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Tyson Fury is a victim of racism – from white people

He is part of a new golden age for British boxing, yet his traveller background means he is still not considered to be “one of us”.

The British love a rags to riches story, the more humble the beginnings the sweeter the scent of success. Perhaps it’s the residual effect of our empire days when a bloodlust saw us punching above our weight. Yet the reaction amongst certain quarters of the public and media to the rapid rise of unbeaten boxer Tyson Fury, a traveller, has been counter to this country’s propensity to always back its heroes. At times it has been insidious and shameful.

Speaking recently about his upcoming defence against Wladamir Klitschko, who he defeated to become heavyweight champion of the world, Fury was asked what had changed in his life since he achieved a life’s ambition: “Fury sounded almost sad when he replied ‘Nothing really, I just get more racial abuse and discrimination,’” reported the Guardian.

Fury is a rarity in the sporting word. He is the white, working-class, northern male who, like Wayne Rooney, Ricky Hatton or others before him, has nurtured a talent, yet unlike these he does not receive widespread adoration. In a decade when the thuggish John Terry has lead his country, why is this? The simple answer is prejudice. Fury’s is the story that many are simply embarrassed celebrate because his views don’t chime with the liberal consensus. To them he is not the “right” kind of hero. Rarer still, he is a white victim of racism – from white people. 

Some might argue that in expressing conservative Christian opinions he brings it on himself and Fury is often happy to indulge in provocation (usually in the lead up to fight), yet the public reaction to his views, and what this says about contemporary orthodoxies, is educational. Much of the backlash against him is from the liberal, the bookish, the superficially tolerant: those who ordinarily consider themselves defenders of free speech, ethnic equality, religious freedom.

To defend Fury’s opinions on homosexuality and abortion is not to agree with them, but rather recognise the right that Britain must always accept differing religious opinions. The prejudice against him, however, is predominantly ethnic. Anti-traveller racism is still seen by many as an acceptable racial taboo, the insult “pikey” publicly bandied about freely by some where the N- or P-words are not.

He needs to be considered in context. Fury is a fighter operating in the showman’s tradition, who alongside the likes of his cousin Hughie Fury, an impressive rising star, David Haye, and his latest adversary Anthony Joshua (polite, lives with his Mum; the media-sculpted yin to Fury’s wild-man yang), are ushering in a new golden age for British boxing. His spiel has a weight of history behind it. He knows this; his critics do not.

Many were aware of his father “Big John” Fury, long before his son took to the canvas. A handsome and formidable boxer in his heyday, Big John was a contender who also fought bare-knuckle. It was he who bestowed upon his son the middle name Tyson when he was born in 1988 just six weeks after Mike Tyson felled Michael Spinks in 91 spectacular seconds at Trump Plaza, Atlantic City, at the pinnacle of his fighting career. (Fury’s mother got her way in naming him Luke, after the key book of Gospels from which much of modern theological understandings of the origins of Christ are extrapolated.)

The Furys are related to Bartley Gorman, the late Uttoxeter-based, self-styled King of the Gypsies. Though it was a mantle many travellers adopted, Gorman’s claim was justified. His career was the stuff of legend, the flame-haired fighter battling in quarries and mine-shafts, and even once sparring with Mohammad Ali, mainly for honour. Another Fury predecessor was Manchester-based Uriah “Big Just” Burton, a much-feared fighter and unofficial community leader of sorts.

With bare-knuckle and unlicensed boxing now thriving, inspired partly by the true tales of these tarmac warriors, Tyson Fury instead chose the legitimate route. Not for him scrapping in car parks for chump change, but a lifetime of discipline, dieting and dedication for which he is now justly reaping the rewards: belts and money. And, sadly, abuse.

It is not merely the middle class intelligentsia who are divided about Fury, either. Watching him dismantle the mighty Klitschko on a pub screen in a town in the north-west on a Saturday night I was struck by the shameful ethnic epithets being shouted by some of the young white men watching the fight. He, they declared, was not one of their own.

To dismiss Tyson Fury is to overlook his talent, knockabout humour and humility among his fans. It also diminishes his standing among his own community, where he is respected as someone who has taken on the wider world with hard work – and won. In time, his career may be seen as a key stage in the building of bridges between travellers and mainstream society, and helping end anti-traveller prejudices once and for all. 

Ben Myers’ most recent novel “Beasting” won the Portico Prize For Literature

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others.

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge