Thursday, November 23, 2006

From Beano to Keano

Part 1 : Beano Time

I don’t know when I first graduated from reading the Beano and Dandy to the Wizard and the Hotspur. The latter were for older boys (I never saw a girl reading them) and they were dominated by stories instead of cartoons. So it is possible that I was still a Beano reader around the time I first saw a League Football match.

It is sixty years now since my father first took me to see Sunderland play at Roker Park. We travelled to Sunderland by bus from Easington Colliery and walked down to the ground.. On the way he showed me the terraced house he had been born in. It was a couple of doors away from a pawnbrokers which had the typical sign outside.

I was ten years old and I was sat upon a concrete barrier at the Roker end, having an excellent view in a crowd of 42,750. Nearly everyone stood in those days.

It was in the 1946-47 season, the first season after the Second World War and was an old Division 1 clash. Sunderland having played in no other Division than the top one. A proud record which only finally bit the dust on the last day of the 1957-58 season.

The match I saw was against Grimsby Town. Up to then Sunderland had won all their first four home games of the season, including a 4-1 defeat of Everton the previous week. In all Sunderland had had a good start to the season; with 6 wins, 2 draws and only 2 defeats.

Grimsby ended up at the bottom of the League and had lost all their away games up to then. Everything seemed set for a Sunderland victory.

We even had a new star signed from Sheffield Wednesday in Jackie Robinson, who had been bought to replace Raich Carter who had been transferred to Derby County for the start of the season.

But I was soon taught to be philosophical about my team. We went two down and a man in front of me turned to his mate to say the obvious - “we need THREE now to win!”. Only one of these was forthcoming . We lost 2-1.

Jackie Robinson got the consolation goal and was therefore always one of my heroes. The war had ruined what would have been the peak of his career. The crowd got on his back until he scored, shouting for Stan Lloyd (who I never saw play) to be returned.

Despite the defeat, I was now hooked. The team that day included three heroes from the 1937 FA Cup winning team. Mapson in goal, with the skills of Duns and Burbanks on the wings. Johnny Mapson went on to play for Sunderland until the 1952-3 season, when he was finally replaced by Threadgold, who the crowd knew as “threadbare”. No-one ever criticised Mapson, who I looked upon as a god when I later saw him sitting opposite our family when we were out having a meal at Jopling’s Restaurant in Sunderland.

The picture in my mind which I always have of Mapson is of him standing on the line in the middle of his goal with his feet together and his two hands stretched above his head to safely catch the ball. It always seemed to happen, as if he hypnotised those shooting at goal or crossing the ball.

Willie Watson, who went on play both cricket and football for England played at what in those days was called the “inside left” position, to Robinson’s “inside right”- seen nowadays as attacking mid-fielders. It was a position Watson occupied until the legendary Len Shackleton arrived on the scene. Watson was then moved to a deeper mid-field role at “right-half” and won his England football caps in that position. His gentlemanly and highly skilled performances led him to be my favourite Sunderland player, even above the great Len Shackleton.

Jackie Stelling was a tough right-back, with a sliding tackle which always disposed
the opposing winger. He became a great penalty-taker, hitting an unstoppable rocket of a shot just above the ground and inside the goalkeeper’s right hand post. Until , that is, Bert Trautman came to Roker Park in goal for Manchester City. After Stelling had beaten him with one penalty, he worked out what to do with the second one. He made an incredible save just inside the post, but was judged by the referee to have moved on the line before the ball was kicked (which in those days was an offence). Trautman threw the ball into the crowd in disgust, before going on to save the re-taken rocket.

The match against Man City was the Grimsby match written large. It was in 1950.
Sunderland were undefeated in 18 home games up to then, and Man City were bottom of the League without an away win. Of course, we lost again 2-1. If we had gained the points for a win, we would have won the League that year. Instead we finished third.
It is still our greatest achievement in the top flight in my 60 years as a supporter and I saw all of our home games that season.

I only saw four games in all over the first two season’s after the war, as I normally went to watch my father play in goal for a local team. Four of those who played against Grimsby were gradually replaced before I began to watch Sunderland play on a regular basis. They had all played war-time football with Sunderland - Jones, Willingham, Housman and Whitelum.

The remaining player was Fred Hall, the centre half. Teams didn’t use two central defenders then, and Fred was a no-sense stopper who cleared his lines. If the ball came back to him, he would again belt it up field. No wonder I have always had sympathy for route one soccer.

The game against Grimsby took place on 19 October, 1946. The nearest home match to the 60th anniversary of the first game I saw was on 21 October, 2006. The venue was now the Stadium of Light, with Sunderland under the management of Roy Keane.

Part 2 : Keano Therapy

My 60th Anniversary game was the one against Barnsley. It was appropriate that I should sit in the concessionary seats which were full of fellow oldies and young children. The lad sat next to me was 12 and had been attending since he was 6. So he will reach his 60th Anniversary game in the year 2060. I hope we win the Premiership by then.

My getting to the match at all was something of a pilgrimage. I was in Exeter the night before addressing a meeting. Even if I caught the first train on the Saturday morning to the North East, I couldn’t arrive in time for the kick-off. So I had to swallow my principles and add to the pollution of the atmosphere by joining a flight to Newcastle. The excellent Metro then took me to the land that is cut asunder by the Wear.

After soaking up the atmosphere and some Guinness at Yates, I walked to the ground past the railway station, where I had at one time worked as a clerk and where I had first caught sight of Ann whom I went on to marry. Then on approaching the ground, I walked past the end of the street where Edward Thompson’s works is. Ann became their first full time secretarial worker in the days when they started out as printers of bingo tickets.

I stopped off to purchase a football shirt produced by the “A Love Supreme” fanzine fanatics. It is the one that is half red and white stripes and the other half green . The latter showing Sunderland’s Irish connections with Roy Keane, Niall Quinn and the Irish firm who now own the Club. Once in the ground I popped into a toilet cubicle to slip into my new purchase.

“A Love Supreme” also had the wit to call Keane “Keano”. When Sunderland head for a win the fans shout this out. But they blame the players for a defeat. It is all built upon hopes and encouragements for the future.

The stage was now set for me . The Stadium of Light is even built upon the pit where my great-grandfather was killed. So that huge Miner’s lamp outside the ground means a great deal to me. Which is added to by the fact that my father and father-in-law were Sunderland supporters and coal miners.

Given that I started out watching us lose to a lowly team, it did not even matter if we lost. But glory be, we won 2-0. The icing on the cake was that Chris Brown of all people scored the second goal.

In explaining the importance of this to me, I draw completely on memory and have no record books to check. And I realise that memory is fallible. But if I am wrong on any points, then I hope that no-one will disillusion me.

Chris’s father Alan Brown also played for Sunderland. I first saw Alan play when he was a schoolboy, at Easington Colliery’s ground. I believe that it was a key cup game involving the Secondary School team from Easington and the School Team from Dronfield in Derbyshire where I now live and where our son and daughter went to school. My son Stephen was with me at the match and Alan Brown scored a hat-trick.

Not only that but Chris’s grandfather was in my class at the Infant School at Easington. There were two Brown’s : Dennis and Derrick. So I hope I am, not mixed up.

I believe that Chris’s grandfather was Derrick. Our families lived opposite each other,
separated by lengthy back gardens which tended to cut us of into different mixtures of streets. We lived in Harrison Terrace and the Brown’s were in Moncreiff Terrace. So I knew of Chris’s great grandparents. Consequently ,Chris’s goal against Barnsley is as important to me as Jackie Robinson’s against Grimsby in 1946.

My father’s support for Sunderland went back to his first visit to Roker Park when he was 11. Establishing a tradition, he was taken to his first match by his own father, my grandfather. It was a Cup Tie against Burnley in February 1920 in front of a then record crowd of 49,618. Sunderland won 2-0. From my Father’s story, on the way to the ground they crossed the Wear by an oar driven boat which almost capsized. One of Sunderland’s goals was scored by none other than Charlie Buchan.(whose “Football Monthly” I later devoured.)

I then took my son to his first game to see Sunderland play on Huddersfield’s old ground. Stephen was only four at the time, but he saw Porterfield score the equaliser in a 1-1 draw in the season in which Porterfield went on to get the winner against Leeds in the FA Cup final.

I then took my daughter Joanne with us for her first match at Notts County when she was eight. Stan Cummins got the winner in our 1-0 victory and we went on to gain promotion that season. Then Stephen and I witnessed another great 1-0 winner from Stan the following season (1980-81) at Liverpool on the last day to avoid relegation. The chant by the Sunderland’s ecstatic supporters as they left the ground was “pissed tonight, pissed tonight”.

When we take my young grandson Joseph to see his first game, we might need to put our hands over his ears. It is only my wife in this family (with her solid Sunderland links) who has never been to see them play. The worst of it is that she has seen Chesterfield play three times with me, twice in play-offs at Wembley.

My daughter-in-law Rebecca is from Tasmania and she has chalked up a respectable number of Sunderland home and away games, although living in London.

When I was an M.P. I had a question and answer session at a local infant school. A lad at the back asked who I supported. I explained that people support whoever their dad (normally) first took them to see play. I then asked who he supported. He and a pile of his mates at the back of the room shouted out “Manchester United”, whom they had never seen play. It seems that the old world is breaking up somewhat and Sky TV is taking over. But not for the 12 year old I sat next to at the Stadium of

I hope some of the old traditions live on, for it has been gripping being a Sunderland supporter. The defeat by Grimsby in 1946, followed by a 4-1 defeat by Liverpool on my next visit helped me prepare for the disasters we have seen over the past few seasons. But when we triumph it is magnificent.

Dreams live on. I am sure that I have seen those midfield qualities of Dwight Yorke somewhere before. Oh yes, it was Willie Watson. All we now need is a Len Shackleton and we are on our way. And who knows, given the magic of Keano Therapy.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Will the real Peter Hain please stand up?

Peter Hain is standing for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. In a recent speech which he then posted on his parliamentary web-site under the title “We must rebuild the progressive coalition”, he states that Tony Blair is “one of our greatest Prime Ministers”.

Does such a claim and the use of the Blairite terminology “progressive” indicate that Peter is himself a Blairite? Not necessarily. For one thing, it is possible to recognise Tony’s “greatness” merely by the fact that he helped to bring about the longest running Labour Government in history. It is the same sort of greatness we can grant to the lack-lustre Lord Salisbury who managed to serve 14 years as a Conservative Prime Minister at stages between 1885 and 1902. Neither is the word “progressive” the property of Tony; although as I will indicate later he does like to monopolise its use.

Peter’s also said “(w)hereas the last century was overwhelmingly a conservative century. Tony has given us the chance to make this century, Labour’s century.” This claim has great similarities to a claim Tony himself made at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party immediately after Labour’s electoral victory in 2001.
He pointed out that whilst the 20th century had been the century of conservatism,
his audience had to help ensure that the new century would be the century of …….. .
He then hesitated to think of the word that would best express his meaning and came up with the notion of the 21st Century needing to be the century of “progressive politics.”

To Tony , but not I hope Peter, “progressive” is used as a code word for a wider political agenda. It involves opposition to a conservatism (with a small “c”) of not just the Conservative Party, but also of traditional Labour with its values of social equality and publicly controlled services. It spoke volumes that Tony would baulk at suggesting that a room full of Labour Parliamentarians should seek to usher in a century of Labour Party dominance. For what if such a Labour Party backtracked and drew ideas from its past ? Perhaps it would then be necessary (to Tony) for other forces to pick up the new progressive agenda of uniting the freedoms of the market with social justice.

The paradox of “progressive politics” is, of course, that it is as conservative (with a small “c”) as traditional Labourism is. For the freedom of the market adjusted to seek to provide some form of social justice is exactly what Lib-Labism and Social Liberalism were all about a 100 years ago. Thankfully that limited vision was then subsumed by democratic socialist ideas which, under Labour, managed to get us to a post-war settlement with a mixed economy and the welfare state. Much of which has now been surrendered, but which some of us hoped would have been built upon..

Nor is Tony‘s progressive politics unique in its call for “modernising” in an attempt to handle today’s problems of rapid technological change, globalisation and world-wide instability. All approaches to politics should adapt to meet modern conditions, be they for those who are on the side of social justice, or of free enterprise or of Tony’s attempt to guarantee the future of his own hybrid.

None of the approaches I have suggested have exclusive access to modernisation. I am in favour of a modern voice speaking out for a contemporary version of democratic socialism. This is where Peter might just come into the picture.

The question we need Peter to answer is whether he remains committed to the basic analysis he spelt out in his book “Ayes to the Left: A Future for Socialism” (Lawrence & Wishart, 1995)?

In this book he makes a strong and intelligent case for libertarian socialism, claiming it is an alternative which needs to be pursued in opposition to both state socialism and state capitalism. He stresses that an extra danger of the latter (in addition to its crude commitment to the injustices of unrestrained free enterprise) is that it requires a strong state with anti-democratic norms to police its operations (see pages 24 and 25.)

What does Peter feel that Labour has done about the problems of state capitalism since 1997 ? Have the Labour Governments which he has participated in
moved to break its hold ? Or have they basically just accepted or even solidified it. ?

Whatever factors we stress, Peter has to accept that Labour has not broken the Thatcherite mould of state capitalism.

Peter is still given to using the language of his alternative belief in “libertarian socialism”. It crept into an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph as reported on 23 September. Indeed it is difficult for him to throw off such an approach, for he has had a belief in participatory forms of democracy , radical politics and anti-state power which go back to his expression of these ideas in works such as “Radical Regeneration” (Quartet Books. 1975) and “Don’t Play with Apartheid: the background to the Stop the Seventy Tour Campaign “ (London. 1971).

It would be a further paradox if Peter (who was at one time the leading light of the Young Liberals) should emerge as the person who could struggle to get the Labour Party to loosen the grip of a modern version of Social Liberalism which dominates Tony’s vision of “progressive politics”.

It is getting to crunch time. Peter needs to explain how close his book of 1995 will be to his manifesto for fighting for the Deputy Leadership. I don’t agree with all the books’ bits and pieces. I am not for compulsory voting, which doesn’t fit well with his libertarianism. Whilst I imagine that his own experiences in Northern Ireland will have altered his old extreme green agenda. But when he says that the “Re-distribution of ownership must remain a principle objective for socialism” (page 38) and goes on to stress the possibility of numbers of democratic structures, including municipal ownership; then I am with him.

If Peter himself wishes to be great, then we need him (a) to spell out his vision for the Labour Party (hopefully in line with his 1995 book), (b) to stand for the Leadership and not the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party (for he can’t properly enter into a battle of ideas if his position is merely to seek to be the reserve), and (c) to do something beyond what even Robin Cook did. Not just to resign from the Government, but to do this in order to run a campaign for the soul of the Labour Party.

Even if he lost such a battle, he could set a process in motion which would establish a role for a feasible libertarian left in the Labour Party whose views would influence future developments.

I can’t see a democratic socialist alternative to Peter if he will only stand up in the way I suggest. Whilst Gordon Brown has been an economic maestro , this has essentially been directed to delivering Blair’s “progressive” and flawed agenda . Why should we kid ourselves that things will change under his leadership? And the last description we can apply to John Reid is that of being a “libertarian”.

What then of John McDonnell ? As a member of the Socialist Campaign Group in Parliament for 17 years, should I not be part of his campaign ? In Socialist Campaign Group News for this September, he lists a seven point programme mainly on matters where I have been alongside him in various past votes in the Commons. I also greatly admire John’s dedication, ability and personality. But, to tell the truth, I could only ask people to support him if I decided merely to fly a flag for some of my beliefs, rather than to seriously act for positive openings for democratic socialism in tomorrow’s Labour Party.

The attractions of a Peter4Leader Campaign is that I believe that he can ride two horses at once. He can relate what he proposes to his socialist values thus giving us the vision that is currently missing from Labour Party politics, whilst trimming in order to advance policies which are feasible in difficult sets of circumstances..

When I have been in Commons lobbies with John (and against Peter who voted in line with his Government) we were often trying to stop the advance of what was passing for “progressive” politics; such as tuition fees and further privatisation. How we then move in a fresh direction after losing such votes is, however, a complex matter. John gives the impression that we just pull the switch and change directions.

Nowhere is this more strongly illustrated than over Iraq. Of course, we should never have invaded and the consequences (aided by bad handling) have been counter-productive. But we don’t return to a pre-invasion situation by just removing our troops. We have to relate to ways of tackling some of the very problems our actions helped to create.

If, however, Peter will not act in the way I recommend; then it looks as if I am left with a choice amongst the two Johns and Gordon. So I will then have to decide whether I opt for an abstention or for a bit of what used to be called “revolutionary defeatism” with John MacDonnell. I doubt whether either approach would matter much.

But if Peter will stand up and relate his principles to the realm of what is practical, then we might be onto something. I don’t believe that he would win. But we do need someone who will be in a position to stir the conscious of the Labour Party. Who else can do this properly?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A Gentle Atheism

When I arrived in Iraq as a National Serviceman in 1955, I was a practising Methodist. Back home I had attended Chapel three times on a Sunday as well as on a variety of other occasions, for instance as secretary of its Christian Endeavour.

Some of the lay preachers were ethical socialists and I remember being deeply moved by the socialist content of a sermon by the leading Methodist Minister, Donald Soper who eventually I was to come across on a regular basis in the pages of Tribune. I also lived in a solid Labour and Mining area, with some of the Methodist lay preacher’s being local Labour Councillors.

But there was probably no great depth to my Christianity for my Chapel attendance was mainly a social and communal activity. I was, therefore, pretty ill-equipped for the culture shock I experienced in viewing the lives of the people in Basra and Baghdad. I felt that I was in the midst of extensive areas of poverty and exploitation.

The question which came to my mind was how could an all loving, all perfect and all knowing creator permit such conditions to exist? I had no idea that this was a perennial philosophical question, nor that it would come to form part of my later studies and teachings at University.

In the forces, I never rose above the rank of Leading Aircraftsman and I only ever found one person to discuss my religious problems with. Corporal Murphy had “atheist” on his locker where we had to designate our religion. He was an ex-Catholic who thankfully introduced me to the works of James Joyce.

I was based in Basra and a local bookseller was also helpful. Not only could I order books from him, but he sold English books and had a handsome supply of Rationalist Press Association(RPA) titles such as “Let the People Think” and “Men Without Gods”. When I heard the Anglican Minister in Basra preach a sermon against the evil influence of such books, the ideas they expressed became even more appealing to me.

Unfortunately, both my bookseller and the Anglican Minister would today be stopped in their tracks by Islamic extremists.. But to my shame the religious ideas I never came in contact with 50 years ago were those of Islam. This is in part a reflection on the absence of any form of educational facilities at our small RAF Movements Unit.

New converts to a belief (or to a non-belief) are likely to become a little strident in its advocacy. So I let people back home know of my newly found lack of faith through a letter I sent to a local newspaper. I used my home address. There was then to be no doubt locally as to who I was and the RAF were unlikely to find out.( I still had “Methodist” above my locker and was disturbed about the problems my friend told me he had in changing his designation. - but it was a tough RAF Catholic Priest he had to deal with.)

My newspaper letter is now quite quaint. The Durham Chronicle gave it the heading
“Atheist’s Views of Premium Bonds”. These were just being introduced. I quoted from George Bernard Shaw and was keen to show that Atheists as well as Christians could have prickly moral principles in opposition to any State operated form of gambling. This puritan streak is still with me in my opposition to State sanctioned Casinos, although I now care little about Premium Bonds.

But I soon stopped my new form of preaching. This was partly because the Methodists I had grown up with (including my mother) were kindly people and not ranters. I had come to disagree with a key to their beliefs, but did not see the Christians I knew as an alien force. My newspaper letter had done enough to show I was no longer fully with them.

Added to this was an experience I had soon after I was demobbed. I went to a meeting of the South London Ethical Society to hear a talk on Nietzsche by Archibald Robertson. He was a member of the Communist Party and I had read some of his books in Basra, as published by the RPA. But the whole set-up made me feel that I was back into a form of Chapel. The final straw was when they passed around what looked like hymn books and we sang to the glory of reason. I decided that I had left one church and was not about to enter another.

In fact, as an M.P. I went to Civic Services and as an old man I keep going to funerals. I always join fully in the singing of hymns to the glory of God, more than I would ever be able to muster to the glory of Reason.

It seems to me that there is plenty of scope for dialogue between those who share similar moral and political values, irrespective of their differing approaches to religion and amongst religions. Indeed the dialogue should go much wider. I spent a considerable amount of my time as an M.P. in Northern Ireland discussing its problems with people right across the political and sectarian divides. No one ever asked me whether I was a Catholic, a Protestant or neither. Which is just as it should be.

As I type this I can look out onto the Baptist Church next door, where since retiring I have addressed Dronfield Churches Together on “Making Poverty History”. I don’t know if they knew that I am an atheist. For it should not matter, for there was considerable unity on the subject matter. If their religious feelings draw them into such campaigns, then that seems to me to be to the credit of their views - even if I don’t share them.

Oliver Kamm reminds us that the late Sidney Hook had something important to say on these matters in his book “The Quest for Being” (1961). In that it is possible to appreciate the nobler feelings some achieve through their religion, without then falling for the bedrock of their doctrines. Kamm also contrasts Hook’s approach with that of Richard Dawkins in his latest book “The God Delusion”. It is one thing for Dawkins to argue that religion is false, but it becomes sanctimonious for him to argue that religion in itself is a main source of oppression. It is theocratic movements (not religions as such) that have displayed such totalitarian tendencies - as did Stalinism. The fact that Stalinism was godless, doesn’t thereby turn other non-believers into his kin.

There is, for instance, a stark contrast between a Reverend Martin Luther King drawing from his religious values to help bring about an end to segregated schools and on the other hand creationists using their religious interpretations to try to undermine scientific investigations in schools.