Fire on Ice (30th Anniversary Edition)

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Let’s start with Clive Lloyd. Big C, The Guyanan leader, who in 1976 took his team of Caribbean cricketers to a scorching England. Tony Greig wanted to “make them grovel,” put them in their place, expecting to be met with the flamboyant, futile “Calypso cricket” caricature of the Windies team. Instead came Lloyd, Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Gordon Greenidge, a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire. They dominated the world.

Let’s now talk about Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff. The reggae stars who strummed and wailed the soundtrack of ’76. Marley and Richards ran into each other in London that year, and were in awe of one another, united by their mission to show the planet the fire and the passion and the brilliance of the Caribbean.

There are countless others, in music, sport and elsewhere, who have taken Caribbean culture across the globe and forced people to stop, take note – take it seriously – and be moved. Grace Jones, Arthur Lewis, Usain Bolt, Merlene Ottey, Brian Lara, Stafanie Taylor.

Let’s now talk about the Jamaican Bobsled team. Dudley Stokes, Devon Harris, Chris Stokes, Michael White. They are part of this. This is their story. It is not “the real Cool Runnings,” because the story is so much bigger than that, and because the film itself plays a big role in this tale.

This is Fire on Ice.

The Stakes

We all know this story. At least we think we do – of the Winter Olympians who’d never even been on ice before. The bobsled team had more to avoid the embarrassment and subsequent misery risked by the Olympic underdog – the fate suffered by that other Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was banned from competing again after the Games. The Jamaicans, however, had also to fight the aged, libellous “Calypso” portrayal of Caribbean people as fun-loving and casual, incapable of brilliance and with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.

This attitude was centuries old. It was rooted in the white masters who saw their slaves as docile, in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the American theatres past, in Songs of the South, and in the academic dismissal of Caribbean culture as inauthentic, impure. Marley and Lloyd fought constantly against the tame (unthreatening) Caribbean marketed to white tourists and consumers, reminding the world that the islands were full of rebels, innovators and freedom fighters – no sideshow. So too did this task fall to the bobsledders, vulnerable to ridicule just for daring to slide.

The stakes were high. It was not the taking part that mattered, it was the competing.

 

Calgary 

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation was founded by two US businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney. They saw the talent of the Jamaican sprinters and the skill of the drivers in the pushcart derby, and envisaged the whole thing on ice. They got a team together. Helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes was to drive the sled, with Michael White as brakeman. Devon Harris and Chris Stokes made up the four-man, with electrician Frederick Powell in reserve.

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Unlike in Cool Runnings, the team were able to practice on ice before the Games, training at Lake Placid. However, they arrived in Canada with dreadful equipment, no money, and no confidence – three very important things in bobsleigh.

The team got fundraising quickly, selling t-shirts, merch, and even an official song. Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’, sung by Powell, and hit Canada hard. The track skidded hard into the herby stereotypes of Jamaica, subversive as hell, selling the lie to fund the fire. But it was a risky ploy, as it gave their onlookers too much credit.

The team started in the two-man, with Stokes and White taking to the track under the strict gaze of media mockery. The (more-sympathetic) LA Times aptly summed up the attitude.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Jamaicans do not belong on bobsleds, they belong on the beach. At least that’s the common perception.”

The attention, the reggae and the flamboyant PR overlooked the achievements of reaching Calgary and competing. Fastforward to day 1 of the four-man, 27th February 1988, and Stokes, White, Harris and Chris Stokes slid down the track without a hitch, remaining focused amidst the media storm.

Cool Runnings gave the team a nemesis – the nasty East Germans (communist, formerly-Nazi and no longer existing – the perfect Hollywood bad guys). However, the other athletes supported the team, knowing as they did the difficulties and dangers of bobsleigh. Jamaica’s biggest threat came from the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tabogganing (FITB), who feared the team would embarrass the sport. And it seemed that the FITB would get their wish, after Dudley Stokes lost control and crashed the sled on day 2. Forget the Hollywood finale for a second – the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media consumed their perfect Calypso Conclusion to their side show.

 

Lillehammer

That was that, then, it seemed. The team, broke, were not done yet. Nor was Fitch, who continued working with them for four more years.

“The team members saw themselves as athletes; not as showmen”

They continued to work hard, and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation that they were worth supporting to Albertville 1992 and beyond. As Lillehammer 1994 approached, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The year before, Cool Runnings came out – the film that shaped how most of us remember Calgary. Sure, it’s full of Calypso imagery – sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships (remember this is Jamaica, world leaders in track and field), and all the fish-out-of-water antics.

That, however, is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. Cool Runnings is a story of four highly-trained sprinters who learn how to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.

Nor does it matter that the four-man crashed due to pilot error (and not mechanical failure as in the film), and it doesn’t matter that they were not on world record pace when it happened. What mattered is that it changed completely how Calgary was remembered – the team was no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like Eddie the Eagle (who had to wait another 20 years for his film), but they were that team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and the skill in their bones.

Oh, and in Lillehammer they were the equal of anyone. As Bob Marley sits on nearly every playlist in the West, and as modern cricket mourns the loss of the uncompromising brilliance of Lloyd and Richards’ dominators, so too is Jamaican bobsleigh known for pioneering, and overachievement.

In Lillehammer they came 14th – the 14th best sled in the world, and they beat the USA.

“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”

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21st Century Pioneers

The Jamaican bobsleigh team, had persevered, survived, and flourished. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob.

Sadly, it took twelve years for the Jamaican team to return to the ice – now crowdfunded by everybody who feels the Winter Games needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team. Yes, the media once again went wild with Calypso imagery, and were not without disparaging voices. A BBC commentator at Sochi spectacularly missed the point, moodily noting that “they weren’t even the highest placed Caribbean team in Calgary” (that was in the two man, beaten by the Netherlands Antilles. In the four they crashed).

Who cares, they qualified by right to Sochi, slid, and competed in the two man, piloted once more by Winston Watt. His old partner in crime, Lascelles Brown, is now a two-time medallist, having taken Canadian citizenship in 2005.

Antonette Gorman and Captain Judith Blackwood then took the baton and started a women’s team. Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole went further and took a sled to the World Cup Series, and in 2018, Jazmine Fenlator-Victorian arrived to Pyeongchang to drive the sled in the two-woman bob, backed by brakewoman Carrie Russell.

The first Jamaican women’s sled at the Games was dogged by familiar problems of funding and equipment. Their coach, Sandra Kiriasis, quit a week before the competition started, and took her sled with her! The women were now in Korea without equipment, before beer company Red Stipe stepped in and bought it off Kiriasis for the team to use. “Cool Runnings II” everybody shouted. But Red Stripe knew something (and aim to profit heavily off it) – the world needs the Jamaican bobsleigh team.

Why?

It’s about representation. The Jamaican bobsleigh team is about, in the words of Fenlator-Victorian, “breaking barriers.”

“It’s important to me that little girls and boys see someone that looks like them – talks like them, has the same culture as them, has crazy curly hair and wears it natural, has brown skin – included in different things in this world.”

They finished 19th. Sliding alongside them were the Nigerian team – the first African bobsled team. On the top of the roster stood American Vonetta Flowers, the first black gold medallist at the Winter Olympics, sliding down the hill with Jill Bakken.

This is the legacy of the Calgary sliders, and all those who have followed them over the last thirty years. The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team are audacious representatives of black ability in unfamiliar territory, and undoubtedly part of the lineage of Marley and Lloyd, and beyond to Toussaint and Dessalines. People who get the world to stop, look up, and take the Caribbean very seriously. They are trailblazers – they are fire on ice – and in 2018, that fire is spreading.

 

This is an updated post of my 2014 post Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

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“My Homer is not a Communist”

Greetings.

A fine Mahoke to you all.

Yesterday, Ted Cruz decided to join in with a game many Simpsons nerds have played the years, and assign political affiliation to America’s favourite family. But I think he’s been watching it wrong.

With the exception of Lisa, he reckons the Simpsons are all Republicans. Even Maggie, who has yet to speak.

(Looks like those clowns in Congress have done it again. What a bunch of clowns)

Yes, a family that infamously met the ire of Bush Senior, who implored the moral majority to be “More like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons.”

As The Simpsons, still running, is now widely considered “zombified,” perhaps it is another case where the dead have risen and are voting Republican.

The Republicans are no strangers to fiction, but Cruz’s claim has been met with ire by many Simpsons celebrities, from Yeardley Smith (Lisa), to Bill Oakley (co-showrunner during its greatest era). I think it would be worthwhile, and quite fun, to delve into the classic era to test this claim.

Let’s start with the one he got right,

LISA.

Yeah, she’d be a Democrat. Aside from her brief flirtation with religious zeal when opposing Homer’s free cable, Lisa has championed progressive causes, from the environment to women’s rights. And, unlike Cruz’s mates, when Lisa goes to Washington and sees corruption rampant, she is serious about taking it down. If you’re in any doubt, revisit her joy at finding a copy of Al Gore’s magnum opus, Sane Planning, Sensible Tomorrow.

HOMER

Yeah, on the surface Homer might seem like he leans Republican. I’m pretty sure he would approve wholeheartedly of Cruz’s cooking-bacon-with-a-firearm technique. He also shows himself suspicious of homosexuality and susceptible to the rantings of Limbaugh-clone Birch Barlow. Yet, when the Republican Sideshow Bob runs for mayor, Homer finds himself a swing voter, torn between his Bart killing policy and his Selma killing policy.

Homer, an uninhibited consumer, is bought over by retail politics more often than not – when Burns is running for Governor, Homer backs him more for personal gain from his boss’s success over anything else.

Much of Springfield is the same. In Bob’s run for office, he wins over the old with the Matlock Expressway (MAAAAAAATLOOOOOCCK), and the young with his clowning. The rest was advertising power, and Springfield were swayed – only Bart and Lisa remain sceptical, based on their previous dealings with Bob. Consequently, they endorsed disgraced Democrat Diamond Joe Quimby, with all the gusto of a Bernie bro at a Clinton rally.

Homer is a reactive soul – he’s quite happy with his hi-fi, his boob tube, and his pizza pie. He’s no activist, and he’s usually roped in to causes. But in the Classic Era at least, he’s got a good heart, and is often won over by friends and family (especially Lisa), fighting to expose the crimes of founding father Jebediah Springfield (the Dastard!), leading successful strike action to keep the plant worker’s dental plan, and taking down Springfield’s No. 1 Cat Burglar among others.

Remember how Homer became Safety Inspector at the plant? He led a Health and Safety crusade and campaigned to regulate the nuculer industry.

Besides, Homer is a communist sympathiser.

 

BART

Poor Bart, his hero and his arch-nemesis are both Republicans. Must be confusing – no wonder he’s an anarchist.

 

MARGE

Marge is conservative with a very small c. Yes, she is Springfield’s vox pop for the Moral Majority, and has been outspoken against cartoon violence, burlesque, and the decline of faith in the community. However, she is as much interested in civic issues as she is fighting the culture war. When Main Street was all cracked and broken, there was Marge. When Moe had lost the will to live, there was Marge.

Marge is a community champion, and when she is locked up for a month, Springfield descends into malaise.

Marge likes a pragmatic, no frills politician, like Governor Mary Bailey. She certainly would not be won over by the brash and bluster of an overblown businessman running for office for personal gain. She does not buy snake oil.

 

MAGGIE

When Mr Burns is maintaining his monopoly, blocking out the sun, and stealing candy from babies, Maggie stops him with lethal force. Some might say she is exercising her second amendment rights, but others might argue that she engaged in armed resistance to protect the people of Springfield against the excesses of late capitalism.

Or, she’s a baby with a gun. What did you think would happen?

 

SPRINGFIELD

Look Ted, Springfield is an American symbol. It stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, encompassing rugged mountains and great rivers, deserts and prairies. It holds everything America has to offer. The classic Simpsons do not represent parties, they hold up the mirror.

Sadly the Republican Party goes beyond a joke these days. Bob’s “no children have ever meddled with the Republican Party…” threat is now chilling when paired with recent reactions to the defiant yoiung survivors of the latest American mass murder. The next time somebody promises to lower taxes, brutalise criminals, and rule you like a king, heed the warnings of Les Wynen. Maybe then we can recommence our twirl toward freedom. And if Trump and Cruz go again in 2020, for Springfield’s sake, back this more impressive Republican for a primary challenge.

A huge thank you to Frinkiac

Skeleton Women (2018)

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Skeleton – that gentle pastime, wherein you throw yourself down a claustrophobic strip of ice, head first (of course), steering yourself past 80mph with intricate wiggles and taps of your feet.

At some point it became a British pastime. The ice mountain has become a modern-day medal mine, starting with Alex Coomber’s bronze at Salt Lake City in 2002, in the first ever Olympic women’s skeleton.

Coomber had started something. Shelley Rudman claimed silver four years later in Turin, before Amy Williams took the big prize, dominating the ice at Vancouver 2010. Then Lizzy Yarnold turned up, matching Williams’ achievement with gold in Sochi. Fast forward to Pyeongchang, she’s at it again, now with Laura Deas for company. Yarnold defended her title with a mighty final slide, joined on the podium by Deas who took bronze. Britain’s skeleton women are world beaters.

Not bad for a nation that is seemingly allergic to winter, where a patch of snow shuts everything down. Yet the British sliding tradition goes back way beyond Coomber, to the very origins of the sport.

It all started with a wager, in the Swiss resort town of St. Moritz. In 1864, St. Moritz was a spa town, popular with wealthy Victorians who headed to the alps to replenish themselves in summer. Then September came, and the British packed up and headed to London with their riches in tow, much to the chagrin of the hotelier Johannes Badrutt. So that year, he convinced his guests to return for winter. If you are bored, cold, or unhappy, he said, I will pay for everything. It is said that the British frolicked in glee at the newfound Alpine winter, gasping in amazement of the sunshine (of all things) and the frosted scenery. Badrutt won his bet, of course, but unleashed a can of worms upon the Swiss hills. The British came back every winter and, like the British tourists of today, decided to take over the town and unleash mayhem.

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St Moritz. Source: stmoritz.ch

The legend goes that one group of tourists got hold of a delivery sled, and got on it, sliding through the icy, precarious, and dangerously downhill narrow streets of St. Moritz, terrifying all who crossed their path. Their (slightly) more sophisticated successors decided that a lowly delivery sled would just not do – they would not travel in anything less than a carriage – and so the first bobsleds were built.

The Swiss hoteliers had to face the monster they had created – the townspeople had grown weary of the troublesome tourists and so the hoteliers built purpose-built toboggan tracks to get the British off their streets. One of these became the Cresta Run, built by Major John Bulpett in 1884/5, and soon became the spiritual home of the sport and the base of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club (SMTC). In 1885, they held their first “Grand National” race and, five years later, an “erratic” member called Mr Cornish decided to slide the Cresta head first. Skeleton was born.

Sadly, like many sports, sledding grew very exclusive very quickly, once codified. It’s always been a sport for the wealthy, but in those early days there were no rules or limits as to who could grab a sled atop an icy hill and throw themselves down it. In the 1920s, the SMTC saw it fit to ban women from their course.

“Mrs J.M. Bagueley was the last lady to ride the Cresta in a race on 13th January 1925. Ladies rode in practice after that date, but were banned from riding on 6th January 1929.”

The ban remains. The Cresta’s terms and conditions simply state “women are not permitted to ride the Cresta run.” I wonder what changed their minds. In the early 20th century, there was a global backlash against women in sports, based on some preposterous notion of physical inferiority. In the Olympics, women were not allowed to run further than 200m until 1960. In the USA, women were banned from running the marathon for fifty years. In England, a similar ban existed for women in football, deemed “too much for a woman’s physical frame.”

Women have campaigned for decades to turn things around, and in recent years the situation has improved. The marathon ban was lifted in 1972, in part thanks to Kathrine Switzer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 1967 – entering as K.V. Switzer – and finished in good time despite attempts to remove her from the course. Each Olympics sees an increased number of women participants, and gets ever closer to event parity – the last male-only event in the Winter Games remains the Nordic Combined.

Switzer

Katrine Switzer accosted at Boston, ’67. Source: Chicago Tribune

Yet the birthplace of skeleton remains closed to Shelley Rudman, Amy Williams, and Lizzy Yarnold. Perhaps the embargo endures because of the Old Boy tradition that surrounds the Cresta. Visitors, like Matt Dawson and Ian Cowie, note the mess hall atmosphere of the place and even spot a few descendants of the Nazi Joachim von Ribbentrop, but largely seem untroubled by the complete absence of women. Are they afraid of a little competition? Four years ago I thought this was a shame, but now I think it pitiful. Britain’s skeleton women are unstoppable – they are the headline acts of every Winter Games. Inspired by the “marginal gains” of British cycling, with less of the institutional misogyny, the skeleton set-up in Bath is the very model of a modern sporting powerhouse – professional, competitive and smooth as ice. If the SMTC doesn’t want to share their ice with such athletes, then that is their loss.

This is a dynasty whose queens are great symbols and great advocates of women in sport. Upon winning in Sochi, Yarnold came home determined to go into “as many schools as possible” and encourage girls to take up sport, and “not [to worry] about what the media image is of the perfect woman, it’s about being you and being proud of what you are.”

They are even inspiring the men (how could they not?). Dom Parsons followed in their footsteps on Friday, taking skeleton bronze. The Times connected his success to the Cresta Run “crazy aristocrat” pioneers, but he follows in different footsteps. This tradition, crowned by Lizzy Yarnold, started in 2002 with RAF officer Alex Coomber. She who slid the course at Salt Lake City with a broken wrist, which she’d injured just ten days earlier in training, and took the bronze.


This post is an updated version of my very first blogpost, Skeleton Women: The British Habit of Sliding Head-First down Icy Slopes

2017 in History: The Cockroach and the Bee

New Year’s Eve likes to fool you into feeling cautiously optimistic.

That optimism is, of course, relative to that which we’ve waded through to make it through those twelve months previous. So on the last day of 2016, some might have thought “maybe 2017 wouldn’t be as bad as this one.”

Whoops.

I

john redwood two

Two millennia from now, the archaeologists and archivists of the hyper-intelligent irradiated cockroach people uncover evidence of 2017, and after copious analysis, come to view it as a seminal year in the coming of their Megaloblatta-Sapiens race.

From the vantage point of their compound eyes, the debates of the day, such as how many North Koreans is it morally acceptable to incinerate, or whether it is wrong to punch a Nazi (a question which reckons a priori that it’s ok to be a Nazi), seem moot or trivial. All must be incinerated, after all, to achieve the supremacy of the mandible.

Their museums trumpet the self-destruction of the human race. Adorning the 2017 gallery walls are their heroes of our age.

The paedophile judge almost elected to a Senate that steadfastly clung to the notion that they were once something more than but the guardians of a phallic ivory hierarchy. The false cowboy’s failure allowed them to delude themselves for another, fatal year, as the floor fell from under their feet.

A cabinet commemorating the orange wigs and boot polish that decorated the year’s Halloween festivities, and yet more pretty little tricksters charming their way out of the ooze – another “change” candidate.

Ah, the Britain exhibit. Sir Nick Clegg. Knighted for services to something – lost to the ages, no doubt. Sir Ringo, the great historian of tank engines, and the days folk could afford rail. Barry Gibb got one too. I suppose in the end times, you get points just for stayin’ alive.

Loyalty is valuable, but our lives are valuable too

There is much chuckling below chitin among patrons as they look back at us steaming headlong into the ravine, distracting ourselves with royal weddings, royal babies, royal Netflix, and royal racism scandals. And how dare they blame us? But for a little escapism, what joy was left us outside of the pharmacy. And lo, the greatest distraction of all, Europe. All eyes looked to the channel trying to work out what it meant to be British, whilst all eyes looked down in Kensington, avoiding the stare of those cremated in their homes because the tower block was deemed too unsightly.

Does it look better now?

Our dear patrons may then scuttle on through to a cinematic rendition of 2017’s finest quotes, courtesy of the rape apologists and baby demagogues, now widely accessible on the vast online archive humanity’s ghost left behind. According to Prof. Blaberoid the Hisser, eminent human historian, these virtual sabre-tongues mimicked the behaviour of their all-powerful leaders, who enjoyed an unprecedented period of rubbing the vomit of their impervious corruption into the faces of those who dared challenge them.

Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot. Pol. Pot.

And the wrong words make you listen

Humanity doomed itself in this quagmire, the professor explains on the latest edition of the Gregarious FM podcast. The situation reached critical mass around these figures, who sucked in all challenges, spitting out mercury and lead into the brains of all who listened. Many ducked for cover, their already-fragile minds could not stand another hit. Others chose noble hills upon which to perish, but this was no age for martyrs, and such warriors were dragged to their doom by another barrage of fascist incomprehension (or else stabbed in the back) – they lay in graves unmark’d, with legacies stolen and diluted. With their would-be challengers now scattered and divided, it was only a matter of time before these rat-king leaders turned upon one another.

The intellectuals emerged from their fox-holes, temporarily, to look aloof upon the massacre, pondering only where all the millennial poets went.

 

II

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As for me, I started the year attending the cremation of a friend, who fell because we could not break his fall, and ended it getting robbed, so you can forgive my cynical tone.

In between, I’ve been looking for something. Strength, defiance, hope. On darker days, it can feel like hopes fade into prayers or delusions. When there’s nothing else out there, that is still a great deal. At the start of the year, bereft, I looked back at the dust-covered words of Obama’s ostracised pastor Jeremiah Wright. The audacity of hope – it sometimes requires a fantastic imagination or a leap of faith. But somehow, I’ve got to stay grounded, or else I lead myself toward further disappointment.

Elsewhere, I just tried to take a moment, and make sense of it all, looking for comparisons in the past to try and understand the ostensible chaos of the present (like with Catalonia and Kosovo), or staring at the sun long enough to gain some blind understanding (“What a time to be alive”).

I’ve got to write it down, but I’m still getting educated

More often though, I’ve been trying to find strength to stand up when feeling particularly helpless or lost, in those who have done it all before. In the old punks who rocked against racism, or John Fitch, who witnessed first-hand a horrific disaster and dedicated his life to see that such things cannot repeat themselves.

There are two things that have kept me going these last few months. The first is through seeking meaning in the death of my friend, or more accurately, meaning in his life. I’ve been holding on tightly to what made him proud of me, and what I admired in him, and trying to keep it alive daily.

I’ve got to write it down, and it won’t be forgotten

The other, I remember well, was walking to work on the 23rd May, seeing all the bees. The Manchester bees. I have always called it the Bin Wasp, because before this I usually came across the winged mascot on the street bins of Manchester streets.

I did not want to leave the house that day, because I was scared. Like everybody else, I felt vulnerable that a place I knew well, a place I walked by every week, had been the scene of such horror. And like many brown folk in England that day, I feared the looks, the reprisal, the armed police, the misplaced suspicion. All I saw that day in my adopted city were bees. Rejecting the lot. That’s the way I chose to look at it, that day. People feeling vulnerable together, finding strength together, in each other. I was reminded of something I read when teaching the Freedom Summer.

“When we sing ‘We are not afraid,’ we mean we are afraid. We sing ‘Ain’t gonna let my fear turn me round,’ because many of you might want to turn around now.”

Strength in the past, strength in the present. Sometimes it’s important not to seek too much solace in history, or fear too greatly a roach-infested future. And I think about the best moments of the year gone by – teaching my seminars, going to the test match with a good friend, bidding friends farewell as they set off for new jobs, new homes, or new adventures. Spending time with the people I love, be it in the cinema, a fancy dress party, or sat on a sofa in Manchester somewhere. Whatever else next year holds, I hope for more instants like this.

For in the event, that this fantastic voyage should turn to erosion, and we never get old, we can always hold close the very best moments in even the worst of years.

(Disclaimer. I actually think cockroaches are neat)

“In these days of evil Presidentes” – Punk and Fascism

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Punk nostalgia is back. This age is ripe for it, as there’s a whole host of reasons for people to be frustrated and angry,  particularly for the young among us, as opportunities diminish. its the best yearsThere’s something very punk, after all, about tearing down a goading monument to those who wished you in shackles.

let fury have the hour

There’s something very ’76 about now, and it makes a lot of sense for people to draw from a moment where people were moved by art, music and fashion to stand up for themselves. In 2017 I’ve often kept London Calling in my earphones, blasting out Clampdown for inspiration, for strength.

But there’s also something in punk that embodies the mass appeal of manifest right-wing hate, which is once again loose, having bubbled for years. There’s something “punk” about donning a swastika, for shock or for awe.

Nostalgia observed through blinders can be a dangerous thing. Young(er) punks like me came to the culture at its nadir, and knew it as a scene that welcomed anyone and everyone so long as you shared its passion, its strip-it-down catharsis, and its tolerance. Its British origin story is dominated by the memory of the Pistols and the Clash – between anarchy and socialism – between the expression of ‘70s working class feeling and those who tried to channel that anger into a revolutionary riot.

Something’s missing here. The memory of this spirit of ’76 is incomplete. Punk is (and was) polarisation writ loud, a centrifugal splattering of all things, an explosion of possibilities and frustrations. It was the creation of a new voice, but it was also in its founding moments a REACTION against the tame, the overblown, and the delusionary. Sometimes wonderful things can be produced, when the centre fails to hold. You talk to the old punks now, and their recollections lack the political romance us third-gen Clash disciples ascribe to that moment.

There always was in punk a leftist appeal, and the movement quickly developed an activist wing, exemplified by the famous Rock Against Racism carnivals of ’78. Yet so much more washed through the maelstrom of punk. No punk would have been even slightly surprised when John Lydon backed Trump and Brexit.

Many of the old guard insist that punk was not a political event. I’ve seen this often in response to accusations from Johnny-come-lately historian types that punk “didn’t do enough” to oppose racism and the rising fascist tide of the late ‘70s.

Were they supposed to?

As it turned out, due to the movement’s initial actions and the turmoil of the late-70s, punk rockers had to deal with the Nazis within, whether they wanted to or not.

 

all over

So declared Strummer in the 1977 reggae-inspired track “(White Man) in Hammersmith Palais”, which railed at both the punk and pop reggae scenes for ignoring the racial inequality and bubbling white supremacy in the streets of late-70s London. Its iconoclasm is a sign that Strummer felt isolated in his views within the scene, rather than an embodiment of punk ethics. Indeed, the Clash’s political articulation was inspired as much by the activist reggae – the roots, rock, rebel – of Marley, Cliff, Tosh and Marvin than elsewhere. More than anything, Strummer was moved by black activism in West London embodied in the scorched streets of the ’76 summer and the Notting Hill carnivaliants’ response to police abuse that year. In (White Man), he took aim at his punk contemporaries –

thenew groups

– and particularly targeted The Jam, who famously worked to tear down the established order by encouraging their fans to vote Conservative (a call Paul Weller later regretted).

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Upon whose shoulders falls the responsibility to take on the fascists?

It’s another weird quirk of history to remember that Thatcher cast herself as the “change” candidate in late-70s Britain- when the lights were going out, in millions of homes and thousands of flats, guarded by the growing garbage monuments of discontent.

going out

Then as now, the Tory presses spammed the notion that the turmoil was caused by Jack Jones and the corrupt trade unionists, and an overblown public sector protected by Jim Callaghan’s faltering government (ignore Callaghan’s significant and pioneering privatisation, that’s just Fake News). Thatcher would return order, trim the fat, get Britain working again (three million would soon be unemployed). It was a lucrative line of attack for the Tories, to paint Labour as luddites, clinging on to an overgrown, stagnant way of life, whilst suggesting that turning the clock back to Victorian England was somehow a path to progress (wonder if they’ll try that trick again). To Weller’s comparative moddish-punk mind, the Tory claim sat neatly to what punk meant to many – back to basics, to chord and melody, away from the inaccessible self-indulgence of prog’s excesses. The stars aligned.

jamservative

The Conservatives of course baulked at punk’s brashness. It was too unstable an element, made of too many unreliable parts, to conform to any confined ideology, let alone the sensitive prudishness of old-school Toryism. The Pistols had already taken good care of that before punk really took off.

god save

The Pistols were delirious gunmen, shooting wildly into a crowd at anything they could take down a notch. What politics you might gauge from this manufactured nihilism depends entirely on when you freeze the frame.

But there was plenty political about the Pistols, and the Ramones and the Dolls and this strip it down approach. Punk is challenging at its very core. It insists on denying anybody authority on knowledge. It hates lecturers, soapboxers and pedants – punk’s orators are instead conduits of feeling and frustration. It’s dimed out, all in. Like reggae, punk is a small axe. Ready to cut you down.

But first up, it was about marketing shock factor. Malcolm Maclaren, Bernie Rhodes and proto-punk’s executive vice-presidents saw fame and fortune in tearing it up in a blitzkrieg of taboo. Sid Vicious and Siouxie Sioux painted themselves in swastikas – and they were not alone. At this point, Mick Jones and Tony James had formed a proto-punk band, managed by Bernie Rhodes. Their Jewish manager sat the kids round the table, and opened an envelope full of red armbands, white circles and clockwise gammadian crosses. The band were to be called the “London SS”, declared Rhodes.

“We hadn’t thought at all about the Nazi implications. It just seemed a very anarchic, stylish thing to do.”

siioxsevec

Siouxsie and the Banshees: Source punk77.co.uk

The Thin White Duke. Source: Birmingham Mail

 

Stylish indeed. Fascism was the contemporary look of innovative, chameleonic trend-catalyser and punk inspiration David Bowie, then posing as the Thin White Duke. His Duchy was cocaine-driven ramblings, “theatrical” Nazi salutes and Hitler-loving commentaries. The Duke claimed he was “clowning”, holding up a mirror to English society. There was plenty of fascism in ’76 to reflect back upon him, after all.

Nowadays, we know Bowie was not a well man during this phase. Regardless, Nazi chique was IN, and infectiously marketed. Like teenage shoplifters, punks quickly tried to see just how much they could get away with. In the North, a band called “The Moors Murderers” came together. It is said that Chrissie Hynde briefly played guitar for them. They tried to release a song called “Free Hindley” but, thankfully, punk had found its limits on the opposing side of serial killer apologism. They were ostracised, and soon disbanded.

Soon after the Pistols triggered the Big Bang of British Punk, sub-cultures began to solidify underneath the hollow shells of the Pistols’ anarchic edgelordic imagery. The Clash took the lead as Britain’s foremost socialist rockers, whilst bands such as The Slits and X-Ray Specs carved out a forthright women’s voice in punk, joined by Crass (who usually mixed genders on vocals), especially on their 1981 LP Penis Envy (banned by HMV, and confiscated from shops by Greater Manchester Police).

Crass became pioneers of the burgeoning anarcho-punk set, drawing from, of all things, hippie counter-culture (the traitors) to make their brand of anarchy into something more than just a chaotic veneer. Anarcho-punk then fired itself back across the Atlantic, especially finding voice in the Dead Kennedys (note the name), who mixed up Southparkian college-boy shock humour with sophisticated leftist critiques and infectious hardcore energy, resulting in classic tracks like “Holiday in Cambodia” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord.”

There is something essentially egalitarian about punk, and it rapidly drew in left-wing spirit with every breath. “When I saw the Pistols I suddenly realised I wasn’t alone in the fact that I couldn’t play…I felt inferior, but when I saw the Pistols I thought it was great, because it just suddenly struck me that it didn’t have to matter.” Punk is participatory, punk is democratic. Punk is a leveller.

crass

Crass. Source: Pinterest

Lefty punk was in full swing, but it was not alone, and was severely tangled up in punk’s other fan clubs. Although Weller quickly binned his braindead Thatcherism, and Jones and Rhodes threw out their swastikas, right-wing punk was, and still is, a massive thing. Longstanding punk rockers Misfits make no secret of their conservativism, though their efforts to organise online through conservativepunk.com (in response to Fat Mike’s 2004 punkvoter.com and Rock Against Bush) was about as successful as Moggmentum – may it never zombify.

Nazi-sympathisers quickly latched on to punk’s anger and energy and correctly saw it as a useful conduit of hate. Fascist punk was born quickly and grew quickly, its path to the off-limits nuked by punk’s pioneers. Lefty punks were guilty too – Strummer’s early celebration of black activism in London, in which he called for an extension of its spirit across Britain, was very unfortunately given the name “White Riot” (Joe would get better). Punk’s roots in whiteness were solidified by such statements, as well as those such as Elvis Costello and Jello Biafra who liberally used the n-word (I don’t fucking care how ironic you are, keep that word off your tongues). White punks still do it – nothing is off-limits, remember.

Fascism was in vogue in politics as well as in style. Enoch Powell’s shadow cast itself across the nation, and NF boots were marching in earnest. Thatcher would later herself tap into this manifestation, driven above all by the pursuit of votes. This rise was reflected in the fears and angers of leftish punk voices – Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces record was obsessed, fascinated and terrified by fascism.

elvis

Punk went centrifugal. It’s a movement that resists organisation, and embraces forceful contradiction. As the winter grew discontented, gigs increasingly saw violence overwhelmingly instigated by stormtrooper wannabes. Crass – blinded by flower power – decried the violence “on both sides” against evidence to the contrary, and with it sold much of their punk ethic down river.

The fighting at Crass gigs was happening in dive bars and music halls across the nation. The NF targeted the punk movement early on. The white working classes were finding their voice, and the fascists wished them to speak in time with the march of their boots. The way in, they decided, was Oi! – the punk of punk – a rebellion to the art school anarchists of the first wave. Oi! and its pioneers were less interested in statements, whether out of ideology or image, and more in talking about the things that went on in their daily lives. They were Saturday’s Kids, and in some ways, a punk by fans for fans.

Oi! was pretty masculine, and it went hand in hand with football factionalism and the resurgent skinhead movements – gigs were often a violent crossroads between punks, skins and rival firms. That’s when the NF got involved in a big way. The fascists had already started infiltrating football firms, and next stop were the skins and the punks. Oi! was their target, but for the large part failed miserably in their attempts to recruit any bands, with the latter exception of Blackpool flops Skrewdriver, who reformed in the ‘80s under the banner of White Power. Instead, they formed their own groups (household names like The Dentists and The Ventz) with the express wish to draw punks and skins into their circle of hell.

This didn’t go too well, either, so they instead tried to recruit existing fan groups. Sham 69, for a short time Britain’s biggest punk band, were top of their list. The Hersham Boys, bursting out of the deprived part of Surrey that nobody ever talks about, were distilled male youth, rage and joy wrapped in a southern snarl. Frontman Jimmy Pursey commanded great loyalty amongst his fans, and in turn he valued them dearly. They were huge among football kids, especially Hammers fans, and Sham gigs soon found themselves swamped by Nazis, seig heiling in the cauldron of noise.

This was different to Siouxie’s swastika.

The art-punk’s Nazi imagery created the initial association between punk and fascism, and the idea that the scene could be fertile terrain for NF recruitment. Now the Nazis had succeeded in wrapping Sham in far-right rhetoric, never espoused by the band or their music. Pursey himself was soon tarred with the fascist brush. He was loathe to condemn his fans, many adoring, for any dabbling in fascism. Not all Sham fans went this way, and he was to an extent sympathetic with those who found false solace in hate.

Pursey’s initial inaction led him to be seen by some as a poster boy of Nazi punk. In an interview, Joy Division (whose name originates from Nazism) defended the band’s etymology by pointing the finger at Pursey – “Everyone calls us Nazis…but compared to Jimmy Pursey, who is an out-and-out racist…Nobody can remember the beginning of Sham 69 and the things he said then.” (PS I can’t find any quotes that support this. @ me if you have some).

Others, such as Gareth Holder of the Shapes, hated him for failing to protect his fans from the fascists. “That idiot Pursey had his head so far up his own arse it wasn’t true. He just didn’t want to deal with it. He’d be singing “If the Kids are United” and the whole fucking place would be a war zone while he was doing it.”

This tactic was not shared by some of the Oi! Bands. The Cockney Rejects took matters into their own hands, by beating the shit out of the Nazis who threatened them. “We weren’t going to have it,” remembered Stinky Turner. “We just went down and absolutely slaughtered them. We declared to them that if they ever set foot where we were again, we’d decimate them.” Pursey, like Crass, wasn’t into violence. But things were getting serious at Sham gigs. Nazis were rushing the stage.

Jimmy had a choice to make, as did the whole punk movement. Where did it stand? Decision time came when Red Saunders approached him to be the face of Rock Against Racism. RAR was formed after Eric Clapton, who made millions out of covering Bob Marley, declared that Enoch Powell “was right.” RARs founders could see the infiltration of far-right ideas into pop music, they could see the Thin White Duke, Sid’s gammadia, and Costello’s n-bombs, and they saw the connection between these incidents and the trouble at Sham gigs.

rar

Rock Against Racism March. 1978. Source: UKrockfestivals.com

Saunders knew exactly what he was doing. There was no point headlining with The Clash, that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Saunders had to get to the core of the power of the anger, the essence of punk’s loud expression of strip-it-down radicalism.

It had to be Sham, it had to be Pursey. If we could get Sham to take the stage and denounce racism, it could mortally wound the NF’s entrance into the punk scene.

Pursey agreed. He took the stage at Victoria Park with the Reggae band Steel Pulse, at the end of the festival, which was preceded by a massive march through London, protesting the threat of the far-right. For this, Sham got death threats, and Pursey lost his nerve. He pulled out of the RAR sequel at Brockwell – that was, until some kid approached him on the tube and told him he’d got no balls. This one finally landed. The next day, Pursey stood up to be counted.

syd shelton pursey

Syd Shelton captures Pursey, determined, on stage at Brockwell. Source: Guardian

RAR was a big success. It was so far removed from the overblown Bono-infected live aid shite. This was a rally with direct action at its heart – a mission to root out racism from Rock & Roll, an art form rooted in African-American expression, and take on the far right in London and elsewhere. RAR went on tour to the provincial towns. From then on, the NF were never able to grasp hold of punk, retreating into the scene’s darkest corners. It held a foothold among the skins, but was barely able to transmit its voice through song.

RAR could not, however, undermine the association between punk and fascism. Perhaps punk will always house fascists, doomed by its initial “artistic choices”, or its amplification of white working-class anger, too often misinterpreted as, or reduced to, fascistic. Perhaps because punk exists essentially in tension, dancing on the volcano of human emotion and expression.

For my part, escaping to (often terrible, often class) punk gigs as a kid, I felt I was going somewhere where no-one could ever hurt me, where the well of human hatred ran shallow and dry. A place that valued thinking for yourself. For me, punk remains a place of catharsis and a source of strength to hold firm against the 2017-vintage fascists. But in this place, as within any temple of inclusion, there is a line to be drawn quickly and decisively against the creeping hatred of our age. As Jimmy Pursey discovered, there’s no time to equivocate, and no valour in it either.

Better to deal with those who wish you dead the way the Cockney Rejects did,

or Red Saunders.

Or, as Jello Biafra put it years ago,

nazi

Recognising Kosovo*

dav

On Friday, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy responded by dismissing Catalan premier Carlos Puigdemont, and imposing direct rule on the region.

It’s hard to say what will happen next, but it is very likely that Catalonia is in for a rough ride as it seeks self-determination. Rajoy has shown he isn’t afraid to spray and pepper rubber bullets along Las Ramblas. The USA, the EU, France, Germany and the UK have all said they will not recognise an independent Catalonia. The reaction of others will likely shape what place Catalonia would take if it enters the world stage, solo.

The last European country to take the plunge was Kosovo. On 17th February 2008, it announced it had split from Serbia and was now going it alone.

Catalonia is not Kosovo. The circumstances are very different. But the response of the nations of Earth to Kosovo highlights how the recognition of new nations has far more to it than the situation itself in the region in question.

 

No, Never, Not in a Million Years

Kosovo independence

Source: Telegraph

Many nations have viewed Kosovo’s declaration with vanity, fear and loathing. Might Kosovo’s audacity encourage dastardly separatists within our own borders?

WE CANNOT ALLOW THIS!

Nations with diverse regions that varied cultures, languages, religions and fortunes have been especially vulnerable to this way of thinking, as are those whose borders hid ancient tensions brushed under the rugs of history. Spain sits in both categories, and refuses to recognise Kosovo. On the record, this stance is in stern defence of international law and the UN Charter. Spain, as it showed the other week, takes such things very seriously. It is a poorly-kept secret that it is worried that Catalonia and the Basque Country might call foul on any concession to a secessionist movement outside of Spanish borders. In 2012, Rajoy even said that Spain refuses to recognise Kosovo because “it is what suits the general interest of the Spanish.”  The way things are going in the Pyrenean shadows, don’t expect a birthday card from Madrid soon, Pristina.

They weren’t alone in this. China, Argentina, Israel. Moldova, Georgia, Cyprus. Many of these ghosting characters are linked by their involvement in what some call “Frozen Conflict Zones” – geographical war hangovers – unresolved political disputes permafrosted upon land, homes, societies. They might have longstanding claims upon groups that have sought to govern themselves as autonomous, or else might be part of a geographical tug-o-war with another nation-state over the sovereignty of a region, whose own ideas of to which flag they pledge their allegiance are but a sub-plot. Imperial borders were often drawn on sand, and reinforced only by the bayonet. Sudanese or Yugoslav fractures exhibit what can happen when the coercive rug of the metropole is pulled out from under foot. A conglomerate state like China views separatism with great caution.

And the Kingdom of Spain? Founded under the marriage of Castile and Aragon. Strengthened in the inquisition and expulsion of those not bound to Christ. Made rich by Cortes’ sword that cut open golden Aztec veins, but eventually chased back into Iberia by forces that left Spain in dust. Perhaps, for many a Spanish patriot, a Catalonian schism would represent the last act in this retreat, a final nail in Spain’s imperial coffin, the confirmation that their pride in a nation past is no longer present.

Why hang onto a nation, for nostalgia’s sake?

 

This fence I’m sitting on is really comfortable…

Artsakh – Source: news.am

The region of Artzakh is currently drawn on the Azerbaijani map. It is 95% Armenian, and its flag resembles the Armenian banner, altered by a thick brush on Microsoft Paint (RIP). Formerly known as Nagorno-Karabakh, it essentially rules itself. Azerbaijan, however, has not recognised it, and it is therefore unsurprising that it has turned a blind eye to the Republic of Kosovo as well. What’s weirder is that Armenia hasn’t recognised Artzakh or Kosovo either.

Geopolitical allegiances have a huge part to play in the recognition of nations. There’s quite a club of countries that has refused to acknowledge Kosovo out of respect to its good ol’ pal, Serbia. Some of these might be expected, such as Belarus or Cyprus. But perhaps others might surprise you. Algeria, Angola, the DRC, for example.

“We are our Mountains” – Artsakh. Source: Armenpress.am

Who knew Serbia had so many friends?

Again, we cannot forget how the very existence of Kosovo reverberates back onto so many nations with fragile pasts. Alongside, some nations may wish to tread carefully to avoid stoking Serbia’s gigantic neighbour to the northeast. Armenia, for example, publicly welcomed Kosovo’s step, but avoided granting an official welcome to the family of nations so as not to irritate Azerbaijan, Russia, or Artzakh. Better to recognise everybody at once, rather than pick and choose.

In other cases, the decision not to recognise may be guided by nowt but a noble sense of loyalty to the Serbs,
which is sweet kosovo text 1
if perhaps not the romantic gesture one would like to see in the realm of high global politics, where blind loyalty to anything can get you up all sorts of creeks.

On the other hand, some of Kosovo’s earliest friends benefited from its independence, alongside those who sincerely believed in its self-determination. The USA and the UK quickly backed it up, alongside much of NATO, having played a key part in the Kosovan war and the defeat of Milosevic.

Legacy management 101 – look! What a lovely intervention! We made a state out of it, dontyaknow.

If Catalonia goes it alone, it might find friends in odd places, and gain unexpected enemies. A lot of this may have little to do with Catalonia itself.

 

I’ll do it this afternoon!

Flags yes

All those who have recognised Kosovo.

That brings us to our last group. Those who haven’t quite got round to it yet. The most recent country to recognise Kosovo was Bangladesh, in February of this year. There has been a steady trickle of recognitions after the initial flurry of ’08. As of October 2017, 111 countries consider Kosovo a sovereign nation. This tally matters. Some nations, including Spain, have in the past often justified their refusal by noting how few nations had done the deed. The higher that figure goes, the less valid that argument has become. In recent years, some nations have recognised Kosovo declaring that they have changed their minds over the matter, or else citing that the trend has changed in favour of Kosovan independence and they don’t want to miss out before all the good yoyos have been bought.

This change has allowed Kosovo to find its feet somewhat on the international stage, helped somewhat by the backing of large swathes of NATO and the EU, and the USA. Although Serbia officially still considers Kosovo part of its territory, it has largely accepted the 2013 Brussels Agreement between the two groups and has largely normalised relations with Kosovo. This has allowed Kosovo to participate more easily in UN activities, albeit often placed with an asterisk next to its name, to give the word “Kosovo*” a dual symbolism, representing either –

the Republic of Kosovo,

or

Kosovo, a really really autonomous part of Serbia

– depending on your persuasion. Even Russia has softened its stance, although this has much to do with its activities in South Ossetia, and in the Crimean Peninsula, wherein Moscow argued that if Kosovo had the right to unilaterally declare self-determination, so too did the Crimea (which was of course, unilateral. No Russians here, what Russians, where?)

kosovo text 2Perhaps the remaining collection of nations are merely waiting for the herd to decide when it will cross the river. Perhaps they’ve got better things to do, or more important things to worry about, than recognising a diminutive, landlocked nation in South-East Europe. The weight of numbers, however, is very important in a nation’s journey to global recognition. Certain nations, such as the USA or Russia, are triple word scores.

 

Lines in the dirt

Source: World Atlas

It might all sound like a board game played on a 1:1 scale map. But the verbal barrages can so quickly beget rubber bullets, and rubber can soon itself turn to lead. Some may understandably point toward the fear that nations may continue to exponentially slice themselves in two, on ethnicity, religion, history, or economics (ever since 2008, for example, there has been talk that the Serbian-dominated North Kosovo may seek autonomy from Pristina). Is it only empire, they might ask, that forces communities to co-exist and intertwine?

Others may look at how the world is growing increasingly uncertain at the same time as it pulls itself closer together through technology and the border-sapping forces of neoliberalism. Groups may look out at the window at the gathering clouds and think, at this instance, it’s better to go at it alone.

Or maybe it’s all too facile to think that another line in the dirt, this time between Barcelona and Madrid, will necessarily lead to further divisions in a fracturing Europe. Kosovo’s ongoing journey to recognition shows that there’s a great deal going on under the surface in any separatist movement, and its burgeoning relationships with the world outside. Perhaps Kosovo shows that most nations are more concerned with what separatism might represent than what it actually causes.

Flags no

Those who have not recognised Kosovo, or are yet to do so.

Perhaps we should be less wed to the notion of the permanence of borders. Perhaps it is just as parochial to insist that the map remains the same as it looked when we were children than to draw new lines and erase others.

Some borders, such as along the shore of the Etang Saumâtre between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, change daily as the water levels rise and fall. There are many still disputed. Some are deliberately porous, others are guarded with lethal force, or else are to be marked by great walls. But even the most ancient of borders have crumbled many times. Human societies never sit still. Nearly every society in history has been host to travellers, migrants and traders, explorers and conquerors alike, who continually puncture or remodel the little barriers we like to draw between ourselves.

John Fitch and the 1955 Le Mans Tragedy: Making Something out of Disaster

John Fitch and the 1955 Le Mans Tragedy: Making Something out of Disaster

john fitch pierre levegh

“The act of creation saves us from despair.”

On 11th June 1955, there occurred at Le Mans the worst disaster ever to befall motor racing. Pierre Levegh collided with Lance Macklin and his Mercedes departed the circuit – its disintegrated remnants rained down upon a heaving grandstand. Levegh was killed, along with eighty-three spectators.

This year, there have been a lot of disasters; some preventable, some malicious. Haunting images of worst-case scenarios realised play out continually in front of us, it seems. In the empty shells and cordoned-off zones of disasters past, there lingers a feeling of pointlessness, of lives extinguished without reason, without meaning, too damn early. What did you have left to give us? Could you still be here had we done anything differently? In some ways, it feels like a hunger, an internal amputation, a curse of circumstance and a complete loss of power. This inert pain loiters within, and its eviction requires a strength beyond comparison.

This current feeling draws me now to the story of the Le Mans disaster, and to Levegh’s teammate John Fitch, whose reaction to the accident saved thousands of lives. Motor racing has always housed those who view safety concerns and regulations with contempt, believing them to somehow dilute the thrill of the spectacle. The early days were especially foolhardy, littered with carnage and the ghosts of dead drivers lying at the feet of reckless racers and gold-hungry promoters. However, as long as there have been fatal incidents, there have been those – often drivers themselves – who campaigned against repetitions.

Pierre Eugène Alfred Bouillin was old school. He was inspired by his late uncle who died before he was born, a victim of the earliest, deadliest days of motor racing. Pierre took on his uncle’s anagramed surname, Levegh, both in tribute and as a statement of his pedigree and style. When he was not behind the wheel, he could be found playing tennis, or ice hockey, and was proficient at both. In 1955, he was 49 years old, and had clocked up more Le Mans miles than anybody else still racing. In the 1952 event he spent 23 hours behind the wheel himself in a self-modified Talbot, and nearly won – denied only by a broken crank.

In 1955, Mercedes selected Levegh to partner John Cooper Fitch in the third Mercedes 300 SLR tipped to take Le Mans by storm. It was moulded from magnesium alloy and notable for its massive air brake at the rear, added because the car was too fast to be slowed by standard brakes alone.

The Mercedes SLR 300 at Le Mans, 1955. No. 19, Fangio/Moss. Note the air brake activated at the rear. Source: a406.idata.over-blog.com

On the 11th June, Levegh was racing well and would shortly pull into the pits and hand Fitch the vehicle. On the Tribunes Straight, leading car Mike Hawthorn turned sharply toward the pit-entry, effectively brake-testing the lapped Lance Macklin. Levegh, catching the pair, had not enough time to evade Macklin’s Austin-Healey, but spent his last moment alive giving a “slow” signal to the following car, team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio, likely saving his life. Fangio lived for another forty years. Macklin veered toward the unprotected pit-wall, and four people were seriously injured, run down by the runaway Austin Healey. Macklin, fortunately, escaped unharmed.

Levegh is launched into the air off the back of Macklin’s car. After capturing this image, the photographer took cover. Source: Pinterest.

Levegh’s car launched upwards and left, careering into a concrete staircase and exploding. The Mercedes’ mighty engine, radiator and suspension sliced through the packed grandstand, massacring eighty-three onlookers, many of whom had been stood on tables and chairs just to catch a fleeting glimpse of the sportscars as they flew by. Levegh was thrown from his vehicle, dying on impact. The rest of his mangled Mercedes ignited and its magnesium bodywork burned uncontrollably for hours. The race was forced to continue beside the SLR inferno, this white-hot monument to the agony of that afternoon, so that emergency services were not hindered by hundreds of thousands of exiting spectators.

After the fire. Source: Jalopnik

John Fitch was behind the pit-lane with Pierre’s wife Denise when they heard the explosion. Fitch went outside to investigate, and came across the injured left by Macklin’s car. He tended to them. He then spotted Levegh’s burned corpse lying on the track, where it lay exposed for too long until a Gendarme covered it with a banner. Fitch returned to Denise.

“It was Pierre. He is dead. I know he is dead,” said Madame Bouillin, before Fitch could deliver the news.

He then rang home, to inform his family that he had not been behind the wheel of the fated No. 20 Mercedes, as some initial reports had suggested. It was now that Fitch caught word that the death toll had already climbed to 64. It was the first time he became aware of the scale of the disaster. In response he asked Rudi Uhlenhaut, the SLR’s designer, to insist to the Daimler-Benz board that they withdraw the remaining silver arrows from the race.

Within moments of the disaster, Fitch had already begun to work towards mitigating future catastrophe. The race had been billed as World War Two on the track. England’s Jaguars taking on the Deutsche Silver Arrows on French soil. It was just ten years after Hitler, and France’s war wounds were still raw. “There were still guard towers from prisoner-of-war camps at the edge of the track,” remembered Fitch. “You could see them.” French motorsport aficionados knew of the close relationship Daimler-Benz had cultivated with the Nazis, and of the nightmares they had contributed to the Fuhrer’s demagoguery.

The accident had sent the unscathed SLR, driven by the legendary pairing of Fangio and Stirling Moss, into an unassailable lead. Fitch imagined the sight of a German car taking the victory in front of a grandstand stained with French blood, and knew that the Gallic anger would reverberate far beyond the racetrack. Uhlenhaut and team boss Alfred Neubauer agreed, and six hours later so too did the Mercedes bigwigs. At 1.45am, Fangio was called in to retire.

Hawthorn, with Ivor Bueb, eventually won comfortably. It was a muted celebration, but Hawthorn’s smile as he guzzled the champagne, it is said, was enough to meet the ire of the French L’Auto Journal. “To your health, Mr Hawthorn!”

hawthorn

Celebrating victory at Le Mans with Mike Hawthorn. Source: WordPress

*

Many people realised after Le Mans that motor racing had become too quick too fast – safety standards had not developed at the same pace. Numerous nations banned circuit racing – in Switzerland, the embargo exists to this day. The fatal kink at Le Mans that had sent Levegh on his lethal trajectory was removed, and the grandstand was demolished and rebuilt. However, until the mid-1970s and the advent of Jackie Stewart’s trade union for drivers, the GPDA, safety improvements trickled through at a dreadful pace.

“The Le Mans crash affected me, as it did everybody, but me probably more so” recalled Fitch. He believed Hawthorn caused the accident, but he did not cause the tragedy.” Levegh’s accident, and the seeming fatal inevitability of such a crash, weighed on his mind. “I worried about it for years: how do you stop an errant vehicle from high speed in a very small space without killing the occupants?”

Fitch came to racing from an engineering background. Back then, drivers were far-removed from today’s ultra-pro baby racers, who are often placed in karts before they can walk, identified by temper tantrums on track and Instagram fun in press conferences. Yet, then as now, the rich kids dominated the scene, exemplified by Hawthorn, who always raced in a bow tie – the public school boy with failing kidneys, hard-driving, hard-drinking – determined to live life as quickly as possible, untied by responsibility. Others grew up with oil in their blood, coming from families of mechanics, engineers or vocational drivers. There were more women involved in the highest levels of motorsport then – Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score points in F1 (Austria 1975), learned to drive in Piedmont in her butcher father’s delivery van.

John Fitch was a bit of both. He had an ancestral engineering pedigree. His great-great grandfather John had invented the steamboat. His step-father ran a motoring company, and Fitch loved engineering from a young age. He served as a fighter pilot in the Second World War, and was shot down in 1945 (his own fault, he claimed), spending the rest of the war in a PoW camp. He loved to go fast, but not to the point of abandon. It’s life condensed,” he once said of racing. He was never interested in what speed he was going at, but instead in remaining in control at the limit for as long as he could hang on. That was the challenge he loved. The element of danger was of less interest to him.

His problem-solving brain sparked into life as soon as Levegh crashed. Helping the injured, demanding Mercedes withdraw, maintaining control at the limit of a most testing period. After the crash, he threw himself into developing vehicle safety standards, both in motor racing and on the streets – motivated by the memory of his team mate, of those who had died having come to watch them race, and the idea that any death behind the wheel is one too many.

In the 1960s he began working on the Fitch Inertial Barrier. These are unremarkable things, unassuming little yellow barrels filled with sand, usually found on American asphalt at highway exit points. He was inspired by the anti-strafe barrels he used to protect his tent from aerial fire during the war, and began by filling old liquor crates with various amounts of sand, before driving into them at 70mph.

fitch barrier testing

Testing the Fitch Barrier. Source: New York Times

Fitch’s self-described hero impulse, alongside his selflessness, led him to crash-test his invention himself, taking the risk for any design flaws upon his own shoulders. At the end of the decade the Fitch barrels were introduced onto US roads, and are now in use in every state. They are credited with saving over 17 000 lives, and saving over $400m-a-year – largely medical expenses.

Fitch continued to invent until his dying days. In motor racing, many drivers are killed due to basilar skull fractures, caused by a whiplash effect at the moment of impact, where the body is held in place by seatbelts, but the head is not. Many famous drivers met their end this way, notably Roland Ratzenberger and Dale Earnhardt (who infamously refused to wear the necessary protective gear). Fitch created the Full Driver Capsule, a full body system that aimed to prevent such deaths through holding both the head and the torso in place during a rapid deceleration. A similar contraption, the HANS device, is now mandatory in most major auto racing series.

After the “Weekend from Hell” in Imola, 1994, Fitch was creating again. Responding to the deaths of Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, Fitch designed and patented the Fitch Displaceable Guardrail, designed to capture and cushion a car on impact and absorb the energy of the collision, which would ensure a more controlled deceleration and avoid the car bouncing back across the circuit, as Lance Macklin’s Austin Healey had done all those years before.

Fitch barriers

Fitch Barriers. Source: Wikipedia

Fitch did not just stick to roads and circuits – his many inventions included a cervical spine traction device. His fifteen patents largely had one thing in common – they were responding to disasters, accidents and atrocities. After 9/11 he worked on the Fitch Survival Vehicle (never completed), which would theoretically enable escape from similar situations.

Incidents which disturbed him were transformed into opportunities to create something that might prevent or mitigate another occurrence. Regardless of whether a disaster was born of malice or cruel coincidence, Fitch believed that within engineering existed the tools for society to reduce the potential impact of future atrocities. Fitch’s efforts began in earnest after Le Mans 1955, but he himself saw his safety advocacy as rooted in his wartime experience. In Band of Brothers, Stephen Ambrose notes that so many of the US 101st Airborne, upon returning to the United States, worked in teaching or construction – jobs that create and provide. Likewise Fitch was motivated by dedicating his life to safety in response to the agony of war.

“I was a wartime bomber pilot and a fighter pilot and I was involved in some fatal events…this is a payback in a way.”

John Fitch died in 2012, aged 95, 57 years after his teammate Pierre Levegh had perished. It can be said that by the end his heroism was no longer an impulse, but a fitting description of a man who refused to be derailed by dark moments that threatened to envelop in despair all who lived through those days. A man who refused to let lives lost through disasters be lost in vain.

“May your strength give us strength.”