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.

England, Scotland and the inadequacy of charts alone

The argument that Scottish independence would greatly damage the acceptance of the music and culture often euphemistically called “urban” in England is exhibit A for the case that mere charts, mere lists of self-selecting, fairly narrow popularity, are not enough in themselves.  Music in this style is invariably less popular in Scotland in terms of pure sales (and now, presumably, streams), sometimes very markedly and conspicuously so (the general rule is that artists of the black Atlantic sell less well unless they do Eurodance-style songs, hence why Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a Scottish number one without topping the UK charts, and that acts from mainland Europe sell better unless their songs have an “urban” flavour, hence Oliver Heldens’ “Gecko (Overdrive)” bucking the trend by failing to replicate its UK number one status in Scotland).  There are many reasons why this might be: a less multiracial and multicultural demographic even in urban Scotland, less pressure to like it for post-colonial reasons among people outside its core audience because Leftism stuck to its pre-68 self there and so could remain a mass, socially conservative phenomenon (if ’68 had never happened, I don’t think I personally would ever have taken to it, half a lifetime ago), a general sense where whatever is small-town music in England (currently, the David Guetta continuum, seemingly on the racks but now with its umpteenth new wind) is big-city music in Scotland, whereas Scottish small towns and villages, to some extent, actually are what their English equivalents are fondly, delusionally imagined to be by the Dorset Echo and its ilk, in terms of not being wholly dependant on global mass culture.  But surely, those who take popularity polls in isolation would say, if it is less popular in Scotland, then Scotland being in a separate state would strengthen its cultural share in England, push it further up the charts by removing the sales of sceptics, give it a measurable demographic boost?  This, I fear, is a classic example of ignoring the wider social context which charts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (and it rarely has been in recent times), by their nature leave out.

Charts can often shine a light on the world around them, of course; the Rolling Stones’ 2005 album A Bigger Bang (the one with “Sweet Neocon”, an unexpectedly accurate dissection of the dilemma an entire generation found itself in by this point, just in the slipstream of Katrina) narrowly missed the long, late years of TPL by literally a handful of copies, the difference made entirely by its low sales in Northern Ireland which may reflect the fact that, out of the generation that would still have been interested in what the Stones might have come up with by then, a disproportionate number in Northern Ireland (of both traditions) prefer folk and/or country over rock.  Marcello Carlin has already written about a similar situation in Scotland being a reason why there was never a “Clydebeat” to compare with Merseybeat and indeed what happened in London, when Glasgow was one of the very few other places to have comparable access to black American music through being an Atlantic port, but in that 2005 situation where Northern Ireland kept an album out of TPL (and also prevented the same act having number one albums consisting wholly of new recordings over a span of over forty years, something which has never in fact come to pass) there is another intriguing element; the album that stayed at number one in the UK because it stayed at number one in Northern Ireland, just on the brink of the “heir to Blair” speech, was James Blunt’s Back to Bedlam.  The fact that this was just after the IRA had finally announced an end to its armed campaign … the idea of people from strongly Catholic or nationalist backgrounds buying an album by an Old Harrovian with a background in the British Army at such a moment, in terms of pop’s reflecting the shifts around it, is almost too carmodic to be believed.

But that is a context that everyone gets and understands; it was impossible to live in Britain for most of modern history and not get some grasp of it, however it was filtered.  One thing which is, conversely, hardly being discussed at all in the wider talk about the possible effects of Scottish independence hinges on an important difference: that between London as seat of feudal-turned-neoliberal power, and London as centre of global pop-cultural hybridisation.  The two are entirely distinct, two Londons fundamentally at odds with each other, but some Scottish independence supporters don’t appear to know the difference, as has been shown by the regrettable blurring of the edges between criticism of London dominance couched in terms of the global plutocracy and financial elite (which, always assuming it doesn’t blur over into “hidden hand” anti-Semitism, I could support wholeheartedly other than for reasons which, I know, will come over as selfish to many I’d like to love) and criticism of London dominance couched in terms of cultural fear of diversity (the other, less admirable face of Scottish nationalism which some on the English Left still don’t want to admit exists).  They are two entirely different Scottish nationalisms, and if there is a Yes vote they will rapidly fall out and hate each other as viscerally as they are now linking arms enthusiastically; they have utterly oppositional visions of an independent Scotland, which even the absence of ’68 as a divisive factor splitting the Left could not hold together if Scotland had to fend for itself.

But if you add the two Londons which feed into the two anti-Londons, and think of the fact that only in London, north-west England and north-east England (pretty much the regions with the least stereotypically “English” identities) did Labour beat UKIP in the European elections within England, you can imagine a little-discussed counterpart to the well-discussed idea of secessionist movements in northern England aiming to join Scotland; a kind of London nationalism (actively encouraged, as nationalisms often are, by one of its great enemies, in this case Peter Hitchens) opposed to the rest of the south of England, which it has often resented for living off the city’s wealth yet dismissing its diversity, taking but not giving back, and to some extent opposed both to the residual elements of feudal power in that city and its recent takeover by the global super-rich.  Like the good bits of Scottish nationalism – in a sentence, those which attack “London” as a concept for its elite rather than its mass – it would have many positive and admirable elements for those who could be truly part of it.

But that very exclusivity and exclusion – all a knock-on effect from other secessionist movements – would make me seriously worried for how my own life might end up.  Even in an age of always-on global media, when it would obviously be wholly impossible to block “urban” streams and confine my life to what those of a feudal bent would consider “appropriate”, there would still be other practical restrictions (not in terms of what could be heard on a superficial level, of course, but in terms of identities and freedoms that could be taken on, absorbed on a meaningful level which affects your judgement and understanding of the world around you), deeper resentments and fears which a barely-reformed feudal state perversely holds in and controls, renders milder and less obstructive than they might be otherwise.  In present circumstances, it is comparatively easy for me to be culturally metropolitan while still riding horses and walking on the cliffs.  If surrounded by a regressive, reflective nationalism defined against multiple others/Others, it might not be so.  Where is all this leading?  To the point that the acceptance of “urban” pop and the wider culture in England, at least in such parts of it as I live in, is dependant on multiple outside factors which have no direct connection to pop and its casual consumption or to the wider social concept of youth ritual, and that if you remove the safety valve of a place where it appears to be less widely accepted among pop’s core audience, you can open the floodgates for resentment from an “outside” audience being stronger in a place where those most intimately close to pop are more orientated towards it.

To simplify, there have always been two main approaches to pop and its place in modern history; that shaped wholly by Gambo/Rice Bros, Alan Freeman (but not his rock shows), Simon Bates, Dale Winton, Tony Blackburn und so weiter (including, for a long time as it was taking shape, the child molester), and that defined principally by John Peel and the post-punk culture which has now been struggling for the best part of twenty years to cope with its offspring suddenly being mainstreamed (which was in fact, when it happened in my teenage years, the development that led me to hip-hop).  The former has, of course, been deeply shaken and traumatised by the revelations and trials of the last two years; the latter hasn’t been immune either – even if Roy Harper isn’t found guilty, the ’68 generation / PIE connections will leave their own stain – but still feels empowered and vindicated by the discrediting of those it always saw as a State safety valve for pop and youth ritual (it would be interesting to see if such self-aggrandisement among soixante-huitards could survive a guilty verdict in the Roy Harper trial; one possible effect of such a verdict might be to reverse the rapprochement with “pre-77 Peel” which has gained strength among his post-punk audience in recent times).

The former has ignored the wider context surrounding the lists and names and numbers it treats as gospel truth; the latter has, to some extent, ignored the wider context within which its cults existed, and universalised its own experiences (a post-68, and especially post-77, dichotomy which perhaps can be most accurately described as “turning the Mirror into the Mail“).  What I have tried to do, over something like fifteen years now (fumblingly and with half-knowledge, if that, at the beginning) is to bring the two together; describe both the context of the charts and the charts of the context.  To come at Guinness with the perspective of the cult-studs academic – to flesh out the mass consciousness with the legacy of Raymond Williams and all who followed him – and simultaneously to use data so often trivialised by anoraks, and sometimes dismissed as unnecessary and implicitly Tory by the CCCS graduates, to shine a light on the context in which cult-studs developed and formed itself.  The separation of these knowledges so institutionalised by the wider class-based feudalism and tribalism of, at least, England, and especially the division between those who absolutely need strict divisions between the two parts of their lives (people educated at the “old” universities are quite often worse for this than those with no advanced education at all), and those educated in the newer, broader traditions has created a deep, profound distrust of each area of knowledge in the “other” field; a belief among exponents of both that knowing the other is a betrayal, a compromise, a sell-out.  I was given that world; I didn’t make it.  All I’ve ever tried to do, not necessarily all that well until recently, is bring the knowledges and understandings together, to know what people governed by fear – whoever and whatever that fear is of – will have trained themselves not to know.  And if I’ve failed, I can at least say that the institutionalisation of those fears is such that it might not be entirely my fault.

The thing most ignored by those who take charts in total isolation – whether they’re presented by Alan Freeman or Jameela Jamil, Tom Browne or Marvin Humes – is that the most important people in the wider context of each wave of pop and its tolerance and acceptance aren’t the people who choose to listen to it, but the people who don’t, the people whose choices are, precisely, not reflected in the charts from week to week.  And they are the reason – especially in England – why separating a place where a music and its surrounding culture are less popular won’t necessarily improve its fortunes in every respect in the place that is left behind.  And should anyone doubt what I have written above – and the reasons why people who want to live as I want to live in such a place as I want to live like it have to oppose Scottish independence, however ruefully and regretfully and even if it is with the same sadness we feel when we reconcile our huge admiration for the principles on which the Open University was built and the social good it has done with the fact that Tom O’Carroll and Peter Righton worked for it – they might ask themselves a question that only has one answer: why, when they do not have a vote on the matter and would ostensibly (so we are repeatedly told) not be directly affected by it, do Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton – people who have dreamt for decades of eliminating all hybridised modern culture from England – support Scottish independence?