Award-winning journalist Anthony Clavane is right to have a chip on his shoulder over what he calls ‘a culture of neglect’. Having been raised in Leeds and worked in the capital, he is all too familiar with the increasingly glaring north-south divide in Britain.
In his new book A Yorkshire Tragedy, he illustrates in heartbreaking detail the extent to which a formerly industrial and sporting powerhouse has been rendered a national afterthought.
Moreover, the hollowing out of working classes, so integral to Yorkshire’s character and communities, has transformed once bustling areas into ghost towns.
“I’m most upset by the idea that the working classes are being cut off from leisure,” reveals Clavane.
The economic growth enjoyed alongside the industrial revolution during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Clavane argues, was driven by a local trinity of home, work and leisure.
In Hull, St Andrew’s Dock, the Boulevard and Hessle Road were pillars of communalism, binding players and workers together in the name of advancement by co-operation.
Expression of community
Workers felt that they played a significant role in local life, and that local teams embodied a spirit not quite seen in a “less communal and more atomised” London.
“The very first modern football club was in Sheffield. Modern sport and cricket was played in Sheffield and Leeds and came out of the industrial working classes.
“What I’m arguing is that these industrial areas – which grew directly as a result of industry – sport was their expression of community.
“When Featherstone won the Rugby League Challenge Cup in 1983, most of their players were miners. They had just lifted the trophy in Wembley, millions watched it, and two mornings later they were down the mines.
“Could you imagine Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney going to the mines?”
The decline of Leeds United, once a formidable top-flight force, is also particularly telling.
Leeds have spent the majority of the last decade sitting precariously below the elite tier of English football, and Clavane jokingly expresses his frustration.
“It upsets me that Leeds United are not the greatest team the world has ever seen any more.”
Under chairman Peter Ridsdale, Leeds encountered severe financial problems, including large loans which could only be repaid by selling key players.
The resulting implosion sent the club crashing into League One within just a few years, seemingly wiping clean all the progress that had been made in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
The Hillsborough disaster of 1989, too, was an incident so tragic that in many ways it was microcosmic of the marginalisation of Yorkshire.
Families and friends of the 96 victims, knowing full well what had happened that day, were ignored and repeatedly demonised by a largely ignorant London media.
The Sun, in particular, is infamous for the blame game it played in the ensuing weeks. The stadium’s chequered safety record was not addressed sufficiently, as it may well have been had it been located in London, echoing the horrific fire at Bradford just four years earlier.
“Very simply, up until 1989, Hillsborough was a symbol of ambition, aspiration and majestic football because the stadium was the Wembley of the north.
“After ’89 it became a symbol of death and everything bad about football and society,” Clavane points out, clearly in saddened agreement with my suggestion that it was emblematic of Yorkshire as a whole.
A Yorkshire Tragedy is alone worth reading for the rich history it unearths.
Drawing upon a wealth of sporting and political knowledge, as well as important critiques of the cultural effects of neo-liberal capitalism, Clavane can best be commended for capturing the rancorous nature of the lament felt by a substantial part of Yorkshire’s working class.
“Clavane notices an ominous connection between neglect and Yorkshire’s rejection of the political status quo on June 23rd this year”
There is no denying their ostracism from the centre of the political consensus. Government funding (or lack thereof) tends not to be afforded to worthy northern programmes and the media, too, seem fixated with events in London.
“There has always been a certain ‘chippiness’ towards the south, or at least the idea of the south as a condescending neighbour that sucks in the north’s skill, goods and talent,” writes Clavane, astutely.
Globalised capitalism, of which the author believes there exists a socially responsible version, has made a mockery of the very values which made Yorkshire a 19th and 20th century powerhouse
Beginning in the Thatcher years of the 1980s, strong social principles of togetherness and collectivism were thrown out, with the individual placed before the community.
‘Right to buy’ increased homelessness throughout Yorkshire, the closing down of mines, decline of the fishing industry and outsourcing of factory work broke that spirited link between work and play, and left many in the north unable to reap the rewards of the south’s economic growth.
A Yorkshire Tragedy reaches out to those who have been left behind and reminds them that they are loved. It tells the disenfranchised men and women of Yorkshire that they are a cherished part of Britain, with a rich and respectable history.
“Sport is unpredictable, and these things go in cycles. But I don’t see the downward cycle coming back up”
Like me, Clavane notices an ominous connection between neglect and Yorkshire’s rejection of the political status quo on June 23rd this year. “What I think has happened is that whole swathes of the country have got chips on their shoulder over being left behind and betrayed, and that to me could help to explain the Brexit vote.
“These deep-rooted, long-standing communities have gone into decline and they’ve stuck two fingers up to the establishment and they will continue to do so.
On the question of an upturn in fortunes, Clavane is characteristically unmoved
“I’m a glass half empty man, so not very. It’s very strange. If I was writing about the decline of the economy or the film industry, you can forecast a trend. But let’s say Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday go up, all of a sudden my theory is buggered. That’s what sport is, it’s unpredictable, and these things go in cycles. But I don’t see the downward cycle coming back up.”
Yorkshire has been left behind. Of that there is no question. The author was understandably “very moved and angry by the absence of communities, shockingly impoverished” while writing his book. If only the political elite had an ounce of his consideration.
A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse, Quercus, £16.99. Feature image courtesy of the72.co.uk