Our kingdom in horses

When Greg Wood wrote in The Guardian that Kauto Star was “the first, and greatest, star of National Hunt (racing)’s modern era” I thought to myself at first: wasn’t that Best Mate?  Then I realised that Wood was absolutely right; Best Mate belongs to a different and separate era, a time when – astonishing as this would go on to seem in the context of the huge jump racing boom of the Kauto era – jump racing was perceived by some to be in an inexorable and irreversible spiral of decline, a supposed victim of the alleged Tuscany Tony’s similarly alleged War on the Countryside (apropos an earlier comment on here – that third album didn’t stick around long now, did it? – Marcus Mumford was, indeed, the same age in 2002 as Mick Jagger in 1958).  Best Mate isn’t quite part of jump racing as big business; he’s part of the era when I could, briefly and fleetingly, sense such a paranoia and fear in Dorchester that I could almost imagine the 1974 Lena isn’t currently writing about directly (although she is, I think, writing about it indirectly; TPL – fifteen years later – is currently in a period of two Scottish and two Liverpudlian number one albums in quick succession, but Toryism had already become Whig to such an extent that such a dominance within pop was arguably already on borrowed time).  And he was trained by a former girls’ boarding school teacher married to a totally unreconstructed man of the old Shires (both of whose accents have disappeared every bit as completely as the traditional accents of areas with large BAME populations, if not in fact more so), neither of them genuine business people in the way Paul Nicholls is (if a certain other Somerset institution represents the roots of the new capitalism in old hippiedom, he represents its other roots in a now largely excised feudalism).

Kauto Star was about other currents within British life of his time as well – to some extent he represented mainland European sophistication set alongside the rugged traditionalism of his Irish-bred (though trained in the same English stable) rival Denman, although we mustn’t forget how important the first real wave in history of Irish capitalists making money out of the British market was in the transition of British jump racing into big business – but above all else he was about the realisation that, in fact, jump racing had had little to fear from New Labour because it had already, without anyone really noticing, become out-and-out capitalism and therefore eliminated any elements to it which might have been a threat to them even if you believed the wilder claims.  More than that, he was about The Shires losing that paranoia about modern culture and embracing and becoming part of that culture, and about that culture meeting bona fide capitalism halfway, and about the politics of capitalism dropping whatever notional hostility they had had to The Shires … about the creation of a version of capitalism which was both accepting of what capitalism actually does and broadly supported in The Shires such as there had never been before, and about the creation of a shire culture which, also for the first time, accepted the logical outcome of capitalism as much as the notional idea of capitalism itself.  In short, Kauto Star was about the entire politics of his era, his moment, from the month Cameron became leader to his second Christmas in office (his span of Grade 1 wins).  No wonder he was so symbolic, so significant.

Other National Hunt horses who have made an impact on the wider public feel like similar cyphers and metaphors (to some extent, the most recent Flat horse to have done the same – something harder for the highest-class horses even before jumping had embraced bona fide capitalism, because they always stuck around for much less time – also feels like this; the Frankel Moment was also the moment when it seemed as though Murdoch might fall and gentlemanly capitalism might actually be restored, a moment which was dead even before Henry Cecil himself was).  The fact that Mill House was Irish-bred means that it would be simplistic to identify him purely with the English ruling class, and Arkle was in fact owned by someone whose name ended with the words “Duchess of Westminster”, but there can be no doubt that Arkle’s rise felt like a moment of Irish self-assertion, stepping out of long and overpowering shadows, which might well have seemed symbolically linked with what was happening in Britain (some of it, at least in terms of pop music, driven in part by people of Irish descent).  That he transcended his ownership to become a genuine people’s hero in the Republic of Ireland was, if anything, easier at that moment, before old wounds were reopened in the North in the harshest way possible, and it would have been hard, I think, not to equate the fall of Mill House with the fall of Alec Douglas-Home, the fall which in the end was not permanent, once capitalism had, in the 2000s, lost whatever qualities it had which made it slightly unpalatable to such people.

Simply because he was trained on Merseyside and achieved his greatest successes there, Red Rum‘s career is, of course, also inexorably linked with the Irish – Catholic and Ulster Protestant alike – presence in Britain, and with the planting of the seeds for the revival of the Grand National as a great people’s festival, but he also seems to symbolise the strength and power of the working class, the small man, in the Britain of the 1970s; that he could do what he did to a horse who seemed to exude semi-aristocratic self-confidence and measured cool (although even here there are ironies; that horse was in fact New Zealand-bred, one who might once have been seen as a “jumped-up colonial”, in the year that country felt itself abandoned by Britain’s membership of the EEC and would respond initially with the last top-down, state-based Tory movement the Anglosphere is ever likely to see, before a subsequent Labour government was, in a sense, Roy Jenkins, Thatcher and Blair all in one go).  But Red Rum did what he did in a setting profoundly run down and on its last legs; it felt as though public will and affection might not be enough to keep this rotting edifice alive.  The national sense of decay which many felt in the 1970s – however driven by an essentially Tory worldview and however much some people outside that culture did not feel it, and still do not feel it in retrospect – fitted very closely with the state of Aintree and the Grand National.

Red Rum also exemplifies some of the problems and faults within the Old Labour or broader Old Northern culture; Ginger McCain was a famously reactionary and unenlightened character (and, as he came from Southport, is a good deal less likely to have been a socialist – even a reactionary one – than if he had come from Liverpool itself; “used car store owner” – and, yes, that’s a 1974 link too – also often codes as “working-class Tory” even in some of Labour’s strongest areas).  After his last hurrah at Aintree during the Blair / Countryside Alliance / Best Mate era, his son Donald McCain has been, overall, a far more successful trainer in far less time precisely through embracing jump racing’s new sense of itself as big business; even if Ginger McCain himself might not have been a socialist, plenty of Northerners of his generation with similarly questionable views on social and cultural matters were, so even though it might require a stretch, you can still make the argument that the generational shift, even if not necessarily this precise family line, represents how Northern English culture, and especially North-West English culture, has simultaneously become more driven by pure commerce and the profit motive, with its capitalism on a much greater scale rather than simply as a hobby, a pastime, while at the same time becoming more socially liberal and pluralist (a profoundly problematic dual dichotomy which I still cannot work my head round).

Certainly, a great many horse racing fans are horrible reactionaries – often, in fact especially, reactionary socialists.  It seems to attract all the most reactionary and unpleasant social tendencies on all sides and in all classes; it has historically drawn massive support from both the aristocracy and the lumpenproletariat (the reactionary tendencies of both of which have always needed those of the other to keep going, feel a sense of justification) and been largely ignored by the more liberal social tendencies in between.  A fantasy project of mine some years ago was to build on the work already done by such as Rebecca Cassidy, Kate Fox (in her blither way – she might be, in this field, a sort of Dominic Sandbrook to Cassidy’s Andy Beckett) and Wray Vamplew & Joyce Kay, and put together a definitive social history of the sport in Britain on a par with Derek Birley or even C.L.R. James’ work on cricket.  I genuinely still think there is life within such a vision, because like the origins of British pop, it certainly deserves to be rescued from some of the reactionaries (on more than one side, in both cases) who have attempted to control the territory for themselves; I just don’t think I’m really capable of writing it.  But it still needs to be written.

The bit at the top of this blog about “the horsiest Leftie in the Anglosphere, but there are many horsier ones beyond” is written advisedly; in mainland Europe (and the greater similarity here is, I think, an underrated factor in Scotland, Wales and Ireland being, on the whole, more Europhile), there is simply not the culture of separation and distinction between Left-wing politics and horse-related (and other rural) activities and enthusiasms such as there tends to be in England.  It is easy to underestimate and forget just how different English political and cultural divisions might be if this split didn’t exist; for a start, you wouldn’t have the phenomenon of Leftists saying that they don’t like other professional regional stereotypes in England but have no problem with the Wurzels, because they don’t imagine that the latter could possibly conceal anything more progressive in the way that they recognise that, say, Brian & Michael damagingly did.  This is pretty much exactly what someone says in the Popular comments to the entry for “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, and is a depressingly predictable view on the English Left, and in itself part of the reason why Tory majorities can just about happen.  These things predict themselves and institutionalise themselves; each side needs the narrowness of the other.  Breaking them down has been an important part of my identity, of what I am.

Those who know me in the flesh will know that I have pulled away from this recently; I haven’t been riding for a while now, prefer to keep my distance, step back a bit.  Naturally this is down to the way I am wired and what I can cope with and cannot, not any antipathy towards the social act in and of itself.  I have no problem whatsoever with the thought of riding; the more people who think like me who can do it the better.  Finding something impossible personally is in no way a criticism of what it actually is; sometimes it can, in fact, be the precise opposite.

Kauto Star saw out Blair and saw in Cameron with rare perfection and accuracy.  But there are other cultures, even out here, which have equal validity and status within the fabric of this country.  The Left and Right alike forget them for alarmingly similar reasons.  They shouldn’t.

Some thoughts on Scottish independence

It was reading Yvonne Ridley’s tweets on this matter which finally got me to write this. It isn’t the absolute, definitive text I’ve been promising for years, but it’s probably the best you’re going to get.

The one thing that matters about Scotland, the one thing from which everything else comes and to which everything else returns, the one thing that is always ignored by people who think they’ve found the key to this conundrum, is this: 1968 never really happened there, and therefore neither did its principal legacy in the rest of Europe (but especially England), the separation of economic Leftism from social and cultural conservatism, the rendering incompatible of these two once-allied forces. This is why England can’t be Scotland (and why Scotland can’t be England, for those soixante-huitards and Black Atlanticists who would find Scotland unsettlingly folksy and homogeneous). In the end, that is all it is, and whether or not an English Leftist supports and sympathises with Scotland’s claims to nationhood depends entirely on what sort of Leftist he or she is, which criteria (1945 or 1968, basically) he or she considers most important. Maybe that’s all I need to write.

But it isn’t quite, of course; I have to write something more because I am in equal parts both kinds of Leftist; my basic inability to take sides (in itself a very English thing rather than a Celtic thing, as detailed further below) has me taking in equal parts from the 1945 and 1968 traditions, and thus from traditions with fundamentally oppositional views of the merits and worth of Scottish independence. Yvonne Ridley, of course, is the ultimate anti-68-er (on a scale of one to ten, with the most hardline soixante-huitards rating ten, she’d be way, way down minus one); not only has she allied herself with forces of extreme social and religious conservatism (as much of the international Left has admittedly done), she has actually joined up with such forces herself, become not merely an ally of convenience but an actual believer (which the great majority of the Western Left has not) and moved to Scotland because within it her sense of the Left – the most extreme form of a world where 1968 never happened – seems to her to be protected and preserved. And there is nothing more unpleasant and extreme than the zeal of the convert, with which she is infected on two subtly-related fronts. Her take on Scottish independence is not the most appealing; there are others rooted in far more humanistic values, an approach to the world far closer to mine, which may be critical of the Israeli state but does not share her aggressive paranoia. I can easily forget it when reading Ridley’s religious self-assurance, but there are plenty of visions of Scottish independence which evoke a world in which I could happily live.

Except that that is not my grounding, and somehow it never can be (if I had taken it up as my own quasi-religious conviction, I suspect it would sound every bit as artificial and desperate as Ridley, every bit as far from its many genuinely progressive elements); I am caught between multiple worlds every second of my life, and never have I felt it so keenly and irreconcilably as over this. The most traditionalist parts of both Right and Left in England share a conspiratorial mindset, a belief that the entire modern world represents a conspiracy against them and their approach to life; reading about the Traditional Britain Group, which represents a quasi-fascist, Third Positionist undercurrent which in my worst nightmares exploits the instability of England after Scottish secession to create a totalitarian state from which Puerto Rico status seems like a positive relief and national saviour, I could not help thinking of elements of the old Left in England, lost and homeless and yearning for what their Scottish counterparts can cling to in hope of escape, the belief that everything has been permanently corrupted and the only way out is a total retaking and restaffing of all institutions (John Pilger’s sense of the entire media saturation of the present age as a grand-scale lie, an organised delusion from a deeper truth, has more than a little crossover with this part of the Right). There is a shared hatred for both economic and social liberalism, each hating the one their broader side has loved in my lifetime just as passionately as the one their broader side has hated. Both yearn for a moment in history when everything was perfect, uncorrupted: it’s just that for one that moment was a notional pre-capitalist mediaeval state of being, and for the other it was 1945; one calls the world that is out to get them “cultural Marxism”, the other calls it “neoliberalism”. But both share an elemental romanticism which has been a far stronger political undercurrent among both mainland Europeans and Celts than among the English (Searchlight notes with some accuracy that the European intellectualism of the Traditional Britain Group may very easily turn off many of the sort of people in England they are aiming to turn on).

And both, in their own ways, are trying to find answers to the question which Scottish independence, or not, asks for their neighbours, and inwardly screaming (it can only be inward: they are, after all, English) that no comparable question can give them in turn something to live for. Living alongside something so seismic is so hard to take in isolation that it can only be that very English distrust of elemental romanticism which stops both old Left (the current New Statesman editor has traces of his precursor half a century ago, in terms of feeling, with a hint of envy at Scotland where such views never came to be seen as suspect on the Left, a certain wariness at young people creating their own forms of cultural expression lest it weaken the sense of a common culture) and old Right from being far stronger forces in England than they are.

In the Scottish referendum every argument from either side can reasonably be counterbalanced by the other: the Yes campaign can say with total justification that, if you can’t block out whatever is channel 865 on Sky then you can’t block out BBC1, and the inference by some in Westminster that you could is, like so many other stances taken from that end, stupid and counter-productive (if you believe the Westminster government even want Scotland to remain in the Union; I am not averse to the conspiracy theory that certain elements within it do not). The No campaign can respond, equally reasonably, that if you can’t control the global spread of media and you don’t even attempt to, then the point of secession is negated and undermined. The Yes campaign can say, quite reasonably, that Scotland’s role in Europe is being held back by people and institutions far more sceptical of the EU and its purpose than the general Scottish population; the No campaign can respond, also with a good deal of truth behind it, that Hollywood and rock’n’roll have been as important, as foundational, to proportionately as many Scots as English people (certainly there is a tendency on the part of some Yes supporters either to deny this or almost to infer that a Yes vote could eliminate it, wipe it from the folk memory, and in the process to divert too far from the far more universally applicable economic reasons for independence; if there is a narrow No vote, this would probably be the biggest reason, just as the unfounded scaremongering, which might well partially be driven by a desire to eliminate politically inconvenient socialist tendencies from the Anglosphere, would be the main cause of a narrow Yes).

The Yes campaign can argue with some credibility that the Daily Record supports the Union because it is more concerned with the interests of its big brother the Daily Mirror, i.e. achieving a Labour government at Westminster by any means necessary, than with the interests of Scotland itself.  Simultaneously the No campaign can counterargue that The Scottish Sun‘s long-term sympathies with the SNP, and flirtation with a Yes vote, have nothing to do with Scotland and everything to do with its proprietor wanting to take as much of the United Kingdom as possible into a de jure United States of the Anglosphere, but knowing that the Scots would never accept it so wanting them out of the way to make his vision of England easier to achieve in practice.  People in my position frequently, with some justification, accuse the Yes campaign of selfishness (and also of hypocrisy, since they see themselves as above and separate from the drift in such a direction in post-1979 England) – of being concerned purely for their own social democratic idyll and of being indifferent to the fate of the rest of us. The Yes campaign can respond, perfectly reasonably, that we are the selfish ones for wanting to use others to give us what we cannot give ourselves.

Or maybe it is a matter of tone, a fundamental psychological difference between the English and the Celts (I am putting myself, in terms of my cultural grounding and emotional upbringing, wholly in the former category here; had I been closer to my father’s side of my family it might have been different)? Over and over again I find myself agreeing with the basic meat of what Scottish independence supporters have to say, but being turned off by what often (although by no means always) comes over to me as a rather arrogant, combative, dismissive tone to it. It was once said that, to understand Enoch Powell, you had to be conscious of his Welsh ancestry because it was the source of his “un-English, but Celtic, passion for going all the way”. And sometimes it seems to me that, much as part of me wants to, underneath it all I fundamentally don’t have that passion, I respect the ideas but cannot fully identify with the more emotive and exclusive elements of their application. I get on with Celts, on the whole, better than the rest of the English because I sense and feel their lack of shame at emotion: I envy them for being able to let out what I must keep in. But I still must keep it in. I look at others but cannot take what they have.

Does this mean that, underneath it all, I’m a Tory as well (at least in the gentle, diffident shire sense that Powell, the proto-Thatcherite child of a great industrial city, very definitely wasn’t part of)? Some people would say yes, no doubt, and yes I can hear all the jokes about moderation to excess starting already. But I prefer to think of myself as a liberal humanist – in TPL terms, in the tradition which runs from On the Threshold of a Dream to ELO’s Time, and the pieces about them, not the vast, unedifying swathes of proto-Cameronite muck to come. Psychologically, I’m far more German than English (I’d love to say more Scandinavian still, but I’m not sure that’s quite the case). But I do – despite myself and despite itself – cherish the English liberal humanist tradition which has been so eroded and threatened in recent times (the cabinet reshuffle pushes it further towards death’s door, and strengthens the feeling that a desperate, morally bankrupt Tory party is looking to Scottish independence as its only real hope), and I don’t want it to be weakened still further, turned more than ever into a defensive, bull-headed nationalism, defined far more by what it is against rather than what it is for, which bears disturbing resemblances to Serbian nationalism as it developed in the early 1990s. Scotland has its own traditions, and they can no doubt thrive better apart. What worries me is the survival, or not, of the liberal traditions I myself was brought up to inherit, which I fear need the help of others to thrive now because those theoretically brought up for them increasingly don’t really understand them.

The frustration caused by the gulf between my identification and sympathy with some aspects of Scottish independence aspirations – my basic belief that it represents a positive, progressive social model for those who can be part of it – and the way I must live, the way I am confined to live, is a cause of almost unbearable pain. In the end – for the purely emotional side of me, for the 1945 side of me – “I want the one I can’t have”. That Morrissey – precisely the sort of English Leftist who could only have thrived and really been understood if England had been Scotland – could be a wise chap, when he wanted to be.