The squeezed earth. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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Will Self: We like to feel cosy in our happy little tribes – but it’s a big world, after all

In my visual field alone there must have been 5,000 people suffering.

On the terrace of the Hotel Alsisar Halevi, the guests waft about in the shifting shades of the Indian night. Braziers are alight, sending streams of sparks shimmering into the local and empurpled void; I clutch my orange juice and am perfectly at ease in my conversational group of one. Then Faisal approaches: he has a fawn pullover, cords and thick sideburns of hipsterish extent. He introduces himself and says that he knows of me and my recent travails (I’ve spent the day being shot up with muscle relaxant and going for X-rays, suspecting a cracked rib after a fall sustained while kicking a ball for the dog), because a friend texted him moments ago, who shares a mutual friend with my daughter, who’s accompanying me on this visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“Wow,” I say, “it’s a small world indeed when this feedback-loop of social connectivity lassoes you on a terrace thousands of miles from home.” Then I check myself: isn’t it absurd to be saying such things when all around us swirls the great whirl of Indian humanity, a multitude currently numbered in the region of 1.2 billion? I vouchsafe this to Faisal but he dissents: “No, it is a small world, if you mean people who speak English and have disposable income . . .”

He runs on – but I’m already crunching the numbers aloud, adding guestimates of the US population to those of the Anglophone Africans, Asians and so forth. Meanwhile, Faisal further shrink-wraps his small world: “. . . and an elite education . . .”

“Whoa!” I pull him up short. “That’s a hell of a qualification and, besides, what exactly do you mean by ‘an elite education’?”

We kick this one around for a bit (dangerous in my condition), before agreeing there can be at best 100 million of this ilk smeared across the mondial canvas. I suppose I can understand Faisal, hailing as he does from such a populous place, finding even this multitudinous company to be, um, claustrophobic. But recall: I was perfectly happy in my colloquy of one. When I first went to India in 1984, its population was a paltry 750 million, while the world’s overall was around 4.5 billion. Thirty very odd years later, India has increased by around seven Britains’ worth, while the world has stuffed itself with two full Indias (if you see what I mean) and called for more poppadoms.

I remember standing outside the Red Fort in Delhi and realising that within my visual field alone there must be 5,000 people who were – judging by their appearance – suffering. They were emaciated; they had sores and chancres; many hundreds of men were simply standing there, staring listlessly, with flies hovering around their eyes. Old women lay by the roadside on piles of rags and vice versa. Children played with shit. Good little liberal humanist that I was, I felt outraged that such things could be going on. After all, as I understood it, everybody – with a little help, admittedly – was capable of being both rational and altruistic, so what I was witnessing had to be the result of a cock-up in the distribution department. Happiness and good health simply weren’t being spread about enough.

That was then: I’m no longer a good little liberal humanist and, though I hope I feel as much compassion as I ever did, I’m afraid I accept that while efforts to ameliorate poverty should always be made, by the same token, some people will always remain in the shit. What bamboozles me about our attitudes to our pullulating population is the strange ulterior accord between liberal humanists and the every-sperm-is-sacred theists they otherwise so excoriate. Humanists, revering the human as they do, cannot in their innermost being object to an extra billion people here or there and underlying this is a perverse utilitarian calculus: it may be objected that with greater numbers the happiness of any given individual decreases but, since the desideratum is greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number, a few billion more marginally less in the shit counts as a triumph of progress.

At least, this is what I want to convey to Faisal; this and the strangely vertiginous condition of contemporary humanity, always seeking to make the world we live in cosy by fashioning our own little tribal groups out of the rampaging hordes. I begin to expatiate in this manner, using the analogy of those peculiarly pleasing machines they have at airports that swaddle your suitcases in shrink-wrapping.

“You see, Faisal,” I say, “you have to think of the world as a suitcase that’s been packed too full; the obvious thing to do is leave some stuff behind but that’s not the way humanity behaves. Instead we try to wrap the thing tighter and tighter – arguably that’s the role of the social media that informed you about my doings. It’s a transparent film we stretch over our faces, pulling them into some semblance of familiarity, but this is a futile endeavour. It doesn’t matter how hard we try; we can’t transform 100 million people into a happy little family . . .” And I would continue in this vein, were it not that Faisal, muttering an apology, leaves me to myself and wanders off to join a much larger group on the other side of the terrace.

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 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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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