered in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance on the Labour Leadership ballot, and even more so since he has become favourite for the job. Andrew Rawnsley’s words are the most colourful, telling of “a nightmarish revival of demons” in the shape of a bearded man from Shropshire. Among others, the ex-SDP candidate Polly Toynbee recalls the early 1980s and the terrible days of Militant entryism in her column, and just today Kevin Meagher writes that a Corbyn victory is the manifestation of lessons of the past “defiantly unlearnt.”

These voices of scepticism specifically point to the early-1980s. The “Lesson of History” employed is designed to take older Labour minds back to their lowest point, when the party was split in two by the Gang of Four who formed the SDP in response to the growing influence of hard-left activists, dividing the anti-Thatcher vote. In the 1983 General Election, Michael Foot’s Labour Party received just 28% of votes cast. Some at the time saw it as the final nail in the coffin for the party, although its electoral performance would recover.

“Trauma denial” was responsible then, says Martin Kettle, and such post-traumatic stress is also responsible for #Jezmania. It is the job of cool-handed, hard-minded Labourites, he argues, to ensure the party doesn’t fall into its comfort zone and select another socialist. It’s a psychological assessment, incidentally, taken straight out of Liz Kendall’s campaign.

In actuality this is the exact mental state these agents of history wish to induce into the minds of left-leaning types who lived through 1983 and Thatcher’s victory, a success that gave her the confidence to launch her assault on trade unionism and local government power. Politics in Britain is a ruthless beast, and to open these old wounds that have never quite healed is to strike at the heart of the political trauma of the left, to hypnotise Labourists into thinking that it was placing their principles over pragmatism (as much as anything Thatcher did) that were to blame for the brutal repression of the miners, the centralisation of the Thatcherist state, privatisation, and a foreign policy that propped up Pinochet and Apartheid.

And what of those of us, myself included, who were not alive or old enough to remember this disaster? We are instructed to respect our elders, and defer to their opinion, for they had witnessed 1983 in the flesh, and learned the hard way that socialism can only ever be an expression of youth. “I’ve been accused of being patronising by some of the new idealistic members,” writes Luke Akleshurst, “sorry but it is difficult not to be when confronted by naivety [and] sheer made-up cloud cuckoo land economics and political analysis that i grew out of at about the same stage in 1983, when aged 11.”

Or, I was wiser as a kid than you are as young adults, so listen to my words in lieu of picking up a history book. The story of 1983 is far more complicated than its portrayal in 2015 opinion columns.

What these figures are evoking is History with a capital ‘H’. A loaded tautology, the idea that as something failed before it will only fail again. It’s the very “definition of madness” to try otherwise, we are told. The past is a clear warning against the future. To speak of 1983 is enough in such arguments, further words need not be necessary. Steven Fielding can therefore rename Jeremy as “Catastrophe Corbyn” with 1983 as supporting evidence.

Likewise, take Erdington MP Jack Dromey’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper (which incidentally contains very little about Cooper herself). Dromey writes extensively of Foot and his failures, before applying his conclusions directly onto Corbyn’s future.. In such analyses Corbyn becomes Michael Foot simply because he is left-wing, and alongside his manifesto (five years prior to being written) becomes the second “longest suicide note in history.” Is this accurate?

PART II: MICHAEL FOOT, THE FICTIONAL LEFTIST

Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

Private Eye Cover, 8th October 1982, Tony Benn and Michael Foot. Source: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/pictures/covers/full/543_big.jpg

Let’s step into our time machine and head back to 1983. Gerald Kaufmann is perhaps most famous for that phrase, “the longest suicide note in history”, his scathing indictment of Michael Foot’s manifesto, and the Manchester Gorton MP remembers it as a time when “poor, innocent Foot” had been misled by communist infiltrators (known as the Militant Tendency) who worked at the mercy of the KGB (the spy he mentions, Viktor Kubeikin, according to a google search only appears on the entire internet within articles penned by Kaufmann). Kaufmann’s words are emblematic of the Lesson of 1983, where Foot plays the gullible, romantic leftist who was dealing with forces he could not understand.

Others remember it differently, and place serious doubt over the validity of Foot’s leftism. Academic Jeremy Gilbert sees Foot as an “intelligent but un-charismatic” leftist, but others remembered Foot as closer to his deputy Denis Healey and the reformists of the right, and was regarded by many of the left at the time, Labour or otherwise, with healthy suspicion, tied to the proto-austerity of Callaghan’s government as much as a leftist agenda. Toynbee remembered a buzz of excitement around Foot from the converted (#Footmania, if you will), but there was certainly no premature coronation; a quick look back at opinion polls shows that Foot’s did not record support over 40% from 1981, and was far behind Thatcher for a year prior to the vote.

But did Michael Foot even matter? The National Executive Committee and the Constituency parties, under the figurehead of Tony Benn, held great sway over Labour policy in the early-1980s, and had seen a shift leftwards in the decade previous as activists born in the struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s graduated to higher office. Their influence was palpable in manufacturing a left-wing platform for 1983 that has certainly never been seen in the party since. But, as Ralph Miliband argued at the time, its commitments to unilateral disarmament and re-nationalisation of industry were not far-removed from previous, victorious Labour manifestos of the 1970s. So what went so dreadfully wrong?

Polling data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

Really Useful Graph of Polling Data, 1979, 1983. Source: Anthony Wells, UK Polling Report

Had times changed? Had Thatcherism more in tune to the mood of the electorate? Perhaps, but Thatcher was deeply unpopular until the advent of war in the Falklands. The narrative of the “Falklands Factor” is well-known, but its perceived impact has recently come into question. In any case, Thatcher’s vote share fell from 1979. The SDP were an important factor, born of the “civil war” within the party, and gained millions of votes, although the idea that those votes would have otherwise “belonged” to Labour is fraught with inaccuracy. But Miliband still located the responsibility for Labour’s loss at its own doorstep. It was not the leftist platform itself, he argued, but that Labour presented a left-wing manifesto to be argued at the highest level by people like Foot and Healey who did not believe in its words. How could those unconvinced by their own arguments possibly defend them in the face of a full-blown assault by the Thatcherist media?

Jeremy Corbyn is a bona fide left-winger, there can be no doubt about that, he is a republican, a vice-chair of CND, and a weekly contributor to the Morning Star, Britain’s last remaining Marxist paper. But his platform is hardly radical when compared with ghosts of manifestos past; a Keynesian economic policy, re-nationalisation of the railways, devolution to northern England, and scrapping of Trident. These are policies with significant support that are held already in some form by the SNP and Greens. Foot in 1983 was, perhaps, in an opposite situation, as a moderate in charge of a left-wing manifesto. There is certainly enough doubt in the similarity of Corbynism with Michael Foot and the “longest suicide note in history” as to argue that there is no historical use in such association.

PART III: FROM SUICIDE NOTES TO TOMBSTONES

That is not to say that to compare Labour in 1983 and 2015 is simply an exercise in futility, there are useful comparisons to be made, but they have little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Consider these words from Ralph Miliband.

The election results have conferred a new legitimacy upon an exceptionally reactionary Conservative government; and they have also served to demoralise further a movement that was already in bad shape well before the election. It may be said – and indeed it should be said – that the Conservative Government only obtained 30.8 per cent of the total vote and 42.2 per cent of those who voted; and that its vote was less than in 1979. But the system is designed to put the main emphasis on the number of seats won rather than on votes cast; and the fact that the Government obtained a majority of 144 seats in the House of Commons makes it possible for it to claim, however spuriously, that it has a ‘mandate’ for the policies it chooses to put forward.

Ring any bells? Fast-forward to 2015, and we have a government who obtained 24.4% of electorate support and 36.9% of those who voted, and with a majority of 12 has immediately set upon massive cuts to welfare (and even attempted to re-introduce fox hunting) with its new-found mandate. Foot and his manifesto combined to present a confusing, contradictory face of the Labour party, in 2015, there was Ed Miliband, who muddled his way somewhere between tackling inequality and mimicking Tory policy on immigration and the economy in a bid to seem electable. Labour was nearly buried by this confusion; the metaphor of “the longest suicide note in history” was mimicked by Ed Miliband’s tombstone of triple-locked pledges; promises so wrapped within meaningless platitudes as to promise nothing but a manifesto worth less than zero.

 

PART IV: LEADERS OF THE OPPOSITION

Poll Tax Demonstrations. Source: BBC News UK

Poll Tax Demonstrations, 1989. Source: BBC News UK

It was the damage following 1983 that many today warn may be repeated under Corbyn. Dromey gives an impassioned recollection of the decade, and how Thatcher’s war against trade unionism was legitimated by Labour’s defeat. That’s fair, but it discounts the frequent historical examples wherein opposition (or lack of it) played an important role; Kinnock’s diluted labourism achieved nothing but two further electoral defeats, and as Thatcher met stern opposition from striking miners and city councils, the “leader of the opposition” was nowhere to be found. While Kinnock sat on the fence, solidarity for the miners instead came from small activist organisations (such as the now-famous Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners). The Poll Tax demonstrations that would contribute to Thatcher’s downfall were forged in Militant. Kinnock, a weather-vane leader, was absent again until the tide was clearly turning.

Opposition can make a significant impact, just ask Ed Miliband, whose stance against David Cameron on Syria for a time changed government (and international) policy on the matter. It is another myth of history to suggest that little can be achieved outside of government; but when electability is all that matters to the Corbyn critics, no other aspect of political history is even considered. Were Labour to select another Kinnock, the current government may rule without proper and consistent opposition from the second-largest party in Parliament (as the SNP are unlikely to always intervene on English and Welsh legislation).

I cannot predict the future; it would be foolish and reductive to say with any certainty that “effective opposition” to the Conservative government would manifest itself simply through a Corbyn leadership. Gilbert is sceptical. He feels that the lack of an accompanying left popular movement will render this impossible; it was this, for Gilbert, that was the key failing of 1983 and he feels that, based on past experience, it could take another 10 years (or two Conservative governments) to build one.

PART V: FIRST LESSON, TRIPLE HISTORY

“Angelus Novus” by Klee, or Benjamin’s Angel of History

Whether it’s 1945, 1983, or 1997, the Labour leadership election is constantly being dragged into the past, and as in so many British political issues, there is perhaps too much importance being attached to the lessons of history. The intentional evocation of 1983 by the Labour right is clear, but British society as a whole can be too obsessed with applying historical rhetoric to present-day arguments. It is the duty of the historian to call out distortions of the past such as this, but to keep this discussion rooted in 1983 is to mimic Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, hurtling backwards through the present with our eyes firmly rooted upon the debris of the past.

It needs to be written, boldly and simplistically (but not set in stone), that 2015 IS NOT 1983. Things move quicker now. The “Yes” campaign, Syriza and Podemos all show that mass movements do not need 10 years to grow, they just need a catalyst. Never mind the obvious statements that there is no Soviet Union in 1983, the Militant Tendency no longer exists, as well as the fact that left-issues considered “loony” 32 years ago such as LGBTQ rights and feminism are now increasingly part of the political mainstream. It is possible, through Corbyn or through other channels, for the English and Welsh left to organise on a national scale and nobody can say for certain whether this will “succeed” or “fail” based on the memories of Michael Foot and the election of 1983.

But memories of an altogether different time continue to dominate discussion over Corbyn. Just yesterday, Blairite John McTernan called for Tom Watson to rescue Labour “from itself”, writing that “if Jeremy Corbyn is Michael Foot, Tom Watson is Neil Kinnock. There is no alternative.” The real lesson of 1983 is that those who obsess over the past are condemned to repeat it, and those who misuse the past intend to repeat it.

Disclaimer: Although it is no secret that I am a massive leftie, this post is in no way affiliated to Labour Party, Corbyn, Michael Foot, or anyone except myself, and I write it as a historian.

“Houses as Ruins and Gardens as Weeds” – Manic Street Preachers reprise The Holy Bible, Wolverhampton, 1st June

 

holy bible

“The court has come. The court of the nations. And into the courtroom will come the martyrs of Majdanek and Oswiecim. From the ditch of Kersh the dead will rise, they will arise from the graves, they will arise from flames bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe…”

..so speaks a documentary reporter from the Nuremburg Trials throughout the Wolverhampton Civic as the Manic Street Preachers start track 11 of their third album, The Holy Bible, an album they are currently performing in full, from start to finish, in recognition of its 20th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of its prime lyricist, Richey Edwards.

Bands who have been around too long have recently gained a tendency to dig up full albums from their back catalogue. It’s usually a mixture of reliving old glories, either for the fans or the band, evoking the memory of days now gone when things were more exciting and their music actually meant something. (If the band stick an extra tenner on the ticket price, as they usually do, then they can finally buy that second kitchen they always wanted through the rehash.)

In that sense, it’s a work of history, and it’s the same type of history of those guys who were born in the 70’s but love to talk to you about D-Day or 1966. It’s history for nostalgia’s sake; it’s Village Green Preservation. And when you see it live, it feels the same as if you’re seeing a tribute act; it’s not quite the real thing, as a song used to mean something different when it was first released, to you as a fan, and to the band as performer.

With the Manics, and with The Holy Bible as source material, this would never be the case. The Observer’s Dorian Lynsky wrote of the December leg of the tour, that, “too thorny for mere nostalgia”, it felt “neither lazy nor exploitative but a serious, even necessary, reckoning with the past.” The Manics are not, nor have they ever been, a band who tour out of decadence; they aren’t a Rolling Stones or U2 who reform endlessly to furnish their luxury, but a band that follows in the tradition of The Clash or of Public Enemy. They are certainly nostalgic, but in the desire of not forgetting their musical or social origins. They are definitely not a band that likes to repeat themselves.

The biggest feeling of walking down Memory Lane was in the obvious absence of Richey, who disappeared on 1st February 1995, and is now presumed dead. They lined up, just the three of them, as they would have done 20 years ago, James Dean Bradfield in the middle, Nicky Wire on the right, and a big hole on the left, where Nicky pointed as he acknowledged his absence. (In New York, he said, “we know Richey is here”.)

The Holy Bible is Richey’s album, lyrically, a stark window into a troubled mind that was losing a battle. There are some deeply personal moments; everyone in the crowd knows that 4st. 7lb is rooted in Richey’s anorexia, and the fans are band historians too – James belts out “self-disgust is self-obsession honey” and we all know what it evokes. But this isn’t a ritual of denial, the band have moved on from 1995, as have many of the fans.

And on the whole, this is music that takes on society as a whole, and only rarely is autobiographical.  It is a scathing assessment of 20th Century European history and the political outlook of the 1990s that it bred. It presents a view of the European 20th Century as one of massive human cruelty and destruction.

The taught narrative in British schools is one of Euro-America rising up to defeat fascism, heroic figures of Churchill, Montgomery, de Gaulle et al vanquishing the evils of Mussolini and Hitler. These European heroes are removed from the historical canon of The Holy Bible, replaced by the serial killers Hindley, Brady and Sutcliffe, mixed with ex-FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and Slobodan Milosovic. With them, the fascists remain; in Of Walking Abortion Mussolini remains only “hanging from a butcher’s hook”, but Hitler has become “reprised, in the worm of your soul.” Churchill remains only to join the pantheon, as “no different” for his attitude towards the British working class.

Unfair? Maybe. Discomforting? Certainly. It’s all to argue that 20th Century Europe was, and remains, a cruel and unforgiving place. The Holocaust features strongly as source material, notably on the tracks The Intense Humming of Evil and Mausoleum; the former struggling to come to terms with the horror, whilst the latter rages against the silence that followed (“obliterates your meaning”). But much like Arendt, its significance lies in that the cruelty was mass-sponsored, and not the work of a few fanatical psychopaths.

“Everyone is guilty” screeches James in Of Walking Abortion. The thesis of Archives of Pain is that the capacity for cruelty lies in humanity and its institutions, written jarringly from the perspective of a torture and death-penalty advocate. “If hospitals cure, then prisons must bring their pain,” it opens. “If god makes death that makes man tear up the corpse with horses and chains.”

As the title suggests, in Archives and the entire album history is the evidence, to sit alongside the sickening triumphalism of the Euro-American 1990s. As Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, Richey baulked. He saw no triumph anywhere. In response, and in clear desperation, he, following the words of J. G. Ballard (who speaks over Mauseleum) aimed to “rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” The songs are difficult and head-first descents into the agony of 1990s society, furious at sexual violence and exploitation (Yes), body-shaming and self-harm (4st 7lb, Faster), and what in Greece has recently been called “the extremism of the centre” (PCP).

But somehow it never descends into pure nihilism, hinted to in the rueful conclusion of Mauseleum, “life can be as important as death, but [it’s] so mediocre.” I would not go nearly as far as the Sunday Times in saying it’s “an album that celebrates life as much as it details despair”, but there is hope in tiny doses, although that is not the point of The Holy Bible. Instead, it aims to stand in stark contrast to the conservative celebration of the 1990s, of American and European exceptionalism, and to constantly remind us of its lies.

And therein lies the point of its reprisal. In 2015, those who still listen to the record can’t help but feel that parts of the album hit even harder than they used to. Revol is undeniably a ridiculous song, a weird upbeat track that decides that all of history’s autocrats were influenced by some simplistic Freudian nonsense. I think it’s Richey’s attempt at being light-hearted. But underneath is the resignation that history has the tendency to repeat itself, over and over, for the same reasons. These days, that is a feeling that is hard to escape.

Take Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwillfallapart, the Manics’ razor-sharp takedown of ‘90s triumphalism, dismantling American hypocrisy under the guise of a pseudo-positive punk-pop. The first verse deals with foreign affairs.

“Images of perfection, suntan and napalm, Grenada, Haiti, Poland Nicaragua”

Slip Iraq and Afghanistan into that. Haiti twice more. Colombia and the War on Drugs, Cuba and Guantanamo Bay…

The second verse moved to the domestic, following decades of urban decline, the LAPD assault of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent outrage.

“Vital stats: how white was his skin? Unimportant just another inner-city drive-by thing”

Living through the police murders of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and the violence inflicted on many black people in the US and elsewhere, the anger only grows. In this album, the history justifies the assessment of the present, and it still feels pertinent. This is a record that must be played in full.

Live, James and Nicky were almost apologetic at subjecting the fans to The Holy Bible in its entirety. They felt it necessary to perform, simultaneously to honour Richey’s memory and resurrect the power of its music. But this is music that isn’t for everybody, and they were aware that it can be difficult.  Sometimes, like in Archives of Pain, it goes too far, and the metaphor becomes so lost it reads as a hawkish revenge fantasy. Some of it, like PCP is politically all over the shop; it comes across (part-intentionally, perhaps) as a series of mad ramblings.

James and Sean gave Richey’s work a backing track to suit the music; strange changes from minor to major, screeching guitar solos on top of simple bass, adrenaline-fueled tempo mixed with slow moments where some fans felt so confused they tried to wave their arms, before realising that this was 4st 7lb, not Coldplay. It is visceral, immediate stuff, and as such only gains power live. You could hear every note and twang of James’ guitar, nothing sounds like the studio.

The fans, of course, knew exactly what they were in for. Some were misery tourists; I could not quite work out how one girl found the urge to groove to The Intense Humming of Evil when most of the crowd were stunned in silence. But it was “enjoyable”. In this left-leaning audience there was a catharsis in belting out the lyrics to ifwhiteamerica after feeling so helpless for so long. To collectively chant “so damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” at the end of Faster was to articulate and release so much frustration.

It didn’t end there – the second half of the set, the “party songs” as James put it, is not devoid of this feeling. Nicky, taking over lyric duty, writes in a more diluted way (and can be occasionally dreadful) but the message remains. James first sung The Everlasting (that song of strange pronunciation), that begins with “the gap that grows between our lives, the gap our parents never had.” Depression remains a topic; the cheerful-on-the-surface number You Stole the Sun from my Heart concludes with “I have got to stop smiling, if gives the wrong impression…” The set concludes with the searing 1996 eulogy to a dead welfare state, A Design for Life, as moving as ever nearly twenty years on as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sells off the public sector.

David Nicholls (this one) once wrote that each generation needs to write its own histories. Twenty years later, The Holy Bible resurrected live is something new in itself; part-tribute, part-protest, with a bit of group therapy thrown in. There are newer radical artists about, with new things to say, but none can claim the following of this Gwent rock trio. It’s a tougher musical landscape nowadays, this band’s first No. 1 was the Spanish Civil War track If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next, and it’s hard to imagine something so with the line “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” topping the charts today.

The Manics are not trying to be the voice of 2015 with material from 1994. Nor are they stuck in the past. Instead, like the album itself, they are using history to make an impassioned comment on the present. Twenty years later, European and American society is still masquerading under the guise of a post-racist, post-sexist “end of history” triumphalism, whilst social inequality grows, and racial and sexual violence persists.

Or, to show “houses as ruins and gardens as weeds” (quoting This is Yesterday) is to push for greater awareness of the past, and greater urgency in changing the present.