Passengers on a crowded tube train, 2014. Photo: Getty.
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Behold how the wage-slaving grunts welcome the invasion of the rent-a-squaddies

Britain’s ongoing flirtation with a military way of life.

At peak hours, Oxford Circus Tube station in London is now so busy that they often shut the steel accordion gates at all four entrances and the crowd backs up, filling the pavement and milling into the roadway. The other evening, returning from my constitutional swim in the Marshall Street baths, I was struck by this noteworthy phenomenon: cheek-by-bluing- jowl with the lowing herd of quiescent commuters, I watched a young woman using both her pinioned hands to text a long message on her phone, as the gates were opened and the tight pack carried her inexorably down the steep, rain-slicked steps and into the bowels of the earth. Was this sheer sangfroid, I wondered, or simply a faith in the inherent orderliness of the British mob? After all, any number of manias might have gripped these clenched folk while she concentrated on her tapping and toggling – she could easily have slipped and been trampled by Evening Standard readers; a fate, I’m sure you’ll agree, far worse than death.

This little vignette of contemporary urban life returned to me a few nights later as, stopping my bike in Hyde Park to light a maximally high-tar cigarette, I was overwhelmed by a platoon of office workers being quick-jogged past me; at the rear was a superannuated squaddie wearing camouflage trousers and carrying a heavy pack on his back, who as he ran up and down shouted orders at them: “Tighten up, now! Come on, keep moving!” I’d witnessed this phenomenon before – and I dare say you have, as well. British Military Fitness (BMF) now holds sessions at over 100 venues around the country; as it so appositely puts it on its website, it has “nine parks in and around Birmingham”, four in Edinburgh, and so on. This bizarre territorial expansion is likely to continue: after all, Major Robin Cope, who started BMF in 1999, held his first outdoor fitness class with a mere three recruits and, given the subsequent rapid advance, we can look forward to no dog-shit-bedizened scrap of public space being without its tracksuited occupiers by, say, 2025.

What a strange invasion it is. It was said of Field Marshal Montgomery that he hung a sign on the flap of his HQ tent during the desert campaign that read, “I’m 99 per cent fit – are you?” But I doubt even his fervidly repressed imagination could have dreamed up the spectacle of 20 or 30 flabby arses rising and falling as one, as their possessors are inveighed at by their hireling commanders to hump the muddy ground.

I’m not so fanatic an individualist that I can’t understand the appeal of getting fit in this way but it’s one thing to voluntarily join an association of like-minded sports folk and quite another to pay for the privilege of being treated like a grunt. Besides, what have these people been all day if not under orders? Like the young woman at Oxford Circus, they’ve been moved by the crowd, their feet scarcely touching the ground, from mortgaged home to wage-slaving work, and now they’re in a darkened park being further molested. It’s a hardy perennial in the British political park that what the anomic youth need is a bit of military discipline. While cost – far more than public objection – is a bar to bringing back national service, the coalition seeks to continue the long-running bout in which flyweight Britain is tag-teamed with the heavyweight hegemon by putting reservist amateurs in the ring.

Still, while BMF is around, no one need fear a decline in national morale, nor an inability to field fighting-fit computer programmers and estate agents should the balloon happen to go up. In Hyde Park, puffing on my fag, I asked a camo-man who was locking the BMF van why his fellow instructors always seemed to carry heavy packs. I expected him to say they were full of rocks, to show the doughy what it was like to be 99 per cent doughty – but he only barked at me, “Water!” before breaking into a run.

After the First World War, quite a number of ex-army types sought to strengthen the national backbone by forming political organisations that drilled in public parks, in uniform. Eventually, the government had to crack down on them – but it seems that BMF is above the law when it comes to being paramilitary; perhaps because its uniforms are so risible but more probably because its fanatical ideology represents no threat to our supine and flabby state whatsoever.
 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era