ROBBERY WITH VIOLENCE

In the absence of any volunteers to blow it on my behalf, I again raise my own trumpet and embark upon a tune. It’s a familiar melody, one that I’ve played many times before here; but it’s my party and I’ll blow my own trumpet if I want to. Anyway, the fact that publishing houses have closed their doors along with all other businesses happily doesn’t stifle the creative or publishing process for the independent artist; and knowing one’s endeavours will be available to anyone interested within weeks of the last word hitting the page is a nice benefit of being ignored by the mainstream industry. The removal of alternatives courtesy of Covid-19 has had one personal positive for your humble narrator in that it has channelled 99% of my energies into my art, and it has certainly proven to be the next best thing to compensation. I’ve written and published (via Amazon) three books this year so far – my first collection of short stories; my fifth collection of poetry; and my first book on a facet of pop culture I’ve previously written about on here but never before in book form.

The fact that all three books are completely different – fiction, verse and non-fiction – not only reflects my restlessness and reluctance to repeat myself, but that I was able to have them on sale ASAP also highlights one of the bonuses of not being dependent on the lumbering monolith of the publishing industry. In fact, were I signed up to one of those prestigious houses, I have a feeling I’d currently be promoting something I wrote over a year ago instead of something I finished a month ago. The disadvantage to self-publishing, as ever, is the limited means by which the writer can alert the world to his work; I don’t get reviewed in the press, on the radio or on TV, and I’m not bombarded with requests for interviews or invites to literary festivals; and, of course, I sell very few copies, which means I make very little money. But, hell, at least the work is out there and it’s ‘Instant Karma’, as it were.

I appreciate my prolific work-rate might give the impression I’m something of a hack, but the reason I can write so much in such a short space of time is simple: I haven’t got anything else going on in my life. That has never been truer since March; accustomed as I am to necessary isolation, the sudden absence of the usual periodic (and welcome) breaks from it has meant there haven’t been any distractions; no excuse not to work when there ain’t nothing else is why this year has seen me maintain my work-rate without breaking sweat. Yes, there have been times when I’ve wondered if all this flows out of me because I’ve not got long left and it’s a subconscious way of leaving the only legacy behind me I can; but I guess morbid thoughts have room to breathe when one goes months without speaking to another human being in person. Anyway, I’m pretty sure now the same fate that awaited the likes of Van Gogh and Nick Drake is to be my probable destiny – if I’m lucky. We shall see. And, even if I don’t get to enjoy the material fruits of my labour, at least I haven’t wasted all my life; plenty do.

The latest title to be added to ‘Solitaire’ (the short stories) and ‘Year Zero’ (the poetry) is called ‘No Place for Boys’; it’s a non-partisan celebration of a pop cultural event that took place fifty years ago this year, the 1970 FA Cup Final. Now, this just wasn’t yer average game of football. I place the event in the context of other things that happened to be happening around the same time. For example, the day before the game, news broke that The Beatles had split; pretty big news story. The same day as the game, Apollo 13 launched; again, pretty big news story. And between these two stories, another unfolded at the old Empire Stadium, Wembley. Yes, one could argue the same story had unfolded there every year once a year since 1923; but 1970 was different.

Thanks to the impact of George Best, the national game was undergoing something of a facelift at the beginning of the 1970s. The traditional followers of the sport, whose Saturdays were devoted to forking out five bob to pass through the turnstiles and huddle together on the terraces, had been confronted by a challenge to the short-back-and-sides hegemony as 60s pop culture began to infiltrate the last bastion of old-school masculinity. Increased television coverage and the influence of the Belfast Boy had a particular impact on one football club situated in the epicentre of Swinging London, Chelsea FC; with Stamford Bridge a stone’s throw from the hip boutiques lining the King’s Road, it was no real surprise the team should embody the spirit of their neighbourhood. They played an especially attractive and flamboyant form of football that contrasted sharply with a club that had competed with them in particularly combative fashion over the previous five years, Don Revie’s Leeds United.

When both sides reached the FA Cup Final that year, it felt like the footballing equivalent of the Battle of Waterloo, the deciding clash of two rival powers. Yet to slip into clichéd stereotypes of Hard Northerners Vs Flash Cockneys is to overlook how well-matched Leeds and Chelsea were; the London boys could be as ruthlessly brutal as the Yorkshiremen on the pitch, whereas Leeds could be as creatively attacking as Chelsea. It made for a fascinating encounter, and the Final at Wembley has rightly gone down as a classic, even if it was played on a surface reminiscent of Aintree the day after the Grand National. At the end of 90 minutes, the score was stuck at 2-2, and the sides couldn’t be separated after extra-time. Never before had an FA Cup Final at Wembley had to go to a Replay, but it did in 1970. The end of the season that year had been brought forward to accommodate England’s preparations for the World Cup in Mexico; with a congested schedule of League and European campaigns to conclude the pair had to wait two and-a-half weeks before they met again, this time up at Old Trafford.

The delay built up anticipation on the part of the public for the rematch, and when it eventually came round over 28 million viewers watched on TV. It remains the fifth most-viewed programme in British television history, and the only football match to have attracted a larger audience was the 1966 World Cup Final. The game itself was officiated by a retiring referee who allowed play to run unimpeded by interference on his part; as a result, the viewers were witness to a remarkably uncensored exercise in physical play as five years of intense rivalry culminated in a memorably visceral 120 minutes of football unlike any seen before or since. The title of the book is lifted from the BBC commentary of Kenneth Wolstenholme; confronted by the carnage on the Old Trafford battlefield, he declared it was ‘no place for boys’. In the end, Chelsea eventually beat an exhausted Leeds (playing their 62nd game of the season) 2-1.

The way in which the two-legged battle between Leeds and Chelsea captured the attention of the nation transcended the normal level of attention the game attracted and helped cement the sport’s union with the zeitgeist for the first half of the 70s – until the scourge of hooliganism forced the wider public to fall out of love with it for a good decade or more. Of course, 1970 is a million miles from 2020 in many ways, not least football. What my book hopefully does is show how the Leeds and Chelsea players of 1970, for all their differences, had far more in common with each other (and their respective supporters) than they do with the tattooed millionaires playing to the prawn sandwich brigade of today. I’ve tried to tell the story of 1970 in a way that might even appeal to those who wouldn’t regard themselves as football followers but who maybe find that era in British pop culture intriguing and interesting. I believe I’ve succeeding in doing so, but as I am the one blowing the trumpet, I would, wouldn’t I? If I’ve piqued your curiosity, check out the trailer…

No Place for Boys Trailer from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08F6QNP21

© The Editor

UNFUNNY BUSINESS

It must be a relief being Ricky Gervais, still able to express a ‘controversial’ opinion yet be insulated from cancel culture by wealth; wealth is the one thing that can save you – so what’s new? JK Rowling may have become a recent target, but when a handful of anonymous authors sharing her publisher threatened to walk unless the Harry Potter scribe was dismissed, the publisher unsurprisingly stuck with their cash cow. The fact Rowling is a profitable industry in her own right spared her the fate awaiting those bereft of such a safety net, the less fortunate upon whom the pitchfork mob descends. No wonder so few dare speak out; there’s too much at stake – livelihoods to lose, hungry mouths to feed. Harder to sympathise with those who are in a position to stand up to the bullies but bottle it. They have no excuse.

Halle Berry, for example; she went for a part where she played a ‘trans’ character – cue outrage and then shameful withdrawal; cue grovelling, cardboard sign-slung-around-the-neck/hands-behind-back/please-forgive-me-my-sins apology before the Red Guard of Twitter. She’s a ‘Woman of Colour’, FFS; surely that itself should render her immune? Not so – the positions of competitors on the Oppression Olympics league table change on a virtually hourly basis, and one can’t expect a 53-year-old to keep up. Take this to the logical conclusion and picture reopened theatres staging a run of ‘Romeo and Juliet’; every night of the run features different actors playing the leads on account of them having to commit suicide for real in the final act. It wouldn’t happen, naturally, because acting is pretending, innit – like being a real woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Shakespeare did that kind of thing a lot, and all the girls were played by guys first time round.

Ricky Gervais this week admitted ‘The Office’ wouldn’t be commissioned by the BBC today. Imagine any genuinely funny BBC series of the past that would be, though. David Brent as a character was drawn from the real world; anyone who had ever worked in an office environment had met a David Brent, just as anyone who had ever done time had met a Norman Stanley Fletcher and a Mr Mackay – or anyone who had been in the Home Guard during WWII had met a Captain Mainwaring and a Corporal Jones. All the best sitcoms ever made drew from the real world. Even a character as mad as Basil Fawlty was famously based upon a genuine Torquay hotelier whose outrageous behaviour had captured John Cleese’s imagination when the Pythons had stayed at his hotel during location filming.

But the real world is no longer the basis of comedy produced by the BBC because the people making today’s excuse for it don’t live in the real world. They live in the Woke parallel universe they imagine is the real world because every member of their clique lives in it too. They’ve yet to twig that they inhabit a little bubble that the actual real world beyond it looks at with a shake of the head and utter bemusement. ‘Woke comedy’ is a misnomer because Woke is ultimately humourless. It can no more be funny than Matt Hancock can be taken seriously. Yet it continues to be thrust upon a viewing public whilst the comedy the viewing public actually finds funny is branded as beyond the pale; if it makes people laugh, it’s evidently problematic and therefore the audience has to be re-educated and its source of laughter denounced.

Somebody made the point recently that the BBC almost appears to be committing suicide rather than waiting for a Government to put it out of its misery. It certainly seems to be bending over backwards to destroy what remaining shreds of affection the public still have for it. The Antifa/BLM riot in Central London described as a ‘largely peaceful protest’; the now-deleted video in which a couple of posh white Woke women informed their pleb sisters how racist they all were (the so-called ‘Karens’ lesson); recruiting a drag queen to dispense advice to parents on how to educate their children on LGBTXYZ issues; playing down any Islamic angle of a terrorist incident whilst simultaneously bigging up a ‘Far Right’ angle; Emily Maitlis’ address to the nation on what it should think about Dominic Cummings; announcing £1000s to be spent on even more ‘BAME programming’ whilst axing regional output that people (AKA bigoted racists) actually watch – and that’s not even mentioning the relentless Identity Politics propaganda that has infected so much of the Radio 4 daytime output. Alas, this is what happens when the gene pool from which the BBC draws its employees is so narrow as to be practically incestuous. Auntie doesn’t so much need to be defunded as completely fumigated.

The dire ‘comedy’ output from the Woke fun factory rightly dies on its arse, but the approach has been different in other areas. Creatively bankrupt because it has nothing other than its Identitarian ideology, Woke has been unable to devise its own sci-fi or fantasy franchises and perhaps sensed all would be expensive failures if it tried; therefore, it took control of the existing ones – the superhero genre, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Doctor Who’ – because it knew there was a devoted audience who would devour all product regardless. The fact that these franchises have swiftly turned to shit once touched by Woke has resulted in the devoted audience quickly realising it is regarded with utter contempt and then rapidly deserting its beloved franchises in droves; these movies bomb at the box-office and these TV shows provoke plummeting viewing figures. Woke has drained the fun from all of them because it’s a fun-sucking parasite, yet the problem is with the audience, apparently.

Personally, I don’t give a shit if you’re male, female, black, white, gay or straight – what matters is a) Are you a good person? b) Are you good company? and c) Have you got something original and interesting to say? Promoting poisonous dogma that pits people against each other and groups us all in boxes based on irrelevancies like race, sexuality and gender is an effective way to divide and rule under the guise of ‘diversity’ (another misnomer); but some of us are averse to being segregated by minor aspects of our personas that have no bearing on the people we happen to be, so this cancerous critical race theory-inspired groupthink has to be resisted. It’s hard, though, when it controls so many of the platforms that facilitate social interaction.

Whilst reluctant to venture into conspiracy theory territory, I can’t help but wonder if a certain virus was conceived to complete the control process. The post-lockdown excuse for a life is one in which our every move is monitored and regulated with the kind of Project Fear efficiency Stalin would have enthusiastically endorsed – from mandatory mask-wearing in public to social distancing, from providing bank details if buying a drink to limiting the amount of people we can meet and mingle with; the compliant comply whilst we who instinctively resist are quietly losing our marbles behind closed doors. And I think to myself…what a horrible world.

JACK CHARLTON (1935-2020)

Ah, Big Jack. 23 years at Leeds United, over 700 appearances for his only club, England debutante at 30, World Cup winner, the most successful manager of the Republic of Ireland ever, and not averse to the odd fag before a game – blunt and opinionated, but passionate and committed; a man from a different and superior era. I got his autograph when I was a kid, holding his pint of Guinness as he signed my match-day programme. He seemed huge, like a Geordie giraffe. At the time, he had already retired from playing and had a show on TV where he coached kids without the use of cotton wool; he shouted at them like they were fully-grown professional footballers; no doubt today their parents would sue Charlton for not telling their precious little babies they were all winners. Big Jack would never have taken the knee; he’d have taken out a few players with his knee, though. RIP.

© The Editor

ONCE BITTEN, NEVER FORGOTTEN

Some line-ups seem to just roll off the tongue like they were meant to be. John, Paul, George and Ringo is perhaps one of the most obvious; then there’s the Trumpton Fire Brigade; perhaps a certain running order of nautical locations on the Shipping Forecast; and how about Sprake, Madeley, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles and Gray. Anyone of a certain age or raised in a specific geographical region will instantly recognise the starting (and finishing) eleven of the Leeds United side that played in the legendary two-match clash of the titans with Chelsea in the 1970 FA Cup Final. Three of that Leeds team – goalkeeper Gary Sprake, versatile ‘utility man’ Paul Madeley, and ginger midfield dynamo Billy Bremner – had already passed away before the death today was announced of defender Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter, coincidentally just a few days after Chelsea’s keeper from that bruising encounter, Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti, also left the pitch.

It’s easy to forget that the young players constituting a football team which made such a sizeable cultural impact and still carries an air of immortality about it bestrode an era that is now half-a-century ago. The odd ingenious purchase aside, most members of that team had come up through the Elland Road youth ranks together in the early 60s; but the survivors are now old men whose loss of pace courtesy of natural causes is often exacerbated by the scars of the more physical game they played in the 1960s and 70s. Leeds United under Don Revie had something of ‘a reputation’ when it came to the physical game; but let us not pretend this was unique to Leeds or to Norman Hunter. After all, Liverpool had Tommy Smith and Chelsea – despite being ‘Soft Southerners’ (joke) – had one of football’s most lethal hatchet men, Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. Some players from that time retrospectively sound like characters from a war comic, but in an age in which heroes were largely home-made, they were indeed larger-than-life – or as large as Captain Hurricane.

Purely by coincidence, I downloaded both the FA Cup Final and its notoriously combative replay of 1970 from YouTube earlier in the week with a view to watching them in full at some point over the weekend. Back when live football on TV was restricted to three fixtures a season – yes, a season! – the unprecedented rematch between two teams of such contrasting styles following a 2-2 draw at Wembley was an unexpected bonus for armchair supporters when Leeds and Chelsea met again at Old Trafford for the decider. 28 million viewers tuned in – which remains a record for the competition and places the broadcast at No.5 in the roll-call of most-watched programmes in the history of British television. April 1970 was a good month for Event TV, mind; one place above the game in question on the all-time list is the dramatic splashdown of Apollo 13, which took place less than two weeks earlier.

With England’s ultimately doomed defence of the World Cup scheduled for the intolerable climate of Mexico in June, the players could have done without two energy-sapping matches lasting 120 minutes each; but the tough game they played back then bred tough men capable of fulfilling a fixture list that could total well over fifty games a season. Indeed, the league programme consisted of 42, whilst Leeds had also progressed to the semi-final of the European Cup as well as hoping to get their hands on the FA Cup. Both they and Chelsea had never won the trophy at this point – each suffering defeats in the Final over the previous five years – and coming away from the Wembley mud-bath to go through it all again was a prospect that resulted in the boiling-over of long-standing enmities between the two sides. A contemporary referee viewing the replay in 1997 concluded modern rules of the game would have led to the awarding of six red cards.

In the end, nobody was sent off and it was the men from the King’s Road that walked away with the cup; Leeds had to wait another couple of years before they finally lifted the trophy with a line-up that included just two changes from 1970. In the brick wall of a defensive partnership he formed with Jack Charlton for a decade, Norman Hunter’s job was to prevent anyone getting past that wall with the unforgiving efficiency of an armed sentry in East Berlin. However, as with the likes of Liverpool’s Smith and Chelsea’s Chopper, to assume the Gateshead-born hard-man was a one-trick pony would be a mistake. All three had long careers that being limited to a solitary skill on the pitch wouldn’t have facilitated. Hunter played over 700 games for Leeds in all competitions from 1962-76 and played over a hundred more for Bristol City. He was also capped 28 times for England – a member of the 1966 World Cup squad – though spent the majority of his England tenure as underused understudy to Bobby Moore.

Norman Hunter followed the familiar route into management following retirement, though he later followed an equally familiar route by becoming a match summariser when his former team were covered on local radio. Although two of the moments on the pitch Hunter would no doubt have preferred to forget are bound to be resurrected for his obituaries – his misjudged tackle that enabled Poland to score and thus deny England World Cup qualification in 1973, and his punch-up with Francis Lee when tempers flared during a Leeds game with Derby in 1975 – neither incident sums-up a man whose playing career spanned twenty years. But the early 60s to the early 80s was not like the early noughties to now in footballing terms. Football doesn’t make men like that anymore because the game isn’t like that anymore.

Hunter had been hospitalised with the coronavirus last week and his name at the age of 76 has been added to the list of famous faces from the past to have died with Covid-19 in their bloodstream. Whether or not it was the virus that killed them will perhaps remain as debatable as all the other deaths attributed to it. Information seems as mixed as ever a month into a lockdown we are informed will probably carry us through at least one more. A mainstream media relishing the sudden upturn in its appeal appears intent on indulging in an ongoing inquiry that feels more like a premature post-mortem, constantly telling us where we (and the government) went wrong and how we should have done this or that differently back in January or February; but of course, it is always easier to be wise after (or during) the event than before it, and speculation is never a substitute for the facts that can only come when the dust has settled.

So, as the NHS – sorry, I’ll start again; I should have said OUR NHS, like the army become OUR BOYS when there’s a war on. Yes, as OUR NHS is reborn as a cross between a charity and a church, Britain remains the sleepy pre-war village it has unexpectedly reverted to thanks to this surreal state of affairs. I walked a friend’s dog today and – judging by the sudden high visibility of dog-walkers jostling with joggers for pavement space – I’m not alone in exercising my right to exercise in a way that beats aimless strolling for the sake of it. Throwing a ball down a hill for a dog that will eagerly bring it back and then demand an action replay is a rather pleasant method of enjoying the wind in your housebound face again. And unlike Norman Hunter, the pooch in question doesn’t bite yer legs.

© The Editor

THEY THINK IT’S ALL OVER

When the 48th season of the Football League kicked-off on Saturday 26 August 1939, Everton were the defending league champions and Portsmouth the FA Cup holders. By the time the season ended, Blackpool were top of the league, though the FA Cup had yet to begin because 1939/40 was prematurely curtailed after all First Division teams had played a mere three fixtures each. The outbreak of the Second World War on 3 September placed the national game in official suspended animation, from which it didn’t emerge until the inaugural post-war FA Cup tournament almost seven years later. Along with all avenues of entertainment that involved mass gatherings, football was an immediate casualty of the instant wartime lockdown; however, as it rapidly dawned on the government that the people needed their distractions, cinemas, theatres, restaurants and dancehalls soon opened their doors again. Football stadiums followed suit, though under somewhat surreal conditions.

The decision of the Football League to proceed with the 1918-19 season despite the outbreak of the First World War was perhaps a reflection of overconfidence as to how quickly that conflict would be resolved. There were no such signs of optimism in September 1939, but even when football returned as the authorities gradually recognised the demand for sport in boosting morale, the interrupted 1939-40 season wasn’t resumed; lessons learned during the darkest days of the Great War were put into practice as clubs participated in regional leagues and tournaments. The limited availability of players as the war progressed meant teams were allowed to field ‘guest stars’ in their line-ups, and the whole wartime football fixtures remain regarded as unofficial friendlies.

The national side played 29 games during the war years, though all were against either Scotland or Wales; none of them are classed as official matches in the record books. For a player such as Stanley Matthews, hostilities spanned what could have been regarded as his peak playing years – from the age of 24 to 30. Despite his international career beginning in 1934 and ending in 1958 (when he was 42), Matthews is in the record books as having a mere 54 England caps to his name due to his wartime appearances not being counted. Similarly, Newcastle Utd legend Jackie Milburn, who made his debut in the wartime league, scored 38 goals that are scratched from his record, thus enabling Alan Shearer to jump ahead of him as Newcastle’s all-time top goal-scorer.

Wartime conditions clearly have a habit of buggering-up the structure of the game, though football in the 1930s and 40s was a different (practically amateur) beast in comparison to its 21st century equivalent. Even the disruption that was a consequence of the Three Day Week in 1974 – when midweek floodlit fixtures were banned and games ended up being played on a Sunday for the first time – didn’t prevent the 1973/74 season from finishing on schedule; besides, the limitations were exclusive to England, and the respective leagues in the major footballing nations of mainland Europe were unaffected by what was a uniquely parochial problem. 2020, on the other hand, is something else.

The unprecedented suspension of all professional football in the UK and Europe as a precautionary measure against the spread of the corona virus may be viewed by some as a sensible contradiction of Bill Shankly’s famous declaration that ‘football isn’t a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that’; but the potential chaos poised to be inflicted upon the interconnected tentacles of the global game – and the vast fortunes those connections generate – is major. West Ham’s vice-chairman Karren Brady has announced she believes the Premier League shouldn’t complete its remaining 2019/20 fixtures – though play is provisionally set to resume in a month’s time – and the season should be rendered null and void as of now. With West Ham hovering perilously above the relegation zone, however, perhaps her opinion should be viewed in a specific context. It’s doubtful whether Liverpool supporters would echo Brady’s sentiments.

Liverpool, top of the Premier League by a staggering 25 points, have undoubtedly earned their first title since 1990, playing some breathtaking stuff this season, and are within a whisker of getting their hands on the big prize; but would it be fair on them should their dazzling endeavours be rewarded with nothing and their results abruptly erased from the record books? And what of the club at the top of the Championship, Leeds United? 16 rollercoaster years exiled from the top flight finally appear to be drawing to a close with the team playing the kind of football that would be more than welcome in the Premier League. The financial and legal implications of the season being curtailed with less than a dozen match-days remaining are quite a minefield to contemplate, but the investment of hardcore supporters in clubs on the cusp of success then being denied everything they’ve waited many a lean year to see would be one hell of a blow.

Down in the lower leagues, any prolonged stasis could prove fatal; this season has already witnessed the disappearance of Bury FC from the roll-call of league football, and who knows how many other clubs already hang by a thread so threadbare that this crisis could kill them off altogether? This season’s FA Cup has only reached the Quarter Final stages, so that also stands as unfinished business – ditto the Champions League and Europa League; and then there’s this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament. In order to breathe new life into the European Championships, the competition has been restructured so that ties will be played across the continent rather than based in a sole country, with the final scheduled to take place at Wembley in July. Considering the fixture congestion there’ll be when Europe’s domestic leagues eventually resume, the best solution would seem to be delaying the Euros for a year, as league football is the bread-and-butter of players and clubs alike when all’s said and done.

The losses that stand to be incurred by sponsors and broadcasters – not to mention TV subscribers paying for games that aren’t being screened – will only spiral into unimaginable areas if this suspension continues beyond the hoped-for month. The ‘winter break’ the Premier League clubs lobbied for doesn’t seem like such a smart move now, does it? And, lest we forget, this situation isn’t solely a footballing crisis. Rugby, cricket and Formula One are also on ice. The Grand National and the Epsom Derby are the great racing events still to come, and there’s the small matter of a certain four-yearly mega event pencilled-in for Tokyo this summer.

The potential financial fallout associated with the postponement or cancellation of occasions that have gone from mere sporting events to multi-million pound cash-cows for global business could perhaps be viewed as emblematic of how sport has become far too big for its boots. And maybe football fans are receiving a taste of the domestic disruption to come when the money-driven decision to stage the next World Cup in Qatar takes place in November/December 2022. At the same time, these sports remain watched and enjoyed by millions who will now have to find new hobbies to occupy their weekends. The most popular pastime associated with self-isolation might explain the rush to bulk-buy bog rolls, but where it leaves the beautiful game is anyone’s guess.

© The Editor

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

A recurring Remainer tactic of the last three years that has come to the fore again during the current Election campaign has been to blame the result of the 2016 Referendum for making the nation more dangerous, volatile and violent than it has ever been before – well, before the collective memory of those born in the 90s, perhaps. Barely a day goes by without being told how Britain is an unprecedented cauldron of toxic nastiness populated by trolls, bigots, fascists, racists, Nazis, and phobics of every conceivable variety. Granted, strolling through certain quarters of the capital bereft of a stab-proof vest might not be advisable in 2019; but one doesn’t actually have to travel back to a distant period of genuinely barbaric British history such as, say, the 17th century to trash this shaky theory. 1977 – a mere 42 years ago – will suffice.

I’ve devoted a good deal of the past week’s online downtime to watching news broadcasts from 1977 on YouTube. Why 1977? I can’t even remember how it started now, but it has become something of a nightly addiction. Even though I was there at the time, the vivid memory has received a jolt when reliving it in cyberspace. As a ten-year-old in 1977, I was more concerned with whatever I was watching or reading or playing than ‘the news’, that byword for boring in the minds of most children that age. Thanks to ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ being cannily sandwiched between ‘Scooby Doo’ and ‘Blue Peter’, however, I was exposed to some of the bigger stories of the day by default, so many of the ones I’ve revisited these last few days were familiar, even if the finer details eluded me in 1977.

Growing-up in a city that contained one of the dominant football clubs of the era meant I was exposed to the beautiful game as well as its uglier aspects. A fixture guaranteed to provoke trouble in and around Elland Road – such as the traditional grudge match against that other United from the ‘wrong’ side of the Pennines – was not really advisable for a child to attend. Manchester Utd had one of the worst reputations for hooliganism in the country back then – indeed, in September 1977 the club were temporarily expelled from the European Cup Winners Cup following fan trouble at an away game at St Etienne; footage of the chaos is quite retrospectively chilling, almost as if you can see the elements that led to Heysel – just eight years away – in embryonic form.

When Leeds and Man U were drawn against each other in that year’s FA Cup Semi-final at Hillsborough, local shopkeepers were boarding-up their windows as fencing was erected on the terraces for the first time in anticipation of a war. In the end, the game passed without major incident; but footage from a league fixture that same season between the two rivals paints a more accurate portrait. With hordes of Bay City Roller-lookalikes rampaging through the streets outside the ground and police on horseback galloping around them, it looks more like a warm-up for the Poll Tax Riots than the preamble to a sporting occasion. It’s also a timely reminder that, unlike now, this wasn’t a problem restricted to lowly lower league clubs, but afflicted the biggest in the land. It’s impossible to imagine such scenes taking place outside the corporate complexes of Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge today, which reminds the viewer how much the English game at the highest level has changed in 42 years.

Violence on the streets wasn’t restricted to being pre-match entertainment in 1977, however. Aside from images captured in the aftermath of an IRA bombing, the main visual representation of the Northern Ireland Troubles which viewers on this side of the Irish Sea received usually documented pitched battles between bottle-and-brick-throwing children and the British Army. Generally taking place in the more poverty-stricken corners of Londonderry or Belfast, the shocking aspect of these clashes is just how young the participants really are, looking just like me and my schoolmates – same haircuts, same clothes, same age. And once the shock of that sinks in, another sight hard to imagine now also hits the viewer: latchkey dogs. Without fail, any footage of such street battles from the period will have at least one giddy mutt dashing around the melee. And that’s one more thing now happily consigned to history.

Anybody declaring how unsafe the streets of 2019 are should be made aware of this stuff. And if it wasn’t a match-day within the vicinity of a railway station or football stadium (and if one resided on the UK mainland), there might not be a respite from a scrap if the National Front happened to be marching into town. There seems to have been at least three major marches by the far-right shit-stirrers in 1977, with the one that took place in Lewisham in August of that year yielding the greatest quota of violence. Most of the archive footage dredged up for documentaries on racism in Britain appears to have been shot in Lewisham that day. The formation of the Anti-Nazi League to counteract the NF whenever they decided to target a neighbourhood with a large ‘immigrant’ community meant that any such event from ’77 onwards ended in conflict. The film from Lewisham, in which police and protestors from both sides are battered, bloodied and bruised by fists, truncheons, bricks, bottles and (in one memorable moment of improvisation) a dustbin, demonstrates that the tempers we keep being told are at boiling point in 2019 well and truly boiled over in 1977.

Those tempers weren’t always provoked by the incendiary subject of racism – which was far more ‘in yer face’ in 1977 than it is now – but political ideology too. Industrial disputes wielded as bargaining chips by powerful unions were daily occurrences; British Leyland probably didn’t enjoy more than one strike-free week during the entire decade. But the worst dispute of 1977 was one that had begun the year before and didn’t end until the year after. It took place at a South London film-processing lab called Grunwick.

Grunwick paid pitiful wages and imposed long working hours on a predominantly female Asian immigrant workforce. When the mouse roared, a small strike that had passed-by largely unnoticed gathered pace as sympathy from other unions was garnered; these unions then began sending bus-loads of flying pickets to show solidarity and prevent ‘scabs’ from crossing the picket-line; this necessitated police involvement – including the notorious SPG – and also attracted those members of the Socialist Workers Party up for a fight. By the summer of ’77 the scenes of opposing forces squeezed into the narrow residential streets leading to Grunwick beggar belief. The clashes are some of the ugliest and brutal of any industrial dispute – predating the Miners’ Strike at its worst by a good seven years – and Grunwick itself became seen as a microcosm of everything that was regarded as wrong with British industry. But it is the level of violence on display that seems so characteristic of 1977.

The same media sources that are today repeatedly telling us how toxic the atmosphere in the country is in 2019 were also at it in 1977 – though then it was Punk Rock rather than Brexit held up as being responsible. Perhaps some began to question this narrative when The Sex Pistols – sold as the worst of a bad bunch – belied their public image by staging a free Christmas Day concert in Huddersfield for the children of striking firemen. Yes, even the firemen were on strike as the year drew to a close. 2019 is not 1977 by any stretch of the imagination. Just take a look on YouTube. And take a look at your average Remain or Leave march. Take a look at the flag-wavers permanently positioned outside Parliament. Not exactly reminiscent of Lewisham or Grunwick or Belfast or Elland Road in 1977. In fact, not remotely comparable. My advice to contemporary scaremongers is to take a tip from a Stranglers hit of 1977 and get a grip on yourself.

© The Editor

TISWAS DAY

Recent late-night drama at the Commons may have made for compelling entertainment in its combination of contemporary political jousting and bafflingly archaic ceremony; but such events are relatively rare there, as is the high level of attendance seen when these occasions come around. The day-to-day routine at Westminster seems closer to those somewhat disorientating debates we’ve all caught live on BBC Parliament, when the significance of the subject under discussion is downgraded by the empty seats and an anonymous MP droning on whilst an undercurrent of chatter distracts the viewer – not to mention the sight of other MPs wandering in and out as though they’re looking for the loos. The hours might be flexible, but Parliament largely operates as a Monday-Friday enterprise.

The prospect of an exceedingly unusual Saturday sitting coming up has inevitably exhumed the ghosts of past weekends in the debating chamber. Most of these took place on the eve of (or during) landmark moments in the Great British history book – the Falklands, Suez, and World War II; according to one account I read, the future President Kennedy was present in the gallery at the 1939 debate, though JFK’s father was, of course, US Ambassador to the UK at the time. The fact that Brexit will now take its place alongside events that both made and shamed us is perhaps a measure of just how defining the era we’re currently living through may prove to be; but MPs being recalled to the workplace outside of standard working hours also shines a light on the curious anomaly that is a Saturday.

Doing what I do, where I’m not constrained by the rigidity of the set working week and all its attendant weekend rituals, it’s odd that Saturday still feels…dare I say it…special. I suppose, like so much in life, the associations formed in formative years are hard to shake. If one was not especially enamoured with school, Friday home-time was the polar opposite of Monday morning, a brief window of release in which one received a 48-hour pass to a parallel universe where the children’s schedule was not governed by an educational timetable. Friday night often saw bedtime pushed back a little, and then there was the prospect of a lie-in till at least 9.30.

The arrival of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ on BBC1 in the autumn of 1976 was quite a game-changer for my generation; whilst the notion of three hours’ live TV anchored by Noel Edmonds might not necessarily be something I’d stumble out of bed for in 2019, it certainly did the trick for nine-year-old me. I remember Saturday morning TV pre-‘Swap Shop’ being an uneven, pre-recorded mix of cartoons, silent comedies and earnest ‘how to play badminton’-type instructional shows; by contrast, the fact the BBC was then prepared to invest in a programme as ambitiously innovative as ‘Swap Shop’ made it feel as though the younger viewer mattered as much as the dads and their ‘Grandstand’/’World of Sport’ marathons. There was a proliferation of pop promos, for one thing; I was introduced to both Blondie and Kate Bush due to ‘Swap Shop’ airing the videos for their debut hits before even TOTP got them; but it was the novel interactive element that really made the programme something new.

From the warmth of TV Centre, Noel would link to Keith ‘Cheggers’ Chegwin, usually freezing his balls off in some unseasonal coastal resort, yet nevertheless engulfed by a swarm of kids eager to brave the elements just to get their faces on camera and engage in a communal swap; but the greatest appeal was back in the studio, when pop stars and assorted 70s celebrities would actually speak to viewers lucky enough to get through on chic Trimphones. Today, whenever I dispatch an item to a fresh address via Amazon and I can’t complete the order without providing a phone-number for the delivery man (one I often don’t possess), I always give 01 8118055, the old ‘Swap Shop’ number everyone of a certain age remembers. I sometimes wonder if said delivery man ever rings it and Noel Edmonds answers at the other end – ‘Hello, you’re through to Suzi Quatro. What would you like to ask her?’

At the end of the 70s, ATV’s long-running regional rival, ‘Tiswas’, received a belated network promotion and provided Saturday mornings with a more anarchic flavour; legend has it there was a Beatles Vs Stones-like loyalty demanded of the viewer when it came to choosing between Posh Paws and Spit the Dog, but I suspect most (like me) would constantly change channels for the two hours the two shows went head-to-head. It also goes without saying that the luxury of lounging around in pyjamas watching Showaddywaddy being plastered in custard pies was dependent upon whether or not one’s mother was intent on dragging her children around the shops.

My abject boredom with C&A, M&S and all the rest could be pacified by reading material in the shape of a comic or – on special occasions – a paperback from the extensive library then available in Boots. What I obviously didn’t appreciate then was that Saturday was also a parental release from 9-to-5; my mother’s escape was to do the city centre rounds, whereas my father would either go watch a football match or play in one. The industry of leisure can characterise a Saturday; whatever one’s idea of leisure happens to be, a Saturday can cater for it. The jaunty theme tune of ‘Sports Report’ and the melodic recital of the football results by James Alexander Gordon was an occasion unique to a Saturday, as was the fact that thousands of hardcore punters up and down the country made the pilgrimage to windswept terraces to watch their local teams kick-off simultaneously at 3.00. If they were lucky, they might get to relive the spectacle on ‘Match of the Day’ later that evening.

Naturally, time moved on along with Brucie and Parky, and the Saturdays of 70s children became defined by Techno rather than the Tardis. Many a dazed clubber can recall 90s Saturday nights ending sometime on Sunday morning, where a stint on ‘Bamboozle’ would be followed by crashing-out and waking-up to a half-eaten pizza and the suddenly-perfectly logical world of the Teletubbies. Or was that just people I used to know? Anyway, I’m aware (courtesy of my student neighbours) that this ritual survives albeit in a slightly modified fashion – proof that Saturday maintains its distinctive identity whilst surrounded by increasingly indistinguishable weekdays; and that cannot be a bad thing.

A Commons sitting on a Saturday is therefore a somewhat incongruous scenario, but we live in strange times. Boris is trumpeting his Brexit deal when it could well boast all the failings of his predecessor’s by keeping us tied to some of the more contentious aspects of EU membership, yet leaving us without a voice in Brussels; and, of course, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP will all vote against it because ‘crashing out’ with No Deal and blaming everything on the Tories is better for their election prospects. And then there’s those beacons of eternal sunshine, the DUP. Saturday will probably end up being a bit of a damp squib in Westminster, but for many other people around the country the workplace won’t impinge on it at all. And for a country with some of the longest working hours in Europe, maybe that’s what makes Saturday special.

© The Editor

BLING AND A PRAYER

No wonder no one knows where we stand with Europe. Two European club competitions and the finals of both are being contested between English teams – Liverpool Vs Spurs in the Champions League (formerly known as the European Cup) and Arsenal Vs Chelsea in the Europa League (formerly known as the UEFA Cup), the first time four teams from the same nation have filled the two European finals of what those nice people at the BBC and the Grauniad insist we refer to as ‘the men’s game’; and yet none of the four teams in question are our peerless domestic treble victors, Manchester City. On the same day City thrashed Watford 6-0 – registering the largest winning margin in an FA Cup Final for over a century – the man flying the flag for the UK on the Continent crashed and burned all the way to the bottom of the heap in Tel Aviv.

Earlier in the day (maybe as a means of subconscious preparation), I watched the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in full on YouTube – yes, and I have indeed lived to tell the tale. Held at the Brighton Dome, 1974 was the year four Swedes famously captured the crown; but over-exposure to Abba’s win with ‘Waterloo’ had made me ignorant of other entries that would perhaps have won in any other year, such as the exquisite ‘Si’ by Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti, up there with ‘L’amour est bleu’ by Vicky Leandros in 1967 as arguably the best Eurovision song never to have won the Eurovision.

1974 was a time when the Eurovision was still an MOR showbiz showcase for all the family, held in theatres in which evening dress appeared to be compulsory, and presented by a middle-aged lady looking like a Home Counties hostess at a W.I. Tory Party fundraiser. But the tournament was very much in transitional mode 45 years ago – trapped between the post-‘Puppet on a String’ oompah formula whilst simultaneously trying to capture the Glam Rock spirit of the moment, falling into a strange limbo with one foot in both camps yet being at home in neither. Despite this uneasy mix, the 1974 contest when viewed in its entirety remains a relentlessly entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

At some point in the 90s, the Eurovision finally surrendered its last lingering pretensions to be taken seriously, with the rather stiff commentary of David Vine in 1974 superseded by the increasingly arch observations of Terry Wogan. But in losing its terminally unfashionable image, it was gradually reinvented as a camp, kitsch (and rather gay) carnival. The 1998 transgender triumph of Israel’s Dana International, paving the way for the 2014 win of Austria’s ‘bearded lady’ Conchita Wurst, was a landmark example of the event’s repositioning as a celebration of pan-European ‘diversity’. Those whose previous platform could have been the likes of the Alternative Miss World drag-fest or Channel 4’s late-night 90s cult hit, ‘Euro Trash’, now had a near-global outlet in which a style of outré entertainment that had always inhabited the fringes could be belatedly normalised.

Regardless of the contest’s eternal irrelevance in the USA, the huge viewing figures it can command across Europe (and, lest we forget, Australasia) were tempting enough to persuade long-time Dorothy acquaintance Madonna to take part as an interval act last night. Having lost touch with the career of an artist I once kept tabs on for decades, I watched Madonna’s somewhat shaky performance of ‘Like A Prayer’ with interest, and despite the dodgy ‘Sunday Night at the Palladium’ effect of a once-important act reduced to reliving past glories at a glitzy variety show, Madonna actually appeared to have found her natural (rest) home, like Elvis settling in Vegas when the 60s were at their revolutionary height.

The voting section of the programme used to be my favourite part, but the sheer volume of participating nations today has cut short requests for the results of the respective juries; the show seemed to quickly zoom through presenter banter with satellite-linked announcers standing in front of a superimposed capital city backdrop and headed straight onto the outcome of ‘The People’s Vote’. This new innovation saw the pattern of the ‘professional’ juries turned upside down as the viewer’s voting significantly altered the scoreboard when it was added to those votes already counted at the climax of the programme. North Macedonia had built up a good lead that was then completely overturned while the UK’s representative, Michael Rice, stopped hovering hopefully above the relegation zone and sank to rock bottom. At least Lynsey de Paul and Mike Moran finished runners-up with an entry of that name in 1977 rather than 26th out of 26.

One would imagine Europe had learnt not to sanction any form of ‘people’s vote’, as such gifts bestowed by rulers upon ruled have a habit of deviating from the script; but the outcome of Eurovision 2019 was very much decided by ‘The People’ – and they chose the Netherlands for the first time since 1975. Bar the traditional Greece/Cyprus love-in, there didn’t appear to be much of the political bias that has marred the voting procedure in recent years; even Russia received a cheer this time round, but it paid to remember the precise location of this year’s Contest and the contentious issues outside of the Eurovision bubble. Perhaps everyone was more than a little sensitive to these issues to resist using the event for making a point – with the exception of Iceland’s bizarre entry flashing a few Palestinian scarves in the green-room.

Another interesting difference between the Eurovision of 45 years ago and today was the way in which every measly point tossed in the direction of the UK last night was received with somewhat pathetic gratitude. The British entry in 1974 – Olivia Newton-John – finished fourth with the dismally plodding ‘Long Live Love’, yet this result was no doubt greeted at the time as a national humiliation for a country accustomed to at least managing second place (as we have on fifteen separate occasions). In 2019, the ‘plucky Brit’ bollocks that has its roots in Eddie the Eagle means we settle for finishing in last place with a shrug of the shoulders; we expected no better even before the latest ‘X-Factor’ leftover delivered his forgettable ditty like a shy child hoping for relieved parental applause when overcoming nerves to mumble his one line at the school nativity play.

So, we are simultaneously the masters of Europe (in football) and its laughing stock (in pop). There’s a point to be made somewhere in there when it comes to this country’s attitude towards the Continent and Europe’s attitude towards us, but I fear it could be lost in translation; perhaps Massiel, the Spanish entry of 1968 – whose controversial win over Cliff’s ‘Congratulations’ was allegedly aided by General Franco – got it right when she kept it simple. La, la, la…

© The Editor

THE CLOWN DUELS

Yeah, I’m back again for another isolated observation in my occasional series of ‘Stars on 45’-style topical medleys. But while I might poke and prod a few minor irritants today, they essentially remain of a trivial nature to me; none of them irritate me enough to bring forth the froth to my mouth – unlike the subjects that fire the warring extremes on Twitter. One might almost imagine they have nothing else going on in their lives. Anyway, it felt right to endure one more unwelcome anniversary by stepping out of the shade for a few minutes; after all, if I leave this neglected baby of mine in the sun too long the poor whelp risks suffocation by spam – mostly in ‘Russian’ by the look of its distinctly Slavic appearance. By Jove, I’m being spied on!

God knows why I could possibly be of any interest to whatever name the KGB goes under these days, but it’s moderately exciting to think I am. Maybe Vlad’s online agitators think everyone here is pretending to be a ‘Communist’ now and they’re curious. I’m as guilty as the next spoon when it comes to hankering after something before your own time simply because your own time is uninspiring and your perception of the time before your own has been shaped by something you read or a movie you saw. But it’s a risky business. When one has no first-hand experience of something intriguing, it acquires a romantic allure and can be embraced without any awareness of its less attractive realities.

The latest fashion for proclaiming one’s self a Communist is one that is only being followed by those with no personal memory of life behind the Iron Curtain. As far as irrelevant ideologies go, Communism is currently the fatuous political equivalent of a Ramones T-shirt, generally worn by people of an upbringing untroubled by hardship whose way of coping with guilt over their good fortune is to lecture those without it how they should live their lives. Each generation of Trotsky groupies cherry-picking Marx’s greatest hits and compiling its own mix-tape knows what’s best for the rest of us; and it’s ironic that the current crop’s default insult is to call their opponents Nazis when they themselves espouse a belief system responsible for more death and misery in the last century than even Adolf’s mob managed.

Great in theory, terrible in practice, Communism’s good intentions have been open to abuse from day one simply because the system makes it easier for the worst side of human nature to assert itself than even the far-from faultless Capitalism can boast. International sporting events being beamed into my childhood living room gave the names of now-defunct countries such as East Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia an undeniably nostalgic ring – as did the pronunciation of them by British TV commentators sounding as though they had socks stuffed in their mouths. But that’s as far as the nostalgia goes. Communism is not some forgotten musical genre from the 70s long overdue for critical reappraisal in ‘Mojo’ or ‘Uncut’. Just ask the good people of North Korea.

I have a particular fondness for the Regency era, but as no one alive today experienced it, reading written accounts in the absence of living testimony is the closest I or any other interested party can get to it. Therefore, safe in the knowledge I’ll never be put in such a position, I can comfortably declare life would be so much easier if gentlemen could still duel. Yes, it was an antiquated and illegal method of settling arguments over ‘honour’ even in the century that finally saw it disappear from civilian circles (i.e. the nineteenth); but it lingered for several decades as a controversial means of redressing a slight on one’s character or simply ending a long-running dispute. For all the talk of Cabinet ructions today, the incumbent Government Ministers don’t come close to their predecessors.

In 1809, Lord Castlereagh (Secretary of State for War and the Colonies) challenged long-time critic and Foreign Secretary George Canning to a duel on Putney Heath, a clandestine clash that resulted in amateur shot Canning being wounded in the thigh. Twenty years later during his stint at PM, the Duke of Wellington challenged the Earl of Winchilsea to a duel on Battersea Fields, sparked by the latter’s opposition to Catholic Emancipation. The Duke missed whilst the Earl refrained from firing; honour was upheld. Hard to imagine today’s Tory Brexiteers and Remoaners sorting out their differences in the same manner, but one cannot help but picture it as an alternative solution to political differences that conventional means seem incapable of resolving. Who knows what form Brexit might take were those involved in its implementation able to lock swords or aim pistols at the crack of dawn? Personally, there are some in this world I’d love to challenge to a duel tomorrow; and even knowing I could be mortally wounded wouldn’t dissuade me, as I can think of far worse ways to go. Alas, as ever, I am a man out of time.

Ironic in a way that an item of clothing one always associates with Regency duellists – the waistcoat – has experienced an unexpected resurgence of popularity this summer courtesy of Gareth Southgate. Unusually dapper for an England manager, Southgate worked wonders with the limited means at his disposal during a World Cup in which team spirit triumphed over the Prima donna superstar; his refusal to sanction a homecoming victory parade for a team that didn’t win anything is also a refreshing change that goes against the tiresome ‘plucky Brit’ strain of celebrating failure in the absence of success. Eddie the bloody Eagle can probably be blamed for that. Mind you, maybe we could play the Croatia game again – y’know, make it a ‘People’s Replay’ now that we have a better understanding of how the aim is to prevent the opposition from scoring. Best of three, eh? I’m sure Gary Lineker would tweet his approval.

Something non-toxic coming out of Russia was a welcome contradiction to the ongoing narrative, though headline-writers quickly focused on another defining characteristic of the summer. While that exceptional heat-wave was viewed by some as the harbinger of the climate apocalypse, to others it was just another of those sweaty intermissions we have every few years. More people seemed concerned the nation was poised to run out of beer during the World Cup than by the fact that every summer from now on threatens to evoke the kind of comparisons with 1976 that are destined to rival Fleet Street’s inevitable references to 1963 come each winter. Of course, if long hot summers are to be normalised, it sadly reduces the comical sight of red-skinned natives wincing with every step in their air-conditioned Crocs, as I should imagine most are now aware enough of what the sun can do to pale flesh to take precautions beforehand. Anyway, it’s already started raining again.

I don’t think the expression ‘burning the post-midnight oil’ actually exists, but I hereby invent it because it seems more applicable to the twilight zone I inhabit. Hell, a heat-wave is never conducive to a good night’s sleep, for one thing; but I was still active at 3.00 or 4.00am six months ago, back when my frozen frame was dependent on a fan heater as well as an invaluable electric blanket (when I felt I ought to finally drag myself towards the mattress whose warmth is strictly artificially-induced). Therefore, I can’t blame this joyless interlude devoid of all beauty on the summer. At the moment, brief bursts of creative energy just aren’t enough to let the sunshine in. Look at the example below and be fooled into believing it’s the work of a man as sharp as the blade that duellists once pierced a waistcoat with. It’s not. But it’s quite funny if you like that sort of thing. Anyway, I’ll shut up and keep trying until I’ve awakened from my dream of life.

 

© The Editor

THE LOST WORLD

I was talking to a friend the other night about my brief stint as a Big Gig-goer in the late 80s. I saw Bowie twice, as well as Dylan, the Stones and Prince once each within a three-year period and I did it all whilst signing-on, suggesting the ticket prices (not to mention the obligatory coach travel costs) weren’t that extortionate. The stubs from said gigs are probably gathering dust in my mum’s loft, so I’m unable to announce here and now how much I was charged for the privilege of being squeezed into Roker Park, Maine Road, Wembley Arena and the NEC; but a cursory glance at vintage ticket stubs from the same era on eBay suggests that even when the change in the cost of living is taken into account, the gap between wages (or dole) and ticket prices wasn’t that great a gulf.

It goes without saying that those were the days when touring was a handy sideline rather than the prime source of earning for musicians; like being able to turn up at your local football club on match-day without having to take out a loan beforehand, it was possible to see your musical heroes in the flesh for an affordable amount. The simple reason was that record sales financed their tax-exiles back then; even though there wasn’t much difference between the price of seeing them live and the price of their new album, the album would sell to more people than could attend a tour, thus negating the need to hike up ticket prices to a point where they’d be beyond the reach of fans short on ready cash. Not so now, in this post-Napster world.

Other the Ronnie Biggs model (which is itself redundant now the drugs market brings in a far higher income than an old-school blag), Rock ‘n’ Roll and football were the tried and tested working-class escape routes, as well as passionate pursuits for those who couldn’t sing a tune or kick a ball. The audience projected its own aspirations onto the performer, who had come from the same place, and believed it was possible to do likewise. The view from the terraces on a Saturday afternoon was similarly imbued with possibilities, especially for those youngsters hemmed into ‘the boy’s pen’.

There was considerable media coverage when England’s U17 team won their equivalent of the World Cup a couple of weeks back, though few members of that starting eleven will make it off the bench at Premier League clubs crammed with overseas signings. And unless a boy or girl from nowhere is prepared to suffer the indignity and humiliation of being a Cowell marionette, the only kids who can afford guitars, basses and drums today are the posh ones – which would explain why none of them have anything to say. Classic working-class pastimes have effectively priced out the working-class. But, hey, we’ve got Smartphones, X-Factor and microwave meals – what more do we need, eh?

Even the theatre was once an escape; some of our most iconic actors of the 60s and 70s came from humble backgrounds, but getting into drama school without the fear of being saddled with a lifelong debt and then honing their skills on the regional rep circuit is a lost world in 2017. The slashing of local council budgets that previously funded after-school drama classes and theatre workshops runs parallel with Government emphasis on the arts as a ‘luxury’ in state education (not much point reciting Shakespeare soliloquies when you’re cold-calling, I suppose). By contrast, the arts remain a fixture on the public school syllabus, which would explain why the majority of today’s under-40 household name thespians are Old Etonians. Their parents could afford to finance such ‘luxury’.

Considering the last time the economic climate was probably this grim was in the recession-struck early 1980s, it’s worth remembering what that period produced in terms of art reflecting life; and memorable music aside, it’s been interesting to recently reunite with a one-off TV series of the era that has unexpectedly surfaced on DVD. And, no, it’s not ‘Boys from The Blackstuff’.

‘Johnny Jarvis’ aired just the once on BBC1 at the back-end of 1983, and at the time of its broadcast was a must-see at my high-school. Appearing at the tail-end of the gritty social realism characteristic of ‘Play for Today’, this six-parter accurately documented the scrap-heap we Easter Leavers were poised to be tossed onto. The title character was played by Mark Farmer – a familiar juvenile lead at the time via his stint on ‘Grange Hill’, and who sadly passed away last year. Jarvis is the focus of his best friend, the bookish outsider Alan Lipton; Jarvis is a borderline ‘David Watts’ character to Lipton, both envied and idolised. But whilst Jarvis is dutifully subservient to the system once he leaves school, his subservience amounts to nothing when the firm he’s apprenticed to goes under before he fully qualifies as a skilled tradesman.

Lipton opts out and finds his voice with a guitar, starting a band he continues to write for after he forgoes the spotlight, leaving fame to his ex-bandmates whilst he settles for fortune. The steady progress of Lipton’s musical endeavours as the series spans 1977-1983 is a vivid demonstration of how such a thing was then possible from the starting point of a council flat; Jarvis’s struggles to make a living in the traditional heavy industries that were dying on their arses under Thatcherism are equally prescient for the era, and watching the programme after a 34-year gap really brought home to me how much has changed.

It not only reminded me of how those coming from nothing were able to articulate their experiences and could make themselves heard doing so. It also made me realise how those experiences wouldn’t be dramatised by mainstream television today. There is no working-class representation now unless we’re talking stereotypical chavvy thugs in gangs or victims of sexual abuse; and those playing such parts probably learnt their lines in end-of-term productions on the stages of Harrow or Roedean, anyway. Sixty years ago, Arthur Seaton said ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’; well, they have ground us down and they’ve got us where they want us – complicit in our own lethargy. Never mind the bollocks – here’s the Bake Off.

© The Editor

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SUMMER IN AUTUMN’S CLOTHING

Are policemen getting younger or are you getting older? Is the English football season kicking-off earlier every year or…no, balls to that! It is kicking-off too bloody early this time round – far too bloody early. Granted, we have another seven days before the pampered Prima Donnas of the Premier League are chauffeur driven through the gold-plated gates of their millionaire mansions and deign to breathe the same air as the common people for ninety minutes again; but that will still only be August 11. This weekend, English football’s pimp – otherwise known as television – again fires the starting pistol for a marathon that will take us all the way to next summer’s World Cup in Russia; the three Football League divisions have a week’s start on the Premier League, and their campaign opens this evening.

Domestic football is not, and never should be, a summer sport. The bi-annual international tournaments are different, and the fact we have the granddaddy of them all at the end of the 2017/18 season is perhaps why this season gets underway just four days into August. The traditional curtain-raiser to the top division’s very own marathon, the match between last season’s champions and FA Cup winners that most of us prefer to refer to by its old name of the Charity Shield, takes place on Sunday (not Saturday, heaven forbid!); and the Premier League kicks-off proper next…er…Friday.

Although there’s always an overlap between the cricket season and the football season at either end, it never feels quite right when they’re being played simultaneously; it’s an uneasy, jarring combination – a bit like listening to Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ during a heat-wave in July or anything by The Beach Boys in December. When the football season is galloping towards a (hopefully) exciting climax – with promotion and relegation places still up for grabs and everything in the balance – the second half of the season has been building up to such a frenetic pace that there’s no time to catch one’s breath. It then appears anachronistic that in the thick of this high-speed race to football’s finishing post, the first day of plodding play at Headingley is taking place, greeted by a smattering of old geezers armed with packed lunches and brollies.

The chasm between the two sports is partly the nature of the climate in which they are supposed to be played. True, rain regularly stops play in cricket during those chilly early weeks of the county game and the opening day of every football season is usually bathed in blazing sunshine; but the erratic temperament of the English summer aside, that unpredictable bridge between spring and autumn can occasionally produce the kind of weather entirely conducive to leather-on-willow, not to mention the sedate commentary of ‘Test Match Special’ rather than the hysterical castrato that goalmouth action can inspire on ‘Match of the Day’.

Both sports are so associated with the time of year in which they’ve traditionally taken place that whenever the football season impinges upon cricket’s turf, it almost makes football appear to be a narcissistic, scene-stealing actor, unwilling to allow any other member of the cast to grab the audience’s attention while he has no lines. When the England cricket team are busy playing a home Test series against South Africa, football should just let them get on with it and be gracious enough to grant them their brief moment under the spotlight before being edged off-stage by the plunge back into 24/7 fanatical coverage spanning eight or nine whole months that football regards as an entitlement. Few pay attention when the cricket season creeps into view, right at the moment when the football season is reaching its dramatic climax; yet football thinks nothing of gate-crashing cricket’s place in the sun.

If I want to evoke the sound of a childhood summer, I only have to hear the voices of John Arlott, Jim Laker or Richie Benaud and I’m there; if I want to evoke the sound of a childhood autumn or winter, I hear the voices of John Motson, Barry Davies or Brian Moore. These individual voices are as associated with a specific time of year as an Easter egg or a harvest festival. Each has its proper place and its seasonal relevance, but perhaps the way in which lines drawn in the sand that always divided the respective seasons have been blurred in recent years – particularly where the retail sector is concerned – has been compounded by the increasing extension of the overlap between cricket and football every August.

Come September, October and (especially) November, I will be as hooked as everyone else with a semblance of interest in the football season; the nights drawing in, the clocks going back and the fire being switched-on are rituals that perfectly complement the football season at its grimy, gritty best, when men are separated from the boys on muddy quagmires and teams scrap for scalps as the money-spinning prospect of the Third Round of the FA Cup hovers into view. There’s a kind of masochistic pleasure in anticipating the worst of the winter, knowing it will pass and that spring is waiting at the finishing line. If a team can survive January and February unscathed, the prize is all the sweeter come March and April.

Yes, when the Ashes are staged in Australia, they take place in the incongruous environs of a Southern Hemisphere winter; but that’s the other side of the world, and it’s permissible as a result. One couldn’t imagine county cricket being played on English pitches in November, so why should we have to invite the football season into our homes at the beginning of August, when we’re neither prepared nor bothered? It’s arrived at the party ahead of everyone else and hasn’t even brought a bottle with it, despite being able to afford an entire wine cellar. That’s just not cricket.

© The Editor