There are three reasons why I reckon it’s about time for our daughter to learn her ABC. Firstly, she’s now ten months old. Secondly, I am, like Martin Fry, from Sheffield, and thirdly, my repeated experiments with ‘Being Boiled‘ and ‘Nag Nag Nag‘ weren’t encouraging, so it’s probably better to go for something a bit more accessible. As it happens, later this month we’ll be visiting my folks in Sheffield, so I can show her the former art college just around the corner where Martin Fry and, er, the others did their first ever gig. (Although when I pointed out Phil Oakey’s nearby house to her when we were last there in May, she was fairly nonplussed, I reckon if I just keep pointing at the block of student accommodation which now stands where Psalter Lane Art College used to and sing bits of ‘The Look of Love’, something might get through.)
For her, an album from 1982 is as distant in time in relation to my own birth as one from 1937. (Although seeing as she doesn’t yet possess concepts such as albums, years, meanings or words, imagine how she’d struggle with that sentence. What’s your excuse?). I showed her some photos of the group silver and gold lame suits they used to sport at the time and she seemed quite impressed, although to be fair her little roundy face does light up in a quite worrying fashion whenever she looks at a smartphone, so maybe it was more related to that.
With regard to the music, she certainly doesn’t react nearly as badly as she did to ‘Reproduction’, the cover of which admittedly features women in stilletoes trampling on babies. One of the many joys of parenthood is seeing which music is intuitive enough to inspire a reaction. ‘Reign in Blood’ by Slayer didn’t go down enormously well, but she does have an ongoing thing for Prefab Sprout, and as for The Fall, you can judge for yourself here. The opening bars of ‘Show Me’ certainly stir my soul, but she’s too distracted by the appetising sight of my laptop’s international plug adaptor, on which she’s had her eyes for the last couple of weeks, to pay very much attention. I had high hopes for ‘Date Stamp’, very much my favourite song whenever I’m not at that particular moment listening to any of the others. Its heart-bursting but somehow also wry denunciation of the then-inchoate idea that every aspect of our lives including love itself is mere merchandise, a notion whose power has only grown to the point where my hometown’s trees are currently being smashed up by corporate hooligans and malevolent forces are trying to hypnotise our children via Youtube is, in a very literal sense, music to my ears. Unfortunately she’s too busy putting in and taking out some wild animal finger puppets to and from an empty yoghurt container to really focus on how trenchant, lush and unabashedly romantic the whole thing is.
Attention spans being limited, I decide to skip the whole of ABC’S subsequent career up until ‘Lexicon of Love II’ (which means she misses out for the moment on the jagged swoons of ‘The night you murdered love’, but doesn’t have to sit through their attempts at house music). This belated sequel to the 1982 album was released just last year to general acclaim. Contrary to what you might expect given Fry’s history of involvement in ’80s revival cruise ship booze-ups, it sounds not at all like not a cheap copy of the original album, but really rather freshly minted. It sounds, in the most positive sense, like it could have been made any time between 1985 and 1992, like one of those Paddy McAloon records whose release was delayed for a number of years. She seems to appreciate its mix of expensively orchestrated pop classicism and hard-won middle aged wisdom, bouncing around with a massive baby grin on her face to ‘The Flames of Desire’. On the whole it goes much better than our previous music mentoring sessions, especially the ‘Reign in Blood’ one, which culminated in my having to put on ‘Il cocodrillo come fa‘ in order to get her to calm down. (My wife, that is. The baby seemed to be just starting to get into it by the time ‘Altar of sacrifice’ came on.) On this occasion it’s not Chiara that complains, but the downstairs neighbour, who bangs on the door to give out about unreasonable levels of noise at 3pm on the Day of Rest. Miserable bastard. Maybe one day he’ll, you know, cheer up and, as someone once sang, find true love. Or something.
I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.
I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.
Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.
Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.
For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.
Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.
Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:
‘Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’
Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.
Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.
The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.
Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.
This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.
*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.
**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.
***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand
In Sheffield as of 1987 anyone walking through the shopping precinct in the centre of town ran a gauntlet of left-wing newspaper sellers. The 14-year-old me often generally managed to avoid handing over 30p or so of my hard-earned paper round money for Socialist Worker, but on occasion I found myself buttonholed by some garrulous and well-presented young people pushing a publication called ‘The Next Step’. None of them appeared to be local, and they were, by comparison with their competitors, refreshingly unconcerned with whatever workers’ struggles were going on in South Yorkshire at the time. I didn’t get the ideological distinctions between the Revolutionary Communist Party, as they were called, and the Socialist Workers, but I suspect that the way they responded whenever I asked about such things – they were more than happy to slag off their rivals on the left – appealed to my disaffected sensibilities and inchoate contrarian instincts. I started going to meetings at which they pressed a copy of Lenin’s ‘What is to be done’ on me, and also made me shell out for a copy of a book called ‘Moral Panics’, which I did read and found splenetically entertaining if sometimes puzzling at the level of basic logical argumentation.
Although I had trouble keeping up with their sometimes contradictory-seeming political arguments, they were at least friendly, relatively unpatronising and certainly socially useful. They took me to the Leadmill to see a band who later turned out to be Deacon Blue, and got me properly drunk, all the time shouting in my ear about stuff I really didn’t know much about. I do remember that one of my new comrades, taking issue with a stranger’s St George’s badge, began shouting at him about Northern Ireland and started a dancefloor ruckus. We also took a trip to London to the gay pride carnival, or as it was at the time, demo, where I had a distinctly Life of Brian moment upon seeing a banner from the Revolutionary Communist Group. I asked the natural question, only to be told that they were ‘wankers’. Then the general election came around, and we suddenly stopped being the RCP and turned instead into something called the Red Front, under which monicker we went banging on doors in search of people to disagree with. Our campaign ended with 277 votes, which was considered a victory as at least it was more than the possibly dead bloke from some basically defunct version of the Communist Party had received. Eventually other aspects of teenagehood took over and, despite some tugging on their part (I think I still owe them £1.75 for the Lenin book, which they were keen to get hold of), I succeeded in drifting away.
From then on I kept an occasional eye on what they were up to but maintained my distance. I remember joining all my fellow delegates in turning my back as an RCP member spoke up at NUS conference, but I don’t remember why. Although I was living in Ireland at the time, I was vaguely aware that they were ubiquitous in the UK in the mid-1990s, standing on street corners looking slick and pushing subscriptions to their magazine Living Marxism. It had entertaining covers and contained articles written from a consistently libertarian standpoint, with elaborate arguments that would sort of persuade you that whatever you had thought about (to choose a not-entirely-random example) the environment was wrong, but with an uncanny feeling that you were the victim of some sort of trick or part of a game that wasn’t actually all that much fun to play. After it became clear that they were prepared to perpetrate full-on atrocity denial in order to promote their wilfully exasperating view of the world, it was very hard for anyone to take anything they said seriously. Few would have expected them to continue to deepen their influence in British life, but it seems they are far more determined and cunning than anyone might have thought.
Given their relatively rapid en masse shift away from the left, there’s been a ongoing mystery of why they do what they do, particularly since (through their website Spiked) they started selling their contrarian punditry to corporations and the right-wing media. From my own experiences and from having followed their development through articles such as this, this and this, I suspect they are a bit of a sect, but one in which the personal bonds override and yet (if we consider their commitment to the politics of self-interest) determine their collective ideological stance. The members of the core group, largely unchanged for the last thirty of so years, have managed to cave out steady careers in the media, with a shared ideological bent seemingly determined by the desire not just to provoke but to (as we now understand it) troll. Their contrarianism far surpasses anything I might have identified with as a teenager, and at times their adolescent desire to scandaliser la bourgeoisie would put even Marilyn Manson to shame.
The LRB piece linked to above refers to this teenage aspect, the way their rhetorical insistence that everyone ‘act like grown-ups’ seems to betray an adolescent mindset. (It also mentions that Frank Furedi’s dependence on newspaper articles for his source material suggests that his reputation as a serious academic is not entirely deserved.) They continue to have a fixation on the young, with their successive front projects such as the Manifesto Club, the East London Science School and WorldWrite (of which our erstwhile election candidate is now director) aimed directly at teenagers. Now that schools are up for grabs by anyone with enough cash, regardless of their ideological proclivities, they seem to be enjoying more direct access to young minds. The prominence of Brendan O’Neill as a steadfastly obnoxious commentator for my new-not-favourite newspaper The Telegraph has (re)alerted many to the dangers of their project, which now seems to dovetail with certain aspects of a hard-right agenda*, particularly outright climate denial and the abuse of the notion of ‘free speech’ to legitimate hate speech. This site has also written this week of the insidious influence they also seem to enjoy in sections of the BBC. (This excellent Tumblr blog Twitter feed is also extremely informative on such matters, with an very useful primer to countering their bullshit available here.) Of course, it’s something of a provocative exaggeration to call the Spiked/LM/RCP crowd a far-right troll cult, just as it’s completely absurd to call the #metoo phenomenon a ‘moral panic’ and a ‘modern day Salem’ or claim that misplaced hysteria over climate change caused the Grenfell fire. But from my experiences as an impressionable young person subjected to their influence, combined with the fact that their current agenda is so close to that of the global far-right as to make very little meaningful difference, this is not a group of people who should be allowed anywhere near schools.
Football has been all over the front pages this week, and although I’m neither a huge fan nor a massive expert on the sport I do sort-of follow it and have some possibly useful/unpopular feelings on the subject which, partly in the spirit of Louis CK’s classic ‘of course…but maybe…‘ routine and also in my own tradition of writing provocative screeds about what the Guardian has taken to calling ‘soccer’, think worth airing.
1. Madrid. The sight and sound of Leicester fans rioting in the Plaza Mayor while shouting drunken nonsense about Gibraltar is to be roundly, squarely and triangually condemned. Of course. But maybe…a lot of the tabloids doing the condemning are the very sources of both the misinformation being yelled and the (sorry, Jeremy) momentum for such displays. In any case, given football’s relationship to territory, maleness and alcohol, a certain amount of violence is absolutely inevitable. When a few years ago in London the Evening Standard cleared its front page of foreigner hatred and upper class triumphalism to make way for a diatribe at how appalling was a bit of minor rioting by Millwall fans, I was left feeling a bit nonplussed. There seems to be a major and wilfull misunderstanding in some quarters of the media about the role that football plays in British life. For centuries the country sent generations of working class lads overseas in order to keep Johnny Foreigner in check, no questions asked. For the last few decades they’ve been tearing into each other at home and away instead. I don’t want to come across as all class tourist/reverse snob and I do hope that my feelings on this are not provoked by buried ancestral loyalty to our lads – personally I think it may not be a bad idea to put the whole of the UK mainland under the control of the Spanish in order to avoid any more Tory-inspired catastrophes – but I do think that it’s better that football fans beat each other up than have a go at people who happen to have been born elsewhere.
I say all this as someone who is, partly thanks to an accident of birth and barring possibly my mum, Sheffield’s least likely hooligan, and also a fan who, when I visit Bramall Lane (UTB), is no more likely to be welcomed as a member of the same species than a particularly bookish-looking antelope at a watering hole generally reserved for wildebeest. I don’t have the hair (or lack thereof), the accent and a brief conversation generally confirms that I don’t follow the team closely enough to qualify as a proper Blades supporter.
2. Sheffield United’s pitch invasion. Nevertheless, sometime in April or May 1982 I stood in the Junior Blades section and watched fans pour onto the pitch to celebrate winning the 4th Division championship, and I was pleased to see such scenes repeated last week as we (UTB) clinched promotion from League 1. The football authorities hate pitch invasions and go to (sometimes murderous) lengths to prevent them, partly because they damage the grass but mainly because they (stern voice) ‘Bring The Game Into Disrepute’. The same is said of ‘excessive celebrations’, e.g. the moral stain left on the universe by a player doing a happy little I-scored-a-goal dance or lifting up his shirt to reveal a birthday message to his baby daughter. This in a game marked by genuinely shocking and blatant corruption, money- and reputation-laundering, tornaments held in slave states, the open feting of racists and rapists, club sponsorship of everything down to the official player’s undergarments, the official water everyone officially associated with the club officially drinks and the official brand of condoms that are optimistically distributed on the official team bus. Of course there are tasteless and impetuous things that individual players and fans do that serve as a distraction, but maybe it would be easier to identify things that bring the game out of disrepute. Football’s high horse is a pantomime one which goes clippety clop clippety clop across the stage and then gets sexually assaulted by a 22-year-old with a £125,000-a-week salary, a regulation hipster/Isis beard and a Hindi tattoo that (unbeknownst to him) means ‘twat’.
3. On the white stone of the beautiful bridge crossing the Tiber* round the corner from our house, some stronzetto has left prominent graffiti protesting against the reorganisation of territorial subdivisions in a football stadium**. This is not as arcane as it sounds. Over the last couple of years a large proportion of Roma fans have been on strike because the stand where they, er, stand has had some new barriers installed, separating them from each other. As a result they refuse to go and cheer on their team (they still ‘support’ it, but that’s a difficult concept to make sense of, even when the fans in question aren’t petulant arseholes). As a result, there’s no atmosphere at the matches and therefore no point going to see Roma. The couple of games I’ve witnessed have been desultory affairs, and given that the club with whom Roma share their Mussolini-obelisk-surrounded stadium (Lazio) are the chosen team of local fascists I’m very disinclined to lend them my support in any form. Of course not all changes that clubs make to their stadiums are to the liking of fans, but maybe if you refuse to go to the stadium as a result you weren’t really that much of a supporter in the first place.
4. Arsenal. Now, football deserves to be taken seriously. Supporting a team involves (and for some resolves) issues like identity, belonging and purpose, rather like a religious faith. Arsenal fans are angry because they haven’t won anything for years (except for the FA Cup, twice, which for the gooners means about as much as a fifth-round EFL Cup victory against QPR would to the Blades). Of course it’s fun to win things and get promoted (UTB), but maybe football has always been less about winning and more about the camaraderie that comes from not having lost. Really, there’s not that much to do when your team wins something big except drink, cuddle your fellow supporters, eat a massive burger and then go home and watch the highlights til you conk out. I can nevertheless understand the frustration with Wenger, as when asked why they haven’t won anything important for so long he tends to talks about how much money the stadium is worth nowadays, how many people work there compared to when he started and how pretty the grass looked before the football match, the one in which they were beaten 3-1 at home by Stoke, kicked off. Maybe they should just make him janitor and get someone else in.
5. Dortmund. I’ve been to Dortmund and it felt like Leeds: northern, working class, post-industrial. I can see how football is very important in such a place***. Of course the terrorist attack on the team is abhorrent. But maybe…In relation to the reporting of suicides there are certain conventions that newspapers adhere to in order to avoid contributing to copycat cases. It seems to me that in the salacious publicity that’s been given to the writer of the letter (presumably also the author of the crime) there’s an excitability which may encourage others to see football as a useful target. What responsibility does football have for this? As with so much else about the game, the way the media overhypes football involves an abdication of basic journalistic responsibility. Of course it’s a good thing (and a cheering story) that fans in France and Germany united in response to the attack. But maybe…there’s a distinct possibility that such reports play into the hands of the far-right, who are never far away from the sport and always keen to bring fans under their sway. The fact that the UK’s fascist movement takes so much of its form and focus from football is a cause for concern (fuck the EDL) and in a European context the media’s coverage of fans uniting against ‘Islamic’ terrorism rather than (for example) drawing attention to the many gestures of solidarity with fellow fans and players fleeing entire societies terrorised and brutalised by Isis doesn’t necessarily bode well. To return to those Leicester fans in Madrid, misinformed and motivated by Murdoch’s increasingly openly racist Sun**** into making absolute pricks out of themselves, there are malignant elements closer and closer to political power who will make the most of sporting loyalties and emotions as an organising tool for prejudice and violence. Of course football is a beautiful game, but maybe media coverage should be careful about encouraging young men to place territorial loyalties closely linked to violence at the heart of their identities at this particular point in history. UTB.
*Which, contrary to what you might hear, is not flowing with blood.
**Italians are great at frescoes but shit at graffiti.
***Obviously much more important than it is in Leeds these days (UTB).
One of the happiest memories of my life is of my 40th birthday get-together in June 2012, when my friend Craig showed me a video on his phone of our former secondary school being smashed to pieces by bulldozers. This realisation of a dream of our teenage years is one of the best presents I have ever received.
The reputation of the school had already taken an industrial hammering. Lying on a beach in the Algarve in September 1999, I read a lengthy Guardian report by the investigative journalist Nick Davies (later of ‘Churnalism’ fame). He identified my school as an emblematic victim of early-’80s educational reforms which aimed to remove the comprehensive elements of the education system. It was the perfect example of a school which went wrong in this way. The key year when things really started to plummet downhill like an out-of-control pram was 1983, when they removed streaming. It was also the year I and my cohorts arrived. We were, it seemed, the victims of an experiment – or, at least, of an experiment which had been made to fail by the power of class and a Government ideologically opposed to the principles of comprehensive education. That might explain why we were taught music lessons by a German teacher with an open fascination with Hitler, why we learned French in a science lab whose gas taps some kids could never quite get enough of, and why our Religious Education classes mostly consisted of listening to the teacher’s favourite progressive rock albums, particularly the Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand-influenced Rush album ‘2112’.
Destruction was a theme of my youth. Sheffield was in the process of deindustrialising and so parts of it were disappearing. A few years ago I came across a BBC documentary from September 1973 (fifteen months after I was born) called ‘All in a Day’, which tracked the daily lives of various locals. Parts of it I recognised but there were some things -fashions, ways of life, institutions – which had already vanished by the time I came into consciousness. Then, when I was 12, I saw the city destroyed by a nuclear explosion.
‘Threads’ was the work of Barry Hines (who also wrote ‘Kes’) and it was shown on the BBC in late 1984. It was a extremely vivid depiction of the total annihilation of the only city I knew. A simmering confrontation in the Middle East between the two superpowers was discussed in increasingly urgent tones on background TVs and the radio, while people very similar to those I knew went about their everyday lives. Some schoolfriends were filmed running down the main shopping street screaming when the four-minute warning went off. My own sister was an extra. She appeared for several centiseconds at the end of a scene in which ashen-faced ‘survivors’ looked though a fence in the radioactive fog at armed soldiers guarding the emergency food supplies. She looked just like she was living through a nuclear holocaust. In reality, of course, she was just terrified she wouldn’t get on TV. The scream she let out on seeing herself was louder than a megaton bomb*.
The irony that South Yorkshire had declared itself a ‘nuclear free-zone’ was much commented-upon, as was the oft-trumpeted (but more often parodied) notion of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’. I grew up in a politically-charged atmosphere. Trips into town to seek out new books and music would inevitably involve getting caught up in furious discussions with left-wing newspaper sellers. I remember the first wave of strikes provoked by Thatcher as part of Nicholas Ridley’s plan to smash to unions to pieces. My father, after a career in haut cuisine, worked at a steel plant from around 1980. When I was ten, in April 1983, he took me on my first protest, outside Cutler’s Hall where Thatcher herself was speaking. Then there was the Miner’s Strike, about which I remember shamefully little.
My vague sense of imminent doom wasn’t helped by the news in 1988 that human civilisation was forcing the world’s temperatures to rise. Whenever I think of the moment I first learned about global warming, I picture the classroom at King Ecgbert’s, in the posher part of town, where I did an A-level in Government and Political Studies. We had a teacher who read to us from The Guardian. The fact that he treated us like adults and obviously enjoyed his job inspired thoughtful, if inchoate, responses. I can see myself in that classroom aged 17; I’m saying something I must have read in the Guardian about feedback loops.
Around that time I was becoming interested in other kinds of loops. In the Leadmill I heard the sparse bleeps and haunting echoes of ‘Sweet Exorcist‘ for the first time. The music released by Fonn and then Warp records followed an established local tradition, using a palette of industrial sounds. In this excellent BBC documentary local musicians of the time talk about how the sounds of the working city forged their sound:
Sheffield was also musically twinned with Dusseldorf, given the influence of Kraftwerk on the Human League and Heaven 17. The dystopian fictions of J.G. Ballard were also an ingredient. Although they never found (or indeed sought) commercial success, Cabaret Voltaire were part of the same wave, along with the Comsat Angels, whose bassist (much more of a pop star than we’d ever be) lived around the corner from us.
Then there was ABC, with their gold lame suits and lush, orchestrated and articulate critiques of Thatcherism. Their flamboyance stood out given that the general tone of life in Sheffield is ‘unimpressed’. There’s an earthiness, a flatness of voice and attitude which contrasts with the hills. Jarvis Cocker is the canonic example of someone who both celebrates and supercedes this. He left the city to broaden his horizons and seek fame but has nevertheless remained loyal. It was his musical map of Sheffield which taught me about the importance of Sheffield’s five rivers in its industrial development. (They probably tried to teach me that in geography classes, but I just remember being lectured about superpigs in the Ruhr Valley by a teacher with a military moustache who spent most of the lessons with his head buried in the Daily Mail.) I thus consider Jarvis to be more of a Sheffielder than I am. Still now my geography of my hometown is shameful. Someone else who knows the city much better than me is the architecture writer Owen Hatherley, who, although he’s not from there, is an articulate and enthusiastic advocate for the Sheffield of the 50’s and 60’s and the pop music culture it eventually inspired. He called his book on Pulp ‘Common’.
The song his title refers to is not my favourite but it is very well-observed. The insult ‘common’ was a very, well, common way of dismissing someone, of asserting one’s claim to a higher rung on the ladder. School was rough, with bullying commonplace, and you just had to learn to cope without appearing ‘soft’. You could detect the resultant hardiness and stoicism in the music. In 1986 the Human League had a transatlantic hit with a song which was clearly not their own. It had been written by Jam and Lewis for Alexander O’Neill or Janet Jackson, and to my ears the spoken section, which was designed to sound breathy and passionate, sounded distinctly sulky, or, as we say in Sheffield, mardy. Actually, when, on what must have been New Year’s Day 1989, me and a friend went to Phil Oakey’s house on Ecclesall Road, he was cheery and welcoming. He made us a cup of tea and we chatted about Barry White.
When I was growing up, the Human League were the local celebrities, our representatives on the national stage, or at least on Top of the Pops. The same was emphatically not true of Def Leppard, at least not in my part of town. They had taken the sounds of heavy steel production in a less interesting direction, to the mid-Atlantic rather than Central Europe. Then, in the ’90s, Sheffield became synonymous with The Full Monty. I’ve watched this film more times than Stewart Lee has seen Scooby Doo. It’s the tale of a group of redundant steelworkers forced by economic circumstances to reinvent themselves as male strippers. One of the most telling moments comes early on, when the wife of one of the main characters pisses in a urinal, thus parodying and asserting a claim over a symbol of male identity. The loss of stable industrial work, with its attendant self-image of the strong male breadwinner, implies a crisis of masculinity. The men have to divest themselves of their ‘male’ identity and try to make the adaption to more ‘feminised’ forms of work, in which bodily image and the ability to adjust to the demands of spectacle are of central concern. The film thus dramatises the fabled shift from heavy industry to the leisure economy and the suspense comes from the question of whether they can make the transition. In fairy tale fashion, they succeed, putting on a strip night and proving they have what it takes to entertain. How they will go on from this one-off performance is unclear, but in neoliberal terms (and this is an emblematically Blairite film), by debasing themselves to the demands of the market they’ve demonstrated they have sufficient will to survive. Although it wasn’t set in Sheffield but nearby, Brassed Off trod very similar ground but was more sombre and angrier in tone. If you add in Billy Elliot there was actually a minor genre of 1990s films in which former industrial zones learnt to strip, play or dance to tunes played by the forces of globalised capitalism.
On another level this is what most cities on the world are trying to do nowadays: to market themselves as cultural destinations. For a brief period Sheffield was home to the ambitious but ill-fated National Centre for Popular Music. The fact that I, for whom pop music was more important than breathing, never got round to visiting it is some indication of how ill-conceived it was. Sheffield also tried to attract sports fans, with the hugely expensive debacle of the World Student Games (who?) in 1991, which the city is, as far as I know, still paying for.
I witnessed the waning of a certain visionary spirit, that which inspired the destruction of the slums and the investment in public housing of the 1950s-60s. Owen Hatherley records that the housing estates in some parts of Gleadless were designed to take advantage of the steep topography and, in the right light, they resemble sunlit Californian hillsides. Park Hill was an absolutely laudable attempt to create decent living conditions close to the centre of the city for ordinary people. It failed, partly through official neglect, but has been widely recognised as a masterpiece of urban design. There was also abundant evidence of a previous generation of patrician municipal idealism in the late 19th Century art galleries, museums and libraries. Then there was the Crucible, which, in addition to snooker championships, put on productions at affordable prices and gave young people to develop an interest in the theatre. Such initiatives were the fruit of an ethic according to which ordinary people should participate fully in the life of the city. One of the great symbols of this principle was the bus fares. As a child I paid 2p to go anywhere in the city. It was a little bit of Cuban-style socialism, one that life immensely more livable. I was lucky to grow up in such a time and place.
Nowadays a different set of priorities prevail. After a number of years the City Council managed to destroy two grubby-but-popular markets (Castle and Sheaf) which played an essential role in the life of the city. They attracted the Wrong Sort of People, principally the poor and the old. The Council demolished the markets and built a more expensive alternative in a totally different part of the city. Doing so is in keeping with an ideological shift: neo-Blairite politicians and their successors want to attract consumers, or preferably hyperconsumers, and what happens to the social fabric as a result is of lesser concern. Thus Sheffield now has some excellent and very large places to eat for those who have some money and want to pretend they have lots: Dubai-style casinos and gargantuan but bland chain steakhouses and Chinese restaurants crowd out the area next to the Town Hall. Also very prominent in the city centre are new blocks of flats, mostly built to accommodate exponentially-multiplying numbers of future generations of foreign university students who, given Theresa May’s antipathy to the UK’s economic survival, will almost certainly never arrive.
One of Sheffield’s least favourite sons, Nick Clegg MP, boasted when he was in government that he would preside over ‘savage cuts’, and the amount of people begging around the city are a testament to just how much he managed to achieve. The desperation caused by the viscous ideologically-inspired attacks on government spending must also have been a factor in the city having voted narrowly for Brexit (by 6,000 votes). Sheffield, dependent on government and EU spending in all its forms, is one city that will suffer enormously as a result. Its attempts to adjust to the new reality of a government agenda driven by psychopathic zeal do direct damage to both the standard of living and the quality of life of the city. As of 2017, the local council has now, in absolute desperation, begun a war against trees, as well as (as far as I can make out) dimming the streetlights. Perhaps they are taking the need to cut down on overheads a little too literally.
My knowledge of Sheffield is dwarfed by the number of things I don’t know, particularly given that I haven’t lived there since I was 18. I’m almost proud to say I don’t know more than a couple of the places mentioned in this recent Guardian article. There’s also the multi-venue music festival Tramlines (for which much credit has to go to a member of the increasingly-less-interesting local superstar band Arctic Monkeys), and the internationally renowned documentary festival.
There are also all sorts of wonderful things in Sheffield that have always been there: the art galleries, the museums, shops like Rhyme and Reason (a treasure trove of books and records I practically lived in when I was young and which, despite the best efforts of the Council, is still hanging on). Hunter’s Bar and the area around Kelham Island still have an abundance of very decent pubs. Sheffield’s parks (and the cafés in the parks) are an absolute joy. The walk from Endcliffe Park through Forge Dam and up Jacob’s Ladder towards the peaks and dales of Derbyshire rivals any holiday jaunt in Tuscany, and the echo of ancient civilisations around Mam Tor and Froggat Edge is just as resonant as symbols of the mysterious beliefs and rituals of lost civilisations at Teotihuacan.
Nevertheless I’m not all that loyal to the city. Neither of my parents is from there and (partly as a result) I don’t sound like a local. There are far more well-informed spokespeople for the city than me. Growing up in Sheffield was pretty much all I knew and it took me until a long time after I’d left to begin to reflect on the geographic and social layout of the city and where I stood in relation to it. Nevertheless it’s the city I’ve spent more time in than anywhere else, and contains numerous people and places who and which will always be among the most precious in my life. I also feel an occasional burst of sentimental pride, mostly from a distance. I can detect traces of deep class solidarity in this video, filmed in a friend’s local pub on the night that Thatcher finally died. I’ll also happily admit to feeling a sense of intense melancholy joy at the end of Synth Britannia at the moment where the LA synth-pomp of ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ kicked in.
But the strongest sense of being part of a community of those born and brought up in Sheffield was in March 2015, when I was part of a group of organisers of a march in London on the theme of Climate Change. Just a few weeks before, on a stormy afternoon, we’d been walking by a river in Derbyshire following several days’ rainfall, admiring the sheer force of the water. The city of Sheffield came into existence as a result of a particular confluence of climatic forces, and in turn played a key role in the development of the industrial age which has come to jeopardise our future as a species. That’s why it felt particular fitting and moving to see on Youtube a group of local choir members gathered at the station to set off for the demonstration, singing an Italian partisan anthem remade for times which will, if we choose to face up to our responsibilities, require similar levels of sacrifice and courage:
* In an exclusive interview with this website, my sister had the following to say:
I was a 14 year old child star but the rock n roll lifestyle was too much so I had to get a career in the aviation industry when the offers dried up. (The following day). There were 3 locations that we had to be at & that were at various stages in the aftermath of a nuclear war…the film is on you tube I think x