Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Strange Death of the British Male

An Spailpín Fánach is fascinated by The Damned United, currently on general release, just as I was fascinated by the novel from whence the film sprang. Not because of what it says about Brian Clough or soccer or any of that, but because of what it says about the state of current British culture.

The Damned United is about the 44 days that Brian Clough spent as manager of Leeds United football club in 1974. It was a match made in Hell – Clough was the loudmouth manager of upstart Derby County, and a man who took a certain relish in goading his enemies. Enemy No 1 was Don Revie, manager of Leeds United in the 1960s and 70s and a man who was seen by some – but not all – observers as someone who mined a deep well of cynicism to get results.

Because Clough had made no secret of his distain for Leeds and their methods, his appointment as Revie’s successor was like making Joe Higgins head of the Central Bank. It didn’t last, and Clough was gone in 44 days. Clough then took over at Nottingham Forest and went on to make his name as one of English soccer’s greatest managers, and the Greatest Manager the English National Team Never Had.

Clough died some years ago from complications brought on by hard living, and in the book David Peace took that legend of the iconoclastic Clough as he’s understood and fondly remembered now and spun it back to what it might have been like when Clough was in charge at Leeds. The novel is described as faction, that terrible word that means it would be so lovely if things really were like this, so let’s just pretend that they were and not get bogged down in nasty old facts.

Johnny Giles, who successfully sued the publishers of the novel, and is allegedly considering going in with studs up before our learned friends concerning the movie as well, made the point on Newstalk’s Off the Ball recently that while the book is being sold as fiction it is being consumed as fact, and that’s what’s really bugging him. Giles has no objection to books being written and Revie being criticised by “football people,” but some guy just making stuff up strikes Giles as being deeply infra dig.

What’s really interesting, then, isn’t what the book or the movie tells us about the real Brian Clough but what the huge popularity of the book and movie tell us about the current state of British culture, its current fascination with the 1970s and its great, crying need for a hero as Brian Clough is portrayed in the book – telling one of the best teams in England on his first day in their dressing room that they should throw all their medals away because they were won by cheating, not bothering with reports on opposition teams and telling the boys to just go out and enjoy themselves.

Just going out and enjoying yourself is grand when you’re training the Sunday XI of the Dog and Duck, but it’s guaranteed disaster if you’re playing for keeps with the big boys. That the notion has appeal to the current British male says something about the appeal of the juvenile that is currently so high in the culture.

Brian Clough’s mother died while he was manager at Leeds. Peace makes a big deal of it in the book: “The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad... No afterlife. No heaven. No hell. No God. Nothing - The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad.”

Is that not a description of the current lost state of the British male? Lost in the world, not recognising it anymore or his place in it? Always seeking a return to childhood when heroes like Brian Clough were easily identified?

The iconic status of Detective Gene Hunt in the BBC’s Life on Mars TV show is another riff on the tendency current in the culture to glamorize the 1970s in England. This is very much a post hoc glamorisation of course – there was nothing too glamorous about recessions, deaths in the North, bombings in Birmingham and winters of discontent. But the 1970s are being presented as Shangri-la compared to now, when England has become one of the most politically correct places on the face of the Earth.

In Life on Mars, Sam Tyler represents the modern British male – caring, sensitive, aware of minority rights. Gene Hunt is the old style copper, who likes beer, mushy chips, football on the terraces and beating the Jesus out of suspects back in the police station. Current cultural conditioning has made Sam Tylers out of the British, but it was the Gene Hunts that took Quebec and held the Khyber Pass.

The Damned United and Life on Mars are evidence of the tremendous power of nostalgia. The 1970s were grim times in England any way you slice them, but the children of the seventies currently working in media and culture are hanging on to their childhoods as hard as ever they can. Because the alternative is the void - the end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad.

The US Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in 1962 that Britain “had lost an empire and has not yet found a role.” The Damned United and Life on Mars would suggest that not only has she not found a role, but she’s given up the search entirely. The end of anything good. The beginning of everything bad.

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