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Las Vegas was a particularly American massacre

The US has a murder rate between three and five times higher than other developed countries.

When the killers are Muslims, American politicians – particularly if they are Republican – move quickly to analysis and policy solutions. The problem, they insist, is Islam and the solutions are to invade Muslim countries, keep out Muslim immigrants and step up surveillance of Muslims already in America.

When a 64-year-old white former accountant kills at least 59 in Las Vegas with rapid gunfire, there is nothing to see here, move along please and pray for the victims.

Whether or not the issue is the easy availability of guns, the frequency of mass killings in America – and a murder rate between three and five times higher than in other developed countries – suggests that something peculiarly American is at work. But many Americans, including President Trump, don’t want to think about that.

The Catalan myth

I suppose it is all right for Jeremy Corbyn to denounce the Spanish government for its violent attempt to suppress an independence referendum in Catalonia, though I would have thought Theresa May has enough to do without appealing “directly” to the Spanish PM, as Corbyn demands. Yet I hope that he and his allies haven’t fallen for the narrative of a plucky, oppressed minority fighting fascist monsters for freedom. Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions (the Basque country, where some are also keen on independence, is even richer), with a GDP per capita 60 per cent higher than that of Andalusia. Its independence supporters resent their taxes going to poorer regions, just as many Londoners do. I trust that no Labour leader would back a breakaway from the UK by London and the south-east.

Universal blunders

A former minister told me recently how he was amazed to find, when a new policy was proposed in his department, that the civil service did not immediately produce briefings on previous attempts to address whatever problem it was supposed to solve, the results of those attempts and the lessons to be learned. This year’s bungled introduction of universal credit is surely an example of such failure.

MPs report that many people face eviction from their homes because their existing benefits have stopped while they wait six weeks for the new one. Labour’s introduction of a tax credit scheme in 2003 went spectacularly wrong for almost exactly the same reasons. David Blunkett, then a cabinet minister, noted in his diary “tens of thousands of people without any money and no sign of their getting it in the near future”.

The story is told in The Blunders of Our Governments (2013), written by the late Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. Labour’s scheme required millions of indigent people, many of whom had never previously completed a tax return, to fill out complex forms about their previous year’s earnings, estimate their earnings for the next year and notify the authorities each time their circumstances changed. Nearly two million eligible people failed to claim. Some 300,000 who did claim didn’t receive their payments in time. Two million were overpaid, causing further distress when, at the end of the year, they received peremptory demands to repay what seemed to them enormous sums. As the ombudsman observed, the system created “in-built financial insecurity”.

Labour’s tax credits failed largely because the ministers and civil servants who designed them didn’t understand that poor families often live hand-to-mouth, managing their finances on a weekly basis not across a whole year. It seems incredible that such a recent lesson has not been learned.

The meanies’ money

The Tory leader of Westminster Council, Nickie Aiken, proposes to invite the borough’s richest property owners to pay a voluntary mansion tax. Don’t mock. The tax could work if those who didn’t pay up were named and shamed on internet sites, along with photographs (taken by tabloid newspaper snappers who are experts at making people look selfish and evil), full addresses and copious background details of how the meanies came by their money.

Street-fighting men

In all the finger-wagging commentary about Ben Stokes’s unfortunate encounters outside a Bristol nightclub, I have seen no mention of Ian Botham’s remarkably similar encounters outside a Scunthorpe nightclub just before Christmas 1980. After a man suffered head and body injuries, Botham, then the England cricket captain, was charged, along with his friend Joe Neenan, Scunthorpe United’s goalkeeper, with assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Though Neenan pleaded guilty at the local magistrates court and was fined, Botham denied the charge and opted for trial.

A few weeks later, still as captain, he led England to the West Indies. He eventually lost the captaincy because of several England defeats and a deterioration in his form, not because of off-field misdemeanours. He then returned spectacularly to form and became a national hero, winning three test matches against Australia almost single-handedly. During that summer of 1981, the assault charge was hardly mentioned. At the trial, conveniently delayed until September, the jury failed to agree. The judge ordered a “not guilty” verdict to be entered.

What are the differences between Botham’s case and that of his fellow all-rounder Stokes, the England vice-captain, released under investigation after police questioned him on identical charges? First, Botham went out on the town after playing in a professional football match, not, as Stokes did, in the middle of an international cricket series. Second, whereas a video emerged of the Stokes incident, there was no visual record of the Botham incident. Otherwise, I am struggling to think of significant differences. Yet commentators are almost unanimous that Stokes must be stripped of the vice-captaincy and dropped from this winter’s tour of Australia. As Americans would say, go figure. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer

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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

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. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia