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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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood