From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

June 26th

Today is what we used, during the apartheid years, to refer to as South Africa Freedom Day:  commemorating the signing of the Freedom Charter at a conference organised by the Congress of Democrats attended by 3,000 people in Kliptown, outside Johannesburg.   The name has subsequently, entirely understandably, been transferred to April 27th to commemorate the longed-for day in 1994 when South Africa experienced its first post-apartheid (and first genuine) general election.   Today also happens to be my second son, Brendan’s, birthday, which is being celebrated without us this year in Cape Town.  One son born on Soweto Day, the other born on South Africa Freedom Day, there had to be a message there somewhere.

This year Brendan was very unexpectedly presented with a birthday present by Chelsea Football Club.   He has been a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC from a very early age, in so far as it is possible to ‘support’ a football club from a distance of 6000 miles, and woke this morning to the news that, after 30 years of waiting, Liverpool had finally won the English Premiership title again, courtesy of Chelsea winning a match against Manchester City.   He would have had the good sense not to join the Liverpool fans’ ecstatic, Covid-defying revelry last night, had he been there, but he will have been just as ecstatic.

The restart of the locked-down football season this week has made me aware of just how much I missed watching football in the scheduled run-up to the climax of the season.   This is a statement my sons would identify with entirely, and my daughters-in-law would find completely incomprehensible.   I have to confess that I was unashamedly delighted by this outcome too, and not just out of empathy for my Liverpool-supporting sons, son-in-law, and grandson.  Why confess?  Because – and, safely buried this far into a blog, I can probably get away with saying it – I have been a Manchester United supporter ever since the Munich air disaster in 1957.  Manchester United supporters would generally rather see anyone in the entire universe win anything that their own club can’t win, just as long as it isn’t Liverpool.

My loyalty, then, is a bit fickle.  What I really enjoy is watching ‘the beautiful game’  played at its most beautiful, and, at football’s best, that term isn’t as absurd as it might sound to non-believers.   The speed, the athleticism, the ball-control and the intricate inter-passing; the vision to be able to pick a fifty-yard pass and execute it perfectly; the ability to dribble a ball through a crowd of opponents; the bravery and gymnastic ability of the best goal-keepers – what is not to admire?   When football is played by an outstanding team, with all the players playing at the top of their form, it can be mesmerising.  Liverpool’s 2020 team has it all, and they have a brilliantly charismatic and likeable manager in Jurgen Klopp, who is also an outstanding football tactician, to bring it all together.  Klopp’s team are leading the highly competitive Premier League by a truly astonishing 23 points with a handful of matches remaining; by way of comparison, for those who aren’t followers of the game, Manchester City won last year with a record total but a margin of only a single point over Liverpool.  So, yes, Liverpool fully deserved to win, and I’m delighted it happened for Brendan’s birthday.

Being an inveterately political animal, as anyone reading these blogs will have discovered long ago, my sympathies, if not my full-hearted support when they play Man U, have been with Liverpool FC ever since Hillsborough.   Sport can elicit a wide variety of emotions, but none I have experienced have ever come anywhere near the emotion elicited by standing in a packed crowd at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while supporters at the Kop end (named after the battle of Spion Kop in the Anglo-Boer war) held banners aloft commemorating the 96 fans who were crushed to death at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989.  I cannot believe that even the most partisan Manchester United supporter could have failed to feel sympathy for the families and friends of those 96 fans in the face of the police lies and cover-up of their responsibility for the disaster, the unspeakably contemptible coverage of the event by the execrable Sun, and the British establishment’s preparedness, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to believe the story that responsibility for the disaster lay with drunken Liverpool fans.  Almost 30 years of dogged determination on the part of the Liverpool fans to see the truth eventually acknowledged, if justice by no means done, was wholly admirable and very nearly enough, in itself, to demand a shift of allegiance.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Sunny Sunday

May 3rd

The headline BBC news item this morning was based on an in-depth interview Boris granted to The Sun on Sunday in which he gave an account of his recent two-day sojourn in the Intensive Care Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.   Unlike Icarus, I don’t on principle go anywhere near The Sun, of which more later, so I have to rely on the Independent’s report about The Sun on Sunday’s report about what Boris said.  He is reported to have asserted that he had to be “forced” to go to hospital because he was feeling “pretty rough”, and described the experience as a “tough old moment” during which he had kept asking himself: “How am I going to get out of this?’’  A colloquial interpretation of the stiff-upper-lipped public-school-speak understatement would go something along the lines of: “It was a bloody nightmare.”  As I am quite sure it must have been.  

Two other quotations from the reported interview drew my attention.  The first was Boris’s statement that “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘Death of Stalin’ – type scenario”.  This answered, at least in part, the currently frequently asked question as to whether his experience might have changed him.  Prior to his illness Boris was inclined to think of himself as Churchill rather than as the dodgiest member of the Yalta triumvirate.  The second was his comment that when he became so ill that there was a 50-50 chance that he would have to be intubated and put on a ventilator ‘they were starting to think about how to handle it [his death] presentationally.”  Leaving aside the obvious point that it certainly wouldn’t do “presentationally” to point out that the Prime Minister would have brought his own death upon himself by recklessly ignoring how dangerous the virus was to which he had succumbed, I found myself wondering whether this concern about how his death would be handled “presentationally” might not reveal a subconscious recognition that his entire adult life had been largely “presentational”.

For inveterate UK media watchers – and lockdown provides far too much scope and temptation to join that sad subset of people who should, but currently can’t, get out more often – Boris’s decision to bestow his musings on The Sun on Sunday is telling.   The Sun on Sunday and its daily counterpart, The Sun, are the UK’s leading Sunday and daily newspapers when it comes to sales, to the tune of around 100,000 copies each more than their closest rivals from the Mail stable.  The Sun, with its unspeakably contemptible coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, also leads so far in what has always seemed a highly competitive tabloid rivalry to see who can produce the most shameful demonstration of what journalism shouldn’t be.  Right now I wouldn’t, however, bet against it, or one of its rivals, plumbing even lower depths with nakedly racist treatment of Megan Markle.   

The Sun’s banner-headlined version of the “The Truth” at Hillsborough, which exonerated the police from their responsibility for the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans by depicting them as a bunch of drunken football hooligans who picked the pockets of their crushed their fellow fans, and urinated on police trying to save the lives of the victims, was extraordinarily influential all the way up the political food chain to Margaret Thatcher.  It took 23 years, during which The Sun was boycotted in Liverpool, for the truth to be uncovered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and publicly acknowledged that the original story had been a tissue of lies fed to the newspaper by the South Yorkshire Police. The Sun finally printed a fulsome apology in September 2012, acknowledging that ‘the people of Liverpool may never forgive us for the injustice we did them.’  The people of Liverpool haven’t forgiven them; The Sun is still boycotted in Liverpool.  But Boris Johnson is the last politician I can think of who would ever have been concerned about a media outlet carrying lies.   Any Tory leader must, by definition, keep on the good side of Rupert Murdoch the non-British media baron who owns the The Sun.  All five Liverpool constituencies voted Labour in the 2019 General Election with a minimum of 70% of the votes cast, so where the Tories are concerned Liverpool is a lost cause.  And why would Boris ever consider overlooking 100,000 potential members of the Boris Adoration Choir for the sake of a mere matter of principle?