Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Manchester: red in tooth and claw Part 1

Blogging has been on the backburner for the last couple of weeks as the final countdown to the submission of my thesis creeps ever closer to single figures. The manuscript goes to my 'super' on Friday this week, and then I only await his green light to send me scurrying around to the printers. For the first two years of my thesis, Professor Knapp chanted the soothing mantra, 'Don't get it right, get it written'. Since last November, he has changed his message to 'Don't get it written, get it right'.

So, in an effort to 'get it right', I have just spent a few days back in Manchester, beavering around the John Rylands Library like a good 'un, in the hopes of putting some order into my chaotic PhD. Manchester, I should say, is also 'my home town', a phrase which conjures up memories of Tom Lehrer,

"I remember Sam, he was the village idiot,
And though it seemed a pity, it was so,
He used to burn down houses just to watch the glow,
And nothing could be done because he was the mayor's son".

Well, we don't remember Sam in Manchester. But we might, however, remember Ryan Florence, the feral youth - or 'hoody', as he must now be known - pictured last week on the front of every tabloid newspaper, pointing his hand like a pistol at the back of the Tory leader, David Cameron, while the latter minced around Ryan's run-down estate thinking of Bold Reforms. Cameron sounds hollow at the best of times, but when one thinks back to his remark made some months ago, that what hoodies were lacking was affection, one can't help wondering if a cynical mind might not now add 'and a real firearm'.

Cameron, give him his due, is right of course. But his laudable calls for the promotion of fatherhood and family - in a nation which this month also witnessed the gunning down of three adolescent boys under 16 - ring hollow when contrasted with his craven genuflections to every socially liberal doctrine imaginable. But, what is a man in need of election supposed to do? Middle England wants all the virtue of responsibility, and all the pleasure of irresponsibility. It wants all the sense of community, and all the indulgence of autonomy. David can tut-tut over all that dreadful slaughter, as long as his solutions don't offend the conscience of social liberalism. Hand-wringing is in, as long as it's only handwringing and worthy resolutions.

Ryans have been living on housing estates or in terraced prisons around Manchester for more than 200 years. I wouldn't be surprised if Cameronesque hand-wringers had also been looking on and tut-tutting at the feral poor for about the same length of time. After all, the first thing disaster attracts is rubber-neckers. The disaster of industrial Manchester was so great, or rather, it's capitalism was so pure - which amounts to the same thing - that even the French refer to it as the 'Manchester school'. Marx parked his broad backside on the benches of Chetham's Library behind Manchester cathedral and dreamt up such solutions as would make thirty million Ukranians in the 1930s wish he'd never been born - that is, if they had the strength to think while dying from hunger. But Marx - let's give the other side their due now - got the 'alienation' bit right. One cannot help wondering what he would make of the spectacle of the equally broad-bottomed conservatives of our days nodding in agreement with him.

The trouble now of course is there is such a perfect collaboration between the 'spectacle' of modern consummerism and the pleasures of its Ryans and Camerons - the Gameboy and the Electionboy - , that one wonders how these two unhappy beings will ever cease their association.
To leave aside that long-term problem for a moment, mention of the French makes me reflect on one consolation Ryan and his Manchester hoodies undoubtedly derived from last week's news: the defeat of Lille by Manchester United, the Red Devils, in the Champions League. What a satisfying thing it was not only to witness the defeat of a French side, but a defeat inflicted with such exquisite Mancunian ruthlessness. And how amused we all were to see Lille's desperate and ludicrous attempts to get the match replayed. Chesterton seized this perennial Anglo-French tension in a matter of lines:

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made.

Funny the differences in the English and French mentalities. The French expect everything to be intrinsically just, and that is why they practically spat their dummy out and almost refused to play on after Ryan Giggs's crafty goal. The English on the other hand see this as a matter of fairplay; if you suffer injustice, well, just get on with it, because one of these days you'll get more than your slice of the cake.

I'm undecided as to whether those possibilities cast any light on the Ryans and Camerons of this world. But I am toying with the idea that a solution might call for the development of a new form of politics: footocracy. Ryan and David can pick their teams and then play 45 minutes each way against each other. Neither would feel alienated, neither would be unfairly advantaged, and both would be knackered at the end - an outcome that would make both the streets of Manchester and the corridors of power a safer place to be.

The only remaining question is: who would play in red?

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