Hillsborough and the end of history

April 16, 2017 at 10:01 am (Civil liberties, class, Daily Mail, history, Murdoch, Robin Carmody, sport, tragedy)

Above: Anfield in the days following April 15, 1989 –  scarves left at the ground and draped on the Kop goal. Photo: Dave Sinclair.

By Robin Carmody

So here we have it, the first anniversary when there has not been an official memorial service at Anfield itself, and the first after some kind of victory, some kind of vindication, some kind of recognition that the years of struggle were not worthless, not fought in vain?

A few things spring to mind:

Douglas Hurd – who, had he been Prime Minister, certainly would have tried not to let Murdoch ride roughshod over the PSB tradition, however hard that would probably have become after a certain point – should be given some credit for his (squashed) insistence as Home Secretary, coming directly from the social conscience of his One Nation Tory tradition, that the government should embrace and endorse the wholeheartedly, unashamedly and unambiguously anti-police conclusions of Taylor’s interim report. Had Thatcher not stood in his way, a generation of lies could never have become institutionalised.

Might gridiron football be more widely played and followed in 2017 England than association football had it not happened? I’m not sure it’s entirely ASB (for “Alien Space Bats”, the term used in alternative history circles to refer to something wholly unbelievable and impossible in any remotely conceivable circumstances); as a child at the time I had just fallen for football in a big way, but I was a romantic looking outside my own time, my previous sporting passion had been horse racing, and I was obsessed with repeats of Look, Stranger and Follyfoot, Plenty of my He-Man and Thundercats-preferring contemporaries on the Thames Estuary did love the NFL on Channel 4, for all that it didn’t exist to me. And if that Polish shot had been slightly lower … no Blair, no Britpop, no Cameron and no Coldplay, and Florence Welch and Laura Marling ballerinas? It is well within the realms of possibility.

Let no-one pretend that the ancien regime of English football was remotely ideal, or in any way representative, or in any way democratic, or in any true sense “the people’s game”. It was no such thing. It was, in essence, a different kind of bad, a different kind of unrepresentative, undemocratic elitism. It represents the same story as many aspects of English life and capitalism, which went straight from small-time feudalism to billionaire plutocracy with scarcely any intervening period of being any good (compare, for example, the first incarnation of radio stations such as 2CR with the current Heart network, or the towns those stations tend to serve when virtually all foreign influence was shut out of them to the same towns monopolised by national or global brands; as bad as each other, just in wholly different ways). The 96 did not die for Murdoch and the Glazers. But they did not die for aldermen either.

Rather, they died for what we never had before and would have had to have wholly different politics in the decade leading up to Hillsborough to have after, that is to say the elusive dream of genuinely democratic control of “the people’s game” – which it never has truly been in any of its incarnations – actually by the people. There was, even in the context of Thatcherism, a decent chance of this happening after Hillsborough, because the plutocrats at that point saw the game as beneath them, “a slum game for slum people” to quote one particular Murdoch rag. Maybe if Gazza’s tears hadn’t happened, and the game hadn’t had a sudden boost in terms of bourgeois and broader social appeal, it could have done, because they still wouldn’t have cared and democratic ownership could have been the way out of what was very clearly the final straw, the last knock which had rendered the old edifices wholly unsustainable, for the old quasi-feudal structure of club ownership. Michael Knighton may have been trying to wake the sleeping giant in the sleeping giant of an industrial city which was being given new pop-cultural life, but there were other, better ideas which, again, were in no sense ASB or out of reach. One of the most melancholy pages in The Times’ digital archive – the first, only in some highly selective senses and from some equally selective perspectives the best (at any point in the paper’s history), but still the most widely available – is from September 1989, with much talk about fan power and fan involvement as the way ahead – the only way ahead – for football in the 1990s. But on the same page, we have the paper’s owner, at that stage talking only about his hopes to buy cricket rights. At that point, football was still for prole scum as far as he was concerned – that Sun front page showed how much he cared about the people who had given him a British foothold and made him rich in the first place – and so there was still hope for the rest of us. But then …

Let us look back rather sadly on the situation described in David Stubbs’ book 1996 and the End of History, where there was vague hope – hope, as we now know, built on grains of sand and seats of clay – that the decay of both English football and British politics, both of which could arguably be traced to the same week in June 1970 (c.f. the “permanent Butskellism” counterfactual in the Nick Hancock & Chris England book published in that era, far removed from the better-known quasi-fascist dystopia with the same starting point), could be reversed through a closely interrelated purpose. Let us reflect with deep melancholy – especially if we’re my age, even if we were always one step out of everything – on the fact that the first huge wave of mainland European influence on English football at that moment was seen as a means of shoring up our position in the EU, and quite possibly the euro itself, for good.

Let no-one pretend that Brexit can be progressive for English football, for the reasons given above. The old isolation was every bit as bad, in a different way, as the present situation. Let no-one attempt to bring it back, while (in common with Brexit as a whole) leaving the true exploiters untouched.

And let us recall again these words of Keith Waterhouse, arguably his single best column after his Faustian pact with the Harmsworths (the results of which have left much of his best work in limbo among young liberal types in the UK who would otherwise respect and admire it, and I’m working on the assumption that most readers of this blog who were adult by 1989 would not have seen it unless they glanced at Tory relatives’ newspapers, relatively mild and restrained in tone compared to now though the Mail still was); let us praise and celebrate the fact that fans are now, as he rightly believed they always should have been, treated as people and not as prole scum and cattle, let us acknowledge the gains he called for which have been won, but let us mourn the fact that they were not deeper and more profound in other, harder to reach under the present economic system, senses. Let us, in particular, acknowledge its progressive status compared to much else which appeared in that part of the press, by no means just The Sun. And let us keep it in our minds, as proof that a great humanitarian – for all his latterday moans about “Brussels bureaucracy” and the like – never quite (see his sheer joy at Obama’s election, in his last year of life, for proof of this) lost the qualities which had once, in less divided times, made him so revered.

Thanks, of course, are due to the Gale Group for digitising the Mail (particularly valuable if you want to see the “middle class fightback” of the 1970s, stealing Labour’s tactics against it, in action, in a paper which had been seen, like that class itself, as in an inexorable decline) and to the British Library for allowing me to print it. The microfilms would still have been there, but for the generation coming through now, who need to know how they got where they are and how they might want to get out of it, they are acquiring the status of papyrus. Those with access to UK Press Online are urged to track down his post-Heysel column from 3rd June 1985, still in the Daily Mirror at that point, which reveals many of the fractures which had emerged on the Left; while he ends with vicious, fervent condemnation of unemployment, the poverty trap and Thatcherism, many of the things he identifies as elements of social decay were now supported and seen as non-negotiable forces to be championed by the post-68 Left in England (although, very importantly, not in Scotland) and they give some idea of how he would, effectively, call their bluff a year later. But coming out on the other side, here it is (and please don’t be offended by the use of “soccer”, the dominant form in most newspapers until comparatively recently and, while always more common among the middle class in the UK, reflecting its origins within private schools and universities, definitely not a US-originated term as many now think):

After Black Saturday

Keith Waterhouse

Daily Mail, Monday 17th April 1989

IF I SUGGEST that some good may come out of the deadly shambles that was Hillsborough, I am not thinking of such safety improvements as may be triggered off, or not, by those oft-repeated shibboleths, “Lessons must be learned”, “It must never happen again” and “these are all issues which have to be very closely examined”.

Similar resolutions were made after Heysel and Bradford but what must never happen again has happened again – with the supposed safety improvements being a factor in the cause of the disaster.

To most observers on the touchline of this tragedy it seems blazingly obvious that football is a spectator sport in the control of fools. In the fullness of time the inquiries and inquests will doubtless couch this verdict in more seemly language. And there will be recommendations effectively suggesting that the fools might, with the benefit of hindsight, acquire a somewhat higher IQ.

But the good that may come out of the disaster will not arise out of the implementation of belated recommendations. Good is not implemented. It implements itself. It did so at that abandoned FA Cup semi-final.

Like many other by now shame-faced listeners, I would guess, my first reaction to the initial newsflash on the radio was a sigh of, “Oh God, here we go, here we go, Liverpool again!” By the end of a long grim day I had regained a good deal of the respect for Liverpool in particular and soccer fans in general that had seeped away over the violence-besplattered years.

Mismanagement, not misbehaviour, was to blame for Hillsborough. That much was quickly apparent. But more than that: we saw the fans in a new light – and it was the light of respect.

We saw Liverpool supporters resourcefully acting as stretcher bearers for their stricken mates, quickly organising themselves into makeshift St John Ambulance teams and using advertisement placards to convey the injured. They didn’t learn that kind of initiative on their YOP schemes.

We saw the taunts die on the lips of Nottingham Forest fans as they realised this was no mere riot. As the dead were carried off they accorded their rivals the decency of silence.

We saw Everton fans returning home jubilant from their semi-final triumph over Norwich, only to be shocked and subdued by the news and to put away their scarves and rosettes as a gesture of respect.

We saw stunned Liverpool survivors who had lost friends or relatives returning to the ground clutching posies of flowers which they hung reverentially on the spiked railings.

THIS was the eye-opener. They looked like soccer louts and they dressed like soccer louts and doubtless in less sombre circumstances there were those among them who would have behaved like soccer louts, yet they returned carrying not bottles and beer cans but flowers.

The proposition that inside every soccer hooligan is a decent young man trying to get out may be too saccharine-sweet a pill for our present administration to swallow, and indeed it may be a wild overstatement. But Parliament, before leaping on Hillsborough as hell-sent support for the Football Spectators Bill, would do well to take pause and consider that these are human beings and not animals they are dealing with.

The sole function of soccer identity cards, it seems to me, is to degrade and humiliate the fans even further than they are degraded and humiliated already by being prodded and herded into cattle pens. Had ID cards been required at Saturday’s semi-final their only use, in the opinion of the Liverpool doctor who took upon himself the duty of declaring the victims dead, would have been to identify the bodies. Otherwise they could have led to a crush outside the ground as terrible and fatal as the one within it.

BUT I am not about to go into the ins and outs of identity cards, inadequate organisation, allocation of tickets, crowd control, cages, crush barriers, or the insensitivity of Football Association chairman Bert Millichip who, when asked whether the Cup Final would be cancelled, replied: “Life does have to go on”. Not for the dead Liverpool fans, it doesn’t.

No: I simply say that when these matters are weighed and considered, it must be in the realisation that all concerned with football safety, from the Government down, have gone badly wrong in regarding soccer fans as a species of sub-humans with a level of intelligence even lower than that of some soccer administrators.

Received opinion, or anyway the received opinion of those who spend most of their waking hours dreaming up new and ever more futile schemes for curbing soccer violence, is that if the fans behave like animals then they must expect to be treated like animals. Yet when they are treated so much like animals that their lives are put in peril and many of their lives are lost, then they behave not like animals but like responsible human beings. There is a valuable lesson there. Will anyone in authority learn from it?

At the risk of waxing sentimental I will stick my neck out and repeat myself. Inside every soccer lout there is a decent young man trying to get out. That is the good that may emerge from Hillsborough’s black Saturday.

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Falklands: “that bloody war” 35 years on

April 2, 2017 at 11:09 am (fascism, history, imperialism, nationalism, Robin Carmody, war)

Image result for picture Falklands War Belgrano

Above: The Sun cheers the deaths of 323 Argentine conscripts

By Robin Carmody

The thing about the phrase “that bloody war” – as a pejorative for a major war, which reshaped your country’s political norms and assumptions, viewed at medium distance – is that, by definition, it can only ever be used by those who have been in abeyance and who lost out as a result of it. The other side will regard it as “the good war”, their war, the war of which they, rather than the country as a whole, were the highly subjective victors.

Anyone brought up after the 1980s with little historical foreknowledge could be forgiven for thinking that there was always a universal, cross-class consensus that the Second World War was the ultimate “good war”. Not so. The working class, its great domestic victors, always viewed it that way, but landed, aristocratic and anciently-established interests – the demographic which, crucially, was extended further down to attract an only recently socially arrived, petit-bourgeois audience by David English, Nigel Dempster and Lynda Lee-Potter at a time of great perceived internal crisis for their interests, when they knew the upper class could not retake control by itself and needed new footsoldiers who didn’t have the money but did have the ambitions – viewed it for many years afterwards as “that bloody war”, cursed its impact and legacy. All the evidence that we were fighting bona fide fascism as never before in our history failed to sway them (and I’m not immune from a much smaller-scale version of the same thing; while not pretending that there would have been another Holocaust or industrial genocide, I do not dispute that the junta was objectively fascist), and not just because it exposed dark skeletons in their own family closets (and some of that was simply a mournful, melancholy wish to retain the old Anglo-German friendship, on which matter I would have sympathised with them in almost any circumstances but those) but because, even if Britain had only been on the winning side rather than the real winner, their class could not even claim that. The Second World War, its social gains for Britain’s poor neutralised, reversed and abandoned, has long since become a safe, cosy “good war” for the ruling class, but let no-one tell you that it was always such a thing.

The very fact that no-one now – except possibly Peter Hitchens (who only quite recently embraced a revisionist stance on the matter), only he’d regard the language as beneath him – calls the Second World War “that bloody war” does not, in fact, reflect well on the British politics of my lifetime. Had the position of the previous 35 years been maintained, they would have to view it as such, could not pretend that it was – as it never was in its own time – their war.

And so, inevitably, to my own usage of the term. There is, I’ll admit, scarcely a day that goes past when I don’t curse “that bloody war”, the one now 35 years away, close to the time that had lapsed then since 1945, and – as a setting up of a political consensus perceived as beyond question or dispute (this is why I cannot be as concerned about the removal of the broadcasting fig leaves insisted on by the ruling elite of 1990 as others are; it is much deeper issues that concern me) – 1945’s utter nemesis, a revenge for 1945. (I also happen to live somewhere which played a major role in both.) In that respect, at least in terms of language, I am in a similar position to the first young fogeys (not then so named; that had to wait) who raged in the 1970s about what had happened in their lifetime but scarcely, if at all, their direct recollections, and had as they saw it denied them the world they felt they deserved (of these, Auberon Waugh is by far the most defensible, mainly because he mutated after the fact into every bit as strong an opponent of ignorance and greed falsely sold in the name of “Conservatism”). That is the story of our times. Where once it was the squires in the country houses who would curse “that bloody war” of recent history, now it is the socialists, the romantics, the idealists, above all others the Europeans. Where once it was those who worshipped inequality, saw it as God’s will, who used that pejorative, now it is those who believe most passionately in equality. Where once it was the supporters of letting everything fall into place – by definition, a luxury for the already privileged – who used that phrase, now it is the supporters of logic and organisation.

I do not deny that, even if it was a much less severe and extreme version than that one, our “bloody war” of now, like their “bloody war” of then, was fought against fascism. That’s mainly what makes it so painful. But while a clearer and more direct path may begin only when Brian May stood on the roof of Buckingham Palace – in that other year, 20 years on, marked by a reactionary nationalist tide between April and June – the road to Brexit does, ultimately, begin at Goose Green. If you dispute me, consider – however much you may not regard them as “yours” – the SDP and the Tory wets, the two most pro-European factions in British politics, who stood throughout “that bloody war”, overwhelmingly stronger than the actual government immediately beforehand and waiting for a decisive victory had Britain lost. Or, as “we” will now say as assuredly as the squires and feudal lords once said of the 1939-45 war – only “we” know that we are saying it from an entirely different starting point and reasoning, as defensible as theirs was indefensible – if, in losing, it had won.

Consider that the precise equivalent today of saying, as Auberon Waugh did in 1972, that “West Countrymen never shared the general enthusiasm for World War II”, would be to say that Mancunians and Liverpudlians never shared the general enthusiasm for the Falklands War. And think on.

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Julian Assange as Mick Jagger …

January 26, 2017 at 8:48 pm (culture, Guest post, left, libertarianism, populism, Robin Carmody, strange situations, Trump)

Image result for picture Julian Assange rock star
Above: Assange as a different rock star …

Guest post by Robin Carmody

There’s a long history of Libertarian Rightists being mistaken for Leftists because of the huge culture gap between them and mainstream conservatives.  This was especially marked before Thatcherism had done its work, when there was a much greater frowning upon brashness and vulgarity, openly showing that you were capitalist, on the English Right (the ancien régime of Arsenal FC always seemed to embody this, with the at least implicit anti-Semitism built into it, especially in the context of their rivalry with the more raffish Tottenham) and before a deeper generational shift, and the effects of things like the Golden Jubilee and James Blunt, had seamlessly merged pop music and pop culture generally into the Tory Interpretation of History.

The best example of this – at least until now – was Mick Jagger, whose essential Toryism was not widely recognised at the time (other than, famously, by a prescient William Rees-Mogg) because he obviously stood outside the cultural shibboleths of Conservatism as it was then, and also because his Libertarian Right worldview and outlook was at its most – ha ha ha – exiled from mainstream in British history, at a time when the dominant strain of the Tory party accepted the role of the state in certain parts of the economy in a manner wholly unthinkable in earlier and later periods (in retrospect, we can clearly see that the state was easily the best way of strengthening in adversity those very cultural shibboleths, whose final abandonment by mainstream Conservatism in the 2000s helped it back to what may be an indefinite period of power).  Ignorant of what it might represent, through their very unfamiliarity with what had become an extremely marginal and fringe position in British life during and after the Second World War, certain idealistic Leftists of the late 1960s – arguably unaware of how good they actually had it – imposed their own views on Jagger, saw him as a symbol of what they themselves believed in, in a way which feels like the ultimate example of Getting the Future Wrong, the single greatest concentration of this misconception being Richard Gott’s rapturous Guardian eulogy to the Stones’ 1969 performance in Hyde Park (“taking place in a Socialist society in the distant future“, indeed!).

As we reflect on Wikileaks’ intervention in the US presidential election blatantly on Trump’s side (will the mistaken typing of “legitimate” for “illegitimate” by an aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign prove to be the biggest butterfly effect of all time?)*, and on the joyous enthusiasm for its founder by several Trump groupies, can we possibly dispute that Julian Assange is, in every possible way and in every last detail, the same thing all over again, a Libertarian Rightist initially mistaken for a Leftist by those who did not understand the position?  Only in this case, of course, with the position being so much more relatively mainstream and having influenced so much more of the wider society than in the 1960s, they had much less excuse.

*Correction, I think: it should be “prove to be the biggest butterfly effect *of recent history*”, because even I don’t think it could be comparable to things like the absence of fog which might have enabled Hitler to be killed in 1939, etc.

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George Michael and the subjectivity of conservative socialism

December 30, 2016 at 9:10 am (celebrity, culture, Human rights, LGBT, music, Robin Carmody, socialism)


Above: George Michael comes out on CNN, 1997

By Robin Carmody

What we have found out about George Michael since his death – which, out of sheer modesty and desire to avoid publicity as much as he could, he largely kept quiet when alive – confirms that, certainly by comparison to everyone else who achieved exceptional wealth by those means at that time, he lived his life by redistributive socialist principles. It confirms his essential decency and separation from the world in which he found himself, hailed by some for the wrong reasons, dismissed by others (his most natural allies) for the same, equally wrong reasons.

And this is part of the reason why he seemed such a tragic figure, caught and trapped between two worlds, the world he might theoretically have wanted to live in (but which he knew would never have accepted him, not least because – Roy Jenkins and Leo Abse’s great work notwithstanding – of his sexuality which had to remain hidden for so long) and the world in which he made his fortune but which he knew instinctively to be empty, hollow, lacking in unifying soul. But he also knew – as I do – that he was an inherent outsider who could find no place within any notional unifying soul. So he had no option but to take himself out of things, out of the world entirely; he spoke of, and for, a moment at which and a people for whom neither the past nor the future seemed particularly promising or enticing. How could a gay man, successful in global pop in the age of AIDS and the simultaneous waves of deregulated capitalism and reignited fear and puritanism, with an atavistic feeling for socialist community have felt otherwise?

(It would be interesting, by the way, to find any latterday quotes from him about the effect of pop on non-Western cultures and societies, considering his central role just as it was beginning when Wham! broke new ground by performing in China in 1985; it would seem likely that his view would have been similar to his view of his own country, doubtful and unsure of the full implications of that uncontrollable wave but simultaneously aware that there had been a lot of narrowness and insularity before that deserved to be swept away; very similar, in fact, to the view the 1986 NME – to which he spoke, sensitively and thoughtfully, on related matters, in an interview available on Rock’s Backpages – largely took of nascent deregulated broadcasting, namely a plague on both Reithian and Murdochian houses.)

By the time of his initial success, those who would not accept him as a socialist had embraced the Beatles as heroes and icons of a socialist idyll and golden age. They did not know, yet, that the later revisiting of that era during the Blair ascendancy (during which George Michael actually reached his commercial pinnacle in his home country, which many had seen as impossible for him, again no doubt because his image had blinded them to his true politics, as if the Gallagher brothers – and yes, I know and understand and respect what Alex Niven thinks they could have been – ever really gave back) would be a smokescreen for the institutionalisation, without any real public call for it in the immediately preceding period, of Thatcherism. But even before that, they gave the public impression that they had always been pro-Beatles, and that certain inconvenient truths – that the colonel who returned twelve medals in protest at their MBEs in 1965 supported Labour, for a start, and let’s not even mention the Marine Offences Act – had never applied.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who disputed George Michael’s socialism in his heyday, as they dispute the even putative or potential socialism of even some of the music generally associated with the BBC’s 1Xtra station today, had been equally dismissive of the Beatles’ claim to represent any kind of socialism, saw them simply as capitalist useful idiots, false consciousness, a betrayal of the noble struggle to inauthentic candyfloss culture. I do, in fact, think that those people were right to dismiss the Rolling Stones. But pop has never begun and ended at Home Counties grammar schools and the LSE. And if you put Flambards and Upstairs, Downstairs – which were seen as on the right of British TV drama at the time of their production – next to their notional equivalents today, they seem like a Trevor Griffiths Play for Today. The same applies to Follyfoot and to the historical adventure series that Richard Carpenter, Paul Knight & Sidney Cole made. And it applies even more so to George Michael when set alongside, say, the Middle England credentials of Clean Bandit, the umpteenth-week chart-toppers at the moment his heart gave out (this does not, of course, mean that the working class are always right or always trustworthy – if High Wycombe & Guildford were more progressive, even if by mistake and by default, than Sheffield & Bradford over the EU so it must be, and it certainly doesn’t make Brexit progressive or the EU “a capitalist club” – but through his long slow fade and internal exile, George Michael’s position certainly came to seem more progressive when the openly and actively Cameronite likes of Keane & James Blunt appeared).

If they could get two generations of pop, and much else, so wrong, how can or should we trust anything these people – still lingering on, indeed enjoying something of a (chiefly Scottish-inspired; it is true that the Scottish equivalents of Paul Johnson & Keith Waterhouse did stay on the Left, but in a country many times the size and with far more diversity that would always have been harder) revival – say, any judgements or assumptions they make?

Or did it in fact come from something much deeper and more fearful? Was it, in George Michael’s case, an expression of plain racism – in the sense that anti-black racism is also directed at white people, often the very same ones attacked by black cultural purists – and homophobia? They have shown themselves guilty on those fronts on many other occasions, after all.

At any rate, we have lost someone whose personal tragedy and eclipse very well represents what has tended to happen to socialism when it has played the pop game, as it did in his case every bit as much as it did with any “approved” NME crossover acts, and certainly far more so than it did with any of those around 2006, the last time there were a lot of them. The question is: does it have to be that way?

I hope not. But to invoke 1996 again, who will be next to spin that wheel for us?

After all, to take us back to 1983, nothing looks the same in the light.

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