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The People’s Republic of Workington

By Richard Marshall.

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Stanley Manly, Workington Dynamo, Lulu.com, 2008

David Peace’s darkly buffed up ‘Red Riding’ quartet and The Damned United and Jake Arnott’s Long Firm and He Kills Coppers both gave a backward glare to the last fifty years or so with brilliantly experimental, sharp and punky writing that is mental and smells real. Tony White is another contemporary who is wiring up to a postmodern brutalism to what we’re now supposed to call The Underclass but what when I was a lad were always the Working Class. That didn’t mean you worked, but it did mean that you’d appear in books by the likes of Barstow and Sillitoe and be played by Tom Courtenay, James Bolam, Albert Finney, Bryan Pringle, Hylda Baker, Shirley Anne Field and Rachel Robert etcs.

Peace knew exactly which team summed up this: Leeds Utd were known to be brutal, northern hard bastards who’d kick you off the pitch to get a win. Billy Bremner, Jack Charlton, Paul Reaney, Alan Clarke, Norman Hunter et al. were the northern bite yer legs genius team, contrasting with the southern tarty flash of nightclubbing Chelsea’s Osgood, Bonnetti, Houseman, Webb et al. That 1970’s cup final was the first to be decided outside of Wembley throughout the whole of the period spanning 1923 to 2000, Manchester United’s Old Trafford being the ground where Chelsea got the win in the dirtiest cup final ever.

David Ellery the match referee watched the match years later and concluded that there should have been six sending’s off and twenty yellow cards between them. Chopper Harris nearly crippled Eddie Gray early on, Jack Charlton head-butted Peter Osgood and Norman Hunter engaged in full-on fist-fight with Ian Hutchinson just for starters. Football was different back then. Manchester United were a curiosity of glamour and Northern Soul, but the City of Malcolm Allison, Bell, Lea, Marsh et al. were equally charming, flasher at times and just as successful. It was a backheel by former United master Denis Law that saw City beat United and send United out of the first division in 1973/4. In those days the teams were all made up of players who earned the same, or not that much more, than their fans. You were closer to the teams because they were closer to you. Playing days done, the lucky ones, they’d be working in their own pubs. Players in the top clubs these days can earn be earning more in a couple of weeks than most fans can earn in a lifetime.

Look what happens when you get Northern oldies chatting shit about the sixties and seventies: nothing about the swinging sixties, more a filtered class memory through heavy industrial landscapes of chilling beauty and John Motson’s Match of the Day commentaries. Alan Clarke these days is a grumpy old man calling modern footballers bastards.

The BBCs Match of the Day is a pretty useful filter actually. In the seventies MOTD was the BBC’s most popular programme with audiences of over 12 million. It wasn’t always the top teams it showed either, although 1986 was the last time it showed a match outside of the top flight. Up until 1984 you’d catch fourth division matches!

Once you stop showing the little teams you know there’s something going wrong, and when you look at the corporate gigantism that is modern sport you can see that the decision by the BBC to forget about the second, third and fourth divisions reflected the new vision of total politics the Thatcher’s Tory government started back then and we’ve been stuck with ever since.

Workington AFC were a minnow team that had some glory in the sixties, beating first division Blackburn Rovers at Blackburn 5-1 and second Division Norwich City 3-0 at Borough Park. They held the mighty Chelsea 2-2 at home before losing in the replay at Stamford Bridge in a respectable 2-0 loss. Before that, in the early fifties, they’d lost 1-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in front of a fifty thousand plus crowd and Man Utd came to Borough Road just before the Munich crash which sealed their legend in 1958.

And talking of Munich brings in another feature of this landscape back then. European Football brought to consciousness the names of teams from other countries, as strange, hard and exotic as our own. Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers of course were already registered, the green and white hoops of Celtic were already signs of the hard high glamour of the team by the time they won the European Cup in the mid sixties but so were names like Benfica, Hajduk Split, Moscow Dynamo, Dukla Prague and so on. The strangeness of the names were appealing in and of themselves, they suggested a broader universe, something bigger and yet connected to a Grim-up-Northist internationalism.

Football then worked to open up vistas and for a while it was possible to feel connected because Match of the Day showed fourth division football as well as top flight clubs and back then Workington were in the fourth division and so still visible and at one point got into the near top of the third, which put them in the top fifty clubs in England. Provincialism and internationalism were hand in hand but got booted out when the new Globalisation and cosmopolitanism came in on Austrian type market economics.

And it connected up with a sentimental communist thing, the name Dynamo grafted onto the team after exposure to Soviet legends Moscow Dynamo, Dynamo Kiev. As one social worker type expounds: ‘ …the team has its roots in the Soviet link, it’s a sort of expression of one-ness with the socialist peoples of the eastern bloc, a covert declaration of a people’s republic in West Cumberland.’ Of course, his theory is exposed as ‘total wank’. The real reason it was called Dynamo was because ‘…it gets dark early in a West Cumbrian winter and cars were only for ponces and criminals in the nineteen forties. They had to go to football practice on their bikes and the only way you could see your way down to Gibraltar Park was to have lights, and a dynamo. A few years later, in the Ever Ready Sixties, they’d have been called Workington Batteries! By the end of the decade they’d have been called Wind farm AFC …Bollocks to our comrades in Russia.’ This is typical of the depreciating humour of the book, a humour that deflates claims of grandeur yet at the same time maintains affection. It’s carried in a voice that can’t be satirical because it doesn’t hate. It’s a humour that gently loves the people and the place, it’s a writing that is working up Workington pride. It hasn’t the wiry oppositional malice and pique that can push a Mark E. Smith to applaud Thatcher. (But then again, he’s a Man City fan and by the late seventies they were shit. He has a lot to be angry about to be fair!)

Stanley Manly’s Workington Dynamo knows its way around this landscape of northern working class bravura, wearing its politics and its heart on its full blooded, pumping hot sleeve. Beginning in 2059 it covers the previous hundred years with a bravura performance mixing cranked up sentimentality and splenetic humour to produce a longer version of Manly’s first hard-core novel of northern working class sensibility Raiders of the Low Forehead. That particular gem came out as from the legendary Steve Well’s Attack! Books stable. A ferociously tight little tome, it hammered its way through a series of jokes that destabilised the very identity of itself as a novel whilst edging towards a literary abjection, as damned as Peace’s Leeds Utd. The Attack! Books had the strap-line ‘Where the novel has a nervous breakdown,’ which is now Book Works’ Semina series’ strapline too, edited by Stewart Home, an Attack! Books author himself. Manly’s was Attack! Books’ most vernacular piece, its voice being that of a northern stand-up in a David Lynch dream somewhere on Cleator Moor, off its face and mentally creamed.

Chapter six of Raiders goes, ‘She was hot.
He was randy. 
She was easy.
His meat was hard.
He met her on the quay side when she knocked-off work.
She gutted fish like a real ‘un.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s do it.’
They did.

Then they went for chips.’ Workington Dynamo is just as brassy and lippy though the aggro is tempered by a little more sentiment. It’s a softer book. But damned good. There are whole riffs that are beautifully poised and limpid, full of the little fine details that bring a ring of the marvelous to the pitch and tang of it. Try this: ‘I could watch these ordinary blokes transformed into charging, shouting monsters. Marvel at the dull sucking sound of their boots on the badly drained pitch, shudder at the shock wave of one of our lads shoulder charging one of theirs. At five years old, huddled inside a thick gabardine coat with knitted gloves on my freezing hands, I wasn’t sure what I was dreaming about. I just had a sense that there was power on the pitch and community in the crowd.’

The sound of the boots gets you up close and full on in. It runs through the whole family, fighting, football ruck with an energy that slaps of verisimilitude despite the exaggeration, perhaps because of it. It’s rude in all senses of the word, rude in its liveliness and vigor, its vintage language of offence and vernacular zest. If it veers at times towards the cartoonish and caricature its that of the early Dandy and Beano comics which are still to my mind some of the most radical writing of the last century. The Dandy brought the speech bubble to kids and was the first British comic to have its own superhero, the Amazing Mr X.

Manly’s tone captures a sort of speech bubble demotic and the antics of some of the characters resonate with mental superhero bravura. The dad, for example, is a character who beat up the Nazis by head-butting a tank whilst plopping a grenade down its gun turret. The men all seem like tanked up, super aggressive Desperate Dans. The women are harder! The Beano’s Pansy Potter during the same war was also seen giving the Nazis a good hiding, or at least a kick up the arse. All the main characters are Dennis the Menace or Minne the Minx or The Bash Street Kids, the Everyman figures from the Beano who gave visibility to working class heroism and the indefatigable prankster oppositionalism that Manly gruffly admires in his writing.

Books like Manly’s are rare. It’s a book that has a football club at its centre but isn’t really about that. It’s a counter to all the posh books about football that have come out, like the one about the Arsenal fan. That book was about how the writer left the football behind. The trope there was about class mobility and a kind of shape-shifting that we’re getting so used to. It always seems strange to me that people seem so surprised when some public person is found to have a different identity, one that they hid or lost or whatever. People who make it these days are usually nothing like where they came from, because they’ve moved to get to where they are.

Manly’s book is about people who don’t move, who haven’t shifted, who have a kind of rootedness that seems nearly impossible, more or less incredible these days. The recent stuff about this era is very post-modern, even the Peace and Arnott stuff works with a subliminal Foucaultian Lacanian Zizek aura. Life On Mars, the cop show involving a back to the seventies mind bender conceit is only possible and only works because the late sixties and seventies and eighties produced TV gems like The Sweeney and Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, Rising Damp and Minder and was still able to imagine people who were never going to transmute, who worked in a non-transformable, non-mobile social world. Characters like the hard cop Regan in The Sweeney not only didn’t transform but didn’t want to, and Rigsby in Rising Damp is ridiculous because of his dreams of transmutation.

Interestingly, the recent documentary Going Postal by Paul Tickell which examined the numerous cases of working class workers erupting into extreme violence suggested that one of the facts about the social setting for these scenes was the lack of social mobility. People were born and died in the same place. People at the bottom of the school class remained in the same place with the same people with the same marginal social status all their lives. Without escape, some of them erupted into nihilistic violence. Tickell’s extraordinary film shows us a dark side to stasis which, when combined with easy access to guns, can end in mayhem.

Similarly, the film Lights in The Dusk of Aki Kaurismaki gives another perspective on modern working class: his Finnish characters are all bleak, lonely and doomed to endless disappointment but the view is always touched with an odd humour that fends off a totalizing despair. Manly seems to be engaging and contesting these constructions of the working class by showing us the attractive rude health of the lives, injecting the speech balloon yowls of Bash Street Kids humour and Desperate Dan hardness. In so doing he gets across a view that shows a thriving communitarian spirit with a watchful eye on the hypocrisies and money grabbing greed of detractors, liars, snobs and spivs.

The connection of all this to the Attack! Book rants and Swells is obvious and genuine. The politics of CND, Right To Work, Support the Miners, Class War, Masturbation, Northern Punk and anarchist bands is pushed through this tale of every day working class mayhem. All of that and more seethes through the writing and its register. It’s great to have this full frontal agenda back again. The credit crunch helps to do this, just as in the same way it’s bringing great music back into the hands of the moneyless and jobless. It’s a book that reminds us of what comes next. We really do need for Match of the Day to start showing the games from the lower divisions again, playing in stadiums which allow you to see the streets outside. Then we need an uptake by Gordon Brown of Swells’ idea to Nationalise the Premier League, turning them into fan-owned trusts and suddenly make visible again and powerful again another world outside the controlling metropolitan centres of beserk money and conscience-less power.

Swells once wrote: ‘Folk singer, punk poet and Brighton and Hove Albion fan-activist Attila the Stockbroker once told me that “football is a microcosm of capitalism”. He was of course, correct (he isn’t always, that same night he also said: “I hate Crystal Palace more than I hate the BNP,” which is just daft.’ And its this same verve, passion and on the hoof groove that gives the book its chuff and kick.

It’s mental to have too much to say about bloody football but the north knows that this sporting life and life at the top and life itself is all connected. It’s a great metaphor for communism as well, better in many ways than many of the schemes dreamed up in art and culture. Another well known author from the north of England, Priestley, had the feeling for the thing when he wrote: “It turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half, for not only had you escaped the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, from wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses, idle workmen, but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbours, with half the town, cheering together, thumping one another on the shoulders, swapping judgments like Lords of the Earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid life.”

The FA banned women’s football from 1921 to 1969. This reminds us, just in case its been overlooked, that these hard lads are lovers too, and that the beautiful game can’t be beautiful without all genders playing a part. Wimmin here are dangerous, powerful, sexy, intimidating, iconoclastic, unbridled, untamed, raw, powerful, dirty, clever rowdies – no wonder the old-lag, unhip, ungroovy money-grubbers of the FA declared war on them.

So Manly’s is a hetero love story for a grrl as well as the soccer club, and his wimmin are a violent counter blast to the rich, thin tory-sucking anti-feminists that currently seem to think that fat poor people shouldn’t be allowed to live. Young Dougie Grimton is after his cousin Kerry and the result is a sweet but tangy element amidst the picaresque madness. As a result of Kerry running her fingers up the inside of his legs we get ‘a minor riot as his tackle tries to respond’. It’s a great reason for Match of the Day to start showing women’s league football too, and not just from the top divisions either.

We need books like this to get written. The comic zing is a counter to the depressing depictions of working class life and northern provincialism that can sometimes feel like a wallowing in the scumminess, wallowing to a point where it gets to feel like porn. This book lifts us up, a bit like reading Billy Liar can. It doesn’t romanticize away the truth but corrects the need for existential angst that sometimes overwhelms other writers’ perspectives. It retains an engaged feel for dissenting socialism with a sweet raw tang that has been all but erased from the English novel, the kind of thing that Barry Hines in Kes did, but he had fewer jokes. This is a trippier experience and who doesn’t like the groovy sound of that?

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 15th, 2009.