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Pitched battles

In the noughties, Britain's most magnificent export is sport-related fighting.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Politics

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  • No one likes us, we are Oakland

What with England’s urban population seemingly taking up that once-quintessentially-American pastime – gang-induced gun-crime – it transpires that burghers of the USA have recently become partial to that traditional English activity: football hooliganism.

Not soccer hooliganism of course, but thuggery of the oval-ball, gridiron-inspired variety. After the Oakland Raiders vanquished the Tennessee Titans earlier this month to make it to last weekend’s Superbowl final, 55 fans were arrested. Similarly, when the San Diego Chargers met the Raiders last month, there resulted 120 arrests for brawling and drunkenness.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. When fans of the Raiders and Chargers met four years ago, 150 rioting supporters were arrested, with TV cameras transmitting pictures of a security guard being hurled through the air (much like an American football). At the end of 2001, fans of Cleveland and New Orleans rioted for two days (following a controversial refereeing decision). Even college football has been afflicted – in November 2002, trouble erupted in six states across the country during college games.

Although this can hardly be considered an epidemic, it does point to an interesting trend. That the English were always given to hooliganism was attributed to several unique factors: our post-imperial hang-up (we think we should still own the world; ‘who won the bloody war anyway?’); our class system, which regards bad behaviour as a function of the pathologies of working-class culture; and our lax attitude to alcohol. In the USA, a man under-21 will invariably find it impossible to buy a drink legally. He is therefore unlikely to get tanked up and start a row.

What can we attribute this change to? The English used to say that even if we had hooligans at least we had safe cities. Our young men channelled their violence through sport; America’s did so through gang warfare instead. Since the mid-1980s, there has been a reversal. While crime in urban America has dropped, in England it has risen. Twenty years ago, an English football ground was one place in the country you felt genuinely afraid; today it is the one place you will feel safe. In America there has been a switch in the other direction.

I favour the theory that this represents one of England’s most magnificent exports. In the 1960s it was the Beatles, in the 1980s it was Duran Duran. In the noughties it is sport-related fighting. Football hooliganism is dynamic, modern, vibrant, and contrary to what many people assume, it has always been multiracial. In arranging fights on the internet and through mobile phones, they prove to be true advocates of cutting-edge technology. Tony Blair should be proud.

  • Track down the culprits

While, as Jennie Bristow reminds us, we have heard a lot of quacking and gnashing of teeth about the perils of rail safety in the wake of the Chancery Lane incident, we have not heard much about accountability (see Nothing goes). Were London Underground in private hands, we would have been subjected to no end of innuendo about this being the result of privatisation. The cry ‘People Before Profits’ would ring from Edgware to Morden, from Ruislip to Epping. Yet, when a publicly owned rail network fails, nobody thinks of blaming the state.

This is hardly due to our perceptions of government efficiency. It seems that when something is privately owned, we expect nothing less than incompetence. Crashes is what publicly owned trains do, we think – and crash they did. British Rail may have featured cheaper fares, but it was not statistically safer (remember Croydon, Purley?) and it was not reliable. Yet rather than complaining to the rail authorities, disgruntled commuters of the BR era shrugged their shoulders, uttered ‘mustn’t grumble’, before doing precisely that for about an hour.

Rail privatisation was certainly botched, but at least when rail is in private hands far more people have felt it right to make their dissatisfaction be known. This seems a far more productive way of running a railway.

All those harking back to the good old days of British Rail should look at the Tube before bleating about the merits of nationalisation. London Underground staff have the highest proportion of absenteeism in the public sector – which is no mean feat. They are among the best paid in this sector too. The system is unreliable, expensive and bloated, serving not so much true Londoners but the needs of those living in suburban places like Amersham and Upminster.

  • Depressing generalisations

One must feel sympathy for the mental health campaigner Pete Shaughnessy, who died last month at the age of 40. Shaughnessy, a manic depressive, was one of the founding fathers of Mad Pride, an organisation that emerged in the 1990s in protest at government proposals to introduce more coercive mental health legislation.

Imitating the language of black and gay rights, the group produced an anthology of writing – Mad Pride: A Celebration of Mad Culture (2001) – and even a musical compilation, Nutters with Attitude. ‘Telling people I am mad is taking control of my madness and accepting it’, he said. ‘By reclaiming language I’m turning my prison into a fortress.’

Yet there is something erroneous about this linguistic approach. ‘Madness’ is such a broad concept to be almost meaningless, embracing on the one hand those who suffer depression, to at the other extreme, violent schizophrenics.

Lumping these all together is unfair. It trivialises the experiences of those who are afflicted by many severe mental illnesses, that contrary to the RD Laing consensus of the 1960s, we now know to have a chemical cause and remedy – and it aggrandises those who suffer from ‘depression’, which is a modern cultural phenomenon that did not exist in less narcissistic times.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics

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