Sunday 10 February 2013

On Swansea City and England

I wish there could be an English Swansea City - a club simultaneously rooted in its community and traditions, outside the control of plutocrats and conscious of football in the fullest global and European senses.  I wish nothing more in the world.  All these things are what I wish for England; they are deep within its history, theoretically possible, never entirely buried.  But I keep fearing there cannot be such a club here, and perhaps never could have been at least in any world that actually did exist (though there could have been had the 1980s and beyond been as Bernard Nossiter envisaged them in 1978), that there is something too profound, something too deep-rooted in our history that prevents it.

There never was proper democratic ownership of English clubs as still exists in Germany, of course, and never could have been outside that hidden path where we meet ourselves coming back, that road not taken.  There never could have been because of the strength and power of the essentially feudal class system in England.  While that system remained essentially unreformed and undefeated, whether by socialism or deregulated capitalism, all that could ever replace it was its modern successor, the repackaged feudalism of plutocracy.  And so it has been; English football went, as we know, straight from aldermen to billionaires - the feudalism of one world to the feudalism of another - without an intervening period of democracy.  It went that way because of England itself, despite, not because of, all the many extraordinary manifestations of creativity that England can take such pride in, but still because of, and not despite, the essential foundation stones of its society, where the new form of feudalism was allowed to take command just when the old one seemed to be on the rack and crumbling.

Germany has obviously not been a freakishly stable state with a moment such as 1066 defining all that followed, and 1066 is certainly not the foundation stone of Welsh national identity and social relations today; the Norman invasion was much slower and more haphazard and was much more seriously resisted.  This is not, I think, a coincidence.  Swansea City can remain locally-owned, with their supporters having a share, and the great clubs of Germany can remain under the control of their supporters, because localism can be democratic in places where 1066 isn't a defining moment (this isn't "Norman yoke" English nationalism, just historical honesty).  In places where it is the defining moment, localism can - I fear - only ever be what it was in pre-Hillsborough, pre-Sky English football, a front for outrageous divisions between the clubs' owners and their actual fans, with the latter treated as wholly different and inferior species without any concern for their livelihoods or even their lives. In Wales, without such a deep feudal division between ruling class and mass, it is that much easier for a club to be locally rooted without exploiting, dividing and conquering its fans, because the fans were always much more part of the same culture and the same world as the bosses, the latter much likely to have risen from the ranks of the former (as Swansea's chairman did, and as many old-school English football chairmen never did).

You realise, based on this, why so many English people - myself included in many of my previous posts here and elsewhere - consider the products of plutocracy to be almost, accidentally, progressive in context and by comparison.  You realise why so many fewer Scots - and, I would suspect albeit in the current absence of relevant sales statistics, Welsh people - want Frank Ocean or Disclosure (note that I am not suggesting for one moment that either of these acts represent Cowellite plutocracy - they are in fact as far as pop gets from it - I am simply pointing out that they are for me and for much of the English Left, along with Motown, a kind of surrogate socialism of desperation).  They don't want them because they don't need them; their ancestral culture is not tainted by feudalism to the point where they have to look beyond for anything progressive.  I need Frank Ocean and Disclosure like I need oxygen because all I can get from my physical environment is feudalism.  English clubs, in some ways, need plutocracy because they could only otherwise be governed by something even worse; small-town feudalism and institutionalised classism against their own fans, as indeed they were for a century. Their environment simply does not contain the potential for a democratic club, combining roots with a sense of 21st Century Europe, such as Swansea City are.  When Richard Scudamore, of all people, describes Swansea's management as ideal, he must be ruefully aware of this; he must know the aspects of English history which prevent it from happening here, the aspects which for 40 years have driven the English Left into being pro-Murdoch by default out of a sense of common enemies, a corner we cannot get out of in the way that Swansea can.

The other aspects which separate Swansea from the norms of English football are also culturally specific; the club's sense of stability, of slow advance and long-term, uninterrupted endeavour, has to do with the fact that the national myth of the buccaneer, the individual who cares neither for the past nor the future, is simply not embedded in Wales (or indeed Scotland) in the way it is in England.  There is much more valuing of order within a gentler capitalism, in part because the idea of "knowing your place" is much less tainted in Wales and Scotland because it can have a progressive meaning, a meaning that can assert working-class pride and openness to the wider world rather than simply being about subservience to a ruling class that hates you - the desire for the internal rules of capitalism to be torn down, as they have been in England in my lifetime, was less potent because localism, maybe even a slight cosiness, could actually be socialist and reasonably equal.  There is a sense in which England's immense creativity in popular culture is born out of that national sense of the buccaneer, the people who gave us everything from Motown to grime, that the short-term culture that has isolated English football is born out of the exact same criteria that make England exciting in other fields, that the mass ownership by plutocrats has the same roots (however much of a perversion it has become) as the internationalism that make England's popular culture so fresh and stimulating - that, in short, for there to be an English Swansea City, rather than merely a succession of paler and paler imitations of Tony Pulis's BNP FC, England would have to become less exciting and stimulating in some other fields.

There is this niggling, ongoing sense that English football culture is narrow because broader English popular culture is exciting - not least because the latter's instinctive, elemental ties are mainly to the non-football world, which puts English football, as a part of English popular culture, in a deeply problematic position without even intending or wanting or choosing to be.  Swansea's outstanding absorption and development of the Spanish-style passing game, their bypassing the usual Sun-friendly list of Big Names and having the sheer chutzpah to get Michael Laudrup to a club that spent most of his playing career routinely drawing 0-0 with a Mansfield or a Rotherham, their sense of ambition and desire to escape the norms of their environment, to not have to do everything through the great power next door but to make their own alliances and their own friendships and their own alignments, has to do with an instinctive political desire to separate themselves from the Anglosphere, to exist outside the domain of England-as-seafaring-global-trader.

Politically, the latter idea - driving force not only for Cameron but for people, almost unbelievably, far worse - is simply poison, socially terrifying and economically suicidal (which is why the CBI types that the Tory Right desperately wish could support it mostly don't, much to the headbangers' impotent infuriation).  In terms of popular culture, though, it is still - despite everything - a force for inspiration, just when you don't want it to be.  There is much to be admired, socially and politically, about the greater European consciousness of many Welsh and Scottish people (could David McAllister becoming Chancellor of Germany be the moment of serendipity that Scotland still hasn't quite reached, the moment it all falls into place, and finally freezes out any chance of England being what I myself am, against my will, a reason why it cannot be?).  In terms of football it is, as we know, obviously the only way.  But if pretty much everyone in England who understands football knows intellectually that it is the only way, is there something deep emotionally within us - within our popular culture and our working-class consciousness - that stops our football taking that path?  If we accept that football can never be divorced from the context of wider popular culture within the working-class consciousness, we can then recognise that high and low, posh and pop, have been less historically divided in Scotland and Wales and that this in itself may lead to a more mature understanding of football - where a European consciousness is not identified, in that very English way, with "toffs in the Albert Hall" and thus with class treason - that history denies the English.

And maybe this is the reason why there is still a moment when Avicii or Swedish House Mafia aren't quite enough, when that serendipity and social perfection feels like an imperfect evocation of the human condition and specifically of the problem of England.  There is a moment that hits you, just when you wish it didn't, when this almost unimaginably idyllic social democracy of pop (that is what "Don't You Worry Child" is, like nothing in my lifetime), feels incomplete.  You want it to be all you need - and maybe it would be all I needed if I were Scottish or Welsh - but eating away at you is a sense that it isn't, that the aggression and brutality and disregard for all established sensibilities of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, that which has conquered English football with the rest of English popular culture, is somehow necessary too.  And you hate yourself for it.  You wish that "Levels" - shimmering and untouched as if that were not suspicious - was all the pop you needed to be emotionally whole, and that Swansea City could have happened on your own doorstep, with equal and simultaneous longing and sadness.  And you realise anew that, just as the IBA and Sky are different from and alien to each other in every conceivable way other than both being different forms of non-democracy, neither paternalism nor plutocracy representing "the people" in the way the Dutch broadcasting system has been able to do, English football - in terms of its actual ownership and control - never really was "the people's game", that it can only be so in Wales because it is only there, and in Scotland, that "the people" in the sense the Mirror was going forward with, as opposed to "the people" The Sun was going forward with when it first purloined that slogan, have ever really been sufficiently socially cohesive and dominant to run a significant institution.

And yet there are still moments when I wonder if everything I've written above is a lie, a desperate attempt by an English Leftist marooned in the worst, the least historically promising part of England to live second-hand, just as I might in other moods live second-hand through urban pop.  When Swansea fans sing "oh England is full of shit", they can't all really be saying "England is full of plutocrats and Cameronites and Europhobes".  Some of them must, I know, be saying "England is full of spongers and blacks and Asians". When a Swansea fan shouts racist abuse at a Norwich player, I don't invoke post-colonialism to say it is somehow more acceptable than if it were the other way round (and they must surely be two of the whitest cities to have ever had Premier League teams); I actually find it much worse, because in my position - and shoot this down as delusional romanticism by any means - you expect so much more, in terms of openness and tolerance, from those who see themselves as socialistic and European-minded from those who loudly and aggressively do not.

And yet I know that much of the history of Old Labour is a necessary corrective if your vision of the working class is simply as an anti-racist (let alone "anti-imperialist") vanguard, and I know all too well how much the culture of post-industrial areas has changed and how rapidly the tradition of the autodidact, the self-taught working-class intellectual, has been eroded; the change between the Manics and Stereophonics or Lostprophets, barely a flick of the eyelid apart in age, is so vast and so total that it might in other times have required an entire human lifetime to take effect (I always thought this was a factor in Noel Gallagher having, however buried and however perverted by parochialism and fear, some kind of working-class consciousness that his brother completely lacks; his anger at Liam dedicating "Live Forever" to Diana Spencer was surely, somewhere within, a sign of Noel's having been that much older during the Winter of Discontent and the miners' strike, and indeed the political use of her wedding).  I do not, of course, pretend that Swansea City and their fanbase are unaffected by this.  But I still think they have something very good and very necessary happening there, and it still breaks my heart that the weight of history prevents it from happening here.

I don't want Scottish independence to happen because of pure selfishness and self-interest from my position as a socio-political outcast in my geographical environment.  Unlike many of those in England whose politics are based around selfishness and self-interest (and who often, perversely and paradoxically, also oppose Scottish independence when they, unlike me, stand massively to gain from it), I'm honest enough to admit that.  But it still fills me with shame.  So does only feeling able to live through others, those born to things I wasn't.  But honesty still feels to me like the only way, especially when filtered through with sadness and melancholy.  Hopefully I've shown it here.  Hopefully I've told the truth.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this:

    ( )

    and thought of your posts on football.

    I love this blog, hope everything is OK.