Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Parallel World of Football in History

One hundred years from now I wonder whether it will be very well known that one by-product of the UK Riots of August 2011 was disruption to the football fixtures on the first day of the season. Many - I suspect particularly those in academia - might comment that the postponement of some trivial sport doesn't deserve to be observed in the same breath as the violence, damage and death which was caused in that insane week.

However, for some, the loss of their favourite passtime might be the only way in which they directly perceive any effect of the disorder. If their businesses weren't burning, and they wouldn't otherwise visit North London, then they might never have had any personal inconvenience until they found they couldn't watch Tottenham versus Everton at White Hart Lane.

But more importantly than examining the link between the events, I think it's interesting to dwell on the fact that even when terrible things happen, life does go on. People crave entertainment and distraction from the more distressing elements of life. In school we learn about Roman life and their obsession with the spectacles of the amphitheatre, so equally we should stop to remember that football has been enjoyed alongside the headline-grabbing cataclysms of the day for quite a long time.

At 6am on Saturday 8th September 1888, a market porter called John Davis discovered the body of a woman in a yard in Hanbury Street, Whitechapel. The victim was Annie Chapman, a 48-year-old mother of two who had been living in a common lodging house in the area. She had been stabbed and horribly mutilated, with her throat cut from side to side and her abdomen disembowelled.

That morning, the incident was quickly linked to a similar murder which had happened just a week earlier and Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of Scotland Yard began immediate searches of houses in the area to enquire about suspicious activity. A few hours later, her corpse was taken to Whitechapel Mortuary for further examination. That afternoon West Brom went top of the league after beating Stoke 2-0.

The clichéd swirling mists of Victorian London don't seem to belong to the same world as a stunning twenty-five yard free kick - yet there they are. Jack the Ripper butchered that poor woman on the very same day that Aston Villa defender Gershom Cox scored an unfortunate own goal, resulting in a 1-1 draw with Wolves.

In my mind, Jack the Ripper belongs alongside Sherlock Holmes in a world of opium dens, limehouses and other unfamiliar settings. It's almost inconceivable that actually the infamous and unknown serial killer might also have watched a football match and cheered a superb goal.

The Ripper was killing at the very dawn of the Football League which is still played today, but the game was far from new at the time. Over a decade earlier, in March 1876, a crowd of 17,000 fans watched Scotland beat Wales 4-0.

The opening goal for the home side had come somewhat controversially in the 40th minute when John Ferguson stabbed the ball into the net after it was knocked out of the hands of the Welsh goalkeeper David Thompson. The Scots dominated the game overall, and after two further goals from Lang and MacKinnon, it was put beyond all doubt when Henry McNeil drove the ball into the back of the next after some excellent link-up play between Ferguson and Highet.

Two months after this international game, across the Atlantic, General Custer made his last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

As well as internationals, other familiar footballing contests had been around for some time, played in an era very much defined by the monarch. In February of 1872 a young Irishman attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria in London. A couple of weeks later the FA Cup final was settled by a single goal.

Further back still in October 1868, a year before Charles Dickens sat down to start writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it was the Stoke captain Henry Arnold who scored his side's only goal in a 1-1 draw at home.

This sporting vernacular which I know so well seems odd in unfamiliar Victorian surroundings. Admittedly, the further back you go the stranger the game would have looked, and the smaller the attendance, but the rules laid down in 1863 meant that the game has been played essentially unchanged for nearly 150 years.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Immigration - Who Are The Foreigners?

A lot is made in Britain of the influx of the Polish into the UK. It is interesting to note however that the number of Britons who are immigrants into Spain far outnumber the Poles who are immigrants into the UK, and it is always worth keeping in mind that we are just foreigners to everyone else.

Of course we are not alone in moments of thoughtless hypocracy but it is striking that so many Britons take such a strong view on the idea of continential Europeans and others coming into our island, given our history. The idea of "a Briton" or "the English" is so complex that many comments on modern immigration are slightly ridiculous, since we are born from wave after wave of immigration reaching back three thousand years.

For a start, the word "English" originates from Germany. My town has a Viking name. My surname is of Swedish origin. My best friend at school's surname was of Dutch origin. My girlfriend's surname is Irish. And locally, it was the Irish who made the biggest recent impact.

My nearest big city is Liverpool, a key location in the creation of the British Empire. At the time this city was pouring money into the Industrial Revolution, a massive percentage of the population wasn't English. By 1850, a quarter of Liverpudlians were Irish - something which is heavily underlined by the fact that until that period the Scouse accent did not exist. The distinctive slurring consonants of the maritime city were born out of the influx of the famine-struck immigrants and the blending of dialects from further afield. Until the 19th century, a Liverpool accent was the same as many other Lancashire brogues - until immigration created the Liverpool we know today.

Probably the most shocking example of social remodelling in our island's history came at the hands of France - not only in the hundreds of years of nobility and cultural influence we absorbed when we became a French nation, but in one awful act which came three years after conquest. William, Duke of Normandy ensured that the English could never raise an army against him by annihilating villages, crops and animals across hundreds of miles of the country. Directly and indirectly, an estimated 100,000 Britons were killed in the north of England.

The void left in authority was filled by the Norman administration, whose DNA permeates the English aristocracy to this day. The settlers which were brought in to fill the towns were from far and wide and the linguistic impact of this continental influx can be registered in the fact that a third of the words used in English today are of French origin.

The endless invasion of Britain down the centuries makes it impossible for most individuals to know who were the Goodies and who were the Baddies in any battle in our history. As a Englishman, I've always had the notion that William was the Bad Guy when it came to Hastings, but the reality is that the society we now live in was forged by three hundred years of Norman rule.

So when you meet someone from abroad, are you really a Briton observing a foreigner? Or are you in fact the fruits of the invader, standing in the land conquered by your unwelcomed ancestors?

Just prior to his infamous defeat at Hastings, King Harold of England had repelled some other foreign invaders. At Stamford Bridge the King of Norway, his Icelandic allies and others came to challenge the English King but were ultimately defeated.

Another great victory for the English, right? It doesn't seem quite so straight forward when you realise that one of the defeated foreigners was King Harold's own brother, Tostig, and our great English Harold was actually of Germanic stock, and his father was a powerful lord under the Danish King Cnut.

In the late 9th Century, the vast easterly swathe of Britain was a Viking nation - known as the Danelaw. Since the year 800, attacks from Scandanavia had befallen the coastlines of Britain but a longer-lasting impact was made by the succession of peaceful Danish settlers. Through means of war and political manoeuvring as much as their number, roughly half of modern England fell under control of Denmark and Cnut the Great.

This Viking state clashed repeatedly with the kingdom which lay to the south and west: Wessex. Wessex was a Saxon Kingdom which with which a modern Englishman is likely to side when discussing Saxons versus Vikings. But the idea that the Vikings were "kicked out" by our heroic Saxon ancesors doesn't seem quite so relevant if you live in the north.

The modern Geordie accent's sing-song intonation mimics the Scandanavian language which spawned it, and anyone living in town or village ending -by, -thorpe, -toft, -holme, -kirk or -thwaite is writing a Scandanavian suffix every time they give their address.

But even if you defer to the idea that at heart, you're a Saxon, then you have to address the fact that the Saxons were themselves immigrants, the first of whom came in the 5th century under invitation from - who else? - the British.

The British needed help because they were under attack and lacked military support from the central government. Where was this central government? Rome - because at that time "the British" were Romans, and had been for four hundred years. The Romano-British feared foreign attack and brought in Saxon mercenaries to defend the island, but they ended up out-staying their welcome.

Rome's occupation of Britain may feel like it's in the intangibly distant past, but their legacy is left in our road maps, our city layouts and our primary religion. Despite it happening two thousand years ago, the Roman immigrants fashioned our embryonic civilisation.

The Britain which the Romans entered was one dominated by Celtic culture - and who are the earliest Brits, if not the Celts? After all, the term "Briton" in a historical context refers to the Iron Age Celtic people as if they were the first.

The Celtic people seemingly have their most undiluted modern-day descendents clinging to their related languages in the England-shunning corners of Wales and Scotland. But unfortunately, even the Celtic culture is a foreign import. Britain started thousands of years before the Celt's ideas swept the land.

If there was any such thing as a native Briton, then perhaps we can pin that label on those men and women who lived here in Mesolithic and Neolithic times. There are very few big artefacts which tell the tale of our island before the waves of new ideas began. Those men and women who began the development of Stone Henge some 10,000 years ago are amongst the earliest people we might call "original" Britons.

Quite how much of their DNA is in us today, and how much foreign DNA we have is a question for another day, but the fact remains that Britain is a nation formed from the migration of new people, languages, technologies and philosophies.

It would be extremely unlikely if the 21st century was the era in which this stopped.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Viking In You

I'm preoccupied with our national ideas of who "we" are when we study, for example, Saxons versus Vikings. I'm sure that in school I was taught that "we" were the Saxons, and the Vikings were evil invaders. However if, like me, you have a surname of Swedish origin live in a town with a Danish name and support the only football team in England with a name of Viking origin, it's hard to really see how "we" are the Saxons.

What England owes to Scandinavia is born out in the language and it was one particular word which caught my attention today: Husband.

We take this word for a married man from the Old Norse húsbóndi.

This is interesting in itself, but the component halves of that Viking word are also understood today, and this reveals the true meaning of the word:

A hús is a “house” and a bóndi is a "dweller" or "freeholder", connected to the word binde, as in "tether".

Thus a "husband" is quite literally a man bound to his house.

This is just one example of a huge number of Scandanvian words which permeate our language.

The word "timid" in Old Norse is skjarr, which gives us the word "scare", and if a Viking were to refer to a person as "gentle" then they would say mjúkr, which became our word "meek". If he were referring to his butcher's meat would talk about his sláter - from which we get "slaughter". If something was "unjust" it was described as rangr - which gives us the word "wrong".

Many of our most basic actions are described by Viking words - For example: get, give, kill, run, sprint, strive, take, talk, thrive, thrust and want. Our plural pronouns (they, their and them) are entirely Scandinavian in origin.

So, next time some fellow (from félagi) tries to explain that the birth (from burðr) of England came when the Saxons defeated the Vikings, you may want (from vanta) to raise (from rísa) the point that our heritage does not seem (from sæma) so clear-cut (from kuti)!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Birth of Giant Brands

There are certain brands whose names pass our eyes, if not our lips, on a daily basis which to me are like immortal keystones around which our consumer society is constructed. These are the goliaths of retail that it is hard to imagine ever started with one person or one shop.

One such example I came across today was a little shop which existed in London at 141 Drury Lane. In 1792 this shop started selling a particular drink which was said to be unrivalled in its percentage of carbonic acid gas, so that by 1798 it was actually recommended by a doctor as an ideal treatment for nephritis.

The name of the man who sold this delightful beverage? Jacob Schweppe.