United We Stand? Dividing Lines in the Land of Albion

Simon Warner
A Manchester fan at Hennigans Sports Bar

In modern-day England, dedication to your locality, however creaking and crumbling that metropolis may now be, is more important than commitment to queen and country. Liverpool and Manchester, a mere 40 miles apart from one another, have always been, and most resolutely always will be, rabid rivals.

Britain's culture is a mongrel one, drawing on dozens of traditions. But some of its nationalities find it easier than others to express and represent their heritage. The English, burdened by an imperialistic past, fit uneasily, numerically and economically, into the political map they otherwise dominate. Issues of nationhood appear to be left hanging, and it is in their post-industrial cities that this group seems most likely to wrestle with questions of self-identity.

Meet an American and then tell her you're from England and it won't be long before she's asking you about London. It's a given: London=England in the same way, perhaps, that Paris=France. When the countries are relatively small and the capital cities of those nations so great, I guess the elision of city and state is inevitable. If you live somewhere else in England or Britain, however, as 50 million of us do, then the confusion of a single urban centre and the wider country can be a touch frustrating.

Let it be said from the outset that London=England is not the only misinterpretation that occurs. The long and complex history of the geographical feature that is called "the British Isles" has led to decades of misunderstanding, particularly from those who live outside these shores but also from those who actually inhabit them. But there are a few simple rules for international readers who wish to disentangle the mysteries of Albion. ("Albion" is the most ancient name of the British Isles or Great Britain, though generally restricted to England, an archaic name, indeed, inspired by the white cliffs of Dover, but still suitable for this elderly land.)

To begin at the beginning, the British Isles is that gathering of a dozens of islands, large and not so large, modest and miniscule, that lies off the northwest tip of the European land mass. During rare moments in the last 2,000 years, this random amalgam of sea-bound outcrops has enjoyed a unified political life. By the mid-19th century, the administration of all these places had essentially fallen under the English crown and was governed from London. But for most of these millennia and on either side of the Victorian hegemony, the islands have been a source of friction between a sequence of warring factions. From the Romans fighting the Angles and the Picts, from the Anglo Saxons fighting the Danes, from the English fighting the Normans, then the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish, the tale has been a tortured and tortuous one.

Suffice to comment that, in 2004, there are a number of geographical and political denominations and distinctions in this body of territory that mean it's almost as fractured now as it has ever been. To surmise, Great Britain comprises the lands of England, Scotland and Wales. When Northern Ireland is added, those four countries are described as the United Kingdom. Yet Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, also known as Ulster, and have independent parliaments with varying degrees of power.

However, the Republic of Ireland, the predominant portion of the island of Ireland, is a stand-alone state that was part of this administrative structure until 1921. Yet it no longer has any connection or affiliation to England or London. Between England and the capital cities of the other countries of the UK — Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, where their respective assemblies sit — there are ongoing and frequently feisty debates about respective status, the sort of tiffs that haunt even the lives of friendly neighbours.

Between London and Dublin, however, there is something more serious and fractious going on: a near century-long conflict over the standing of Ulster. In essence, England believes that Northern Ireland's link to the mainland is constitutionally enshrined; the Republic has a physical, spiritual, and cultural bond to its detached northern terrain that can only restored by full reunification. Snagged on the thorns of an all too bloody past — the religious strains of Catholicism and Protestantism, the ideological stresses of imperialism and nationalism — this conflagration survives sturdily into the present day.

So we unveil the grave fault-lines of Great Britain, dubbed thus not because it is implicitly grand or important, merely because it is, in continental terms, Grande Bretagne or Greater Brittany, the offshore reflection of the French region of Brittany or Bretagne which juts its long nose into the Atlantic Ocean. But how fragmented is this so-called United Kingdom? Are there, beneath the surface, signs of a heterogeneous British that rise above the petty divisions of a little historical fall-out?

Well, and this is where my topic now heads, I feel sure there is no such thing. One point to make is that indigenous Britons are a varied group with quite different perspectives. The most significant of these is that while the Scots, Welsh, and Irish are quite comfortable with celebrating their distinctive national strain on certain holidays — St. Patrick's Day, St. David's Days, Burns Night, and so on — the English, carrying the burden of white liberal guilt, in the main play down their Anglocentricity.

We — and I am English — ruled half the world for several centuries, and pretty ruthlessly, so unless we are harbouring the opinions of the far right that would like to see a powerful and all-white England restored, we tend to understate our chauvinism. To offer a useful example, while St. Patrick's Day, from Dublin to Derby, Belfast to Birmingham, is likely to see bars humming to a healthy dose of Guinness-tinged, Celtic bonhomie, St. George's Day, dedicated to England's patron saint and reputedly the birth and death date of William Shakespeare, barely registers its presence. In fact, pub landlords sometimes find that local magistrates regard an April 23rd licensing extension not as a springboard to good-natured revelry, but as a possible source of provocation.

In an age when the street politicos of the Nazi-linked British Movement have gathered their ominous forces once more, at a time when the power of multiculturalism is evident in all our post-industrial cities, as we live with the legacy of our colonising relationships with Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, and at a point when the disagreements over illegal immigration (especially as the old socio-economic barriers that kept Eastern Europe in its place for so long have collapsed), issues associated with notions of Englishness are highly charged. Do the newcomers enrich our lives or do they change them forever? The answer is surely both, but this cannot, of itself, solve the notion of what it means to be English in the early 21st century.

So Englishness cowers, in most cases, in a shady corner, only emerging in a nearly acceptable form when the national soccer team takes part in a World Cup or a European Championship. But even then the intermingling of the jingoistic, the xenophobic, and the sheer spite of racism is never far from the foreground. The fact that half the England team is of Afro-Caribbean descent confuses this subject. While many of us are delighted at this inter-weaving of black and white, some see it as a dilution of our national stock.

But if we set this survey in a different context, one way in which Englishmen — and it is, for certain, principally men — can vent their spleen with virtual disregard for law, civility, and good manners, is in the matter of loyalty to their home town or city. In Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham — those old seats of the Industrial Revolution where heavy industries like shipbuilding and engineering, textiles and mining forged huge new communities during the 1800s — dedication to your locality, however creaking and crumbling that metropolis may now be, is more important than commitment to queen and country.

Nor is this rivalry by locale either friendly or couched in the philosophical or the cultural as the founding fathers (rarely mothers) of these urban sprawls may have hoped. This is not a contest in civic pride, even if all of those northern and midland cities are now simultaneously striving to cast off the cobwebs of their dead manufacturing practices by unwrapping gleaming museums and art galleries and reviving the shuttered mills as canal-side apartments for the new yuppie classes. No, the competition between Liverpool and Manchester — and this is probably the best example to focus on — pays no lip service to the cerebral. It is a raw-boned, visceral interplay that owes it prime motivation to that binding and breaking force we have already alluded to: what is known as "football" to us and most of the world, and known as "soccer" to some un-reformed corners of the planet.

Such blind observance of the urban creed was well displayed on a recent visit to a bar in one of Manchester's main streets. Three miles from the centre, the footballing gladiators of the two cities were playing out their conflict at the ground of Manchester United. In the pub, live pictures of the contest were being conveyed on large screens, quite illegitimately, as it happens, as this was a broadcast aimed at Greek audiences. The TV companies, terrestrial or satellite, are not permitted to show games at the same time as the full, Saturday afternoon programme of matches as, the argument goes, fans would never bother to attend a match in person. However, pub owners with a mercenary spirit can move their receiving aerial and pick up transmissions actually bound for Scandinavia, the Netherlands or wherever.

Thus, the packed bar, strictly standing room only and increasingly stoked by the transforming power of bitter and lager, would spend the first half of the clash firing its arrows of irrational ire at the screen, slating those representatives of the Liverpool side. Then, once the interval arrived (with a string of silent Greek advertisements bizarrely enacted on screen), there would rally a rough and spontaneous gathering of voices around some raucous chants, echoing the terrace habit of communal singing. One piece plucked from the dubious repertoire was fairly typical. Imagine this growled, grunted, and groaned to the tune of "My Darling Clementine" (Huckleberry Hound must have been turning in canine heaven):

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire
Put the Scousers on the top
Put Man City on the bottom
And we'll burn the fucking lot

I should explain a detail or two of this incendiary ditty. "Scouser" is a widely-applied nickname for the people of Liverpool, thought to derive from their much older habit of surviving on a cheap, beef stew called scouse. The verse also reflects that the inter-city rivalries are also intercut by internecine ones. Man City - Manchester City, home of the Sky Blues (another member of the top grade), have long lived in the shadows of their more successful brothers, the Reds of United.

It's worth stressing that this was a Manchester hostelry, but that if we'd been in Liverpool and the local bar-tender had, too, tilted his roof-top transmitter to pick up these Greek-bound images, the Scouse habitués would have been, mirror-like, generating their own anti-Manc tirades, though I would remark — and I say this as a son of Manchester and a follower of United — that Liverpudlians have earned a justified reputation for their wit and we may have enjoyed some more humorous jibes rather than merely mindless ones. That said, one incident in the United annals, the 1958 Munich air crash that saw seven of their young travelling stars die on the tarmac of a German runway, has become not only the defining moment of Mancunian football history, but, in recent years, a source of black comedy to goading adversaries and much points to the suggestion that Liverpool fans were the instigators of this cruel slur.

Why do these two cities, or at least the young manhood of these places, exchange such tribal unpleasantries? In short, Manchester and Liverpool, almost from their very establishment, had something to feud about. In the opening forays of the industrial explosion Manchester was the world's very first industrial city, with a population of 100,000 by 1812. It became a core focus of field study for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But both cities, a mere 40 miles apart from one another, were quickly caught up in the new drama of mass production. Cotton, the raw material of Manchester's booming textile mills, had to be imported from the slave estates of the Southern US. How did it reach its inland destination? Via the port of Liverpool, perched on the northern shore of the River Mersey as it poured into the Irish Sea. When Liverpool imposed a tax on this product, Manchester audaciously retaliated by constructing a broad, artificial waterway on the opposing bank of the river. The Manchester Ship Canal, unveiled in 1894, circumvented Liverpool's levy and, for virtually 100 years, turned a landlocked city into a thriving port.

It even appears in TV soaps with the Manchester-based Coronation Street, which has run for over 40 years, tested for an extended spell by the Liverpudlian upstart Brookside, unveiled in 1982. While "The Street"'s fictional suburb of Weatherfield has clung to the pre-war myth of a closely bound working class community, housed in narrow, terraced streets and huddled in the cramped bar of an Edwardian pub, Brookside, centered on a lower middle class housing estate, ran the gauntlet of contemporary issues — from unemployment to street crime, domestic abuse to murder, drugs to lesbian kisses. The cutting edge episodes of the newer serial came to a crunching conclusion in 2003 when Channel 4 pulled the plug on the Merseyside drama. Perhaps Britain was not yet ready for such a gritty telling of the everyday: the millions still seemed hypnotised by the cosy fantasy of a blue collar world where neighbours protect you from the trauma of modernity. Whatever, the contest was a further metaphor for the ongoing tussle between the two cities.

On the matter of sport and in brief, Liverpool and Manchester United are the two leading teams in English soccer. Liverpool can claim the most league titles, United can cite the most cup victories. The pattern of rivalry has been deliciously uneven. In the '50s and '90s, United were the kings; in the '70s and '80s, Liverpool were top dogs. Only in the '60s was there something close to parity. But in the '60s, Liverpool sired the not-so-small matter of the greatest pop group of all time. The Beatles turned Merseyside into a centre of the cultural universe. Allen Ginsberg said as much when he visited in '65. And for much of that decade, on both sides of the Atlantic, artists from that city — Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Searchers, Cilla Black and others — left an indelible print on the world.

Yet in the late '70s Manchester, by then a pale shadow of the Liverpool music mecca in its golden period, would re-emerge as a major force in its own right. From Joy Division to the Smiths, New Order to the Stone Roses, Simply Red to Happy Mondays, a parade of talent would turn Manchester into Britain's leading rock centre for the closing quarter of the 20th century.

To this day the desire to better, outdo, and put down a nearby challenger persists and for Manchester and Liverpool there is plenty to joust about. If most of this competition is fairly good-natured — the bar flies shouting their obscenities at an over-sized screen besides — then it is also one that is always likely to be beyond resolution. There are no invasions, no surrenders, no real victors. In a country like England where the burden of an uneasy history seems to restrict the right to express our nationalistic or patriotic tendencies (however suppressed or unconscious or unworthy they may be) it appears that the kind of horn-locking, undignified, unfettered — but thankfully unarmed — partaken among citizens of our leading cities, may have to suffice.

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