A monument, designed by Lutyens, dedicated to the 70,000+ British and Commonwealth soldiers killed at the Somme whose bodies were never found or identified. Wikicommons/ Chris Hartford. Some rights reserved.
The Brexit vote has forced some overdue reflection on what is happening in the marginalised communities of Britain. Some writers have been addressing this for years, sometimes admirably. But often it seems that the deep historical roots of people’s experiences of exclusion go unconsidered.
The centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme that followed the recent Leave vote made me reflect on this. The Lancashire town where I grew up – Accrington - lost hundreds of young men on the first day of the Somme. Almost exactly a century later, it voted two to one to leave the European Union. I think there are connections to be made between these two very different historical moments – distant, remote ones, but connections nonetheless.
The story of the Accrington Pals is well known. Peter Whelan’s moving play of that title was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Warehouse in London in 1981. It’s been revived now and then, and is popular with amateur dramatic groups, especially in the north of England. Nevertheless the scale of the slaughter still astounds. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 720 members of the Pals were ordered to leave the trenches and advance on positions which the Germans had been fortifying for weeks. Over 300 were dead within 20 minutes. Hundreds more died in later attacks, or of their wounds.
The idea of the Pals volunteer battalions, many of them formed in northern English industrial towns and cities, was to channel the camaraderie of factories, mills and sports teams into a fighting unit. This meant that in one disastrous assault, a single town could suffer huge losses. Although some Accrington Pals came from neighbouring towns, around 865 Accrington men died in the war, out of a population of around 45,000. A similar catastrophe in today’s London would involve around 190,000 deaths. The Accrington Observer and Times on 4 July 1916 reported ‘a magnificent start’ and that the strategic result obtained ‘had not been paid for too dearly’.
People in East Lancashire are pretty used to being thought of as sub-standard, or not being thought of at all. The other thing that Accrington is famous for besides the Pals is its strangely named football team. In a 1980s television advert, a young Liverpudlian boy tells his little brother that, unless he drinks his milk, he’ll end up playing not for Liverpool FC but for Accrington Stanley. East Lancashire takes its sport seriously (for decades it had the best amateur cricket league in the world) but Stanley’s name is a metaphor for comical sporting mediocrity – even though the club has come back from oblivion in recent years to resume their place in the Football League. When I say that I’m from Accrington to anyone British over 40, they nearly always say ‘Acc-ring-ton Stan-ley’ in a ‘comedy’ northern accent, referring to that bloody advert.
Fatalistic self-deprecation is part of the Lancastrian character, and I sometimes wonder whether the slaughter of the First World War contributed to this. Or did it go back further, to the 1860s “cotton famines”? It’s more common to hear locals attribute their melancholia to climate than to history. And East Lancashire’s weather is quite remarkably grey and miserable. For years, my son and I have driven the 40 miles from the attractive and rather self-satisfied Yorkshire market town where we live, to visit my parents in Accrington, and to take up our season-ticket seats at nearby Blackburn Rovers (who won the English Football Premiership in 1995 but who have hit hard times in recent years). As we pass Pendle Hill and enter Lancashire, we laugh at how we almost always see black clouds gathering ahead.
The relentless drizzle was good for keeping cotton damp, and sitting on the edge of the Pennine Hills, 20 miles from Manchester, Accrington played its part in the industrial revolution centred on cloth. There was a sense of decline when I was growing up in the 1970s but I remember the town centre often being packed with shoppers on Saturday afternoons, and with drinkers on Saturday nights. Thatcherism ripped the district apart in the 1980s, unemployment rocketed, the shops increasingly came to be boarded up, and houses could be bought very cheaply. My mate Graham sold his late Mum and Dad’s terraced for 14,000 pounds during the Blair property boom when London friends were selling their first homes for a third of a million.
Accrington Stanley Football Club resin wall-plaque. Wikicommons/Martineavns123. Some rights reserved.
The final nail
Post-2008 austerity recession has hit places like Accrington very hard indeed. The Accrington Observer recently reported that bedding plants would be withdrawn from all of the district’s parks due to budget cuts. The term widely used for the long-expected departure of Marks and Spencer from the town’s ailing high street was ‘the final nail in the coffin’.
In an earlier era, many South Asian people moved to Accrington from rural regions of Pakistan and Bangladesh to work in the still-functioning mills. There was racism from the start, and in the early 1970s an Accringtonian sociologist called Geoffrey Pearson wrote a study of ‘paki-bashing’ in the town. Neo-fascist political groups (the National Front, the British National Party) did well in East Lancashire, and had councillors elected. UKIP now occupies that political space, and draws much of its resentful energy from a sensibility shared by those who have no time for Farage: a sense of decline, of belonging to a place where things really were better a generation ago. In such communities, solidarity is a key virtue. The nation comes to be understood as the only meaningful form of political community that might merit the loyalty normally reserved for family, friendship groups and sports teams.
As so often, sport offers a parallel world of emotion and meaning, running alongside politics. Even as the country voted, France was hosting the European Football Championships, but much less prominently it was hosting commemorations of the Battle of the Somme, and a delegation from Accrington headed by the Mayor and Mayoress was out there along with quite a few locals following the England team. Back in Accrington, it was hard to know whether the St George England flags were out to celebrate Brexit, or whether they just hadn’t been taken down after England’s humiliating defeat by a rather less powerful European country, Iceland.
‘Two world wars and one world cup’
After watching Wales’s football triumph against Belgium on the day of the Brexit result, I turned over to the BBC’s coverage of the commemorations taking place at the Thiepval memorial. I wept at Isaac Rosenberg’s great poem about how the youth of different nations were being eaten by the same rats. But the stiffness of the Great and the Good sucked the life from the powerful literature being recited. At a twin ceremony in Manchester Cathedral, held there to mark the disproportionate effects of the war on the north, the presence of Prince Andrew felt jarring even though his official title is the Duke of York. I desperately wanted someone to question how the Somme could have happened. How could people be persuaded that their interests are served by this thing called ‘England’ or ‘Great Britain’ so that their young would die in droves? The damage of Brexit seems minor compared with the Somme, but it feels like some kind of self-inflicted wound.
The previous evening in Accrington offered a very different ceremony, a long way from the Royal Family and senior politicians. People gathered in a park to watch a performance called Falling. In a roped off area in front of the bandstand, some 50 volunteers enacted the fate of the Pals. They enacted drills and marches, sang ‘It’s A Long Way to Tipperary’, marched forward into battle with imaginary weapons and collapsed to the sound of gunfire from a nearby loudspeaker. It rained, obviously. Yet a touching mix of informality and solemnity shone through. Performers had brought pets and babies for whom they couldn’t get sitters. When the participants fell, a dog sniffed forlornly at his collapsed owner; a toddler failed to act dead and looked around at the audience in confusion. The audience smiled but were serious.
As with the more expensive and formal ceremonies elsewhere, there was nothing about why those men died. There was none of the anger of the families expressed by dead servicemen and women when the Chilcot Report was released a week later. When the performance ended, a military brass band struck up to perform music associated with the last two great European wars. They started with the theme from The Dambusters, a tune associated with England football support, via jingoistic triumphalism (‘Two world wars and one world cup’). A singer squawked the marching song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag’ and suddenly the connections I’d been struggling to make became a little bit clearer. You muddle through and take your pleasures from rare opportunities to get back at the powerful (be it bigger football teams or political leaders) – even if it doesn’t really benefit you at all. And as another great war poet, Wilfred Owen, sardonically repeated, you smile, smile, smile.
A different Accrington
The next day I saw a different Accrington. On the main shopping street, outside the disabled entrance of the Town Hall, a small stage had been set up. A vast poster featured photographs - faces, bodies, names - of the young volunteers who were to die a year or two later. The hair, the beards and moustaches, were different, but these were recognisably like the young people who get very drunk at weekends in the Wetherspoons pub round the corner. A series of speakers read out the names of the fallen, every single one, in alphabetical order. An Asian woman in a hijab scarf was followed by a young white man in school uniform. Their friends watched silently and solemnly, together. They seemed to be reflecting on something.
Burnley Road, Accrington, 2009. Wikicommons/ReptOn1. Some rights reserved.