The following article appeared in HA'ARETZ MAGAZINE May 16, 2002
City of losers
If it weren't for their soccer team, the residents of Middlesbrough would have no reason to get up in the morning. Unemployment is rife in this grimy, desolate place. “Boro” is a team that has a city, and even its greatest fans have no great expectations of their team. Rogel Alpher reports from Middlesbrough, England
The garrulous reception clerk on the night shift in the hotel in Newcastle swore that he was a volunteer on an unnamed kibbutz in 1973, he was shot at when he waved the Union Jack on the front line and even got a warm hug from Moshe Dayan. It's not clear whether there is any connection between these turbulent events. "He only had one eye," the clerk says as though letting me in on a secret, as though he were imparting classified information that is available only to those who met the Israeli icon in person. When he admitted that he takes no interest in soccer, he did so with the air of one who belongs to a persecuted minority. In the North East of England this is sheer heresy, denial of the established religion. St. James' Park stadium towers above Newcastle like a medieval cathedral.
The working class in England are nourished by a media diet that consists of an inexhaustible series of trivial mini scandals. In late April ; the affair of Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swedish coach of the English national team, with a celebrity from his country named Ulrika Jonsson, dominated the attention of the readers of the tabloids. But the true passion and ardor are reserved for soccer. The concern was that Ulrika would divert Eriksson's attention from the preparations for the World Cup.
The view from the window of the train that is taking me from Newcastle to Middlesbrough, along the northeast coast of England, the area that was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, recalls nothing so much as a cruel and deviant social experiment. Row upon row of identical terraced homes made of red brick, now blackened with soot, triangular roofs as in children's drawings adorned with chimneys that are miniature models of the monster smokestacks that belch out poisonous smoke that can be seen for huge distances the dominant element in a melancholy industrial landscape of huge rusting containers and terrifying, gloomy, apocalyptic factories that seem to have been lifted out of the film "Blade Runner."
The film's director, Ridley Scott, a native of South Shields, a town near Newcastle, drew his inspiration for the set designs from his childhood vistas and filmed the opening scene in the industrial hell that stretches along both sides of the rail line. In the back of each home is a small rectangular garden, the "terrace" which is a fenced enclosure, with a small tool shed in the corner, all meant to preserve the illusion of a cottage in the idyllic English countryside.
Once you get past the urban areas, at some distance from the industrial plants that dwarf man and his man made surroundings, the counties of Northumberland, Cleveland and Durham (the center of the mining villages whose mines were shut down by Margaret Thatcher) abound with lushly verdant, pastoral zones, sweet villages perched in woods and carpeted with grass. But in the cities there are no signs of life. A deathly silence hangs over them. The casual visitor feels a choking sensation, a sense that he he has been exiled to the remotest realms of humanity, beyond which lies the great void.
"The real tragedy of England, as I see it, is the tragedy of ugliness;" D.H. Lawrence wrote after a visit to the Nottinghamshire mining country - "the Black Country" - where he had been raised. "The country is lovely: the man made England is so vile ... The great crime which the moneyed classes and promoters of industry committed in the palmy Victorian days was the condemning of the workers to ugliness, ugliness, ugliness: meanness and formless and ugly surroundings, ugly ideals, ugly religion, ugly hope, ugly love, ugly clothes, ugly furniture, ugly houses, ugly relationship between workers and employers.
“The English character has failed to develop the real urban side ofa man, the civic side. Siena is a bit of place, but it is a real city, with citizens intimately connected with the city. Nottingham is a vast place sprawling towards a million, and it is nothing more than an amorphous agglomeration. There is not Nottingham, in the sense that there is Sierra. The Englishman is stupidly undeveloped as citizen. And it is partly due to his 'little home' stunt, and partly to his acceptance of hopeless paltriness in his surroundings...
"The English are town birds through and through, today, as the inevitable result of their complete industrialization. Yet they don't know how to build a city, how to think of one, or how to live in one. They are all suburban, pseudo cottagey, and not one of them knows how to be truly urban."
It is difficult not to sink into existential reflections in the light of that "amorphous agglomeration" of "ugliness, ugliness, ugliness," about cities devoid of any sort of urban spirit, lacking in any signs of urbanity, hollow patterns of cities, a terrible distortion of the concept of the city. Life in them looks to be horrifyingly lonely. There is no center. There is no culture. There is none of the vibrant hustle and bustle of city life. Only row upon row of ugly houses in which the people who work in the factories live. It's as though the occupants had been created together with the houses, mechanical creatures who were purchased by industrialists and told: here you will work, here you will sleep, end of story. The Industrial Revolution may have been a great boon for capitalism, but not for humanism.
The industrialized world has progressed since then. It now offers its denizens more than a living and survival in an environment in which beauty and enrichment of the soul are luxuries. The descendants of the first unfortunate guinea pigs who migrated to the northeastern city in search of cheap housing or an institution of higher learning that does not make too much fuss about admission terms, have been left behind
Thereby hangs a tail
The political and cultural center of gravity in Modern England shifted to London, Oxford and Cambridge in the south of the country, where the residents of the distant northeastern cities are considered to be afflicted with incurable provincialism. The elites have tagged them as obtuse. Some scholars maintain that the Geordies, the residents of Newcastle and the towns near the Scottish border who speak a dialect in which many of the words come from ancient Germanic and Scandinavian languages rather than from Latin, which was the source of the official, "standard" English that is spoken in the south, are not in fact English but Britons, like the Scots and the Welsh. That theory offers the Geordies a satisfactory explanation for the fact that no one in the south can understand a word of what they are saying.
Residents of the Cleveland district in the region of the Tees River, north of Yorkshire (known as Teesside), of which the main town is Middlesbrough, do not enjoy that prestige. They are perfectly kosher English. It is sometimes difficult to understand what they are talking about. And they are seriously screwed up.
The last train station before Middlesbrough, which is known as Boro, is Hartlepool (Ridley Scott is a graduate of its college of art). Of this city it is related that during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was a small fishing village, an ape dressed in the uniform of the French navy was washed ashore on its beach, after a French ship was observed on the horizon. The fishermen caught the animal, interrogated it and, failing to understand any of the sounds it emitted, concluded that it must be a spy and hanged the creature as the local residents cheered.
The exploits of these early Hartlepoolians probably helps account for the rather nonintellectual image that continues to cling to the residents of northeast England. "You have to be an ape to go to Hartlepool in the first place," observes Brian Clough, a native of Middlesbrough and the coach of the Hartlepool soccer team in the mid 1960s.
In any event, gifted soccer players kept their distance from the town: Hartlepool has one of the worst professional soccer teams in England. No less than 13 times, it has had to undergo the humiliating experience of being reelected to the Football League (reapply to play in one of the four professional leagues after finishing at the bottom of the table). Nevertheless, its supporters go on shouting "Let's go, blues!" in every match, as Lee Scully, who was born in the city but is an intellectual anyway, learned when he had the temerity to attend a game once as a boy and was given a few kicks in the head by fans who made it clear to him that they didn't like his looks. He never went back.
Scully is one of the few natives of Hartlepool who is willing to talk about the story of the ape (the greeting "Hello, I'm from Hartlepool and I don't want to hear a word about the ape," is familiar in England), one reason being that during the years when he lived in the town (the "English Twin Peaks," he calls it) he heard stories that were far more bizarre. He still regrets not taking a photograph of the graffiti "Bus stop OK" , so uninspired, so unnecessary and pointless, that someone scrawled at a bus stop in Hartlepool. On top of that, the message was not sprayed but painted laboriously with the use of a brush and a can of paint by a local resident who felt a burning urge to express himself.
Scully apparently made the final decision to move to London after a visit to a pub in the neighborhood of the town's original fishing village (whose residents, he says, are a bit weird because of intermarriage within the families) in which he encountered a character who every evening brandished a bottle of Musk aftershave lotion, screamed out the advertising slogan "Musk is for men!" and then swallowed the contents, with disastrous results that showed he might not have been man enough to meet the Musk challenge.
Clough, too, did not stay long in Hartlepool before making a name for himself in Derby and Nottingham. He is among the handful of celebrities from Middlesbrough, among them the legendary coach Don Revie (who led Leeds United to glory in the late 1960s and early '70s), the explorer Captain James Cook (whose penchant for travel is attributed to his desire to get as far away as he could from his native town), the television comedian Bob Mortimer [Ed note: perhaps he means Bob Monkhouse?], the singer Chris Rea ("Fool if you think it's over" was a big hit, for pop trivia buffs) and the drummer of the country rock band Smokie, who in the'70s made an heroic effort to be named owner of the world's worst haircut.
A bloke off the old chippy
The essence of the English mass experience lies in a lexicon of pet names and abbreviated terms. Soccer or football is footy. Television is telly. The fish and chip shop is chippy. The coach of Manchester, Alex Ferguson, is Fergie. Princess Diana was Di, the national interviewer on the telly, Michael Parkinson, is Parky. The public house is a pub. The beverages served in the pub are bevies. Brian Clough is Cloughie. And a resident of smog enveloped Middlesbrough is known as a smoggie. Here's a braintwister: A smoggie who returned from the pub with food from the chippy watched footie on the telly and drank bevies. If he has a tendency to overdo the consumption of drinks, he is said to "have a problem with the bevies."
Cloughie had a problem with the bevies. In mid-April , the substitute goalkeeper of Middlesbrough, Mark Crossley, was the keynote speaker at the bimonthly meeting of Boro's official fan club, which was held in the hall of the new Riverside Stadium on thebanks of the polluted Tees. Crossley was asked to volunteer a "story about Cloughie" from the days when he played under him for Nottingham. One morning at 8:30, Crossley said, he entered the showers in the training facility and saw the manager taking a shower while fully dressed, wearing boots and holding a broken tennis racket. "Do me a favor lad," Cloughie said, "and bring me a towel." While Crossley looked for a towel, Cloughie scuttled off to the sauna but forgot to turn off the water; when Crossley reached for the tap he found that the water was ice cold.
That is what the English, with their vintage sense of humor, call a "problem with the bevies." It's not an unknown problem in Boro. Oscar Wilde's quip, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes" is the slogan of one of the Internet sites of the club's fans, who also display a well developed sense of self-disparaging humor ("Fly me to the Moon" is the ironic name of the fanzine). They have yet to reach the moon, and in fact the club's ability to survive in the Premier League is in doubt anew every year. And anyway, what could possibly be attractive on the moon? Boro is just about as barren.
The entire northeast of England is in the grip of footie fever. The average fan of London's Arsenal team, or of Liverpool or Manchester United and Leeds has other matters to occupy him. He lives in a lively city that produces a rich culture, economic initiatives, thriving commerce and a range of entertainment and leisure options. But Middlesbrough resembles the kind of place D.H. Lawrence was writing about. The first shock on encountering Boro is that there is no city, at least not in the sense that Tel Aviv or Petah Tikva are cities; there is an "amorphous agglomeration" of houses and neighborhoods over which hangs a depressive, positively tyrannical atmosphere of "ugliness, ugliness, ugliness."
The shock intensifies as it becomes clear that the city refuses to emerge from its mind-numbing pattern of desolate, bare, characterless streets, declines to create substance. The emptiness is positively scary and is permeated with a moldy chemical stench and the stink of deep-fried food (it's not surprising that the residents of Middlesbrough tend to put on weight). There is no way to know where the local people are. They're not in the streets. At 10 P.M. the "center" is forsaken and forlorn, as though curfew has been declared. A few residents can be spotted during the daylight hours on the pedestrian mall of the new commercial center (named after Captain Cook, of course), though here too a downcast, flaccid frame of mind rules. The most popular way to pass the time seems to be to sit on a bench and stare blankly ahead. It's a ghost town. Here and there a very young mother, pushing a pram, catches the eye for an instant and then is gone. There is no sense of community or of the communal and certainly not of urbanity. It's obvious that there is something very wrong in the relationship between the people of Middlesbrough and their city. They have not cultivated it or invested in it, they don't really live in it but in their private homes, and the result is an empty shell.
The place of the absent city is taken by the local soccer team. The Middlesbrough Football Club is the public space, the collective experience that forges urban identity, a shared fate, a united goal, brotherhood. Support for the team, like a job in the factory, is passed on from one generation to the next. No questions are asked. You are born into it and you believe in it, for all you're worth. Without the soccer team there is no Middlesbrough, or more accurately, perhaps, the soccer team is Middlesbrough and without it the 154,000 local residents would be only a collection of detached individuals who go to work (for those who have work), lock themselves into their houses and get drunk in the pub on weekends.
The MFC is the spirit and the soul of the city. It's a team with a city, not a city with a team. In the train station there isn't even a kiosk, or a newspaper stand, no one makes announcements, there is no potted plant and no welcome sign - you leave from nowhere and you arrive to nowhere. There are no decorations in the street, there is no attempt to prettify things, to gloss the grime. Boro is a tough, scowling, God-forsaken place. "Hartlepool and Middlesbrough are not the end of the world," Scully explains, "but from them you can see - and especially smell - the end of the world."
Moral victory over Arsenal
Riverside Stadium is a total contrast to its surroundings - new, impressive, majestic, inviting, encouraging, happy-making. The stadium stands aloof as the largest and most dominant structure in the city. It was not just men and hooligans who gathered here for a meeting of the fan club. Whole families turned out: elderly grandmothers who have attended games regularly for more than 50 years, aunties and middle-aged moms and dads and the kids. The event was more like a bingo game. Lottery tickets were sold. Some of the families placed soccer balls signed by players on the table around which they sat. The aunties, brimming with happiness, queued up nicely for a hug and a souvenir photo with the substitute goalkeeper. No one had a bad word to say about the 1-0 loss to Arsenal - the rich club from North London that struts around with French chic - in the FA Cup semifinal at the beginning of the week. Middlesbrough is used to losing. In its long history it has yet to win any title of any kind. Nevertheless the loss was hailed as a "moral victory." The fans had come to shower their love on the center-back, who scored the only goal of the game - against his own team. So what if he's not especially talented? The Boro fans are not out for elegant soccer. Over the years their team has played bad, boring soccer. They are familiar with disappointment and harbor low expectations. All they want is for their representatives on the field to play their hearts out for them.
Since Boro never wins anything and has no hope of doing so, there is no reason to support the team, other than the possibility that it gives the residents to unite around it and to use the team as a buffer to defend themselves against their deriders from the south and from flourishing Newcastle in the north. The fact that Newcastle gets a lot more attention in the national media and is described with far greater sympathy, arouses the envy of the Boro fans.
Sports broadcasters and commentators on the regional BBC radio station in the Middlesbrough area explained that Boro fans have developed a persecution mentality. There will always be someone to disparage Boro. "Middlesbrough," a city native explained in defense of the place, "was not built in order to be beautiful but to do work." As though this can be a sufficient explanation for the total lack of normal urbanity. Newcastle was also built to do work, but in the evening its shopping streets are alive with people walking about in loud, happy groups, the pub-goers spill onto the sidewalks and the restaurants are packed. Many of the women are victims of the skin-hugging fashion that is engaged in a - usually losing - debate with their physical dimensions. To travel fromNewcastle to Middlesbrough is to make a journey into the industrial heart of darkness, the damp cellar of England.
In contrast to the alienating surroundings, the people of Boro are extremely pleasant, warm and cordial, and most of them remember exactly how many years ago they attended their first game. The team's players, coaches and managers, and the reporters who cover them live in the lovely villages outside Middlesbrough. The fans live in Boro. Middlesbrough enjoys the highest level of local support in the English Premier League. The fans of Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United are scattered all over the island, and indeed all over the world, but 75 percent of the Boro fans live within 15 kilometers of Riverside Stadium. (The others are former residents of the city, who remain fiercely loyal.)
Peter, the manager of the fans' pub, Ayresome Pub (named after the team's previous stadium, Ayresome Park), estimates that no fewer than three of every ten of his clients (he pours a thousand liters of beer for a few hundred fans before every home game) are unemployed. The statistics on addiction to hard drugs, prostitution, crime and underage pregnancies are particularly high in Boro. The hatred for Margaret Thatcher, who crushed the trade unions and closed the unprofitable factories that provided jobs for the residents of Middlesbrough, is still potent and undimmed. Even though Middlesbrough is a small city by English standards, the stadium, which was opened in 1995, holds 35,000 people. The games are not sold out (average attendance is 26,000) and many of the seats are occupied by people who have nothing else to give them meaning in life. And even that was almost lost in the mid-1980s, when Boro was relegated and on the verge of bankruptcy. The team was saved by Steve Gibson, a native son who was born in the slums and went on to make millions. He appointed as manager the idol of the masses, the captain of the English national team and of Manchester United, Bryan Robson.
The Robson era
Robson brought prestige and pretension to Boro. He spent reams of money to acquire glittering players and the team climbed back into the Premier League. Who would have believed that a star with the breathtaking skills of the Brazilian Juninho would play in the smog-covered, downtrodden city, which was more accustomed to the model of the plump attacking midfielder who is rolled out to the playing field from the pub in a wheelbarrow (problem with bevies), hurls himself at the opponent's goal as though in a trance and gives his soul in another game that ends in a defeat filled with good intentions. The combination of Robson and Juninho drove up the number of season subscribers, but tickets are expensive and not everyone can afford them, even though the club management does its best to adjust the price to its clients.
The Kidner family, who attended the meeting of the fan club, spends all its available cash on the club. Ken and Carol met 26 years ago at an away game, the younger daughter Ellie and her husband (he has a classic baby face, his grandfather is of Lithuanian extraction and his eccentric hobby is following the fortunes of all the Lithuanian players in Europe) are of course involved, along with the grandmothers, who keep up even after their husbands have died. Soccer is their entertainment, a way of life, a reason to leave the house. They meet their friends at the stadium.
"The club is the fuel of the city," explains the manager of the club's official Website (www.mfe.co.uk), an affable young man with one tooth. "When Boro wins, the mood of the city is uplifted and production in the factories increases. When Boro loses, the wind goes out of the sails."
Peter, from the pub, says that there are worse places in the world. After all, "The people of Boro have food and clothing, and if you are sick there is a hospital." The residents of Middlesbrough have developed a mentality that is adjusted to the circumstances and have come to accept that a successful afternoon at the stadium is the peak of their desires, though many maintain a pessimistic, cynical approach and come to the field only to let off steam collectively. "Besides," he added, as though not grasping the tragedy in which he lives, "within traveling distance of Middlesbrough there are very lovely places."
The volatile and unstable Robson era (rumor has it that he too suffered from the "problem of the bevies") broke the hearts of the Boro fans. He gave them hope. In the 1996-97 season he took the team into the finals in the two Cups, but the team lost in both, and under him Boro was also relegated but bounced back to the Premier League. This year Robson was replaced with Steve McClaren from Manchester United, who brought stability to the club. On April 24 the fans were hoping for a home victory over Blackburn Rovers on the way to Boro's highest ever finish in the Premier League.
The fans started to pour into the Ayresome Pub, which is closed on weekdays - there is only work on the weekends - and where items from the club's history gather dust on the second floor. An hour before the game, tens of thousands of Middlesbrough residents began a silent procession to the stadium, which is five minutes from the city center. They advanced in small groups of friends and families: old men and old women, middle-aged couples, parents with small children. It was a somewhat surrealistic scene, the people were subdued, like deeply saddened refugees leaving a city in which a plague has broken out with exemplary order, driven by an irresistible force, a real-life version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. Nor was there any sign of hooliganism, vandalism or drunkenness in the stands. This is a community ceremony, a family event, a ritual gathering of the city's residents.
An anthem-like electronic melody, tinny but uplifting, blared from the loudspeakers as the players emerged from the tunnel, and the crowd – wearing shiny red holiday clothes, the team uniform and scarves - stood on its feet, applauded mightily and sang solemnly. Suddenly the adrenaline started to course through their somnolent veins. There was a spectacular explosion of color, a momentary eruption of vitality amid the faded Boro existence, like the sudden introduction of color into a black and white movie. A huge English flag appeared, on which was written the word "Smoggies." That seemed strange, as the word is used by others to insult the residents of Middlesbrough. But the taunts of the rival fans, who sometimes come to games at the Riverside Stadium wearing gas masks and mock the residents of Middlesbrough by saying that they are mutants with two heads and three feet, has become a defiant source of pride, a singular birthmark that is carried with pride. Smoggies with heads held high.
The fans cheered and spurred on their team, the kids enjoyed themselves as though they were at a party, but as it became increasingly obvious that Boro was playing terribly and was going to lose, the muttered grumbling, the nodding of heads familiar with bitter experience, the sarcastic remarks, the jeering and the scolding grew in volume, When a Boro player kicked the ball on to the roof of the stadium, a cranky fan, who had probably given up hope long ago, declared that the errant ball would "fall into the River Tees along with all the other junk that goes there," and then got up and left, his wife following. This was supposed to be their goodtime day. But it was down the tubes, as on so many other occasions in the past. The weekend was down the tubes. The week was down the tubes.
"You're a nothing," a balding redhead yelled at a player, who was too far away to hear. Only a cute little girl, who was at the game with her melancholy father - her face radiant, her soul not yet scarred by the ugliness and the bitter disappointments that are the lot of the fans of a small team with a limited budget that plays in a league dominated by empires such as Manchester United and Arsenal - went on shouting "Come on, Boro!" in her thin voice. Blackburn scored three goals. As the second half drew to a close, the uneasy, frustrated looks gave way to outright despair. With a protest no less silent than their arrival, the fans began to leave, with exemplary order.
Half an hour after the final whistle, the road leading back to the city center was deserted. The junkyards along the sides of the road lay impassive, the smokestacks of the factories belched out chemical fumes on the horizon. The streets by the pub and the train station were empty. The Smoggies were gone. The earth had swallowed them.