Richard Harris as the Yorkshire coal miner and rugby player Franc Machin in the 1963 film "This Sporting Life". Photo: Rex Features/Moviestore Collection
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Why is Rugby League still patronised as a mud-splattered, parochial throwback?

Rugby league is the product of a very English revolution. It still has an egalitarian, anti-establishment, strictly northern way of viewing the world. That it has failed to make the world listen, or watch, only confirms its outlaw – and so grittily romantic.

A much-admired Observer cartoon of the 1980s, drawn by the incomparable Trog, contrasted a pair of Home Counties champagne swillers, basking in the sun, with a gloomy middle-aged couple from the north. The latter, sheltering from the rain, observed: “They’ve got their prime minister, why can’t we have ours?” Had they been from Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumbria, they might have been tempted to add, on a more defiant note: “They’ve got their rugby, we’ve got ours.”

In spite – or maybe because – of Margaret Thatcher’s divisiveness and the return of the geographical fault lines that marked that low, dishonest decade, the umbilical cord between the 13-a-side oval ball game and its northern heartlands remains intact. Whatever side of the north-south divide you happen to fall on, there should be a deep appreciation that a small corner of northern England – between junctions seven and 38 of the M62 – will be forever rugby league.

In late November, fans and players from Leeds Rhinos came to see my dark comedy about Eddie Waring, Playing the Joker, at West Yorkshire Playhouse. As the Q and A afterwards illustrated, in an age of sporting globalisation and postmodern homogenisation – and after three decades of manufacturing decline – the self-styled people’s game has not only survived but flourishes as the apotheosis of northern defiance. According to Professor Tony Collins, author of Rugby’s Great Split, being a fan has become “almost a daily act of defiance. People are choosing to follow a sport that is ignored, in the main, by the establishment. It’s seen as outside the mainstream. People are making a decision to do something that is aberrant. In today’s Britain, we should all be going to watch the Premier League, then catching up with the Six Nations and then looking forward to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. So to say, ‘No, I’m going to watch the rugby league’ – it’s a political act, albeit with a small ‘p’.”

We northerners are well-balanced people: we have chips on both our shoulders. One of our long-standing gripes is that Their Rugby – union – is treated as a national sport while Our Rugby – league – is patronised as a parochial throwback to a mud-splattered, black-and-white, trouble-at-the-mill world of slag heaps, Tetley’s ale, black pudding, whippets, brass bands and bizarrely accented, trilby-hatted buffoons droning on about “up and unders” and “early baths”.

The final of a World Cup contested by 14 nations takes place at Old Trafford on Saturday 30 November; proof enough, one would have thought, of rugby league’s global reach. Most pundits agree that the competition has been hugely entertaining. Big crowds have watched exciting games at a variety of venues in England, Wales, Ireland and France. But, as John Prescott put it with typical bluntness: “You’ve probably heard very little about this because the London-dominated media prefer the posher rugby union to its rougher working-class northern cousin.” As a broadsheet columnist remarked after watching this season’s Challenge Cup final, “The game remains a prisoner of geography.”

It’s as if, as another icon of northern defiance once put it, the world won’t listen. Or, more to the point, watch. (I’m not sure Morrissey’s a fan; I can’t recall Waring joining Pat Phoenix, Viv Nicholson and Shelagh Delaney in the pantheon of Smiths cover stars.) “Why hasn’t the World Cup got a headline sponsor?” asks Phil Caplan, editor of the magazine Forty-20. “Because too many companies perceive the sport as being northern. If you’re content to be seen and talked about as a northern sport, that is exactly what it will be. There are more schools and juniors playing the sport in London than in Leeds and Wigan. Rugby union has heartlands, as does rugby league . . . but one is seen as a worldwide, global sport; the other as a northern, parochial one.”

Northern Union, as it was called on its formation in 1895, was the product of a very English revolution: a rebellion against the southern gentleman-amateur toffs who objected to working-class players being financially compensated for missing their Saturday morning shifts. Thirty years later, this breakaway northern league adopted open professionalism – while union remained an amateur sport until 1995.

Although both codes are now professional, they remain different entities. League is a more fluid, open game, having reduced teams from 15 to 13, dropped line-outs and phased out rucks and mauls and, to a large extent, scrums – and introduced “play the ball”, in which the tackled player heels the ball back to a teammate. From the interwar years, when a Bradford crowd sang “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’At” rather than “God Save the Queen” before a match between Britain and Australia, to the coal strike of 1984-85, when players who were blacklegs were jeered by their own supporters, it provided, according to the screenwriter Colin Welland, the north’s “cultural adrenalin”.

Welland was in the vanguard of a working class new wave that stormed the London barricades in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of his fellow writers, such as David Storey, Alan Sillitoe and Barry Hines, saw sport as an embodiment of local, collective identity. In This Sporting Life, for example, Storey – who had played professionally for Leeds – has his antihero Arthur Machin declaring: “There are no stars in this game. Just men like me.” The author unsentimentally depicted a game rooted in its environment; its graft, combativeness and occasional violence the product of the hard Pennine rock of the rugged hills. It had been built on the mines, docks and textile factories of the Industrial Revolution, which had bred, he argued, a “camaraderie that came from a united struggle, whether against nature or the class system”.

The problem is that, 50 years after Storey’s novel was adapted for the big screen, Rugby League Land has been completely transformed. The heavy industry that was its staple has gone. Take the tiny Yorkshire mining town of Featherstone. The two things that have any significance in its history are coal mining and rugby league. Residents used to hang their washing lines on the club’s post office ground. Before a game, perhaps apocryphally, if “Fev” needed a prop forward, an official would go to the top of the nearest mine shaft and whistle.

In 1995, thousands of people took to the streets to protest against a proposed merger with neighbouring clubs; unlike the campaign to keep their pits open a decade earlier, this action succeeded – but those traditional, fixed, stable, working-class communities, commemorated by Richard Hoggart in his book The Uses of Literacy, have mostly disappeared.

“The industries that formed the physique of the players either at semi-professional or amateur level are no more,” says Caplan. “Our raw material is in increasingly short supply.” It is one of the oldest clichés to say that sport mirrors life. Yet the demise of northern manufacturing, particularly in the mining communities of Featherstone, Castleford and Wakefield, the heavy woollen areas of Dewsbury and Batley and the railway engineering hub of Hoggart’s beloved Hunslet, has severely depleted the gene pool of many smalltown clubs.

In Books Do Furnish a Room, Anthony Powell wrote: “It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.” Everyone, Powell elaborated, has a personal myth. He was writing about fictional characters but the axiom can be applied equally to sport. Tennis, despite Andy Murray’s best efforts, remains wedded to the middle-class suburbs of the Home Counties. Rugby league’s personal myth is that it is the sporting expression of an overlooked, downtrodden, “true” England: a physical manifestation of collective solidarity, honest endeavour and commitment to fair play. This runs counter to the modern, marketed version of a dynamic, 21st-century summer sport, reinvented by Rupert Murdoch’s all-singing, all-dancing Super League.

There is a part of me that still buys into this myth. Like swaths of 20th-century variety hall comedy and pop music, from the Beatles to the Smiths, rugby league still has an egalitarian, anti-establishment, strictly northern way of viewing the world. That it has failed to make the world listen, or watch, only confirms its outlaw – and so grittily romantic – status.

According to Tony Collins, the tropes that define British sport have not changed in a century. “As in 1914, football is still the national sport. Rugby union is still strong in south Wales; in England, it’s still strong in the public schools, professions and universities, with a working-class fringe down in the south-west. And rugby league is strong in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Rugby league doesn’t have the financial strength of football or the institutional strength of rugby union.” Pundits have been predicting the death of rugby league since its formation but, as Collins notes, “This World Cup shows it’s very much alive and kicking.”

Since the great northern uprising of 1895, there have been periodic attempts to expand and rebrand: moving the Challenge Cup final to Wembley in 1929, offering up Waring as the nation’s unofficial court jester in the 1960s, setting up a London team, Fulham, in 1980, accepting the Murdoch shilling (£87m) in 1995. All of these moves have broadened the game’s base. At heart, however, it remains rooted in – perhaps locked into – its dissenting, regionally distinctive history. Rejoice.

Anthony Clavane’s “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” is published by Quercus (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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