That Grandish Pile of Swank
Tracing Leeds United's place in the tradition of Northern Realism
At the beginning of 2013, several announcements were made which caused me to reflect on the connection between football and art. First, Radio 4 announced they would broadcast the complete text of Tony Harrison's poem V, which was written in 1985 in the midst of the miners' strike and caused something of a fuss when it was aired, two years later, on Channel 4. Then Leeds Waterstones announced it would commemorate the 50th year of Billy Liar's release at the cinema by holding an event at its bookshop. The government then announced the second phase of the £32bn HS2 high-speed rail network. And, finally, Leeds United announced the sale of their best striker to Norwich City.
At first glance, only the last of these developments relates to a footballing theme. But to those who, like me, are obsessed by such things, they are all part of the contradictory narrative of northern realism.
I should explain. In my book Promised Land, I set out to pull together several strands into this one narrative. By "northern realism" I mean the cultural movement characterised by the so-called kitchen sink writers of the 1950s and 1960s. A new kind of man sprang into the public imagination during these years. A working-class iconoclast and provincial braggart: Northern Man. In novels, the theatre, television and the cinema, he suddenly became the subject of ground-breaking dramas. He found his way into the glare of the spotlight via his writing ability, photography, acting talent, musicianship or football skills. He was an antidote to both the upper-middle class tweediness portrayed by Dirk Bogarde and Kenneth More and the warm-hearted proletarian stereotypes offered up, in a previous era, by Gracie Fields and George Formby.
Before the 1950s, 'the North' had been reconstructed on London film sets; in the classic Fields vehicle Sing As We Go (1934), for example, the streets of her home town were rebuilt in the Ealing studios. Filmed on location on the back-streets of Leeds, Bradford, Nottingham and Salford, these social realist films brought a new vitality to British cinema. They were inspired, and very often written by, a post-war generation of edgy, 'tell it how it is' northerners hailing from several cities and towns. A disproportionate number hailed from Leeds and its surrounds. Indeed, West Yorkshire, for a few glorious years in the early 60s, became the unofficial home of an influential movement that drew upon the lives and experiences of the aspirational, newly-socially-mobile working-classes. Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar (1959), for example, told the story of a daydreaming fantasist and his desire to escape the confines of his upbringing. Alan Bennett wrote bittersweet tales of unfulfilled ordinary life. David Storey's This Sporting Life (1960) followed the emotional struggles of a bitter young coal miner who was recruited by a rugby team in Wakefield after being spotted fighting outside a nightclub.
Waterhouse, Bennett, Storey, Stan Bartsow, Willis Hall and, a few years later, Tony Harrison, all wrote about working-class anti-heroes — Billy Fisher, Joe Lampton and Frank Machin — who were characteristic of the revivified new north in their energy and belief that the good things of life were within their reach. They were, as Lampton declared in Room at the Top, "going to the Top": Leeds "was stirring out of its pre-war, post-Edwardian sleep," recalled Waterhouse. "There was a civic restlessness about, a growing clamour for clearing away the old."
Waterhouse wrote Billy Liar in 1958, the year his city's architect insisted the multi-storey block was the only way forward, the first British motorway — the M1 — opened between Leeds and London, and Leeds United signed Don Revie from Sunderland. It was published a year later and, after John Schlesinger's screen version was released in 1963, the name of its eponymous protagonist passed into popular culture. Like Lampton, Machin and Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Billy spoke to a generation of ambitious provincials barging through the privileged ranks of the elite. A working-class anti-hero was something to be.
The rise of this movement was paralleled by the ascent of Don Revie's great, if tarnished, Leeds United team. In my view, this team was the footballing apotheosis of northern realism. The kitchen sink stories could be lifted from any one of their autobiographies. There's Joe 'Dracula' Jordan emerging, like Machin, with his front teeth missing following a clash with a defender. There's Jack Charlton threatening to knock Norman Hunter's block off as a Leeds fan shouts, "Go arn, Norman, 'ave a go at him." There's Big Jack chasing a Valencia defender half-way round the pitch after the Spaniard had punched him. There's Billy Bremner, described by Michael Parkinson as "ten stone of barbed wire", hurling his shirt to the ground after scrapping with Kevin Keegan at Wembley. There's Bite Yer Legs Hunter lamping Frannie Lee after another dive by the Derby striker. There's Gary Sprake decking a lad at the Mecca after being accused of eyeing up the lad's bird. There's a tearful David Harvey telling his unsympathetic team-mates how his pet monkey had switched on the oven and gassed himself. There's Revie giving his players their wages in readies "so you can go straight to the bookies." There's the coach Les Cocker telling his defenders to go in hard with the first tackle, the one the referee never books you for.
Each chapter of Promised Land's section on that team begins with a quote from Waterhouse's classic novel. In the Leeds fanzine Square Ball, 'Moscowhite' wrote: "Leeds United — the perennial runners-up, the eternal chokers — are recast as Billy Fisher, the frustrated northern man so convinced of his own potential, if he could only get the breaks, yet who, with everything he ever dreamed of there for the taking, will always leave Liz (Julie Christie! Julie bloody Christie!) alone on the train to London, will always sabotage his own chance of happiness and go back for the milk…
"Leeds United were a team of heroes that existed only through the irresistible force of the will of Don Revie, bearing the indelible hallmark both of his brilliant blueprint for success and of his fatalistic lack of confidence. Chelsea's troupe of flash, brash, nightclub-hopping dandies were an expression of swinging London, but Leeds's greatest side were an expression of the personality of just one man. The sensible haircuts, the carpet bowls, the bingo; the spectacular football, the innovation, the 7-0 wins; the time-wasting, the hard tackles, the win-at-all-costs mentality; the dossiers, the superstitions, the crippling fear of losing; these were all facets of Don Revie, impressed upon a team of players who depended on Revie the way characters in a novel depend upon their author. Revie fused his every character trait — the good and the bad — with the character of his team, until the two were inseparable; like Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore, he moulded Super Leeds as a monumental reflection of his self, and was every bit as much an artist. 'Revie's Leeds are not often lumped together with Billy Liar, The Beatles, David Hockney, the New Wave writers, the Liverpool poets…' writes Clavane, but he makes a persuasive argument that they, The Beaten Generation, should be. Leeds United as art is not as far-fetched as it may seem: the urban myth still persists that the Smiley badge was designed by Andy Warhol and I could look for hours at a photo of the Super Leeds team, lit like film stars by the tallest floodlights in Europe, waving to the crowd in their matching tracksuits. Don Revie's achievement, and his failure, was to make Leeds United into a full representation of his own personality, its brilliance, its style, and its flaws. It isn't hyperbole to call that a work of art, as well as a work of football management."
I love this idea of Revie's Leeds as a work of art. It certainly runs counter to the popular image of the side, reinforced in David Peace's (2006) seminal novel The Damned Utd. How can Dirty Leeds, of all teams, forged in the gritty cynicism of Elland Road brutality, be described in such terms?
Fast forward from the golden age of LUFC to 1987 and we have Channel 4 defying a growing, Mary Whitehouse-led moral panic about "TV obscenity" by broadcasting a film of Harrison performing V. Two years ago, another frequent contributor to Square Ball, in his blog The Beaten Generation, demonstrated the discerning Leeds United fan's respect for the poem by posting the 35-minute broadcast in full on his website. "After discovering his parents' grave has been vandalised," TBG writes, "Harrison composed a narrative that is fiercely confrontational, detailing an imagined exchange between author and perpetrator in a bout of civic-minded mudslinging against the backdrop of Elland Road." Like The Damned Utd, it — superficially at least — updates a trope that has been present in popular culture since Charles Dickens described Leeds, in a mid-19th century talk, as a "beastly place": a grim, sullen, down-to-earth, anti-intellectual, proudly independent, no-frills, dark and gritty town. A town — it only achieved city status in 1893 — you would not want to visit, unless looking for material for a dark novel or state-of-the-nation poem; and one which, if born into, you would certainly attempt to escape from at the first available opportunity, preferably on the train to London.
My argument is that Leeds United, as moulded by its 'auteur-manager', embodied the contradictory narrative of northern realism. Revie's team were, in many ways, about escaping a life of provincial confinement, about struggling to become accepted in mainstream society, about grafting for your patch. Like Waterhouse, Harrison, Hall, the Beatles, the Liverpool poets and Hockney, they were part of a cultural insurgency fuelled by full employment and rapidly rising industrial wages. Like their fellow northern iconoclasts, they would not be bought off with a few extra bob — or the odd trophy. They were an angry young northern team who were, by hook or by crook, "going to the Top". Unlike the Lennons, McGoughs and Hockneys, however, they never quite made it. Their biggest fantasies, like winning the European Cup, remained unfulfilled.
Their decline and fall in the late seventies and early eighties was celebrated with a fervour normally reserved for the ceremonial dynamiting of a high-rise. According to their detractors, they had been just another brutalist blot on the post-war landscape. They polluted football in the same way modernist architecture polluted northern cityscapes. Like all those appalling arterial roads, they had ruthlessly sliced their way through cities and communities. Like the out-of-town high-rises, they were an ugly development of a deeply-regretted decade. This is the background to V, which tells of Harrison's visit to his family grave, a traditional family plot in Holbeck Cemetery. The famous poem stands alongside dystopian films like A Clockwork Orange — some of whose outdoor scenes were filmed in Leeds — which lamented the "progress" made in the 60s, particularly the rebuilding of the north. In Get Carter, Charlie Bubbles, O Lucky Man and The Reckoning, the north's prodigal sons — the Billy Liar generation — returned home to discover a concrete wilderness of demolition sites, car parks and crumbling terraces. Their old towns and cities had not only been crippled by the decline of heavy industry but also corrupted by big business and concreted over by urban motorways, flyovers, shopping centres and tower blocks. Get Carter begins with our working-class anti-hero catching the train from London to the north, going back to his roots to "sort things out"; a journey into the bowels of New Britain. It ends with him being shot dead.
V was the culmination of a series of broken Britain scenarios documented in the books, plays and films of the 1970s and 80s. It is significant that it was transmitted on Channel 4, a station established with a remit to provide viewing for under-represented groups in society. For, by this time, the northern working-classes briefly feted by The Establishment — and incorporated into an illusory Swinging Sixties meritocracy — had returned to the margins of British culture. When the poem was broadcast, right-wing columnists and Tory MPs declared themselves to be shocked by its "torrents of obscene language" and "streams of four-letter filth". Harrison declared himself to be shocked by both the graffiti Leeds United skinheads had daubed on his father's headstone and his beloved city's descent into the abyss. As The Beaten Generation reflected, "Written in the aftermath of the miners' strike, and set on a hill-top cemetery in Beeston overlooking Elland Road, the stadium's diamond floodlights the only glints in a decade of decline," the poem used the darkening national mood as a backdrop to Harrison's own internal torment.
At the beginning of the Channel 4 version of V, standing — like so many kitchen-sink protagonists had done before him — on top of a hill overlooking his city, Harrison reveals the "panoramic view over the whole of Leeds". He points out the Town Hall, Elland Road, Leeds Grammar School and Leeds University "where I got the education that took me away from this background". There are many conflicts described in V — north v south, black v white, Leeds United v everyone else — but it is his own, inner conflict which is the poem's heartbeat; his face-off with a Leeds United hooligan, who has taken the traditional short-cut from the football ground back into town, symbolises his alienation from his "background". In the poem, he tries to erase the drunken fan's graffiti, to scrub away the obscenities. But he couldn't make them, nor indeed his own alienation, go away.
In another poem, The Queen's English (1985), Harrison recounts the last time he saw his father — at Leeds Station:
"Last meal together, Leeds, the Queen's Hotel
that grandish pile of swank in City Square
Too posh for me, he said (even though he dressed well)
if you wern't wi' me ah'd nivver dare!
I knew that he'd decided to die
not by the way he lingered at the bar
not by the look he'd give me with one good-eye
nor by the firmer handshake and the gruff ta-ra
But when he browsed the station bookstall sales
he picked up 'Poems from the Yorkshire Dales'
'ere tek this un wi' yer to New York
to remind you of 'ow us gaffers used to talk.
It's up your street in't it? 'ahh buy yer that!
The broken lines go through me speeding South."
Harrison, unlike Billy Fisher, had taken the decision in the sixties not to sabotage his own chance of happiness. The son of a baker, he had escaped his background at the earliest opportunity. At the end of this poem he gets on the train to London, as he has done so many times before, and heads south. But at what cost? A loss of identity? It is almost as if, in catching the train — a metaphor for acting on your fantasies, fulfilling your potential, crossing the threshold — the northern anti-hero becomes estranged from his family, class, community and city.
And as V and other fictional and non-fictional works of the period reveal the rebuilt northern city of the sixties, "the Motorway City of the Seventies", the new world of shopping centres and high-rise flats, had turned out to be crass and materialistic. Post-war northern regeneration had been a mirage — as had the fanciful notion that a tired, post-imperial society might reinvent itself as a white-hot technological powerhouse. As the corpses of its dead parent industries slowly rotted, Leeds became a tough and unforgiving place. And Elland Road became the home of a nasty, embittered and racist element. There was a growing aura of menace, a climate of fear and paranoia. A sense of victimhood. The city, like its football club, battened down the hatches and adopted a bunker mentality. It became, once again, identified in the public mind with the darker, more primitive side of life. Property experts advised businesses to move out. The town centre became a night-time haunt of disorderly youths, tramps and alcoholics. The threat of violence was never far away.
As the centrifugal force of seventies Britain quickened the spiral of talent, power and influence down to London, the capital reasserted its authority and Leeds turned in on itself. Manufacturing, the basis of its wealth, collapsed and unemployment soared; in 1976 it reached 5.5% — 15 years later, it had almost doubled. This was an era when many northern towns and cities experienced decline. Between 1979 and 1990, as jobs in the new hi-tech industries were generated in the south, manufacturing employment fell on average 2.8% a year in the region. Leeds, in particular, became a byword for inner-city chaos, violent crime and bigotry. It seemed to be slipping into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. The 1984 miners' strike reinforced the view that the Tories were fighting a civil war against the north — and that the police had become a brutal arm of a heartless government. In Leeds, the police's reputation sank to an all-time low. The seventies began with them in the dock, accused of murdering David Oluwale, a homeless black man; it ended with their ham-fisted attempt to catch the Yorkshire Ripper.
According to Peace's bleak Red Riding novels, it was during this low, dishonest decade that the West Riding metamorphosed into a land of endless night, a nightmarish world of foul-mouthed machismo, racism and misogyny. One of his critics has countered that Leeds was, in reality, more like Stodge City than Dodge City. That may be so — measured by national standards, it was not that badly off — but there was a tangible sinking feeling, a perception that, like the country as a whole, it was going to hell in a handcart.
And so to 2013, 50 years after Billy Liar first penetrated the national consciousness. "It's easy", Liz/Julie Christie tells the working-class 19 year old living with his parents. "You get on a train and, four hours later, there you are in London." Leeds, Waterhouse's introverted, rather prickly home city has, in a half a century, reinvented itself several times. It has concreted over its dirty past, burst its boundaries to become a metropolitan super-region. It has attempted to become a centre for the global financial services industries, the British city outside London. But its ambition has collapsed in the wake of the worst economic crisis since the war. It has become a two-nation city, polarised between affluence and squalor.
Its football club has spent another decade in the wilderness. Just like in the eighties. It has sold its best players — Jonathan Woodgate, Aaron Lennon, James Milner — to bigger, richer sides. In the last two seasons, no fewer than four of its number have sped south to, of all teams, Norwich City: Johnson, Howson, Snodgrass and, in January 2013, the man who has scored 19 goals to give the club a sniff of a return to the Promised Land, Luciano Becchio. In fact, the majority of clubs in Yorkshire have lurched, like Leeds United, from well-publicised financial disaster to despair in recent years, tumbling down the divisions and, in several cases, out of the Football League altogether. Only a decade ago, the region boasted thirteen league clubs, seven of which were in the top two divisions. That number has since eroded to 10, with none in the top flight and only four playing as high as the Championship.
And here we have the latest move to revive the north, reinvent Leeds and bridge the north-south divide. A new £32bn rail network which will stop at a new city centre station on the south bank of the River Aire. Speeds of up to 250mph will cut journey times to London from two hours and 12 minutes to 82 minutes. We've had the Motorway City of the Seventies, the Barcelona of the North and now HS2. All part of the dream of a genuinely fluid, open society.
This already feels like a doomed project. Not just because it will take at least 20 years to open. Like the social divisions that torment Harrison, and the protagonists of his fellow northern writers — from the early-sixties fantasists, through the middle-aged prodigal sons to Peace's Yorkshire Noir anti-heroes — the contradictory mindset of Leeds, or more generally West Yorkshire, appears to undermine the city's self-belief that it can, truly, fulfil its potential by crossing the threshold. Why would you want to get to That London in less than an hour and a half anyway? Wouldn't our distinctive Yorkshire identity, our Leedsness, be compromised by becoming, simply, a northern suburb of the Big Smoke?
This mindset has also infected the football club. Leeds United might have been out of the top flight for 10 years but at least they haven't been tainted by the flashy, glitzy, superficial glamour of the globalised, Fancy Dan Premier League. Back in the day, when pitches were muddy, stadiums were crumbling and foul play was routine, Revie's team earned the right to play by being the toughest club in the land. The Dirty Leeds label did some of the hard work, putting the fear of god into their opponents. The only time George Best ever wore shin pads was at Elland Road. "I hated playing against them," said Best. "They had a hell of a lot of skill, but they were a bloody nightmare." Given their lack of footballing history and culture, they needed an edge. A keep-fighting-till-the-end, don't-let-the-bastards-grind-you-down kind of edge which came from being a bunch of rough-and-ready, provincial outsiders.
When we look back at, say, the Manchester United of Best, Law and Charlton, the Chelsea team of Osgood and Cooke, or the Derby and Nottingham Forest teams of Brian Clough, it is clear that they represent a different mindset. Possibly, a different culture. And Matt Busby, as much as Revie or Clough back then — or, indeed, Alex Ferguson today — was an "auteur-manager", helping to mould, sculpt, create a mindset, a way of playing the game, an attitude not just to football, but to life itself. Interestingly, Peace's latest project — on how Bill Shankly transformed a second division team with a crumbling stadium into a British footballing institution — appears to reinforce the myth of the "auteur-manager", with Shankly, in the author's words, celebrated as a "Red saint".
This positive image of Liverpool and, even more so, of Manchester, provides an interesting contrast to the image of Leeds and Leedsness. These influential north-west cities offer different, more appealing and successful, versions of the north. Versions expressed as much through their great football teams as through their great cultural icons — the Beatles, Z-Cars, Coronation Street, the Madchester Sound, the Bleasdale-Russell plays, the Hacienda.
A great deal was made of the Y-shaped route envisaged by the HS2 project, with separate railway branches to Manchester and Leeds after Birmingham. It seems to me that the "Y" has replaced the "V" as an apt metaphor for northern realism. Not long after phase two of the project was announced, the New York Times included Manchester in its top 50 places to visit in the world. "No surprise to Mancunians," commented the Guardian, "who have never been short of pride in a city that is home to two of England's best football clubs, the BBC's MediaCity, the Lowry and Imperial War Museum North."
And no surprise to the inhabitants of Leeds either. From the War of the Roses, through the Industrial Revolution to the Eric Cantona transfer, the Yorkshire-Lancashire rivarly has been played out between Loiners and Mancs. And yet anyone who has any knowledge of the self-appointed capital of Yorkshire will know that the former have made as great a contribution to British culture as the latter.
The dominant view, however, remains that, on reaching Birmingham, and presented with a choice of continuing westwards or eastwards, a journey to the self-confident, swaggering, Manchester would be far more rewarding than a trip to Dickens's beastly city.