You don't have to be mad to live here....

In praise of London's loonies

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the idle classes used to pay one pence, old money, to visit the Bedlam hospital so they could gawp and laugh at the zany antics of the mentally ill patients who were incarcerated there.

Thankfully we live in more enlightened times and understand that charging people to gape at the eccentricities of the psychologically impaired is morally wrong. It’s much more progressive to shut the hospitals down and force the loonies out on to the street, so we can witness their ridiculous frolics for free.

Not only is that one pence, old money, saved for us all every single day (that’s a latte and a half’s worth per annum), it also gives our lives an extra exciting frisson: we never know when one of these nutty pranksters will push us under a bus or stab us in the face with a knitting needle or shower us in a heady cocktail of their own bodily fluids and then stab us in the face with a knitting needle and push us under a bus. Everyone is a winner.

But once you get over the moral indignation and accept that there’s nothing you can do about it, you do start to realise that those insensitive Victorians had a point: the non compis mentis are pretty damned entertaining.

There’s the ginger haired man who wears shorts, whatever the weather, who wanders up and down the Thames tow-path arguing with himself: firstly saying something calm and reasonable, and then immediately yelling (at himself) “Will you just fucking shut up?!” Quietly, he will try and defend his previous position and then loudly object, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Fucking shut your fucking face, you fuck!”

There’s the aged lady who stands on the traffic island on Trinity Road in Tooting in a flimsy nightie, merrily exposing her ancient private parts to passing motorists. There’s the man in Hammersmith who scurries around with his shoulder to the wall and his eyes constantly staring at the ground, holding a sign saying, “I am under surveillance by the British Secret Service,” which you can only think is something that would be making their job a lot easier, if it were true.

Admittedly, any humour here is grim, any laughter hollow and dry-throated. Our amusement relies on us being able to ignore their individual tragedies, but that’s something, as a nation, that we’ve got pretty good at doing.

The true fascination with madness and the mad is our unspoken awareness that the line between sanity and insanity is as flimsy as a Trinity Road nightie in a hurricane. Which of us haven’t heard ourselves pontificating and wished we could shout expletives at ourselves? Which of us haven’t dreamt of running naked through the streets? Which of us doesn’t secretly believe we are having our every private moment filmed by a reality TV show, which everyone else is watching, but that doesn’t appear on our own television and that’s why people laugh at us in the street?

The mentally ill aren’t consciously challenging our pre-conceptions of the arbitrary notions of what is and isn’t acceptable, but that’s what they do. I wish that we did more to help them (whilst not really being prepared to do anything directly myself), though I’m not sure locking them away from sight is any more of a solution.

In a city where trying to engage in conversation with someone on a train that you’ve never met before is the height of lunacy, whilst having full sexual intercourse with someone you’ve only just met in a night-club is normality, it is tempting to ask, “Who are the madmen?”

In this case it’s the people trying to talk to strangers on a train, when they could just as easily be shagging them in a toilet. What are they thinking? The nutters!

Richard Herring began writing and performing comedy when he was 14. His career since Oxford has included a successful partnership with Stewart Lee and his hit one-man show Talking Cock
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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