Under the blue whale: at the PEN gala in New York. Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
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Being shocked is part of living in a democracy, said the Charlie Hebdo editor. Being shot is not

NS guest editor Neil Gaiman writes the diary.

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Six writers had pulled out of hosting ­tables at the PEN literary gala in New York. To host a table, you sit with eight people who have bought expensive tickets to the shindig in the vague hope of mingling with real writers. Your task is to make pleasant writerly conversation and not to spill your wine. Also, not to show disappointment when you realise that the whole table has been block-booked by, say, Google, and the people next to you don’t know who you are.

The six writer hosts who pulled out from the gala did so because among the awards that would be given that night was one for courage, going to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo. It was for having the courage to put out the magazine after the 2011 firebombing and after the 2015 murders – and the six writers did not want to be there when Charlie Hebdo got that award.

I was asked if I would host a table. I said of course. So did Art Spiegelman; so did the cartoonist Alison Bechdel.

I tell my wife. “You are doing the right thing,” she says. Then, “Will you wear a bulletproof vest?”

“No. I think the security in the natural history museum will be pretty tight.”

“Yes. But you should wear a bulletproof vest, anyway. Remember, I’m pregnant,” she points out, in case I have forgotten. “And our child will need a father more than a martyr.”

My assistant calls me regretfully on the afternoon of the gala. “With a little more time,” she says, “I could have got you a made-to-measure bulletproof vest, the kind the president wears under his shirt. But all I can find at this short notice is an oversized police flak jacket. You would have to wear it over your tuxedo . . .”

I weigh my options. On the one hand, possible death by gunfire. On the other, definite embarrassment. “That’s OK,” I tell her. “I’ll be fine.”

I wear a bow tie. Art Spiegelman wears his Nancy comic tie, to show that he is a cartoonist, and we travel uptown by subway. We reach the museum. There are police in the streets and on the steps and TV crews – mostly French TV crews. Nobody else is wearing a bulletproof vest. There is a metal detector, though, and we walk through it one by one, authors and officials and guests.

Hanging above us as we eat is a life-size fibreglass blue whale. If terrorist cells behaved like the ones in the movies, I think, they would already have packed the hollow inside of the blue whale with explosives, leading to an exciting third-act battle sequence on top of the blue whale between our hero and the people trying to set off the bomb. And if that whale explodes, I realise, even an oversized flak jacket worn over a dinner jacket could not protect me. I find this vaguely reassuring.

Tom Stoppard is given an award first. Then Charlie Hebdo’s award is given. Finally, they give an award to the arrested Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. I wonder why the idea of being in the room while Charlie Hebdo is honoured upset the six former table hosts enough that they had to not be there and they couldn’t have turned up for the bits they liked and supported and just sloped off to the toilets for the bit they felt uncomfortable with. But then, I don’t get only supporting the freedom of the kind of speech you like. If speech needs defending, it’s probably because it’s upsetting someone.

I suspect that the reason why it seems so simple to me and to those of us from the world of comics is that we are used to having to defend our work against people who want it – and us – off the shelves.

The first comics work I was ever paid for was in the 1987 Knockabout Comics book Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament. I was one of a few writers and I retold several stories, mostly from the Book of Judges. One story immediately got us into trouble: an account of the attempted rape of a male traveller to a town, thwarted by a host who offers the rapists his virgin daughter and the traveller’s concubine. A gang rape follows and the traveller takes his concubine’s corpse home, cuts it up and sends a segment of it to each of the tribes of Israel. (It’s Judges 19 and it’s pretty noxious.)

I was 26 and soon after publication I found myself on the radio defending the book, as a Tory MP complained about the lack of prosecutions for criminal blasphemy and how both the book and those who made it should be locked up; I watched the Sun attempt to stir up popular anger against it; and then, a few years later, I watched the Swedish publisher of the book fight to stay out of prison for publishing it over there.

Outrageous Tales was, let us make no bones of it, an offensive comic (we weren’t using the phrase “graphic novel” much in 1987). Its purpose, at least as far as I was concerned, was to shock, to point out that the Bible contained material that was outrageously unpleasant and to bring that out into the open, to let it be talked about, seen, discussed. The book existed, in part, to shock and to offend, because it was a reaction to material in the Bible that we found shocking and offensive.

In retrospect, I am glad I was not sentenced to prison for blasphemous libel, like Denis Lemon a decade earlier; glad that Knockabout’s Swedish publisher got off; and doubly glad that the fundamentalist Christian extremists back then mostly reserved their murders for doctors who performed abortions and did not, to the best of my knowledge, kill people who wrote or drew comics.

Comics and cartoons can viscerally upset and offend people. Cartoons and comics get banned and cartoonists get imprisoned and killed. Some comics are hard to defend, especially if you prefer prettier drawing styles, lack cultural context, or were ­hoping for subtlety. But that does not mean that they should not be defended.

Back beneath the fibreglass blue whale, Gérard Biard, the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, concludes his speech. “Growing up to be a citizen,” he reminds us, “is to learn that some ideas, some words, some images can be shocking. Being shocked is part of democratic debate. Being shot is not.”

***

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This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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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