The Ghosts of Stadiums Past

 

I moved to Manchester in 2007. It was not long after Man City fled from the old Maine Road in Moss Side to the wastelands east of Piccadilly, to take up residence at what we used to call The City of Manchester Stadium, before oil struck the town.

Getting the 111 to uni in 2011, you could see where Maine Road used to be from the top deck. There was a big pile of dirt, a large empty space where I suppose you could still kick a ball without twisting an ankle, and in the distance lay the first sparkling new homes to be built on the site of the old stadium. It was only later I learned that it was there that the Wembley of the North used to stand.

Man City play Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936
The Wembley of the North: Man City v Portsmouth at Maine Road in January 1936. Source: Wikipedia

There seems a particular sadness riding around football these days as West Ham, once said to be David Cameron’s favourite club, say goodbye to the wild and rusty venue known by some as the Boleyn Ground, and by others as Upton Park. West Ham fans have been busy in the press sharing their memories. East end emigré Mark Joyce told the Guardian that “going to the football was part of a wider routine of visiting family and going to the area.” Fellow fan Billy Bowring also contributed to the newspaper’s remembrance, with fond recollections of the old place.

My favourite memory is a pervasive feeling of collective support, a fevered passion and atmosphere. It was invariably in the face of impending defeat, but an important principle of support was enacted in every game; regardless of the score you stay to hear the final whistle. When I picture that atmosphere, I see a night game under the lights with thousands of Hammers huddled against the cold but in loud voice.

It was a fitting send-off, broken bottles aside, as the Hammers came from behind to defeat a tardy Man United 3-2.

An old stadium harbours so much more than goalposts and fossilised pasties. The pitch holds the echoes of great moments, crafted by players that Hammers fans lauded and made shrines of them in their bedrooms, their names ironed into the backs of their shirts. The seats in the stand become your seats. Year after year, returning to the same spot, seeing the same old faces, sitting through rain, snow, wind and Stuart Downing. The ashes of loved ones, indebted to the club for the memories, the friendship and the camaraderie, are scattered on the field every year. The place where you release someone’s ashes, that is where they remain. You say hello every time you pass. It’s reasons like this that explain why when Moseley RUFC left their old Reddings Road haunts in Brum, the fans came down and queued so they could take a square of the old turf home with them. In the same spirit, Hammers fans are now buying up the old seats at the Boleyn, which I’m sure will fit right in with their other furniture.

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Highbury, now providing luxury homes to fans of Jeremy Corbyn

West Ham’s decision to up sticks puts Upton Park at the head of a long list of old grounds abandoned in recent years. There was the Dell, Southampton’s courageous old stadium that looked as if it had been designed without a ruler. Now, as Oliver Gara tells us, it’s “a large set of apartment blocks and in keeping with the old ground, space in many of the flats is extremely limited.” Then there was gloriously mismatched stands that overlooked Leicester’s Filbert Street, before everybody’s favourite champions relocated to the ferociously-named King Power Stadium. Wimbledon’s Plough Lane is now fittingly an allotment. Highbury was a bit different, nestled behind some Islington homes like some magical back garden. You went down somebody’s alleyway, and there was Thierry Henry. Best of all was Barnet’s Underhill stadium, surrounded by seven stands, and where if you were defending the north end, you had to beware as your backpasses might have trickled back toward you. The bees’ new ground, “The Hive,” is disappointingly flat.

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Filbert Street. The most striking stadium of all time. Source: Leicester Mercury

The ground formerly known as the Olympic Stadium will be West Ham’s new home, to the dismay of Leyton Orient. As an ever-present at the Paralympics, I have incredibly fond memories of the place – Jonny Peacock defeating Oscar Pistorious, the howl of the Weirwolf, and nearly being run down outside by Dame Tanni Grey, who was clearly very late for something. I tell you now in moments like that it can reach stranger-hugging levels of excitement in there – so I’m sure Hammers fans will he able to quickly fill the new place with echoes of a glorious past, especially if Dimitri Payet sticks around. But I think it will take more than that to recapture the soul of the Boleyn Ground.

Surrounded by luxury flats that sprung up in the ‘redevelopment’ of Newham, and a cavernous park dedicated to the Queen (as it was high time something was named after her), there is something dissociated about the Hammers’ new place. Old grounds sit in the heart of a community – while Upton Park rested between shops, pubs and houses, the new stadium has a gigantic Westfields in which you can soak up all the pre-game atmosphere you can buy. Nothing says Matchday like a Vanilla Latte and a morning of sock-shopping.

That is fuel enough for this week’s outburst of nostalgia (although that’s no excuse for bringing Marlon Harewood on the pitch last night). Mark Joyce believes “things will move on but for me and hundreds and thousands of others for whom West Ham is synonymous with Upton Park, something irreplaceable is being lost.”

For Hammers fans, the place that made them unique, their home, is being left behind and replaced by the heartless symmetry of yet another modern stadium. Unless they rename it Football McGroundface, it’s not going to be a place that easily harbours affection. But in many ways big clubs outgrow their old shells and need to move on. The old terrace-turned-all-seater can be a cramped, uncomfortable experience for today’s fan, and you can’t beat paying £40 to watch James Milner kick a ball from behind a load-bearing iron bar. The corporate boxes are not cavernous enough for today’s portly billionaire.

The Boleyn Pub
The Boleyn Pub, in front of the Boleyn Ground. Source: Mapio.net

But it’s more than that. Inner-city stadia can prop up a local community – matchdays can inject cash into the neighbourhood through Saturday afternoon trade provide an injection of cash, and put entire areas on the map. After City left Moss Side, many of the shops began to struggle, and the comfort of being spared the occasional old-fashioned football riot was little compensation. The pubs slowly boarded themselves up as the wasteland watched on. The demolition of Maine Road left a gaping hole in the community, and it took nearly a decade before any recovery came, brought with the opening of the first houses. Newham Council hope the new homes built in Upton Park will herald a new start for the area, but local traders are wary. Local publican Ron Bolwell said to BBC that “our rates are very high and our rents are high,” and the loss of matchday boozers marks trouble ahead. Osman Mustafa in Queen’s Fish Bar hopes the construction workers will prop things up, but said, with resilience and resignation, “after that, I don’t know. It will affect us terribly.”

There is optimism among the West Ham faithful, who feel the move into their grand new stadium could help foster good times ahead for the club. Bowring is hopeful, but hopes “that this move isn’t at the expense of the people and the history that have made this club something I’ve always been proud to support.”

I’m not one for sentimental nostalgia – I’m the first to throw a shady look at the ‘football was better in the old days’ crowd – but the closure of an old ground can be a loss of a community asset, replaced by something that offers far less to fans and neighbours of a club, and you get the impression that Sullivan, Gold and Brady would rather play the robber baron and cash in on the Boleyn’s assets than spend any worry on pondering that which will be left behind. It’s the corollary of the factory town whose factory has been boarded up, or the coal mining community who have no other option but to turn to the Sports Direct Depot for work. When a Hipster Burger Co. opens on your street, and your rent starts creeping upwards. When Herman Tillke designs a racing circuit. When anything moves to Milton Keynes. When a language dies. It’s the acceleration of things beyond your control, things you used to rely on, that are replaced with precarity and mediocrity. It’s the half-finished, snail-paced, shiny apartments built on the rubble of the Wembley of the North.

In a few years, some new students will sit the top deck of the 111 will look left at Claremont Road (before Crownchy Fried Chicken – the True Crowning Glory), and they might wonder why the houses look a bit different here, and why there’s a blue road here named after an American craft beer.

 

(Title Image – The Kippax Stand, Maine Road, being demolished, sourced from Urbanghostsmedia.com)

I Never Died, Says He: Tayo Aluko in “Call Mr. Robeson”

This blogpost is about a Performance by Tayo Aluko in Call Mr Robeson that I saw at UCLAN’s Media Innovation Centre on the 14th April 2016 (but this isn’t a review). More info of Aluko’s shows can be found here. GO SEE IT!

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Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen. Nobody Knows My Sorrow.

Most people know of Paul Robeson in passing. They know the actor, the singer – Paul Robeson the performer. But less is said of Paul Robeson the socialist and the activist. This is a huge part of the story of this most famous of American early-20th Century performers, and it is this element of Robeson’s story that has seen the legacy of this artist erased from our collective historical memory.

Tayo Aluko is working to correct this. From Carnegie Hall, to this little Conference room in Preston where I watched him perform, Aluko has taken his one-man show, Call Mr Robeson, across the world.

“Call Mr Robeson” – the announcement blares from the back of the room, as the voice of McCarthy’s cronies call us to attention in the courthouse pews. Mr Robeson stands in front of us, proud once more, to defend himself against the charges of communism and un-American activities.

We are with him, adopted Welsh miners, trade unionists, forerunners of civil rights, fans of his music – we witness this trial alongside him with a solidarity Robeson sorely lacked in his own life. For over an hour we watched Robeson take us through his life, in a scene that became his living room, decorated by portraits, trinkets, records, a flag of the International Brigade, the Stars and Stripes, and a Welsh flag reminding him of the Valleys where he felt most loved. We nod along as Robeson answers each silly charge with blissful defiance, because we now know where he had come from, and why he stood before us today in the courthouse.

 

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night, Alive as You and Me

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The Stage is (blurrily) set for “Call Mr Robeson.”

Aluko isn’t a diminutive man, but on this makeshift stage he grew into the mighty stature of Robeson, the son of a Minister born into (and escaped from) the chattels of slavery, the only black footballer at Rutgers, sacked on his first start by both sides, who stood up and carried on.

Robeson, the star of Show Boat, the Emperor Jones, Othello and Toussaint Louverture, fell afoul of those who saw him as coalescing with the enemy as well as those who wished to keep him down. Marcus Garvey saw him as little more than a minstrel, but Aluko crafts a different figure, too subversive in his patriotic turns and too captivating upon the stage to be regarded as anything less than a powerful exponent of black excellence.

Offside, stage right, stood the imagined presence of Eslanda Robeson (née Goode), Paul’s manager and wife. Essie had no lines in the one man show, but she stood over Paul at all times, initially supporting him financially, reminding him where he had come from, urging him to stay firm, challenging him to be more than just Paul Robeson, the performer. It was a tumultuous relationship, and Aluko refused to shy away from Paul’s frequent affairs and troubles within his marriage. Essie’s journey, although silent, was very much a part of the performance – the peaks and turmoils of this tale were, after all, felt and moulded by Essie as much as by Paul.

Robeson performed Ol’ Man River throughout his career – and he and Essie tinkered with the lyrics as they slowly divorced the song’s association from Show Boat and made it a Robeson standard. As Todd Decker has written, the lyrical alterations change the feel of the song from resignation to defiance, from a song of longing to a call to action.

“You get a little drunk and you land in Jail” becomes “You show a little grit and you land in jail,”

“I must keep on struggling until I’m dyin’” becomes “I must keep on fighting until I’m dyin’.”

 

Sing it Loud, Sing it Proud

Where did you hear of Paul Robeson? Was it in the booming rendition of Ol’ Man River? In echoes of his celebrated turn as Othello that shook through London theatrical circles? Unless you are of mining stock, you are less likely to be familiar with Robeson the socialist and tireless, unapologetic activist for global equality, and for dignity for black Americans. Aluko was asked, after the event, how he came to create Call Mr Robeson. He tells us that as a younger man he sung in front of a Merseyside audience in his powerful baritone, reminding one audience member of the star of Show Boat. The listener approached Aluko, asking him if Robeson had influenced him and if he sung any of his numbers. This, Aluko tells us, was the first he’d heard of the man. Later on, a book on the life of Paul Robeson found its way into Aluko’s hands at Liverpool Library, and that was that.

Myself, I knew of Robeson from a young age, mainly because my dad would occasionally break out spontaneous renditions of Ol’ Man River. I knew nothing of his social activism until my friend sent me an mp3 of “Let Robeson Sing” by the Manic Street Preachers. It’s the best song by a long way on a pretty terrible album, and quickly tells the story of Robeson’s “voice and vision” and his suppression by the House Commission for Un-American Activities, who confiscated his passport, placed FBI agents within his shadow at all times, and embarked upon a campaign of ostracism until Robeson became all-but-forgotten.

It may seem a strange way for someone to learn of Robeson, but as Aluko told us, among groups such as the Welsh miners and trade unionists, for whom Robeson did so much, he was never forgotten.

 

The Freedom Train

Back in Preston, we cannot turn away from any moment of Robeson’s life – we are there in the front row of his performances, and we are there with the marooned performer in the years of his lowest ebbs. Aluko takes us through the most difficult moments of Robeson’s existence, his exclusion, his attempted suicide, and the loss of Essie to cancer, with visceral intensity. On a rainy evening in Preston, we are witness to the tragedy of Robeson’s life as we are to his spine-tingling vocals and world-conquering successes. We watch as the ageing Robeson comes to terms with his anonymity as the Civil Rights Movement accelerates in the 1960s. Malcolm X is gunned down, and Dr. King follows. A young reporter traipses around Harlem asking the “man on the street” for their thoughts of their activism, and in this moment Robeson becomes just another black New Yorker.

“Looks like I’ve been assassinated too,” the old singer quips.

Aluko later tells us of the theory that Malcolm was assassinated just as he began to consider international socialist ideas. As Martin’s dream increasingly took on notions of black liberation through economic redistribution alongside cultural anti-racism, he was taken out too. As the great pillars of American civil rights began to speak back at the infiltration of institutional racism within every aspect of American society, they became more dangerous than ever before. “In a way, they became too much like Paul Robeson,” Aluko explains. The McCarthyists had already taken care of the old singer – gagged by passport restrictions, discredited to his allies, dogged by the disintegration of his mental health in the face of this ubiquitous ostracism, Robeson had been silenced.

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Aluko receives a standing ovation.

But in Call Mr Robeson, he takes his place as one figure in the pantheon of anti-racist activists. The Freedom Train comes zooming along the track, gleaming in the sunshine for white and black, not stopping at no stations marked colored nor white, just stopping in the fields in the broad daylight. It’s a journey that has been carried part of the way by Toussaint, by Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W.E.B. Dubois, Rosa Parks, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin and so many more. In this moment, Paul and Essie Robeson became once again a part of this great tradition.

 

The Ol’ Man River, Just Keeps Rolling Along

Robeson’s most (in)famous concert performance was at Peekskill, New York, on the 4th September 1949. The event had been cancelled the previous week, as gangs of white supremacists and anti-Semites had laid siege to the venue, tormenting concert-goers and lynching effigies of Robeson from nearby branches. The following week, Robeson arrived, himself protected by one human chain composed of trade unionists of all races, the crowd perimetered by a second ring. Years ago, Aluko recalls Paul Robeson Jr. was asked, of all his father’s renditions of Ol’ Man River, which was his favourite. It was here, he said, as the police helicopter that had hovered on the horizon approached toward the concert stage, whirring ever nearer as the song kicked into its concluding crescendo. As the drone grew louder, so did Robeson’s voice. The Ol’ Man River kept rolling along, not to be dammed.

This night, as I watched this concert performed in front of me, as the helicopter came closer through some unseen speaker behind me, I sat on the edge of my seat (and I was not the only one.) Robeson watched above him nervously – I knew that this concert was not Robeson’s end, but would a sniper in the helicopter take a shot at him? Maybe there was some gap in my knowledge on his life, maybe he was shot once and recovered. I suddenly didn’t know how this moment played out. The helicopter grew so loud, but so did Aluko’s voice, and like Robeson’s son all those decades ago, I was captivated.

Paul Robeson, it is said, was the first to perform at the Sydney Opera House. Before construction was complete, Robeson stood beside the site and sung for the construction workers as they slowly pieced together this Australian icon. Aluko dreams of one day being able to perform Call Mr Robeson within the Opera House. It would be some event to hear Robeson sing once again on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

A Jury for the 96

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“The interests of justice must be served … The facts must be investigated and re-analysed in a fresh inquest when, however distressing or unpalatable, the truth will be brought to light. In this way, the families of those who died in this disaster will be vindicated and the memory of each victim will be properly respected.

“That is now our task; to investigate the facts, to reveal the truth in a public forum and to reach conclusions on the basis of the evidence presented. It will be a full and thorough investigation.”

– Lord Justice Goldring, 1st April 2014.

 

I was 3 days old when the Hillsborough Disaster occurred. On the 15th April, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans died from injuries sustained during the FA Cup Semi-Final against Nottingham Forest, crushed in the overcrowded central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace.

Nearly 27 years later, families of the victims have still not received a proper answer as to why their relatives died. After a wealth of new evidence was revealed by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, a new inquest into the disaster began in 2014, headed by Lord Justice Goldring. After the longest case hearing in British legal history, On Wednesday the jury was finally dispatched to determine the cause of the crush, and whether the deceased were “unlawfully” killed due to gross negligence on the part of South Yorkshire Police.

The ten nine jurors have been given a 31-page questionnaire, containing fourteen questions to be answered. After hearing 276 days of evidence over two years, the jurors’ responses will establish a new official account of Hillsborough, and specifically decide “by what means and in what circumstance did the 96 people come to their deaths.”

 

Write your answer in the space provided

The questionnaire has been made publicly available (I found it on this Guardian page), and the Coroner for South and West Yorkshire has provided specific instructions for the jury to follow. Point 9 leaps out at me.

9. When considering what should have been done on the day of the Disaster or beforehand, please bear in mind the following points.
(a) You should apply the standard of conduct of the time. So, when deciding whether individuals should have acted differently in 1989, you should apply the standards of 1989, not those of today.
(b) You should consider what those involved could and should realistically have done in the circumstances which they were facing.
(c) You should not make judgments which are based on hindsight, but should consider what those involved could reasonably be expected to do at the time.

Legally speaking, what point 9 asks of the jury is necessary – an action that may be considered ‘gross negligence’ today could have been seen as standard practice in 1989, just as said action could have been considered ‘unlawful’ then as of now. Yet difficulties arise from this instruction, due to the nature of this inquiry, its origins, and its purposes.

The primary purpose of the Goldring inquiry is to establish a history of the Hillsborough Disaster, to reconstruct, to the fullest possible extent, an account of the tragedy, in response to an increasing amount of new evidence previously unavailable to old investigations. The official nature of the jury’s task lends their conclusions an authority over the matter of historical truth, yet what becomes history is constructed from impartial evidence, and efforts to fill in the gaps to create a narrative are affected by prejudices. According to the late historian Michel Rolph-Trouillot, what is viewed and preserved as ‘evidence’ is itself selected through the workings of power. In the case of Hillsborough, evidence attained has been largely sought from (and provided at the discretion of) South Yorkshire Police, the emergency services, and Sheffield Wednesday football club.

 

3:06pm, 15th April 1989.

For the jurors, to send their thought processes back to 1989 holds major difficulties when tackling the standards of the day. Let’s unpack this. As established by the Taylor Inquiry of 1990, the crush occurred after congestion outside the Leppings Lane End led to an unmanned “exit” turnstile being opened to allow fans into the ground, leading them into pens already near-full capacity. In desperation fans attempted to climb up to the top tier, or scaled the fence between them and the ground. After six minutes the game was halted. Hundreds were injured, and 96 died as a result of the crush.

Immediately after the Disaster, South Yorkshire Police began to distance themselves from any hint of blame, instead  suggesting that the crush was caused by the behaviour of the Liverpool fans. Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had given the order to open the turnstile against previous precedent for matches at Hillsborough, initially claimed that the fans had forced the gate open. South Yorkshire Police subsequently emphasised observations of fans drinking, and suggested that many had showed up late and without tickets, planning to rush the gates to gain access.

 

“The Truth”

The idea of Liverpool fans as culpable chimed with the contemporary popular imagination, fed by a decade of images of violence in football, especially those of the Heysel disaster of 1985. During the European Cup final in Brussels, a group of Liverpool fans rushed the adjoining “neutral” section of the ground, comprised mostly of Juventus fans, and the subsequent flight of fans from the area put too much pressure upon a wall in the rickety old ground, causing a collapse that killed 39 fans, mostly from Italy. The following day UEFA observer Gunter Schneider declared that “only the English fans were responsible,” and Margaret Thatcher agreed, requesting that English clubs be barred from subsequent European competition. Just five days after the match, the ban was put in place. Subsequent analysis of Heysel suggested that along with the aggressors (of which fourteen would be found guilty of manslaughter), police and organisers were also culpable, but the prevailing attitude in 1989 was that Liverpool fans were dangerous. This was only exacerbated by class and regional prejudice against working-class Liverpudlians – Middle England has long held the stereotype of the Scousers as vandals, thieves and arsonists. To many in 1989, a person from Liverpool was seen as an inherent criminal.

It was no surprise, that the English press, long-time peddlers of such filth and nonsense, exacerbated the narrative that found the fault in the victims of Hillsborough. Underneath The Sun’s famous headline, “The Truth,” lay  lurid, false claims that Liverpool fans, “drunken,” had pickpocketed the dead, and urinated on the police. Scousers no longer buy The Sun, but other publications such as the Sunday Times also insinuated blame, highlighting the popularity of the opinion. It went all the way to the top – UEFA president Jacques Georges immediately blamed hooliganism for Hillsborough, characterising Liverpool fans as “beasts,” before later retracting the claim.

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“The Truth.” Source – Wikipedia

The Lies

Such ideas have remained strong from 1989 to the present-day. The Hillsborough Independent Panel of 2012 noted the endurance of the narrative of fan aggravation as cause. Just last month in their Europa League match at Anfield, a few Manchester United fans taunted their opposition with a chant saying The Sun were right, you’re murderers. I’ve spoken to too many people who dehumanise the victims of Hillsborough as “typical violent scousers,” rather than attempting to find any sympathy with those who died simply for attending a football match.

The point is that to “apply the standards of 1989” is a historical, as well as a legal, exercise. In 1989, the idea that Liverpool fans were dangerous was commonplace and it was capitalised upon by South Yorkshire Police. Yet fans, relatives of the victims and victim solidarity groups have always rejected this widely-held and powerfully-backed notion. The Taylor Report, examining the available evidence, placed the primary cause of the Disaster on a breakdown of police practice as opposed to fan action, yet saw these failings as existing in poor administration rather than in negligence. The official verdict was, and remained, “accidental death.”

Yet as more evidence surfaced, in no small part thanks to the efforts of tireless Hillsborough justice campaigners, many of the claims made by Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police have unravelled. The notion that the crush was caused by ticketless fans was placed in doubt by the Taylor Report which highlighted that the stand as a whole was still under-capacity at 15:06. Duckenfield’s claim that fans broke through the Exit gate was shown to be false, and as further observations were collected (and heard), levels of drinking by the standards of the day were generally seen to be much lower than would be expected.

Over the past ten years momentum has slowly built up as those who campaign for Justice for the 96 have continued undeterred, and found increasingly sympathetic voices in positions of power. The Hillsborough Family Support Group (led by Trevor Hicks, father of two of the victims) had pressed for the release of documents previously disclosed, arguing that their release could greatly change the public memory of the Disaster. The Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed in 2009 to investigate this claim, and three years later released its findings along with 450 000 pages of documents relating to the crisis. It concluded that Liverpool fans held no responsibility for the tragedy, but its findings were damning for South Yorkshire Police.

It found that 164 witness statements had been altered, of which 116 had been changed to remove negative comments regarding police behaviour. It found that police had conducted an active search for information to smear the victims, and had run blood alcohol tests on the bodies (38 of the 96 were children). It found that the Sun’s “The Truth” article had been sourced from false comments by the Conservative MP of Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick. Its most chilling conclusion was that up to 41 of the deceased still had sufficient heart and lung function at the time the emergency services reached them, and perhaps might have been saved were it not for failings in an emergency response previously exonerated by the Taylor Report. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has since uncovered a further 55 altered statements. This evidence caused such a stir that it led David Cameron to apologise to the victims on behalf of the government, and in the resulting fallout it was decided a new official inquiry should take place.

 

The Historical Sorcery of a Legal Judgment

Therefore when our jury is instructed to ignore hindsight in its verdict, it is required to remove from its considerations two decades of historical sorcery conducted by South Yorkshire Police and those in the media and parliament who sought to protect them. This suggestion of a cover-up, beginning on the afternoon of the 15th April 1989, is at the very least evidence that Duckenfield and South Yorkshire Police were aware that their failings that day were far greater than a system failure.

Once again, I wish to express sympathy with the legal thinking of Point 9, yet the primary aim of this inquiry is to establish an authoritative historical account, inspired by the quashing of the original “accidental death” verdict and the subsequent acceptance of later findings as admissible evidence following the HIP investigation. An inquiry that refuses prior acknowledgement of the two decades of gagging histories of Hillsborough that dissent from the SYP narrative must continually compete with ideas of fan culpability. Subsequent to the findings of HIP and the IPCC, Our questionnaire is designed to assess responsibility in various groups including and beyond SYP, including the emergency services and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.

Question 7, however, asks the jury to consider whether there was “any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles,” and recommends that the jury consider “whether or not some supporters at the Leppings Lane turnstiles behaved in a way which was unusually forceful or resistant to police control.” To answer said question without hindsight, in light of what has become apparent since, is not only counterproductive to an inquiry that was launched specifically in response to ‘new’ evidence previously withheld, but also an incredibly difficult task given the events of the last few years.

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Leppings Lane turnstiles. Source – Liverpool Echo

 

Duties of Care

Question 6 is the most important question to be answered.

“Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the Disaster were unlawfully killed?”

It comes with two pages of guidelines, importantly explaining that a juror “must be sure that Chief Superintendent Duckenfield owed a duty of care to the 96 people who died in the Disaster.” This too is a question difficult to answer using the “standards” of 1989. The 1990 Taylor Report, for example, wrote that “hooliganism at and associated with football matches has strongly influenced the strategy of the police.” The report deems this strategy “understandable and indeed commendable,” but notes the subsequent “imbalance” in police duties between “the need to quell a minority of troublemakers and the need to secure the safety and comfort of the majority.”Therefore, to ask whether Duckenfield owed a duty of care to those who died in the first place is to ask a complicated question.

If he did, by the standards of 1989, hold a duty of care to the Liverpool fans then the idea that killing could be described as unlawful due to gross negligence immediately gains strength. However, if one doubts that Duckenfield did not owe a duty of care, a possible scenario when judging the “lawfulness” of their actions, a juror thus opens the sinister historical question as to what the true purpose of the presence of South Yorkshire Police was that day.

Through this logic one might conclude that, whatever the answers to the other questions, the Goldring inquiry consequently endorses the notion that because of the dominant (though never universally-held) opinion that Liverpudlians were criminals and hooligans, the true purpose of South Yorkshire Police was to guard the rest of the world from Liverpool fans. This position would, historically speaking, implicitly legitimise institutional violence based solely on the modal attitudes of a period. Even if the inquiry finds the SYP and Duckenfield at fault for the Disaster, to answer question six in the negative would legally exonerate them. The question of “duty of care” is loaded with historical and legal meaning. 

 

Historical justice needs legal justice

Gramsci wrote that “truth is always revolutionary.” In history, truth is always multiple and contestable due to the partial and subjective nature of the archives, and what is known as history is so often affected by the workings of political and social power. The revolutionary truth of Hillsborough can be attained by shattering the decades of myths and manipulations that have distracted attention away from failings in the response and accentuated the actions of the victims. That requires the use of “hindsight.”

Can this inquest provide that truth? It is certainly possible, especially in the investigation of individual times and circumstances of death that can highlight potential failings in the emergency response, and in the reconsideration of evidence previously redacted from previous inquiries. Much depends on the ten nine jurors and their interpretation of the questionnaire guidelines and of Point 9, and in what manner the fourteen questions are answered.

However, the legal, moral and historical questions posed by the Hillsborough Disaster are so intertwined that if the actions of the South Yorkshire Police are not deemed unlawful it will be difficult to demolish the two-decades of historical manipulation to the benefit of the SYP, yet without the latter, legal justice for the 96 may prove difficult. It may prove beyond the scope of the jury’s decision to achieve this lofty task, but its conclusions will carry a weighty authority, and in this moment there is a chance that the Goldring Inquiry could yet bring vindication for the victims of Hillsborough and those who survive them.

They’ve been waiting for twenty-seven years.

 

 

The Bird Cannot Build Her Nest

DEMOCRACY IN HAITI: PAST AND PRESENT

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Aristide, bulletproof but weakened. Souce: wehaitians.com

Yesterday there were supposed to be a run-off election in Haiti, to decide the country’s next president. The problem is, there was only one candidate.

That’s Jovenel Moïse. He’s known as the “banana man,” for his role as head of Agritrans SA, a company growing bananas set up exclusively for export, destroying the lives of numerous peasant farmers in the process.

He’s also the handpicked successor of the current president, Michel Martelly. The Export Zone where Moise makes his fortune is one of the president’s pet projects. Sweet Micky is head of the PHTK- the Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale – which means “bald head.” It’s a nod to Micky’s shiny dome, but Tèt Kale holds another meaning; to be bareheaded means to go “all the way,” to be pure of heart and thorough in head. When Martelly cried “Tèt Kale!” in 2011 he was calling for a sea change in Haitian politics, an end to the corruption and immobilisation of the past.

Martelly has been no tèt kale, by this measure. He declared Haiti “open for business,” to beaming smiles from the US State Dept., the Clintons, and the myriad of American capital that has looked with desire upon Haiti for over a hundred years. With the international kingmakers satisfied, Martelly has taken a neo-Duvalierist taste for power, cancelling a series of elections to the point that in 2015 there were just 11 elected figures in national politics. There are meant to be 130.

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Michel Martelly. Source, hottestheadsofstate.com

Essentially ruling-by-decree, Martelly welcomes tourists to Haiti’s private beaches and empty hotels, and gets his photo taken with Obama and Kerry whilst surrounded with rumours of corruption, intimidation and violence.

1987 –With ‘dechoukaj’ – the uprooting of Duvalierism – in full swing, the State Dept. decreed that it was time for democracy in Haiti. Reagan sent money in “military aid” to help the process. The guns were turned on Makout and uprooter alike. November would see a president chosen, but the Makouts were not willing to relinquish power yet. By the time the polls were open, two candidates were already dead, slain along with hundreds of demonstrators in a bloody summer. As Haitians lined up to vote, the Makouts and soldiers were waiting, and opened fire. Onlookers struggled to describe the horror. But elections must be held. Two months later, they restarted. The historian Leslie Manigat was the victor, in a poll where the wise stayed indoors. Some things are worth more than casting a vote. (See Michel-Rolph Trouillot – Haiti: State Against Nation)

Sunday became the latest poll to fall foul of Micky’s machete, but this one is a bit different. In November’s 1st round, Jovenel Moise won the day, predictably. The only surprise considering the electoral manipulation, ripped straight out of Dictatorship 101, is that he didn’t get more votes. In second was the centrist Jude Celestin, who recently confirmed he did not want his name on the 2-man run-off ballot. Why would he? The way his elections have gone before, he’d probably finish fourth.

The weeks prior to Sunday saw protests growing, bubbling in the capital, angry at the opaque process, at the lack of representation, at the limpet president clinging to power. There is outrage too at the meddling hands of the “international community. Haitians are mobilising on the streets of Port-au-Prince in support of democracy, and against the sham elections.

They want to restart the process, under a transitional government, without interference and with Martelly put out to pasture. Yesterday, veve of defiance were drawn, and songs of protest sung as Port-au-Prince took to the streets. Some bore the banner of Famni Lavalas, and spoke of finishing the work of Aristide.

1991 – After the drought, comes the flood. Lavalas swept the elections, bringing Liberation Theologist Jean-Bertrande Aristide to power. He was intent on disrupting Haiti’s cavernous inequality gap. But after the dance, the drum was heavy. The elites and the army were not to be disturbed so easily. They tolerated him for seven months, before General Raoul Cédras plucked him from power. If you took a blank piece of paper and drew an authoritarian General it would resemble Cédras. Cue three more years of repression. Whilst Aristide sat on the White House steps, placard in hand, Cédras collected CIA paycheques. (See Robert Fatton, The Roots of Haitian Despotism)

The USA, once again blinded by the belief that elections and democracy might be the same thing, have struggled to comprehend how pro-democracy protests could embrace a cancelled election. The State Dept vaguely urge Martelly to stick to the timetable, thinking an election with one candidate is surely more democratic than an election with none. Last week Ban Ki-Moon too decided to take a stand, and call for the elections to be completed, as he deleted kolera accusations from his @UN inbox.

raoul cedras
This is Raoul Cédras. See what I mean? Source: AP

In the meantime, the Banana Man waits silently for his coronation. East of his plantation lies the near-abandoned industrial park of Caracol, the brainchild of Bill and Hillary Clinton. They are busy up north on their own plans for coronation. Martin O’Malley decided to bring up Haiti in his campaign. He’s currently polling >1%.

1994 – It was called Operation Uphold Democracy. President Clinton had decided to bring Aristide back. He could ignore him no longer. The President’s economic embargos had only made things worse. He could no longer turn a blind eye to the hunger strikes at his door and the Boat People who continued to drift into Key West, dead and alive. The old ally Cédras would be removed, but it was ok, he’d be taken care of. Aristide was brought back to Port-au-Prince, triumphant, accompanied by the drone of Black Hawks and American army boots. Aristide addressed his supporters, declaring the return of democracy from inside a see-thru bulletproof box. A perfect display of powerlessness.

The protests bring back familiar words of the “resistance” and “resilience” of the Haitian people that have bounced around liberal commentaries since the douz janvye earthquake. Y’ap boule. But the image of demonstrations and burning tires are simultaneously deployed by those who wish to preserve the pseudo-democratic status quo. The Organisation of American States, influential in Martelly’s rise, condemned the “acts of violence,” urging a swift end to the crisis. That means swift elections. CEPR observer Jake Johnston wryly notes that here, “the past is prologue.

“Remember: Martelly became president through riots,” warns Jonathan Katz. He’s seen it all before. Was Haiti ready for an election, less than a year after the devastation of the goudougoudou that ripped Port-au-Prince apart? No matter, President Preval’s time was up, elections must be held. Sweet Micky finished third in the first-round of elections, behind law professor Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin. (Famni Lavalas were banned from participating).

The OAS cried foul – insisting Celestin, an ally of Préval, had stitched up the election, and argued Martelly be parachuted into the runoff in his place. Micky sensed an opportunity, and his supporters took to the streets, promising to set the wounded city on fire if there will be not heeded. Who knows what chicanery had taken place in the backrooms, but it seemed the OAS was fed up of Préval’s unwillingness to play ball. Washington agreed. Hillary Clinton came to town to negotiate with Préval. Celestin’s name disappeared from the ballot. Martlly went on to win the runoff and the presidency. Haiti was now “open for business.”

(See Jonathan Katz – The Big Truck That Went By)

Yesterday, a familiar face returned, to announce that he was “ready for war,” against the “anarchists” on the streets. This man was Guy Philippe, a drug lord and soldier instrumental in the coup that felled Aristide a second time in 2004. Aristide had this time grown distant from the dreams of 1991, instead towing the neoliberal line and holding power increasingly through intimidation. The second coup saw the intervention of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). They’re still there, and along with “stability” one can credit them with the achievements of brutal repression of the slums and the introduction Cholera into the country in 2010. Over 1 million have been infected. 10 000 are dead.

guy philippe
Guy Philippe. Source: Haitiantruth.org

It’s hard to see the way out of this storm of competing interests in Haiti. There is a quest for power involving the traditional elites, the US State Dept., the OAS and the rest of the “international community,” elements of the diaspora and remnants of the army that Tèt Kale were beginning to restore. The old Duvalierists are far from finished. The recent protests are yet another reminder that large swathes of the Haitian population would like to partake in the democratic process. After all, that’s what democracy is supposed to look like, right?.

Robert Fatton calls this “the unending democratic transition.” He continues to be right about that. The bird cannot build her nest.

February 1986 – “Those two weeks interim, when there was no infallible authority on Earth, were the happiest of my life.” David Nicholls resurrected these old words after the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier. The protests, led by the ti legliz movement and moving to the sound of Radio Soleil, put the rotund dictator on shaky ground. Reagan decided to pull the plug, and Baby Doc was placed on a plane bound for exile. The monkey’s tail had snapped. Crowds flocked to the airport as old friends returned home after years away. They say that Christopher Columbus himself was uprooted in the flood and cast out to sea.

“Cultural Challenges:” From Haka to Cibi, Stories of Rugby’s War Dances

Te Rauparaha’s Ascent

Te Rauparaha was on the run. The Chieftain of the Ngati Toa iwi (Maori society) was retreating from a meeting that had gone spectacularly wrong. The Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto groups rejected his request for aid, and instead demanded his life. A taua was formed, guided by a Tohunga (“scholar/priest”) who cast tracking spells to help home in upon their target.

These were the musket wars of New Zealand in the early 19th Century. Te Rauparaha arrived in Motu O Puhi, the village of the iwi Te Wharerangi, his famously hairy neighbour, who granted him asylum. He hid the fugitive within a kumara (sweet potato) pit, and on top sat his wife Te Rangikoaea, for it was said a woman could ward off the malevolent spells cast by the Tohunga.

Hidden from view, Te Rauparaha could hear everything as his enemies arrived in the village. They were suspicious. Te Wharerangi attempted to mislead them; Yes, Te Rauparaha was here, he told them, but you are too late, for he had long since left for the Rangipo desert. The confidence of the hidden chief was failing. He whispered to himself, over and over;

Ka mate, Ka mate

(I die, I die)

Eternities passed under the feet of Te Rangikoaea; Te Rauparaha could do nothing but wait.

Ka mate, Ka mate

Finally, the voices grew distant, and with them, the iwi in the kumara pit grew optimistic in turn.

Ka ora, Ka ora!

(I live, I live!)

His trust put in Te Wharerangi and Te Rangikoeaea was rewarded. As he climbed from his cage, he was reborn.

Tenei te tangata puhuru huru
Nana nei I tiki mai
Whakawhiti t era
A upa….ne! Ka upa…ne!
A upane kaupane whiti t era!
Hi!

(This is the hairy man* who fetched the sun and made it shine again! One upward step! Another upward step! Another, another…the sun shines!)

These were the words said to be composed by Te Rauparaha as he emerged from the pit, and to honour his saviours, he put these lines into a ceremonial Haka; the enduring dance of Maori folklore, the “symphony of the body,” and he performed it for his hosts that afternoon.

The Natives Dominate

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New Zealand Natives, 1888. Source: rugbyfootballhistory.com/allblacks

Nowadays, “Ka Mate” is known and performed the world over. As the oldest “cultural challenge” laid down by the New Zealand All Blacks, this Haka has become one of the most famous symbols of Maori culture across the globe. The Haka, alongside the pre-match challenges of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, have become an emblem of the vibrancy and endurance of Polynesian and Melanesian culture over the past century. Rugby (not just Union but League and Sevens also) has been the vehicle for this, and the coordinated challenge is but one of its expressions.

But the movement of modern sport across the planet is a story inseparable to the imperial spread of Europe; rugby union, the sport of the “gentleman” and the pride of Apartheid, has perhaps been affected by this more than any other. Its relationship with the Islanders of the South Pacific is one of tension, marginalisation, resistance and renewal.

From its English roots, rugby union travelled the world, but it did not move at random. It followed cricket to the settler colonies of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada**, travelling with imperial officials who had picked up the game during their gentlemanly training at Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools of the Southeast.

It even followed cricket to the Southern Cone, outlasting the bat-and-ball sport in Argentina and Uruguay, albeit enduring here too mostly as an elite, white endeavour. Exported for the ‘gentleman’ of colonial high society, this sport more than any other was ostensibly for white men only, but in all realms the hand-egg was picked up by the colonised with varying degrees of popularity. Even in South Africa, rugby has always been played by black Africans (most famously Steve Biko), but apartheid ensured that this participation remained invisible.

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Joe Warbrick. Source: Wikipedia

The Maori of Aotearoa took up the game soon after its arrival; brought to the colony by Charles Munro, who brought it home from Christ’s College London in 1870. Eighteen years later, the New Zealand Natives were formed by Maori Joseph Warbrick, who wished to create an all-Maori team to tour Great Britain. However, five Pakeha*** were selected due to problems with player availability and prior commitments (work and study) from first-string Maori. In Britain the Natives wore black and performed the first Haka in rugby (said to be Ka Mate, on occasion), met with “great curiosity” by British crowds and the confoundment of those who had turned up to watch a team they expected to be comprised of “savages.” Said one Scottish reporter in 1888,

“They are not unlike Europeans…that is their resemblance is great when one remembers that they were a savage tribe no further back than their generation.”

It is typical imperial logic deployed to credit the Maori’s *lack* of savagery with the influence of Europe. And so it was thought in New Zealand that bringing the team under ‘official’ administration would help improve the team, especially after reading frequent criticisms of ‘foul play’ from English officials who turned a blind eye to infringements from their own. But after a tour that lasted over a year, after 78 wins, 6 draws, and 23 losses, the Natives returned home as the best team in Aotearoa. They formed the backbone of the first New Zealand international teams, including the preposterously (but tellingly) named “Originals” who toured the UK in 1905.**** The All Blacks, the greatest team to play rugby union, were founded by Maori: the Haka, the black jersey, and the innovative, creative style of play were the legacies of those pioneers.

But it was not to last. As rugby arrived in New Zealand, the Maori were defending the last vestiges of their land from British squatters and soldiers. The land of Te Rauaparaha had long been extorted from him; he himself had tried to resist the rising tide of squatters and spent his final years in jail. As the Natives were formed, the use of Te Reo Maori was being marginalised and removed from schools. Polynesian culture was being slowly deleted from New Zealand life. The All Black Haka endured, but was far from unaffected. Perhaps that was why Ka Mate became the standard Haka of the All Blacks; Te Rauaparaha’s celebratory dance of cheating death and rebirth symbolising the persistence of the Maori in trying times, although there is much in its story of mortality and uprising that could happily find its home on the rugby field.

Maori became sparse in the All Black ranks. They were purged completely, in fact, whenever the All Blacks went to South Africa, for the Apartheid state would not allow any non-white players to grace a Springboks game. Those of Maori heritage maintained a nationwide team (The New Zealand Maori) who would play at home whilst the Pakeha were in South Africa.

The Famished Sea Eagle

In the early 20th Century rugby continued its journey east. Missionaries, settlers and traders from Australia and New Zealand landed in Fiji, bringing rugby with them. It swept across the archipelago, and leagues were swiftly set up. However, they were to be segregated by race until the 1930s. In 1939, the Fijian national team (now integrated and largely Melanesian) embarked on a tour to New Zealand. The captain, Ratu Cakobau (later the first indigenous Governor General of Fiji) went to the local spiritual chief to ask for a dance to match the haka. He was given a Cibi (pronounced Shimbi); like Ka Mate, not strictly a battle cry, but instead a Fijian celebratory dance to laud warriors as they returned home victorious from battle.

Fiji’s style of rugby (especially in Sevens) replicated the ethos of these dances; aggressive, skilful, quick and creative. It is true of all Islander rugby; the spirit of the challenge laid down is carried through the match. In Tonga, as with the haka, performants of the Sipi Tau are encouraged to lay down their challenge with passion and innovation, as they cry out the words;

Teu lea pea tala ki mamani katoa
Ko e ‘Ikale Tahi kuo halofia
Ke ‘ilo ‘e he sola mo e taka
Ko e ‘aho nit e u tamate tangata

(I shall speak to the whole world
The Sea Eagle is famished unfurl
Let the foreigner and sojourner beware
Today, destroyer of souls, I am everywhere)

For Siale Piutau, to perform the Sipi Tau is to replicate the pledge of the first Tongan King to God, as such combining the warrior tradition of the dance, the Christian missionary origins of Tongan rugby, and the call to the ancestors (familial ancestry, and the ghosts of Tongan rugby past) for their strength and experience. It is the transfer of warrior culture to the rugby field, for it is said the war cry of the Islander is to call forth the honour and pride of Polynesia and withstand all that threatens that enduring tradition, altered through the years, but never diminished.

Let me become one with the land

It is this adaptive, creative element of the dance that many self-titled rugby union “purists” ignore when they deride the cultural challenge. The haka bears the brunt of their repeated criticism, despite its overwhelming global popularity. Scroll down any comments section (I dare you) under an article on New Zealand rugby and you will find voices calling the challenge anything from “unfair,” to “outdated,” from “uncouth” to “savage.” Trolling or serious, these purists indulge in descriptions of savagery and cannibalism; they do not want Pacific culture in rugby.

It would not be tolerated were it to come from another culture, they tell us.

It is only because these cultures are “primitive” that the “PC” World Rugby permits them, they tell us.

It’s ridiculous, in a way, to call it outdated and old-fashioned. The Haka is constantly updated. Ka Mate is younger than Jerusalem (sung by England cricket), and the Haka has only recently been truly resurrected by the All Blacks. For decades the predominantly Pakeha team performed it with less fervour than a rotund goldfish. Check out this infamous 1973 attempt.

In the ‘90s, led by Maori like Carlos Spencer, the Haka became more than a routine. It was more than an evocation of tradition, but like the Sipi Tau, a celebration of the proud past of the All Blacks, one the most successful teams in the history of sport. It’s true of all codes. When the NZRL Kiwis took on Leeds Rhinos this autumn, Kylie Leuluai and Ali Lauitiiti, playing for Leeds, joined their countrymen in a special Haka, in a shared celebration of heritage.

The challenge continues to evolve with the times. Samoa and Fiji have both recently updated their challenges to the Tiva Sau and the Bole respectively. The former aimed to inject more aggression into the cry of the Manu Samoa, the latter ensured that the Fijian challenge is now a bona fide Melanesian call-to-arms, rather than the pre-emptive victory celebration of the Cibi. The Haka in rugby is no longer limited to male teams (there have always been mixed and female Haka in Maori culture); the dominant New Zealand Kiwi Ferns (League) and Black Ferns (Union) perform a Haka before every match. In 2005, the All Blacks debuted “Kapa o Pango” (All Blacks), written especially for the team, to reflect its modern multi-cultural makeup.

Kapa o pango kia whakawhenua au I ahau!
(Let me become one with the land)

Hi aue, hi! Ko Aotearoa e ngunguru nei!
(This is our land Aotearoa that rumbles)

Ponga ra! Kapa o Pango, aue hi!
(Silver fern! All Blacks!)

This new dance was not without its controversy; Tana Umaga, All Black of Samoan descent, leading the haka, drew his arm from the sky and moved his thumb across his throat, beckoning in vital energies to fuel the oncoming effort. It was, instead, misinterpreted by the Sydney Morning Herald as a “violent throat-slitting gesture,” and the Telegraph in all its glory compared it to a “back-street alley” intimidation. The western world could not remove interpretations of savagery from its gaze. Following repeated calls for its removal, the gesture was dropped from Kapa o Pango in 2007.

The purists returned, now arguing that such changes made the challenge ‘inauthentic.’ If it is not traditional, they said, what is even the point? If the dance is not from time immemorial, why can’t anyone perform the Haka? Why can’t England perform a Morris dance before a game? (They always go on about Morris dancing).

Short answer is, there’s nothing stopping them. England started singing the old slave song “Swing Low” in 1988, when a group of public school boys from Douai School, Woolhampton belted it out one afternoon in Twickenham. Nowadays, they all sing it, and nobody really knows why (I’d rather they busted out a Morris dance, to be honest).

Long answer: shouts of ‘inauthenticity’ are a symptom of a wider, continuing, lack of understanding of the significance of the Pacific war dance in rugby. The appropriation of the Haka, these days, knows no bounds. If you can stomach it, check out the “Hakarena” by Matt Dawson. Maori and Pakeha alike were unimpressed.

It all ignores what the history and the folklore whispers, and needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Maori and Pacific rugby matters so much, to the sport and to the Oceania region. On contested terrain, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Maori have adopted the game and made it their own, and it is all transmitted through the challenge of the Cibi, Sipi Tau, Siva Tau and Haka; defiantly traditional, ferociously modern. As Dawson and others continue to misappropriate these dances, Pacific cultures have adapted the war dance once again to honour rugby players whose lives were cut short. In 2013, Samoan legend Brian Lima took to the field, barefoot and shirtless, to lead the Siva Tau in honour of Peter Fatialofa, who died suddenly aged 44.

When talented All-Black Jerry Collins passed in 2015 following a road accident in Southern France, a tribute match was held in his honour. Those who knew the Samon-born All Black in Perpignon paid their respects to Collins with an honourary Siva Tau.

These dances, that call forth the spirit of Polynesia have been adopted, movingly, as a guard of honour for those who embodied everything they meant. Nowhere has this been more appropriate when the greatest of them all, Jonah Lomu, suddenly died on the 18th November 2015. He was 40. The great winger, the gentle giant, a rugby league player in his youth who went on to transform the game of rugby union with his ferocity and his grace. The legendary All Black of Tongan descent who demolished England and tormented all who dared oppose him on another inevitable run towards the try-line. The great ambassador of Pacific rugby, who went from a difficult childhood to worldwide fame, playing through the pain of nephrotic syndrome, from Auckland to Cardiff. Said Mana ‘Otai, coach of Tonga.

“He gave a lot of hope to young Tongans, both male and female alike…He was one who could inspire others, myself included.”

“Although he played for the All Blacks, he was known worldwide as a Tongan. For Tonga, as a small island nation, that’s something Jonah has provided for us.”

The Haka was performed in his honour; his old school led the cry, and at his funeral, his team-mates followed. How else could you honour Lomu, the very embodiment of the struggle, endurance and triumph of Polynesia, than with the words of Te Rauparaha?

This was the man who fetched the sun and made it shine again!

NOTES

* The accepted translation of tangata puhuru huru is the “hairy man,” understood to be a tribute to Te Wharerangi, but allblacks.com suggests instead that it in fact alludes to the spiritual qualities of Te Rangikoaea, which Te Rauparaha believed saved his life.

** Rugby arrived in Canada incredibly early, even as it was still being codified in England. However competition from American (Gridiron) and Canadian rules Football meant that rugby never took on the predominance it did elsewhere in the Dominion. Nowadays North American rugby focuses on 7s.

***”Pakeha” is a translation of the Maori word for “of European descent.” Some have claimed that it is a perjorative word, but its use is accepted in most New Zealand publications, and there is no evidence that it has ever been used in a derogatory sense by Maori. I am therefore using it to describe New Zealanders of European descent, for both brevity and to emphasise the focus of this article is on the Maori. For more info, read this

****In 1905 the “Originals” performed the Haka in Swansea, to be met by a chorus of “Hen Wlad Y Nhadau.” It is said that this was the moment when the song, penned in the 19th century, became the national anthem of Wales.

Title pic is Jonah Lomu and Te Rauparaha

Class of 1823: Rugby Union, a Fault Line through British Society

It’s Rugby (Union) World Cup time.

That means the English press are in the midst of their usual dilemma of getting behind a sport so heavily associated with posh boys, but enjoyed by millions of people. The right-wing mag The Spectator acrobatically found its way around this, arguing that since the game went professional in ’95 these old stereotypes have eroded away into dust. Gavin Mortimer claims, in classic Spectator fashion, that playing the “posh” card is now just the preserve of the “left” (by which he seems to mean Guardian writers and (*ahem*) Tony Blair).

The article makes sense but, like many others, completely misses the point of rugby’s class tensions. For one thing, rugby union has never been solely the preserve of posh boys, which is why it has a much larger following than, say, polo. More importantly, the argument given isn’t true; a BBC Sport report, also released at the start of the tournament, found that 61% of male rugby union players in England are privately-educated, and that professionalism has actually concentrated this divide. English schools that play union are, for the most part, the same old schools, predominantly private or grammar.

The Spectator, as well as those it criticises, are both playing the same game – using rugby union’s enduring association  with elitism to spin their own yarns about Britain’s class tensions. Think carefully about the way rugby (both codes, but especially union) defines itself against football, as the “gentleman’s game” where everybody gets along, the referees are all-powerful, where values and sportsmanship trump the diving, the “softness,” and alleged thuggishness of football.

So where does this tension come from? We have to go back to the start, to the legend of William Webb Ellis, to circumvent the loaded arguments that symbolise rugby one way or another. And why does it even matter? It’s just a game, right? Maybe, but sport is often more than just a reflection of social and cultural tensions within a society, it can provide an outlet for their expression. Conflicts in British society have often spilled over into the sport, and rugby’s internal tensions, built on class, race and masculinity, have helped to mould larger stories of the past.

The Legend of William Webb Ellis, Praeposter

Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk
Statue of the young William Webb Ellis, Rugby. Source: socialregister.co.uk

Back before the Victorian Era, sport was for the rich. The poor toiled for six days, and on the Sabbath sport was banned. The exception was public holidays, when massive games of ‘football’ were held on common ground, often with hundreds of participants, a pig’s bladder (hence the shape of the “hand-egg” rugby ball) and very few rules. Industrialisation saw the decline of these matches, but the wealthy, under the influence of “muscular Christianity,” adopted the game and began to codify it (so beginning rugby’s longstanding association with manliness).

One such rulebook, described by the author of rugby’s legend Matthew Bloxam, told that the best players would position themselves at the front, “hacking” the opposition and advancing the ball with feet, whilst anybody who caught the ball was able to “call the mark” (as it is now known) whereupon he was free to retreat, as the opposition could not advance past that mark. One day, it is said, in a match between Rugby School and Bigside, a boy, William Webb Ellis, caught a high ball, and in contradiction to the accepted way of doing things, ran forward with bladder-in-hand. A new game was born.

This legend, first told by Bloxam in 1876, is now widely held to be false. The truth of it doesn’t matter however, its importance as a founding myth in rugby’s history is undiminished, and the Rugby Union World Cup’s big shiny trophy carries Webb Ellis’ name. Webb Ellis, the creator, was from a family of modest means. Salford-born, his widowed mother moved the family down to Rugby to take advantage of Rugby School’s fee exemption for all “town boys” who lived within 10 miles of the Rugby Clock Tower. It was not a “posh boy” who invented the game, by this telling of the story.

But Bloxam pointed out that the creation of the game was dependent on the hierarchies of public school, that reflected patterns of domestic labour and class domination. Ellis, an older boy, was a “Praeposter” or prefect. Were he a “fag” (a younger boy who served the every whim of the upper school), Bloxam argues, “he probably would have received more kicks than commendations. How oft is it that such small matters lead to great results.”

For Gentlemen Only

Perhaps, or was it symbolic of the fact that, throughout the 19th Century as rugby separated from football and spread, the upper echelons of rugby’s participants held the keys to the running of the game. Rugby was now very popular in the industrial North, but the richer participants dominated its administration and were now obsessed with the concept of “amateurism.” This belief, that players should take no payment, was ostensibly designed to protect the game from bad sportsmanship, but underneath aimed to keep the sport for “gentlemen” only. Rugby’s hits were harder than football, injuries were more severe, and an uncompensated working-class participant risked losing vital wages and even a job if injured during a match.

If sport was to be for gentlemen only, it was the latter syllable that was especially enforced. Women’s football of all forms was met with fierce protests; matches were often abandoned due to violent protests. Women’s rugby was therefore largely played behind closed doors, but women have played some form of rugby since at least 1881. In Ireland, Emily Valentine is recognised as the first women’s rugby player, after she played for Portera Royal School’s team in Enskillen. But it was not until the 1960s that women’s rugby was tolerated in the public sphere.

Emily Valentine. Source: BBC
Emily Valentine. Source: BBC Sport

Amateurism became strictly enforced, as infringements were many. Rugby’s ruling class (including those in Lancashire and Yorkshire) feared losing control of what they saw as their game, after exactly that happened following the messy professionalization of association football in 1885 after similar tensions. Players caught taking any payment were often banned for life.

In 1895, the tension reached critical mass, over the issue of “broken time.” Northern clubs largely recruited their players from local factories, mills, and mines; physical labour that could not be done with a serious rugby injury. Broken Time would install a system of compensation for time missed from work and medical treatment. But the Southeastern self-appointed guardians of rugby were firmly against it; they saw it as a nail in the coffin of amateurism and the guarantee of a move to professionalism and all of its (largely-imagined) demons.

There was no explicit intention to go professional at this time, but the schism still came. The Northern players found an unusual ally at this juncture; their bosses. These industrial kingpins, often heavily involved in the local club, had a stake in Broken Time too – local rivalries had sprung up, and success for their club gave them regional prestige as well as bragging rights. At the George Hotel in Huddersfield, 20 clubs from Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire announced their departure from the RFU to form the Northern Union, later becoming the Rugby Football League. The heartland of popular rugby had seceded; what appeared to remain of rugby union was a sport of the public schools and universities.

Salford v Batley, 2nd November 1901, showing the early popularity of Northern Union Rugby and its importance life to in Salford. Source: Salford Reds Heritage

Don’t Mention Wales

Rugby league, it’s been said, was the sport of the “new (trade) unionism,” getting its participants a fairer deal. It quickly developed in this manner, embracing professionalism, removing the lineout and the ruck for a faster, fan-friendlier version of the game. A “people’s game,” maybe, but union never completely purged the poor from its ranks, even as it clung dogmatically to the Gentlemanly code of Amateurism. “Don’t mention Wales, it gets complicated,” writes Stuart Maconie, endorsing the Masses vs the Classes tale of league and union. Well, in this story,…you HAVE to mention Wales. Rugby Union is the national game there, especially in the (traditionally working-class) Valleys, and I can tell you from personal experience that it is ingrained into the psyche of every person born west of Offah’s Dyke. But that’s not just why Wales must be part of the story, instead, it’s because even here class politics have shaped the game, once again highlighting the complex and essential relationship between rugby union and British society.

Rugby came to Wales in the same way; via Oxford and Cambridge. Wealthy Welsh students brought it back to Cardiff and Swansea, and the game slowly migrated up the Usk and the Taff. The Welsh People’s Game, in these early days, was not immune from privileging the Gentlemen; the earliest national sides were [controversially] comprised of the Oxbridge boys. Things changed, however, after the dragons got demolished by England 82-0 (on modern scoring) in 1881. A collective embarrassment, in a way, helped narrow the class divide. In the future they picked more miners at the front (known as the “Rhondda forwards,” they began a trend of increasingly-bulky characters in the front-row).

This alone wasn’t enough to ensure league didn’t take off in Wales. It helped that the WRU turned many a blind eye to broken time payments. Distance was probably the biggest roadblock. It was simply too difficult for Welsh clubs to find enough opponents nearby; a Welsh league club didn’t have the money to travel up to the North week after week. Pofessionalism costs money, and despite the efforts of the Northern Union, investment never materialised. Although clubs in Ebbw Vale and Mythyr Tydfil formed, they were not to last. Wales was, however, far from hostile towards league; the first every international league match was held there between Wales and New Zealand, who themselves were causing controversy back home receiving payment to play, slandered as the “All Golds” by a fiercely pro-union press.

Over the following decades, many Welsh players would go on to “take the Northern pound” and join the professional league, particularly when hard times hit the mining towns. In the tough 1980s, when many industries left never to return, the Welsh union team suffered. Players such as Jonathan Davies and Scott Gibbs went North so they could afford to live. The success of the Welsh team has been linked to the physicality of mining; when the pits closed, they took the work and with it the primary source of conditioning. Professionalism rescued Welsh union, to an extent, but the Welsh clubs have struggled to hold on to their players, many of whom now play in the lucrative (and balmy) south of France.

The West Country, another region of widespread participation, similarly remained loyal to the old form of the game. Not coincidentally, Wales and the Southwest both had very popular forms of folk-football (Cnapan and Cornish Hurling, respectively) before all this codification began. Gloucester, a working-class club, was one of the strictest adherents to amateurism, ironically after its reputation was heavily damaged for frequent violations regarding payments prior to the schism. Union remains popular in that part of the world, increasingly so, if you look at the Chiefs and the Pirates. World Cup winner Phil Vickery is a proud Cornishman, former dairy farmer (and qualified cow inseminator, for what it’s worth).

Cornwall's county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics
Cornwall’s county team, representing Great Britain, won silver at the 1908 Olympics. Source: Cornish Pirates

The Wrong SIde of History, Vichy and Apartheid

The two codes went their separate ways, but both went on to cross the channel. Rugby played a part in the establishment of the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. The decade prior, league was growing in popularity in southern France, but as the Vichy regime was established, the situation changed. Philippe Pétain was suspicious of the “socialist” rugby league and moved to ban the game, encouraged in his actions by French rugby union, who informed him that league was “un-French” and a “corrupter” of young Frenchmen. The Fédération Rugby Française became Vichy collaborators, and French rugby league was stripped of its assets, worth millions of Francs, to help fund the Nazi-sympathetic regime. In contrast, prominent league players such as Paul Barrière would join the Resistance.

Back in Britain, rugby union again largely found itself on the wrong side of history as the Home Nations and the British Lions frequently played the Springboks, the pride of Apartheid South Africa, during the ‘60s and ‘70s. In 1968, the Welsh flanker and school teacher John Taylor, otherwise known as “Basil Brush,” made himself an exception. What happened next speaks volumes.

“I wanted to be a Lion. I put all the misgivings to the back of my mind, believed all the twaddle about building bridges and that we weren’t supporting apartheid and as soon as I got there I realised very much that we were.”

He was instructed by the authorities to ignore the “politics” of it, told instead that “our rugby and our girls are great so go and enjoy them” (another example of how the “manliness” of rugby was evoked). After ’68, he refused to wear the red of Wales, or of the Lions, when facing the ‘Boks. The WRU didn’t ban him, but inexplicably left him out of the team for four games.

“I had been told very clearly that had I been English I would have never played international rugby again.”

The episode is indicative of the enduring elite dominance of union administration into the ‘70s, how it reinforced itself on racism and global politics. The case of Taylor shows that their attitude was not shared by all of its players, but the significant pressure from above to unquestioningly prop up Apartheid ensured that dissenters remained the exception. At the time of the 1974 Lions Tour to South Africa, Taylor recalled,

“’74 was the big deal. I was absolutely convinced that the rest of the sporting world was right and that there was this sort of massive arrogance in rugby that the brotherhood of rugby, the fraternity of rugby, meant more than the brotherhood of man – that they couldn’t be bad chaps because they played rugby. It was very much that sort of arrogance that I absolutely deplored in rugby. I had no doubts at all.”

(11min) Highlights of Lions ’74 tour of South Africa. Notice how it focuses on the sport and nothing but the sport. The only “controversy” mentioned was over a legitimate try not given. Also note how good JJ Williams was.

Rugby (both codes, but especially union) has correspondingly been a historically unwelcoming place for players of colour. The first black player to play for England was in union; another pioneering Salfordian, James Peters, made his debut on 17th March 1906 against Scotland. “His selection was by no means popular on racial grounds,” reported the Yorkshire Post, and he became known in the rugby world as “Darkie Peters.” In 1907 the RFU refused to select him against the Springboks, who did not want a black player on the pitch. A working man, Peters played and worked in Plymouth but was kicked out of the union for playing a single league match in the West Country. He saw out his career in the northern league.

James Peters, England's first black international. Source: England Rugby
James Peters, England’s first black international. Source: England Rugby

The first black league international was George Bennett who played for England in the 1930s. Bennett, by birth, was a Welshman, but was forced up north after ostracism within Welsh rugby by a governing body hostile to black players. The WRU, as the Taylor episode shows, did not cover themselves in roses when it came to racial equality. Until Glenn Webbe made his debut against Tonga in 1986, the Welsh team was all white. Colin Charvis would become Wales’ first captain of colour, leading his side at the 2003 World Cup. Although English league and union have become increasingly diverse in recent years, both codes have failed to make inroads amongst Britain’s significant South Asian population.

Women’s rugby union has expanded rapidly in the last twenty years, despite hostility from the IRB, who attempted to undermine the second women’s world cup tournament in 1994. Participation is increasing in both codes. 11 000 women play union in England, and up north, the women’s RFL is the largest in the world. But rugby’s association with masculinity endures, and women’s rugby receives little mainstream coverage. BBC Sport, for example, since 2012 has extended its coverage of women’s sport; football is regularly on TV (with the BBC showing all of the recent World Cup in Canada), and the Ashes was broadcast on Test Match Special. But women’s rugby has not been as much a part of this. England women won the Rugby Union World Cup last year. Few people noticed. Progress is slow, but hopefully the inclusion of women’s rugby sevens in the 2016 Olympics can provide a catalyst for change.

Local elites, global elites

“Bagehot” in The Economist said it well. “Britain’s main team sports, football, cricket and rugby, have always reflected the big tensions in society: conflicts over wealth and class, of north against south. Only rugby has been rent by them.” But this, and many of the sources here, are inward-facing. As the Lions tours to Apartheid South Africa suggest, rugby union’s history and politics have also reflected the relationship between its participant countries.

Professionalism has exacerbated the one aspect of rugby union that intrinsically favours the wealthy – increased strength and conditioning (and with it, increased injury). And to the richest, go the spoils. During the group stages Tonga’s Epi Taione slammed World Rugby for its continued concentration of  resources in the hands of the “elite” of world union: the Home Nations, and the former settler colonies of Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. So spoke Taione.

“Rugby is so out of touch. It’s run by colonialists who still think they run the world like it was 100 years ago.”

The poorer unions in the Pacific Islands have to share World Rugby bursaries, and their national teams are increasingly forced to raise funds for tours, training and world cup campaigns. Before Japan’s heroics this autumn, it is worth remembering that it has been Samoa, who ran the formidable 2003 England team close, Tonga, who beat finalists France in 2011, and Fiji, twice quarter-finalists, who have brought what might be called the “spirit of rugby” to the RU World Cup, saving it from dull predictability. Yet these nations, poorer, distant, and so important to the history and character of rugby, are being increasingly pushed from a game that is ostensibly committed to increasing global participation.

Villiame Vaki scores for Tonga against South Africa, RUWC 2007

I’ll talk about them more in another blog post next week. For now though it is worth saying that, although never solely the domain of the wealthy, the class and imperial divisions of rugby, both in Britain and worldwide, have always and continue to affect and damage the game. As the world of rugby union pats itself on the back for Japan’s recent success, the increasing struggle of the Pacific Islands should be remembered.

(Title picture is of current England players dressed as “Gentlemen” (source Daily Mail), and a soggy mountain pitch in Wales)

“Where is he from, this King of Haiti?” Admiral Caperton Invades Haiti, 28th July 1915

Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo
Admiral William B. Caperton and Dr. Rosalvo Bobo

(This is not strictly a historical account. It is partially dramatized, fictionalized (if you prefer that word). See below)

The USA “has no design upon the political and territorial integrity of Haiti,” said Secretary Lansing. That was two weeks after they’d gone in. Two weeks after Williams Banks Caperton sent his men in to occupy Port-au-Prince. He’d been peering at Haiti from his boat, the U.S.S. Washington, for months. It was one week before Admiral Caperton enacted the order to take control of the customs houses, and open a bank account for Haiti’s funds in his own name, “in trust for the people of the Haitian republic.”

It was the 28th July when it happened, as it’s told. The day when the tyranny of Vilbrun Guillame Sam could hold no longer, when his massacre of opponents in the National Penitentiary sparked an insurrection within the Port-au-Prince. The president took cover in the French Legation, but diplomatic protocol bore no barrier to the anger of those who’d lost their friends and family under Sam’s bullets. He was pulled out onto the streets, and publicly assassinated.

I could see that parade through my glasses,” and I knew I had to act. For months I had sat on the Washington, stifled by the heat, stuck on my boat, watching Haiti as a theatre from different vantage points. I moved my boat from Cap-Haitien, to Gonaïves, to the capital and back again, keeping an eye on events in that “volcanic republic” as I had been instructed to do. The French took great exception to the invasion of their sovereign territory. They had sent a gunboat, of the name Descartes, to demand satisfaction. “I landed before them. I had to.”

But the bluejackets were already on Haitian shores. Commander Olmstead has been sent to Cap-Haitïen months before, to stand between the town (and its customs house) and the revolution of the North. The USA already had the bank, the railway, and the Dominican Republic, and the desire in American eyes for the deep waters of the Mole St Nicholas was no secret. Caperton chose Captain van Orden to lead the assault; he had been to Haiti before, he shared the Admiral’s view that Haiti could, with American guidance, be restored. Had the Descartes merely forced his hand early?

I was nervous that night. I had few men, and over a century of Haitian history in my head. I knew the stories of Dessalines and Soulouque, I believed them to be barbarians, and the events of that day were added to this library in my mind, joined by St. John’s tales of voodoo and cannibals that lurked in the Haytian night. “Hayti, or the Black Republic” was a mate on the Washington, its pages were turned by all the important men, it was a necessary lesson in dealing with this “turbulent republic.”

But it was “a quick night in Port-au-Prince.” Van Orden landed and marched through the streets, waiting for the counter attack. There was little of it when it came. Two men fell, Gompers and Whitehurst, the first victims of the mission. Six of theirs fell, with two wounded.

Eight Haitian casualties, names unknown. Established on Haitian soil, the landing party fled from malaria. They needed shelter, so the medical officer chose a school on the hills near Pacot. They evicted its children, whitewashed the walls, sprayed it with disinfectant, and dug latrines. The mosquitos followed them, and soon it was abandoned for higher ground. The health of the troops was fantastic, considering the tropical surroundings.

No problems, “except venereal.”

Tales of the 28th July filtered into the USA, where they would be magnified by the yellow presses, excited by lucrative tales of black barbarity and brave white Americans stepping into the breach, to aid. But their voices would not dominate the tale, so spoke Dr. Rosalvo Bobo, the revolutionary leader of the North, in his open letter to the President of the United States.

“Order was re-established [in the town], then the American Forces landed. All those in the streets who saw this outlandish procession, believed it was some American Governor imported from New York. Where is he from, this king of Haiti? What is his wishes? Would it be, as they say, the control of the customs houses and our finances with the right of raising their flag on the Mole St Nicolas? What is the matter between you and us? By what contract are we binded? Why do you wish so much to humiliate and put us down?”

The American papers were more interested in Bobo himself, calling him Doctor, but never using his first name. Did they ever know it? Or did “Bobo” sound more exotic without the Rosalvo, did his doctorate sound less authentic? Caperton too became obsessed with the Doctor, another enemy on a multi-fronted battle.

There is much still to do to establish control. I need more men, but I need financial support more than anything else. The misery I have seen on the streets is more than I can comprehend. There is great danger of famine, which must be dealt with immediately lest the people once more descend into anarchy. I requested aid from the Red Cross, to which they have been very generous as they too believe that “given good clothes, regular meals, regular pay and a good standard of behaviour set before them, they may become good public servants.” They sent me $20 000 to spend as I see fit.

But their money and ours is insufficient to solve the instability of the Black Republic. The money trickles in from the customs houses, but as Waller says “from the president down” each one takes their share. “Knowing Haiti as I do,” I would say that “these are the most deceitful, unreliable graft seekers on earth” and we must tackle this issue if we are to save Haitians from themselves. We “have occupied the country for its own good,” after all. The Caco guerrillas are the biggest infestation upon this land. We have been nothing but “most considerate, yet conciliatory in our duty with them,” and still they persist. Sterner measures will be required.

Thus were the wishes of this so-called King of Haiti, the first white man to be attributed such a role. He would not be the last. But what is a ruler without his Chief of Staff? On the ground was Captain Edward Beech, aka Dan Quin of the Navy, who embedded himself in Haitian politics to perform his king’s bidding.

“The fault is with Haiti,” I might add, in our efforts to attain peace and a lasting treaty between our two nations that will forever entrench our cooperation. But “unless they cooperate there will be no progress in Haiti.” I know everyone here from Dartineguave to Borno, and I know how things work. Port-au-Prince is the center of government, “it starts from there and ends there,” and so it will remain. And it is there where the “Golden Flood” of American money will have to flow, should this country progress. “Being properly guided,” Haiti will work. Are you listening? “Dan Quin is speaking to you.”

And so the order came to take the customs houses. To set up a police force, or is it an army? They would be led by Smedley Butler, the best in the business, to be taught to handle guns, to shoot at the Olympic Games, and at the Cacos. Cleanliness, health, discipline; those were the standards drilled into the Gendarmerie. They were built to be the finest of Haitians, in American eyes, in contrast to the politicians, the Cacos, the Vodouizan, and the vagabonds that fill the streets with the disfigurations of yaws. Their enemy would only ever be Haitian.

To set up a health service, public works, prisons. To root out corruption, customs house by customs house, senator by senator, Caco by Caco. Cure malaria, cure the army, teach technical skills, profit, production. The customs houses are just the start.

They use too much of their fields for their own foods. They should grow cash crops, sugar…

So would grow HASCO, the Haitian-American Sugar Company, where zombies allegedly cut the cane. The zombie rumours were exported too. Open for Business, everything’s for sale.

Bobo was next, said by his fans in the press to be “the only Haytian known to carry his opposition to the United States to the extreme of reducing his own income.”  He was in for special treatment. He was invited on board the Washington, and walked through the boat slowly, seeing the faces of old allies and new enemies as he approached the door to the Admiral’s office. He was there to be chewed out.

“I will not mince words” with these Haitians. They require “the firm hand and the watchful eye” of their big brothers. Bobo was no different, except that he was a madman, delusional. I informed him in no uncertain terms that he would not be president of this republic, and he was “strongly instructed” to stand down and “go onshore as a private citizen…he capitulated.”

Caperton left Haiti in 1916, having successfully germinated the seeds of a nineteen-year occupation of Haiti. He and his “big stick” were then sent to the Dominican Republic. Dominicans, for the Admiral, were similarly challenging, as “their rascality, grafting and total unreliability is beyond all conception.” There was a lasting legacy to establish there, too.

One hundred years on, another American man they call Le Gouverneur is a Special Envoy to Haiti. He’s not the only one hanging around. I’ve been there too, walking through the streets of Port-au-Prince, where people are right to ask of him and of me, “who is this man? What are his wishes?”

(This is a partially fictionalised and dramatized account of the opening acts of what would become the United States Occupation of Haiti. Anything in quotation marks are the actual words, written or spoken, of Caperton, Beech, Bobo and the American press. The rest is me, but written not to sensationalise (as was the style at the time) but to emphasise the fears, the desires and the politics of this period. It’s by me, my opinions, mine alone. Don’t sue anybody else. This piece was mostly inspired by my work with the William B. Caperton Collection at the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Kenbe fèm)

“Houses as Ruins and Gardens as Weeds” – Manic Street Preachers reprise The Holy Bible, Wolverhampton, 1st June

 

holy bible

“The court has come. The court of the nations. And into the courtroom will come the martyrs of Majdanek and Oswiecim. From the ditch of Kersh the dead will rise, they will arise from the graves, they will arise from flames bringing with them the acrid smoke and the deathly odour of scorched and martyred Europe…”

..so speaks a documentary reporter from the Nuremburg Trials throughout the Wolverhampton Civic as the Manic Street Preachers start track 11 of their third album, The Holy Bible, an album they are currently performing in full, from start to finish, in recognition of its 20th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the disappearance of its prime lyricist, Richey Edwards.

Bands who have been around too long have recently gained a tendency to dig up full albums from their back catalogue. It’s usually a mixture of reliving old glories, either for the fans or the band, evoking the memory of days now gone when things were more exciting and their music actually meant something. (If the band stick an extra tenner on the ticket price, as they usually do, then they can finally buy that second kitchen they always wanted through the rehash.)

In that sense, it’s a work of history, and it’s the same type of history of those guys who were born in the 70’s but love to talk to you about D-Day or 1966. It’s history for nostalgia’s sake; it’s Village Green Preservation. And when you see it live, it feels the same as if you’re seeing a tribute act; it’s not quite the real thing, as a song used to mean something different when it was first released, to you as a fan, and to the band as performer.

With the Manics, and with The Holy Bible as source material, this would never be the case. The Observer’s Dorian Lynsky wrote of the December leg of the tour, that, “too thorny for mere nostalgia”, it felt “neither lazy nor exploitative but a serious, even necessary, reckoning with the past.” The Manics are not, nor have they ever been, a band who tour out of decadence; they aren’t a Rolling Stones or U2 who reform endlessly to furnish their luxury, but a band that follows in the tradition of The Clash or of Public Enemy. They are certainly nostalgic, but in the desire of not forgetting their musical or social origins. They are definitely not a band that likes to repeat themselves.

The biggest feeling of walking down Memory Lane was in the obvious absence of Richey, who disappeared on 1st February 1995, and is now presumed dead. They lined up, just the three of them, as they would have done 20 years ago, James Dean Bradfield in the middle, Nicky Wire on the right, and a big hole on the left, where Nicky pointed as he acknowledged his absence. (In New York, he said, “we know Richey is here”.)

The Holy Bible is Richey’s album, lyrically, a stark window into a troubled mind that was losing a battle. There are some deeply personal moments; everyone in the crowd knows that 4st. 7lb is rooted in Richey’s anorexia, and the fans are band historians too – James belts out “self-disgust is self-obsession honey” and we all know what it evokes. But this isn’t a ritual of denial, the band have moved on from 1995, as have many of the fans.

And on the whole, this is music that takes on society as a whole, and only rarely is autobiographical.  It is a scathing assessment of 20th Century European history and the political outlook of the 1990s that it bred. It presents a view of the European 20th Century as one of massive human cruelty and destruction.

The taught narrative in British schools is one of Euro-America rising up to defeat fascism, heroic figures of Churchill, Montgomery, de Gaulle et al vanquishing the evils of Mussolini and Hitler. These European heroes are removed from the historical canon of The Holy Bible, replaced by the serial killers Hindley, Brady and Sutcliffe, mixed with ex-FN leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and Slobodan Milosovic. With them, the fascists remain; in Of Walking Abortion Mussolini remains only “hanging from a butcher’s hook”, but Hitler has become “reprised, in the worm of your soul.” Churchill remains only to join the pantheon, as “no different” for his attitude towards the British working class.

Unfair? Maybe. Discomforting? Certainly. It’s all to argue that 20th Century Europe was, and remains, a cruel and unforgiving place. The Holocaust features strongly as source material, notably on the tracks The Intense Humming of Evil and Mausoleum; the former struggling to come to terms with the horror, whilst the latter rages against the silence that followed (“obliterates your meaning”). But much like Arendt, its significance lies in that the cruelty was mass-sponsored, and not the work of a few fanatical psychopaths.

“Everyone is guilty” screeches James in Of Walking Abortion. The thesis of Archives of Pain is that the capacity for cruelty lies in humanity and its institutions, written jarringly from the perspective of a torture and death-penalty advocate. “If hospitals cure, then prisons must bring their pain,” it opens. “If god makes death that makes man tear up the corpse with horses and chains.”

As the title suggests, in Archives and the entire album history is the evidence, to sit alongside the sickening triumphalism of the Euro-American 1990s. As Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history”, Richey baulked. He saw no triumph anywhere. In response, and in clear desperation, he, following the words of J. G. Ballard (who speaks over Mauseleum) aimed to “rub the human race in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” The songs are difficult and head-first descents into the agony of 1990s society, furious at sexual violence and exploitation (Yes), body-shaming and self-harm (4st 7lb, Faster), and what in Greece has recently been called “the extremism of the centre” (PCP).

But somehow it never descends into pure nihilism, hinted to in the rueful conclusion of Mauseleum, “life can be as important as death, but [it’s] so mediocre.” I would not go nearly as far as the Sunday Times in saying it’s “an album that celebrates life as much as it details despair”, but there is hope in tiny doses, although that is not the point of The Holy Bible. Instead, it aims to stand in stark contrast to the conservative celebration of the 1990s, of American and European exceptionalism, and to constantly remind us of its lies.

And therein lies the point of its reprisal. In 2015, those who still listen to the record can’t help but feel that parts of the album hit even harder than they used to. Revol is undeniably a ridiculous song, a weird upbeat track that decides that all of history’s autocrats were influenced by some simplistic Freudian nonsense. I think it’s Richey’s attempt at being light-hearted. But underneath is the resignation that history has the tendency to repeat itself, over and over, for the same reasons. These days, that is a feeling that is hard to escape.

Take Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwillfallapart, the Manics’ razor-sharp takedown of ‘90s triumphalism, dismantling American hypocrisy under the guise of a pseudo-positive punk-pop. The first verse deals with foreign affairs.

“Images of perfection, suntan and napalm, Grenada, Haiti, Poland Nicaragua”

Slip Iraq and Afghanistan into that. Haiti twice more. Colombia and the War on Drugs, Cuba and Guantanamo Bay…

The second verse moved to the domestic, following decades of urban decline, the LAPD assault of Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent outrage.

“Vital stats: how white was his skin? Unimportant just another inner-city drive-by thing”

Living through the police murders of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and the violence inflicted on many black people in the US and elsewhere, the anger only grows. In this album, the history justifies the assessment of the present, and it still feels pertinent. This is a record that must be played in full.

Live, James and Nicky were almost apologetic at subjecting the fans to The Holy Bible in its entirety. They felt it necessary to perform, simultaneously to honour Richey’s memory and resurrect the power of its music. But this is music that isn’t for everybody, and they were aware that it can be difficult.  Sometimes, like in Archives of Pain, it goes too far, and the metaphor becomes so lost it reads as a hawkish revenge fantasy. Some of it, like PCP is politically all over the shop; it comes across (part-intentionally, perhaps) as a series of mad ramblings.

James and Sean gave Richey’s work a backing track to suit the music; strange changes from minor to major, screeching guitar solos on top of simple bass, adrenaline-fueled tempo mixed with slow moments where some fans felt so confused they tried to wave their arms, before realising that this was 4st 7lb, not Coldplay. It is visceral, immediate stuff, and as such only gains power live. You could hear every note and twang of James’ guitar, nothing sounds like the studio.

The fans, of course, knew exactly what they were in for. Some were misery tourists; I could not quite work out how one girl found the urge to groove to The Intense Humming of Evil when most of the crowd were stunned in silence. But it was “enjoyable”. In this left-leaning audience there was a catharsis in belting out the lyrics to ifwhiteamerica after feeling so helpless for so long. To collectively chant “so damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” at the end of Faster was to articulate and release so much frustration.

It didn’t end there – the second half of the set, the “party songs” as James put it, is not devoid of this feeling. Nicky, taking over lyric duty, writes in a more diluted way (and can be occasionally dreadful) but the message remains. James first sung The Everlasting (that song of strange pronunciation), that begins with “the gap that grows between our lives, the gap our parents never had.” Depression remains a topic; the cheerful-on-the-surface number You Stole the Sun from my Heart concludes with “I have got to stop smiling, if gives the wrong impression…” The set concludes with the searing 1996 eulogy to a dead welfare state, A Design for Life, as moving as ever nearly twenty years on as the Chancellor of the Exchequer sells off the public sector.

David Nicholls (this one) once wrote that each generation needs to write its own histories. Twenty years later, The Holy Bible resurrected live is something new in itself; part-tribute, part-protest, with a bit of group therapy thrown in. There are newer radical artists about, with new things to say, but none can claim the following of this Gwent rock trio. It’s a tougher musical landscape nowadays, this band’s first No. 1 was the Spanish Civil War track If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next, and it’s hard to imagine something so with the line “if I can shoot rabbits, then I can shoot fascists” topping the charts today.

The Manics are not trying to be the voice of 2015 with material from 1994. Nor are they stuck in the past. Instead, like the album itself, they are using history to make an impassioned comment on the present. Twenty years later, European and American society is still masquerading under the guise of a post-racist, post-sexist “end of history” triumphalism, whilst social inequality grows, and racial and sexual violence persists.

Or, to show “houses as ruins and gardens as weeds” (quoting This is Yesterday) is to push for greater awareness of the past, and greater urgency in changing the present.

Tending the Backyard: US Foreign Policy in Cuba and Haiti, 1898-2014

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President Obama yesterday announced that the time had come for the USA to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This move would return US-Cuba ties to the state they existed prior to the severance of 1961.

Or would it? The Guardian yesterday wrote that this move presents an “opportunity for the US and Cuba to engage on genuinely equal terms for the first time in their long and troubled history,” the gist of the article being that since 1809 (when Jefferson tried to buy Cuba from the Spanish) Cuba has been on the unfortunate end of an unequal relationship.

In that sense Cuba is no different to many other Caribbean and Latin American countries. There is a unique dynamic and a unique history between Cuba and the United States, but it is a relationship best understood within the context of wider US policy in its own “backyard”. Haiti, Cuba’s neighbour (and my primary area of study) shares many similar past experiences with the USA, including tourism, migration and the potential establishment of a naval base. The outcomes, however, have been dramatically different.

GUANTANAMO BAY, or the MÔLE ST. NICOLAS?

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Guantanamo Bay, back in the day

Guantanamo Bay is an infamous symbol of 21st Century US foreign policy, as an internment and torture camp. It became a US Naval Base after the USA invaded Cuba in 1898, as the Cubans neared victory in their struggle for independence against a crumbling Spanish army.

The invasion came as the American press, screaming for benevolent intervention, reached its peak. Manifest destiny broke from the mainland, into the Caribbean, spurred on by the paternalist desire to help America’s neighbours in their supposed hour of need (even though the war was nearing its end). Strategic concerns were never far away; Mariola Espinosa has written that a desire to control Yellow Fever was central to US policy in Cuba, and in addition to that there is Guantanamo.

The Platt Amendment gave Cuba its “independence” (so long as it behaved itself and stayed clear of Yellow Fever), but kept Guantanamo Bay for the USA; its deep, peaceful waters a clue to growing US intentions in the Caribbean. The Navy had desired a deep harbour in the Caribbean for decades, but their first choice had been the Môle St Nicolas in northwest Haiti (where Columbus landed in 1492).

In 1891, the USS Philadelphia anchored off the coast of the Môle with orders to acquire it through aggressive negotiation; only through the skill and integrity of Haitian Foreign Minister Anténor Firmin and US Ambassador to Haiti Frederick Douglass was the gunboat diplomacy of the US Navy deterred. Douglass made the case to Washington that there was “no one point (in Haiti)…more sensitive than the cession of any part of their territory to any foreign power”, having fought so hard to win independence and keep it during the Haitian Revolution. This move cost Douglass his job. (see Carolyn Fleur-Lobban, Introduction to “The Equality of Human Races” by Anténor Firmin, 2000, p. xlv)

As the decade wore on and US paternalism acquired a “big stick”, the USA would soon invade Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, occupy the Panama Canal Zone, and extend control in Puerto Rico. Haiti was invaded in 1915, after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The new occupiers discussed annexing the Môle, but eventually decided that it was not worth the risk to occupied Haiti’s stability, when they already had one deep harbour in Cuba.

The opportunity to capture Guantanamo was less risky in newly-independent Cuba, and came much sooner, than the chance to take the Môle. And with it, a permanent seat of US military power nestled itself in a Cuban harbour, and not a Haitian one.

WHAT HAPPENS IN CUBA…

Cuba tourism

Cuba under Batista is famous for being the USA’s “playground”. A place where the rich and glamorous of early-twentieth century America could enjoy the banned vices of home, in casinos and brothels nestled in a tropical paradise. Christine Skiwot’s Purposes of Paradise finds similarities in Cuba’s experience in tourism with Hawaii, at this time not yet a state. Military intervention became cultural, as the US tourist industry cultivated a class of loyal elite (and paler-skinned) Cubans and Hawaiians who grew rich from the hedonistic trade.

What is less-known is that the Haiti of President Paul Magloire, described by David Nicholls as a “playboy” president, underwent similar changes, although this began in Haiti much later; as the Black Republic was previously seen as too exotic a place for rich white American tourists, but the situation changed and resorts grew alongside a newfound Vodou-tourist experience that offered a profane, tourist-friendly version of serving the spirits.

Whilst Hawaii moved to American statehood in 1959, Cuba and Haiti took radically different routes. Fidel Castro overthrew Batista and installed a socialist government; and Haiti became ruled by the authoritarian François Duvalier. US attempts to kill Castro are well-known, but Kennedy also wanted Duvalier dead, and Duvalier was famously hostile towards foreigners in Haiti. However Duvalier’s pragmatic anti-communism (usually directed at his political opponents) kept American relations above-freezing, and in his final years, he became a good friend of Richard Nixon. Castro’s government survived CIA plots, Kennedy’s disastrous attempt to direct a Cuban exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The US embargo on Cuba survived with it, and Americans were banned from visiting Cuba.

François Duvalier died in 1971, and his son and successor Jean-Claude was unabashedly pro-American. Much of the vice that flowed into Havana was now redirected towards Port-au-Prince, especially sex tourism. Through this, HIV was introduced into Haiti in the late-1970s and, as rumours (incorrectly) flew in the USA that HIV-AIDS originated in Haiti, the tourist industry was destroyed, plunging Haiti into further economic difficulty.

Paul Farmer, in his book on AIDS in Haiti, wryly notes that had the epidemic started when Havana was the “tropical playground of the Caribbean”, before Castro and the embargo, HIV may have found its way to Cuba, not Haiti.

WET FEET, DRY FEET, BOAT PEOPLE, BOEING PEOPLE

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Elian Gonzalez captured in Florida by Federal Agents, 2000

Castro and Duvalier’s regimes both resulted in a massive movement of people from Cuba and Haiti to the United States, and this exodus followed the same pattern. The first to move were the elites, who joined small but already-established communities in the USA, especially Miami. In Cuba this elite faction was already decidedly pro-American, having benefited from the Batista regime and targeted by Castro’s property reclamation (a fine example being the Bacardi family). Light-skinned and educated, they were often able to adapt quickly to American society. The Cuban-exile community became a loud, critical bloc in Miami politics; one that has helped to uphold the embargo on Cuba until this very week.

Haiti’s elite were mostly chased out by the elder Duvalier’s repressive policies; the brain-drain that followed has given birth to a well-known tale that there are more Haitian doctors in Montreal than in Haiti.

In the 1970’s both economies were suffering; Cuba’s isolation in the Americas was proving difficult for economic prosperity, and Jean-Claude Duvalier’s neoliberal kleptocracy kept wages and opportunities down, as repression and terror remained. The impoverished people of the Caribbean followed their elite forebears to Florida, often in flimsy boats at the mercy of the sea, or worse.

The hypocrisy of US foreign policy was laid bare by the movement of these “boat people”; Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans were given the right to claim asylum as political refugees, although the political situation in Cuba had somewhat calmed in the 1970s. Haitians, whatever their motives for leaving, were classed as economic migrants and granted no such privilege. This, of course, depended upon whether they made it at all; the “Wet foot, dry foot” immigration policy with regards to Cuba meant that migrants had to reach south Florida to be given asylum. If they failed to make it ashore, they were turned back. For Haitian political refugees, being turned back would leave them at the mercy of Duvalier’s paramilitary force, the tontons macoutes.

Access for the poorer, darker-skinned migrants did not mean asylum in the same sense as the early migrants. The newer arrivals found it difficult to integrate into the traditionally-elite Cuban exile community of south Florida. Haitian migrants were ostracised by much of the community, especially after the outbreak of HIV-AIDS. Despite the Cuban Adjustment Act, new Cuban migrants to the United States can still be in an uncertain and precarious position, as highlighted by the Elian Gonzalez case of 1999-2000. Yet whilst the boat people struggled, Haitian elites continued to migrate to the USA on flights; known as the “Boeing People”, their feet never got wet, and found it easier to gain more secure terms of residence.

END OF THE EMBARGO

Channel 4 struggling to get the hang of the Unequal Relationship

Since the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has been invaded twice more by the USA on grounds of benevolence, and its economic and political situation is dependent on Washington. Cuba’s isolation in the Americas had ended long-before yesterday, and has been an active participant in recent Latin American affairs, as well as providing healthcare workers to aid Ebola treatment in West Africa. Migrants continue to come to the USA from both countries, in their thousands.

The end to the embargo would allow the Cuban diaspora to once again connect with family on the island through regular travel and improved telecommunications, as Haitian-American communities have been able to do. Cuba would benefit in global relations, as the USA would no longer treat it as a pariah state.

There has been a lot of concern on the effects of American neoliberalism entering Cuba. Haiti has felt the full force of American business exploitation over the past forty years; wages are still low, and free trade has caused irreparable damage to Haitian agriculture on more than one occasion. If it is truly an opportunity for true equality between the USA and Cuba, then the USA will have to break its traditional habit of viewing Caribbean countries as economic and cultural playthings that exist in its backyard.

Yet the point of this blogpost has been to suggest that historically-speaking, the impact of US foreign policy in the Caribbean cannot be easily predicted, and is at the mercy of a variety of factors. The benefits and drawbacks of this decision on the Cuban communities of the Americas cannot be foreseen, and there is still a long way to go.

Then again, to read this in Ishaan Tharoor’s piece in the Washington Post yesterday…

It’s a strange irony that some of Washington’s biggest proponents of free trade don’t want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba’s own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.

Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.’s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence — that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.

Morality, free trade, “back-yard” politics.

Nothing changes.

(Title picture: McDonald’s at Guantanamo Bay)

Fire on Ice: The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team and the Art of Being Taken Seriously

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When Viv Richards met Bob Marley in London in 1976 (as documented by the great film Fire in Babylon), they found themselves in awe of one another.

I really love what you’re doing out there-No I really love what you’re doing.

What they were actually doing was far more than representing West Indian culture in the outside world, in England, or anywhere else, but they were forcing the outside world to take them, and the Caribbean as a whole, very seriously.

When the Jamaican bobsleigh team arrived in Calgary, 1988, they faced a similar challenge. We all know the story; the Winter Olympic team who had never been on the ice, we’ve all seen Cool Runnings. Not only did they need to do well to avoid the subsequent misery suffered by that other great Calgary hero, Eddie the Eagle, who was cruelly deemed too embarrassing to compete again, but against the constant portrayal of Caribbeans as fun-loving, casual folk with a culture borrowed from elsewhere.

The stakes were high.

It’s hard to say how far back this attitude hails from; but you can find it in the alleged docility of slaves in the eyes of their white masters. You can find it in the blackfaced Uncle Toms of the 19th Century USA and in the Songs of the South eighty years on. You can find it in the near-complete disinterest of foreign social scientists (with a few notable exceptions) in seriously studying Caribbean culture as it was rejected as a mongrelised, inauthentic, impure thing.

This attitude was alive and well in the great Caribbean exports of music and sport in the latter 20th Century. Against the fire and protest of Bob Marley and the Wailers, and their forerunners Jimmy Cliff and Desmond Dekker, there was a mountain of Pop Reggae, with backing-track sound system, designed to sell a tamed Caribbean to White America and Europe.

Clive Lloyd’s West Indies came together after twenty years of repetitive defeats. The team had previously thrilled foreign crowds with flamboyant, creative play, but always fell short in the end. They were paraded, mobbed, and cheered by Australian fans after the “Calypso summer” of 1960-61. But Calypso Cricket had an expiry date, as Lloyd’s team forced a drilled athleticism and an anti-colonial fire on their opponents, and started winning. Started dominating. Humiliating their opponents. They were hated for it abroad, and England captain (and White South African) Tony Greig symbolized the disparaging attitude perfectly.

“If they’re down, they grovel, and I intend, with the help of Clossy and a few others, to make them grovel”

(How he failed)

The Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation founded by two American businessmen in Jamaica, George Fitch and William Maloney, saw the talent in the Jamaican sprinters, and the skill in the local pushcart derby, and imagined the whole thing on ice. Unlike the film, they were able to train on the ice at Lake Placid, but had dreadful equipment, and reached Calgary without confidence and without the means to compete.

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Fundraising started quickly, and t-shirts, merchandise, and the official song Hobbin’ and a Bobbin’ , sung by team member and electrician Frederick Powell, hit Canada hard. Two of the squad, driver and helicopter pilot Dudley Stokes (and eventual veteran of four Winter Olympics), and his brakeman Michael White slid the two-man under the strict attention of media mockery. The overarching feeling was aptly summed up by the more-sympathetic LA Times;

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Jamaicans do not belong on bobsleds, they belong on the beach. At least that’s the common perception”

For all the attention, for all the reggae and the colour of the PR, the achievement of reaching Calgary by right was overlooked. The first day of the four-man sled competition went off without a hitch, but Stokes and White, joined by Devon Harris and Chris Stokes, remained focused despite the disparaging media hysteria.

It was not the nasty East Germans of Cool Runnings (a communist, formerly-Nazi, non-existent country that made the perfect Hollywood nemesis) that were the enemies of the team; the other athletes were highly supportive of the team, as they knew the difficulties and dangers of the sled. It was the Fédération International de Bobsleigh et de Tabogganing (FITB), who feared that the Jamaicans would embarrass the sport. As Dudley Stokes lost control of the sled and Jamaica crashed out, the applause was sporadic, the sled was carried off by some anonymous maintenance staff, and the media had the perfect Calypso Conclusion to their sideshow.

Dudley Stokes, Freddie Powell, Devon Harris, Michael White, PC. Harris

The money had dried up, but George Fitch stuck with them until 1992. Yet the team were not done. As the official website of the team writes in their detailed history of the team,

“Team members saw themselves as athletes; not as showmen”

They worked hard and proved to fundraisers and the Jamaican Bobsleigh Federation they were worth supporting. They earned their way to the 1992 Games, and by the 1994 games in Lillehammer, they were a force to be reckoned with.

The year before, Cool Runnings was released; the film that has shaped how we remember Calgary. Sure there is a lot of Calypso imagery; the sprinters running on a dirt track in the National Championships and all the fish-out-of-water antics, but that is not the point of the film, and nor is it why it is significant. It is the way it tells the story of four highly-tuned sprinters who learned to slide the bobsleigh, and slide it well, by “feelin’ the rhythm” of Jamaica, by being true to themselves. And they proved everybody wrong.

Of course, it is likely that the Jamaican four-man crashed due to pilot error (it was not mechanical failure as in the film), and were certainly not on world record pace, but that doesn’t matter. It changed foreign views of the event; the team were no longer seen as a freak show, an anomaly, like the unfortunate Eddie the Eagle (who worked ridiculously hard to get to Calgary), but as the team from the tropics that could conquer the ice with the fire in their bellies and their athletic ability.

And in Lillehammer they were equals. As Bob Marley’s Legend now sits on every CD rack in the West, as modern cricket mourns not the decline of Calypso Cricket, but the uncompromising brilliance of Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and Viv Richards, so Jamaican bobsleigh is known for overachievement. In Lillehammer, they ended the Olympics in 14th place – the 14th best bobsled team in the world, and better than America.

“If we were the jokers, and we had beaten America, what was America?”

The bobsleigh team had persevered, survived, and forced others to take them seriously. In Salt Lake City, 2002, Winston Watt and Lascelles Brown broke the start record for the two-man bob. Sadly, it took until two weeks ago at Sochi for Jamaica (and Watt, in his forties) to return to the Olympic scene. And the media went wild with Cool Runnings imagery. There were a few disparaging voices as usual; a BBC commentator spectacularly missed the point, moodily noting that “they weren’t even the highest placed Caribbean team in Calgary” – that was in the two man, beaten by the Netherlands Antilles (in the four they DNF’d).

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That doesn’t matter. They qualified by right to Sochi, and got from top to bottom quickly and unscathed, and slid on a history built not only on Cool Runnings but on the achievements of Lillehammer and Salt Lake City, on Winston Watt, who kept the standard raised with four Olympic appearances, and on Lascelles Brown, who took Canadian citizenship in 2005 (for his wife) and won Olympic silver in Turin, and bronze in Vancouver. A word too, for Lieutenant Antonette Gorman, and Captain Judith Blackwood, Jamaica’s first female sliders, and Portia Morgan and Jennifer Cole, who competed in the World Cup series for Jamaica.

It is the achievements of those athletes, in the face of all those who mocked them, doubted them, that the bobsleigh became, alongside reggae and cricket, an unlikely weapon in the continuing fight for the Caribbean to be viewed seriously by the outside world.