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Personal Story: Football in the shadow of Brexit and Trump

How Aldershot Town FC helped me escape from – and make sense of – the new populist order.

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“Just three minutes left, it doesn’t really matter,” Kenneth Wolstenholme reassured the nation at about 4.48pm on 30 July 1966, my 15th birthday, as Geoff Hurst dragged his shot wide. At which point my father – only 41, but a man already deeply rooted to his armchair – stood up, shook his fist at the screen and shouted, “Of course it fucking matters!” A couple of minutes later, with England trying desperately to reach the haven of the final whistle, West Germany duly equalised. In the end, of course, it didn’t matter: 4-2 to the boys in red, the Jules Rimet Trophy secured, and a foundation date placed in the Brexit myth kitty.

My father, who died in 1999, would undoubtedly have voted Leave. He came from small-town Shropshire; went to a minor public school (Ellesmere College); took part in D-Day; spent most of his working life as an army officer; never to my knowledge read a novel (though I once spotted a copy of The Virgin Soldiers on his bedside table); each year, devoured the latest Whitaker’s Almanack; loved Gilbert and Sullivan; was proud of his MCC membership; went off on his own to Gibraltar to celebrate his 50th birthday; voted Conservative as a matter of course; and was the most faithful, unquestioning of Daily Telegraph readers, invariably turning first to the page announcing the latest deaths.

We never talked about politics, indeed never talked about anything much. In April 1968, two days after Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, he drove me back to my boarding school, Wellington College, for the summer term: I remember the news on the radio that Edward Heath had sacked Powell from the shadow cabinet, but have no recollection of my father commenting. But some ten years later – no longer a regular officer but in charge of the army’s recruiting office in Birmingham – it was an unashamedly send-them-home Powellite line that he took in a letter to the Shrewsbury Chronicle. We only had one political flashpoint, in 1970 when out of the blue he wrote an angry letter threatening to disinherit me if he found I was part of “the rabble” seeking to prevent the South African cricket tour. Otherwise, there was a wary cross-generational silence: not unusual, I suspect, in many middle-class homes of the time.

Yet, as so often with seemingly straightforward lives, it was a bit more complicated than that. Arthur’s first wife was Gisela (my mother); he met her few years after the war while posted in Germany and persuaded her to come to England and marry him. I still sometimes wonder what, in the 1950s, his army colleagues made of this otherwise unimpeachable young officer being married to a German woman. The relationship didn’t work out, and in 1960 she left him. Soon afterwards he remarried, this time to Vivienne, who was half-French, which I’m sure added glamour in his eyes. But in his last four decades he had no desire to revisit France. A glimpse of Normandy in June 1944 had been enough.

***

Full of small red-bricked Victorian terraced houses, Aldershot is a town in north-east Hampshire with a past as well as present utterly different from those of its smugly prosperous civilian neighbours such as Farnham or Guildford. In the 1850s the Illustrated London News lamented Prince Albert’s choice of “a waste of boggy moor dreary and repellent in its aspect” for building a military camp; Thomas Hardy called it Quartershot; Osbert Sitwell found it “little Prussia in its very essence”, with its large red-brick Victorian barracks and bleak drill grounds; and between the wars, the annual Military Tattoo was an integral part of the London social calendar. But by the time of my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, the writing was nearly on the wall. Aldershot still proudly proclaimed itself “The Home of the British Army”, but this was an army beginning a long, slow shrinkage as Britain retreated from imperial responsibilities. The somehow splendidly grim, fortress-like barracks were being replaced by soulless concrete; and the Beatles played in 1961 at the Palais Ballroom to 18 people and never returned.

Having been born in a military hospital overlooking the football ground there in 1951, I’ve always thought of Aldershot as “my” place. We moved around during much of the rest of the 1950s, but by 1959 were living in a nearby village when on Easter Monday my father took me to the Recreation Ground to see the Shots for the first time (a 4-2 win against Gillingham in the old Fourth Division, kindling in me a lifetime’s allegiance). More moves followed in the 1960s, but in 1972 my father (the improbable Commandant of the Army School of Physical Training), my stepmother and I were living in Aldershot, at 7 Knollys Road, as the IRA took revenge for Bloody Sunday by blowing up, just down the road, the officers’ mess of the paratroop regiment, killing seven people (mainly women from the catering staff). Our windows were blown out, but the house was empty and I was away at university.

Over the next 40 years, as adult life took over and I lived mainly in London, Aldershot increasingly meant snatched visits to the Rec. There, next to the railway line in a homely if rather battered ground blessed with an abundance of trees, the fortunes of the Shots – Aldershot Town FC – oscillated wildly. In 1992 they left the Football League mid-season for financial reasons, then reformed as Aldershot Town in the fifth tier, returning to the League in 2008 and dropping down again five years later. Often I went on my own, and in a solipsistic way took relatively little notice of those around me. 

Something changed in 2011, as the Shots played at West Ham in the League Cup. It was the biggest match for many years. Suddenly in the first half, surrounded by hugely committed away supporters and feeling a rush of warmth towards them – few in all probability likely candidates for life’s glittering prizes – I had a kind of epiphany. I realised that Michael Young all those years before in his dystopian The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) had been right; that there was real danger in society becoming dominated by arrogant, self-serving, self-perpetuating “meritocratic” elites, valuing brain above heart and disdainful of the manual workers below them doing all the rubbish, ill-paid jobs. Epiphanies come and go, and no doubt the adrenalin was flowing that evening at Upton Park, but possibly for the first time I saw the Shots as part of a bigger picture.

[See also: Intelligent football: Michael Cox and the rise of tactical analysis]

Aldershot itself was by the 2010s in serious economic decline, with a palpably rundown centre. “Like an ex-mining town mysteriously transplanted to the stockbroking belt,” was Matthew Engel’s stark take in 2014. There was also the charged Nepalese factor: following Joanna Lumley’s successful campaign to persuade the government to allow veteran Gurkha soldiers and their families to settle in the UK, in practice often in Aldershot. “Lumley’s Legacy” was by 2014 the name of a Facebook group enabling white residents to sound off about the borough’s mainly very impoverished incomers – the Nepalese community numbered up to 10,000 – while three years later a sticker proclaiming “We’re having a party when Lumley Dies – Aldershot Town FC”, a message immediately disowned by the club itself, was found prominently displayed on a local train. Unsurprisingly, in June 2016, Aldershot followed the national “left behind” trend, voting heavily for Leave; and a few weeks later, I decided to keep a diary, starting on 30 July, my 65th birthday and the 50th anniversary of England’s World Cup victory.

***

My own political trajectory during the half-century after 1966 was probably typical enough of a university-educated (which described only 10 per cent of my peers), white, middle-class male of my generation. Broadly “left liberal” throughout, but as an adolescent worshipping at the shrine of EM Forster rather than Karl Marx, before moving sharply leftwards in the 1970s as a young historian under the sway of EP Thompson. Then there was the long stretch of parenthood, of earning a living, of general middle-aged muddle and declining appetite for political certainties. This took me to a point where, with two major exceptions – the failure to embrace stakeholder capitalism; the failure to do anything about private schools – I was not too unhappy, on the domestic front anyway, with New Labour. Social class remained over that half-century the main prism through which I viewed the world, though I came to appreciate, albeit too slowly, the importance of gender and race also. What I simply failed to grasp, except in the most nominal way, was the deep and abiding visceral resonance of monarchy, of patriotism, of nationalism – notions that I found not only off-putting but also for the most part just plain dull. They represented, I felt, a one-dimensional affront to life’s and people’s infinite variousness. I was not, I am sure, alone.

Looking back, I had my chances; I did not have to be quite so obtuse. During the Jubilee summer of 1977, I came out of Highbury & Islington station one afternoon to find a huge crowd at Highbury Corner waiting for the Queen to swing round in her car, and when she duly did so I was forcibly struck by the look of unadulterated fairy-tale happiness on everyone’s faces as they cheered loudly. Five years later, watching on TV the emotional, uncomplicatedly patriotic scenes at Portsmouth as the ships sailed out to the Falklands, and later returned, I saw an England that, in my ignorance, I hadn’t realised any longer existed. In 1985 I moved to an outer London suburb where, for many years, such was the embedded social conservatism that it would have been unthinkable to see two men walking down the high street holding each other’s hands. And yet I still made assumptions about what I felt was an instinctively progressive population; still believed that the tide of history was going “my way”.

When in the early hours of 24 June 2016 it became clear – against my nervous expectations – that Leave had won, my gut reaction was nothing to do with Europe as such but instead a dark, ominous conviction that the barbarians were at the gate, perhaps even inside. It seemed that the coarsening of our public discourse – started by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun in the 1970s, exploited by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, left unchecked by New Labour – had reached its apotheosis with a toxic mix of xenophobic (often implicitly racist) headlines and shameless politicians. Suddenly it felt like the biggest political moment of my lifetime, with a future dangerous as well as unknown.

***

It’s usually good to have inspirational influences, however short one falls, and mine was Virginia Woolf, in my view the great British diarist of the past century or more. Admittedly helped by the existence of a servant class, she would snatch half an hour before lunch or dinner and, with little in the way of preparation, scribble rapidly about her doings, her thoughts, her observations, catching time on the wing. I tried to do the same, often on the train to Waterloo, and at times it felt like being back in the exam room: that fourth essay that in theory had 45 minutes allocated to it, but in practice barely 20 minutes left, as syntax took a back seat.

What was the diary “about”? When friends asked I told them it had three main strands: it was partly about following my team (as often as possible in the flesh) through the nine months of the 2016-17 season of the Vanarama National League; partly autobiographical and discursive; and partly a record of what was going on in the world at large (at which point I invariably mouth the words “Brexit” and “Trump”). All that is true, yet I realise now, reading it through, that it was also, at a deeper, more personal level, the vehicle for some kind of internal quarrel, as – like many people – I began the painful, chequered process of coming to terms with the new populist, nationalist, post-liberal and potentially authoritarian dispensation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, conflicted feelings and even incoherence reigned that memorable if enervating autumn and winter. In early October, following Theresa May’s Tory conference attack on “citizens of nowhere”, I’m accepting that, yes, identity matters and “man is tribal”, but ultimately (that day anyway) concluding that the values of the traditional, liberal-minded political class remain “the values I would still sign up to”, whatever those politicians’ failings. A month later, just before the US presidential election, it’s a long train journey wrestling with John Gray in this magazine, as his withering phrase about the “self-admiring angst” of the liberal mind hits home hard. And shortly before Christmas, in the context of a triumphalist Charles Moore in the Spectator declaring that it is time for the socially liberal elite to leave the field and let the other side (the people’s side) have their turn, my entry mixes guilt about my remoteness from working-class life (but any more remote than Moore’s?) with stubborn defence of liberalism, albeit “a tougher-minded, more self-critical, less hypocritical liberalism”.

As the election approaches and one prays daily Trump’s political end draws near, revisiting my diary I feel I more or less got him right. I wobbled twice. The first time was, before the inauguration, after finishing Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. “Unlike Dickens, Trollope really understood human nature – how everyone is a mixture of good & bad, how our motives are always mixed… Perhaps it’s stupid to call Trump a ‘monster’. Perhaps, he genuinely wants for his country what he sees as the best.” The second wobble came a month after inauguration. “I look at photos of Trump and, yes, I still feel a strong measure of loathing, fear, distaste, etc. But also, at some level, a grudging respect, a sort of, ‘You’ve got to hand it to him’ feeling… Is there any chance that this could turn into the merest bat’s squeak of affection? My God, I hope not.” It didn’t. “The bat’s-squeak moment is over,” I gratefully scribbled the next day. “Lucy [my wife] told me the story of Trump buying the Florida country house that he turned into a country club. It had a fine library full of first editions, etc – a library that he trashed in order to convert it into a bar, complete with a large, commissioned portrait of himself in tennis whites.”

[See also: John Gray: State of the nation]

Meanwhile the Shots, like the band on the Titanic, played on. For me they were  a merciful alternative focus of emotional energy. Perhaps in retrospect I should have made my diary more of a work of journalistic reportage, perhaps I should have ventured on to the terraces of the East Bank, where if there were Aldershot equivalents of Italian “ultras” they were surely to be found; but, realistically, I had neither the skills nor the temperament. And indeed, I had no great desire to examine too closely any political differences between my fellow supporters and myself. Instead, I was perfectly happy to be sitting in the cramped South Stand – the opposite side of the ground from the directors’ box – and feel that I was in the middle of a very standard, middle-of-the-road football crowd, most of them, like me, tribally willing the Shots on. Among these mainly middle-aged or elderly white men there was plenty of humour, often sardonic; prejudice of course, but rarely if at all any outright bigotry; and a hard time guaranteed for the nearby “lino”, of whatever race or gender, or the opposition player who dared steal ten yards at a throw-in, something of course that no home player would ever stoop to doing. Nobody was a louder critic of these transgressives than a man of about my age sitting in the row in front; but when, midway through the second half, the announcer gave the total for the number of visiting supporters, he invariably turned to them and, in a small but touching act of basic human decency, clapped appreciatively.

***

If Shots in the Dark had a presiding spirit, it was not an Aldershot player – not Cheye Alexander the speedy right-back, or Bernard Mensah the livewire winger, or even Jake Gallagher the midfield scrapper – but instead Leonard Cohen; since 1968 second only to Bob Dylan in my musical pantheon and to whose albums I was listening with a friend each Thursday evening that autumn. In late October we heard for the first time, “almost awestruck”, his bleak yet inspiring new album, You Want It Darker; the day after Trump’s victory, it was the turn of 2001’s Ten New Songs. The next morning came the news of Cohen’s death, which in fact had happened on the Monday. People – as he might have reflected that dreadful week with his great generosity of spirit and wit – trump ideology. And all those small towns with their small football clubs are full of people: people, deep down, not so different from me, from my unreconstructed father whom I still miss, and from all those New Zealanders who in 1981 protested with passionate conviction outside the grounds against the visiting South African rugby team – but took their transistor radios with them so as not to miss the score.

"Shots in the Dark: A Diary of Saturday Dreams and Strange Times" by David Kynaston is published by Bloomsbury