Image: Laura Carlin
Show Hide image

“We should not hold current states accountable for what happened in the distant past”

But consigning events to history should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs: they can help heal rifts. 

Spring is a time to start again, and that may involve deliberately putting out of one’s mind what has gone before. The discomfort and dark of winter should be forgotten. Many years ago a friend of mine lent somebody his tent. This was in Scotland, where tents – and everything else – will inevitably get wet. The borrower used the tent and then stored it in a damp state before giving it back. The owner was a tolerant man but was nonetheless outraged by the mould he discovered, and we all got to hear a great deal of the incident. This all took place more than 30 years ago, but I am not sure whether he has yet forgiven the borrower.

I had occasion to think about the mouldy tent on a recent book tour of Australia. I was reminded of the issue by the custom of prefacing public occasions – such as talks at literary festivals – with a reference to the original inhabitants of the place where the meeting is being held.

Not everybody likes it, and some regard it as irritating tokenism, particularly where the original inhabitants have long since dispersed. The main argument in its defence is that it reminds us of a past that has not entirely lost its capacity to determine who has or gets what today. In the case of Australia, it underlines the fact the continent was not terra nullius when Europeans first settled in it, but was already inhabited by people who had been there for a very long time. What happened to those people is something that today’s Australians are prepared to face up to, even if there are some who would prefer that the matter be ignored. So even if it is a form of tokenism, it is symptomatic of a healthy assumption of responsibility for what our ancestors did.

But the problem with this is deciding the limits of historical responsibility. When should history be deprived of its impact on how we see ourselves and how we conduct our lives? This year it would be impossible to ignore the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. That war was an appalling disaster, but is it still “potent” history, in the sense that it affects the modern world? The answer to that must be yes: many of the contours of the modern world are the discernible result of that conflict. Going back into the 19th century, one will find plenty of historical events that still cast their shadow today, but the further one reaches into the past the safer it is to relegate matters to “inactive” history. This distancing of ourselves from the past is necessary if we are to face the world without the clutter of too much historical baggage.

Of course the idea of insulating oneself from the past suits those who are unwilling to redress injustice. Slavery is an interesting example. In this country we like to think that history remembers us as the abolitionists. Actually we were a major part of the problem in the first place, and amnesia cannot let us off the hook quite so easily. If one travels to some of the poorer parts of the Caribbean, one can still see the scars of slavery. This is what fuels the current calls for reparation. We may feel that it is just too long ago – ancient history. It is, perhaps, for us – but it is not, quite understandably, for them.

Should we have some sort of 100-year rule, akin to the rule that allows official papers to be opened to historians after a certain period? That would relieve Britain of current blame for the concentration camps of the Boer war but not for the treatment of prisoners during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

This is not to say, though, that we should forget entirely; rather it is to suggest that we should not hold any current states or groups accountable for what happened in the distant past. As a Scot, I rather doubt that the Highland Clearances can be laid at the door of anybody who is around today, although I know that there are those who would put the spotlight on those descendants of landowners who still enjoy ill-gotten gains. Nor do I think that we should invest too much emotion in Bannockburn, another anniversary coming up this year. We have a referendum in September at which we do not really need to think too much of William Wallace.

Consigning events to the past should not preclude the need for apology for ancient wrongs. It may be absurd to expect today’s Scandinavians to issue an apology for the behaviour of the Vikings, but the Queen’s bowing of her head in Ireland was a helpful gesture, even if it did not amount to an explicit apology. National apologies can heal rifts, just as failures to apologise in sufficiently unambiguous terms may prolong friction. Japan has discovered that in the reaction to its various official, often rather half-hearted statements of remorse over atrocities committed during the Second World War.

Back to the referendum. I have a friend who is, quite astonishingly, still sore about the Stuarts and the failure of attempts at their restoration. Whatever one’s views on
Scottish independence, perhaps we should move on from whatever ancient baggage we lug around with us – a resounding cliché, and yet a good one, as is the proposition that wherever the future lies, it is not in the past.

Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel is “The Forever Girl” (Polygon, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

Getty
Show Hide image

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