Saturday, 16 November 2019

What is truth?

What is truth?
It is recorded in the New Testament that around two thousand years ago the Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, during his questioning of Jesus asked him if he was a King. Jesus is reported to have said to him, 'For this reason I was born and have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.' Pilate responded by saying, 'What is truth?'

Truth used to be viewed as a verifiable, indisputable fact but it seems we have entered a ‘post truth’ phase in our public discourse where people’s views are shaped by their emotions and what they would like to believe rather than any verifiable facts. ‘Fake news’ abounds and elements a cynical media count clicks on their advert filled websites rather than the number of distortions in their stories. American linguist and social thinker, Noam Chomsky in his book ‘Manufactured Consent’ theorises that the powerful elite who control much of the media and guide political discourse are able to manipulate the masses into doing as they see fit. Thus we see incongruity everywhere; from the child of immigrants with no empathy for modern migrants or the poor man living in a sink estate voting for a political Party which gives tax cuts to the rich and austerity to the poor.  Malcolm X once said….

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

This week saw a ludicrous story about HMRC being responsible for the death of Rangers in 2012 doing the rounds. We were informed that a decision by the tax authorities not to pursue the corpse of the old club for punitive fines and interests meant that they had ‘miscalculated’ the amount Rangers owed and therefore frightened off any potential investors. This absolute fantasy was destroyed by the usually silent HMRC who informed the bemused and confused that there had been no such miscalculation and that their decision not to pursue the money owed by the old Rangers was based on the fact that they were unlikely to get anything other than a few pence in the pound as will the long list of creditors owed millions.

A classic bout of confirmation bias then ensued where this story was seized upon by some Rangers followers as proof of some great conspiracy against them. Some fairly laughable comments appeared on social media demanding their £50m back! That is- demanding a rebate on money which was never paid in the first place and never will be paid! Never forget that among the spin and distortion this football club ripped off businesses small and large for tens of millions of pounds. Not least the tax payers who cough up to fund public services and watched rich men avoid paying their fair share. In an act of consummate irony, the Sun newspaper which so readily pumps out distortions of reality actually brought in an independent tax expert who blew the whole ‘HMRC miscalculation killed Rangers’ fantasy out of the water. There was no miscalculation; they merely decided not to pursue monies they knew they would never see.

Of course wiser heads could see through this whole attempt to deny the death of Rangers and spin the mythology that a jealous cabal in Scottish football and society had it in for them. The more prosaic truth is that greed and arrogance brought the house down. The hubris of the Murray years was inevitably followed by the nemesis of liquidation. No U-turns by a media with an eye on the blue pound, no historical revisionism by supporters who can’t accept that their club died in disgrace, will ever change the concrete reality of what happened to Rangers in 2012. It was inevitable that many Rangers fans would find this reality hard to deal with and the spin would begin. Being ‘demoted’ to the fourth tier of Scottish football and missing out on a European place were cited as punishments rather than what they actually were; the consequences of going bust. Rangers didn’t start in the fourth tier; Rangers ceased to be in 2012. The new club had to seek permission to join the league and thus were allowed to do so starting at the bottom rung of the professional game.

The irony is that those who deny this verifiable truth would be arguing the complete opposite had it been Celtic FC which was liquidated in 2012.

Harper Lee in that great American novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ has one of her main characters, Atticus Finch explaining to his daughter why some people can’t see the truth before their eyes. He says to her…

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.’

We all must use our conscience to cut through the distortion, lies and agendas which seem to make up so much of our public discourse these days. There will be people reading these words who will decide that I’m just another Celtic supporter having a go at Rangers by creating my own distorted narrative. All I ask is that they look at the verifiable facts of what happened to Rangers in the Murray years. Think for yourselves and check the sources and facts before coming to a logical conclusion. 

If you do you may well conclude that the target of your ire shouldn’t be people who point out the holes in the current counter-factual narrative being spun around why Rangers were liquidated, but those who brought Rangers FC to ruin in the first place.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

A labour of love

A labour of love

Celtic’s victory of SS Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night was one of those occasions which will live long in the memory. Not since the epic events of seven years earlier to the day when a truly brilliant Barcelona side was beaten at Celtic Park has a victory been celebrated so enthusiastically. Of course Lazio are no Barcelona and some of their defending will show you why but that being said, for an SPFL side to beat the fourth placed side in Serie A home and away is no mean feat. Of the 26,155 at the match a good 10,000 were Celtic supporters and they had a ball despite isolated incidents when local cowards used knives to injure three innocent people.

Some have played down Celtic’s achievement but consider Lazio’s performances since losing to Chris Jullien’s towering header at Celtic Park; Lazio have defeated Fiorentina (a) 2-1 Torino (h) 4-0 and most impressively AC Milan (a) 2-1 to record their first win in the San Siro in over 30 years. They sit 4th in Serie A in one of the Champions League positions and have in Ciro Immobile the current Italian national side centre forward. They are no mugs and for Celtic to beat them twice in a fortnight is quite an achievement. Italian Newspaper Corriera Della Serra reported on the night’s events with the following words…

‘N’tcham’s goal unleashed wild enthusiasm among the 9000 Scots who filled the south curve. The north curve was closed for racism and listening to the intensity of the cheering you’d have thought you were in Glasgow. The strong ideological opposition between the supporters of the two teams had moments of tension especially away from the stadium on the night before the game. In the city centre two Scots were stabbed and a German accompanying them. In Trastevere a group of Celtic fans had to barricade themselves in a pub. Police arrested eight: three Scots for resisting a public official and five from Lazio who were found with sticks and knives near the bar.’

Sad as it is that three supporters were injured, the Italian Police were clearly on the ball and prevented further incidents. This is to be praised as visiting supporters have on occasion found the Carabinieri to be just as dangerous as any local hooligans. Predictable excuses from Scottish based tabloids that Celtic supporters were targeted because of the banners in section 111 at the home leg of the tie seemed spurious given the reputation of football fans in Rome for violence. Numerous supporters from Spurs, Liverpool, CSK Moscow and Manchester United have all been stabbed or badly beaten in the Italian capital in recent years. A game between Roma and Manchester United back provided one of the worst examples not only of organised attacks by local thugs on visiting supporters but of the dreadful behaviour of the local Police towards the away fans. One UK reporter wrote about what he had witnessed that night…

‘Eighteen United fans were ambushed by ultras, ten of them were stabbed and another fifty fans had to be bandaged up and repaired after unforgivable scenes when the Police embarked on a military style attack. Their batons hit pretty much everything that moved. Some images show riot sticks being used the wrong way round, heavy handle first, in a way which seems premeditated to cause maximum damage. The Carabinieri that night were having their debrief in the same part of the bus park and we could see them embracing and high fiving. One guy, sweaty and breathless with his helmet tucked under his arm was swishing his baton through the air re-enacting his best shots. His colleagues were laughing and clapping-celebrating it seemed.’

A young female supporter at that game was videoing the police brutality when at least three policemen, faces covered, identification numbers removed from their uniforms punched her and snatch her camera, she is then hit with a baton for no other reason than filming police officers behaving brutally.

It’s perhaps correct given the prevailing culture of violence which hangs around Italian football to say that Celtic’s trip to Rome was relatively speaking trouble free. Perhaps the much reported ‘ideological differences’ between Celtic and Lazio fans meant the Police were well prepared and worked to a plan in order to prevent trouble. They themselves have been under scrutiny after events at the Roma v Manchester United match outlined above and thankfully behaved more professionally when Celtic fans were in town.

It’s a labour of love following Celtic around Europe and something I did more of in my younger days before the demands of work and life curtailed those opportunities. Those supporters who do travel abroad to back Celtic occasionally endure poor treatment in places they visit but  more often than not their infectious good humour and passion for their club makes them friends abroad rather than enemies. There are clubs who have real nasty elements following them, we all know who they are, but Celtic supporters are not generally in Europe looking for trouble although they have in the past responded to violence meted out to them. We saw this in Amsterdam a few years back in the notorious ‘Fenian lamppost’ incident when plain clothes police officers behaved despicably towards visiting fans. Celtic fans abroad may drink a lot and some may be a bit uncouth at times but aren’t generally looking for bother.

Some of the incidents I’ve seen or heard of about Celts on their travels have made me smile. The rush hour commuters on the Brussels underground treated to hundreds of Celtic fans singing ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ as they headed to Anderlecht. Or the disabled school kids on a cross channel ferry, who initially looked nervous as scores of football supporters entered the lounge. They were soon singing, laughing and sporting Celtic souvenirs as the fans interacted with them. Their teachers were given a good amount of money collected from among the supporters for the children. Then there was Seville. Was there ever a more joyous celebration of what Celtic is all about? The colour, the noise, the sheer good humour of 80,000 Celtic fans there for a fiesta. Their reaction to defeat that night was telling too as FC Porto supporters were applauded on the long walk back to town after the game. Compare that to events in Manchester in 2008.

For younger fans, following Celtic to some European city is a bit of an adventure. You might never go to Romania or Kazakhstan again but you can say you were there backing the hoops. Some funny stories from those travels include the Celtic fan in Germany who was making progress chatting up a young lady in a bar only to find that ‘she’ was in fact a guy. The online banter with Fenerbahce fans when two of their misguided supporters posted threatening pictures with faces covered and cruel looking knives in hand. Celtic fans responded with faces covered pics brandishing everything from a spoon, a packet of Turkish delights, a toothbrush and a hoover. The decent Fenerbahce fans joined in with images of them brandishing items such as hair straighteners, a fishing net and a food mixer. It was good to see two sets of rival supporters using humour to relate to each other. Needless to say Celtic supporters enjoyed their trip to Turkey and there were no problems.

The availability of cheap air travel has made reaching far flung European cities easier for fans than it was in the days when it took 36 hours to reach Madrid on a bus with no toilet. I hope supporters of the grand old team continue to follow their team all over Europe and make friends on their travels. There will be places where caution is required but overall they will find a warm welcome. Tommy Burns once said "When you pull on that jersey you're not just playing for a football club, you're playing for a people and a cause" Most Celtic supporters know that they too are representing Celtic when they travel abroad and keep that in mind. 

Thankfully the vast majority do and impress the locals with their passion for their club and their friendliness. That’s the Celtic way and long may it continue.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Green Thread

The Green Thread

There were some interesting online debates this week about the place of politics in football. This was of course stimulated by the incidents which took place when Lazio came calling in the Europa League. Their supporters marched through Glasgow engaging in fascist salutes to rather bemused workers on their way home. At the stadium they were met songs and banners which left them in no doubt what Celtic supporters thought of their particular brand of fascism and racism.

There is no doubt that Celtic’s unique history is one of the factors which makes a large element among their supporters among the most politically aware in football. The community which gave birth to Celtic was in the main, though not exclusively, Irish and Catholic in its make-up and in the early years of the club’s existence there was huge involvement in Irish politics by leading figures at Celtic. It’s not unusual for the first generations of migrant communities to be interested in events back ‘home’ but as time moved on and the Irish became more assimilated in Scottish society their political horizons widened. Of course the songs heard at Celtic games still echo the Irish strand of the club’s identity and probably always will.

Celtic’s identity raised and still raises the hackles of some in Scotland who find any manifestation of Irishness or Catholicism offensive. Few countries in Europe adopted the reformed faith as completely as Scotland did and Catholicism was all but banished from the land, hanging on only in a few Highland and island communities. The influx of tens of thousands of Irish fleeing the horrors of the great hunger caused alarm in some quarters. The vast majority of them would find themselves in the poorest parts of Scotland’s towns and cities struggling to get by but at least there was work for some and a chance to feed their families. Scotland’s dormant anti-Catholicism was revived in a vociferous minority by the sight of these new arrivals and the faith many brought with them.

One of the most visual symbols of that community was the football club they founded to help feed the poor and its meteoric rise to prominence was a source of irritation to many. Some early sporting newspapers yearned for a ‘good Scotch team’ to put the Irishmen in their place. Much of the discourse in the 19th and early 20th century was by the standards of today, racist in its overtones and stereotypes of the ‘feckless and drunken’ Irish abounded. They were less enlightened times although there is little excuse for much of the vitriol which was aimed at Celtic and the community which created and sustained it.

Celtic may have been a symbol of pride to the impoverished and often despised Irish community but it was also an important vehicle in the assimilation of the Irish-Scots. Through education, sport, commerce and old fashioned hard work the Irish in Scotland have rightly taken their place in every strata of Scottish society. The national tartan now has a discernible green thread.

One event which demonstrated the road Scotland’s Catholic community had travelled was the visit of Pope John Paul to Glasgow in the summer of 1982. Scotland’s 800,000 Catholics come from a variety of places and if the Irish formed the bulk then the native Scots, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Italians and many others were proud parts of that community too. Today all of them would describe themselves as Scots, proud of their heritage but also proud of their native land too.

The spring of 1982 was in some ways a tense time. The announcement of Pope John Paul’s visit brought out the best in some and the worst in others. For the extreme Protestants like Pastor Jack Glass it was a chance to stir up old animosities but in truth most Scots of all faiths and none found his ranting to be a little embarrassing and he looked increasingly like a man born in the wrong century. There were protests of course and we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of those opposed to the Papal visit chaining themselves to trees in Bellahouston Park which were to be temporarily removed to allow the expected 300,000 crowd a clear view of events when the Pope arrived. Civic Scotland though was determined that the country wouldn’t be shown up as a backward and bigoted place on the world’s tv screens and the Police dealt robustly with any who went too far. The war between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands threatened to scupper the trip but John Paul arranged to visit Argentina too and all was set for what was to be a remarkable day.

I recall as a skinny lad walking along Paisley Road West towards the park in a great tide of humanity. The sun was shining and there was a feeling of real history being made. Such a visit would not have been possible even just 20 or 30 years previously and for many people it was like a dream come true. Older people in particular were astonished that they were actually going to see the Pope in Glasgow and some were moved to tears. As we walked past certain bars on the journey to Bellahouston there were some less than happy faces hanging around the doorways. One man spat at some nuns and was pounced upon by plain clothes Police officers. Another shouted ‘fuck yer Pope’ and was greeted with smiles and pitying looks. Those incidents were rare though and most people wore smiles on that warm June day.

Bellahouston Park was laid out beautifully and the vaulted blue skies added to what was an amazing scene. Perhaps the largest gathering of people ever seen in Scotland filled the park. When the Pope began to speak he recognised the journey Scotland’s Catholic community had been on and said….

‘We are gathered here on this Scottish hillside to celebrate Mass. Are we not like those first disciples and followers who sat at the feet of Jesus on the hillside near Capernaum? What did Jesus teach them? What does our divine Master wish to teach us, each and every one of us, today?  Dear beloved Catholics of Scotland, the prayers of your forefathers did not go unanswered! Their firm hope in divine providence was not disillusioned! A century and a half ago the tide of repression turned. The small Catholic community gradually gained new vitality. The advent of numerous Catholic emigrants from nearby Ireland, accompanied by zealous Irish priests, enlarged and enriched it spiritually. What was a dream a century ago has become the reality of today. A complete transformation of Catholic life has come about in Scotland, with the Catholics of Scotland assuming their legitimate role in every sector of public life and some of them invested with the most important and prestigious offices of this land.’

The Pope’s sermon was a call for Christian values to be present in the daily lives of believers and he spoke to the wider Scottish community with the following words…

‘Before concluding, I wish to address for a few moments that larger community of believers in Christ, who share with my Catholic brothers and sisters the privilege of being Scots, sons and daughters alike of this ancient nation. I know of the veneration in which you hold the Sacred Scriptures, accepting them for what they are, the word of God, and not of man. I have reserved until now and should like to read to you the remaining words from that passage of Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “There is one body, one Spirit, just as you were all called. There is one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all”

John Paul’s assertion that all Christians have far more in common than dividing them was a telling one and it was noted at the time that the Moderator of the Church of Scotland met him under the statue of John Knox in Edinburgh and addressed his as ‘Our brother in Christ.’ The strident voices of anti-Catholicism were on the wane and despite being given amplification beyond their importance on modern social media continue to wane.

Just as Celtic supporters are proud of the Irish and Catholic roots of the club, and indeed of many of their families, there can be and should never be any exclusivity around Celtic. This is a club for all and it should remain so. Some of the greatest players and greatest supporters of Celtic I’ve had the privilege to watch or meet have been neither of Irish or Catholic extraction. Long may that continue. I would echo the words of Bob Kelly who was asked by a supporter at an AGM long ago if the club should limit the number of non-Catholic players in the side. He replied….

‘It has been the founding Fathers’ doctrine and Club policy that Celtic fields the best possible team regardless of denomination. Non-Catholic’s had throughout the club’s history played their hearts out for Celtic and the policy of the founding Fathers’ would continue! With the new school of youngsters there is no doubt that Catholic youth will show up well and have every opportunity to show its worth but the principle (of a mixed team) will remain the same as always.’

Kelly’s words were greeted by a storm of applause from those in attendance. That is the Celtic spirit; that is the Celtic way. All you need to follow this club is a love of the green. Others have gone down the exclusivist route in the past and its poison lingers yet. To paraphrase John Paul’s sermon of 1982…

There is one club, one support, one people marching forward with hope in their hearts. Amen to that.

Saturday, 26 October 2019

Suits and Soldiers

Suits and Soldiers

Celtic’s tumultuous late win over Lazio on Thursday night demonstrated why there are few places in Europe which can match Celtic Park on those European occasions. The noise which pours from the stands onto the pitch at times is incredible and there is no doubt that it lifts the players to greater exertions. Make no mistake about it this was a victory gained against a streetwise and very professional side who know well how to break up the play and interrupt Celtic’s rhythm. They are also defensively strong and tactically astute so Celtic’s win was earned the hard way. There were times in the middle of the game when Celtic sagged a little but the team never stopped fighting, pressing and harrying the Italians and in the end got their rewards.

The Italian sporting press was generally complimentary to Celtic and their supporters with leading newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport saying…

‘Before the starting whistle there was a unique show, a display of lights to illuminate the stadium. White and green are the only colours and a shiver runs along your back when the whole stadium raises the scarves and sings ‘You'll never walk alone.’  It was an explosion of emotions that many Lazio people immortalized with smartphones. Then the choreography of the Green Brigade paints area 111, where the heart of the green-and-white fans resides. Then the deafening and frantic scream of Paradise is heard. Not surprisingly one of the three hottest stadiums in Britain.’

The Italian press were quick to pick up on the political nature of the day’s events and most were critical of the ‘Roman salute’ Lazio fans had engaged in as they marched through Glasgow to the stadium. One report stated…

We again saw Roman greetings in Glasgow, before the Europa League match against Celtic. The ultras of Lazio, on the road, were immortalized by a user - who shared the video on Twitter - while they were singing the chorus "Avanti ragazzi di Buda"(an anti-communist song about the Hungarian uprising of 1956) in the city centre. All seasoned with Roman greetings much to the perplexity of passers-by.  What has happened is not surprising, given that the Lazio region has always had the reputation of being linked to extremism on the right.’

The reaction of some Celtic supporters came in for comment too with the ‘Lazio F**k off’ banner and one depicting Mussolini hanging by his feet after his execution by partisans in 1945 particularly prominent. One Italian newspaper said that the Celtic fans obviously knew who was coming to town and were prepared in advance. It was too good an opportunity to miss in terms of demonstrating the anti-fascist and anti-racist sentiment at the heart of the Celtic ultra-culture.

The rise of the ultra -groups among most of the big clubs in Europe combined with the ease of modern communication has meant that fans are much more aware of the political leanings of elements of each club and have developed loose alliances as well as arbitrary lists of those clubs whose supporters think very differently about politics. Thus Celtic’s ultras having fraternal links with the likes of St Pauli, Livorno or Feyenoord but are unlikely to have much time for the likes of Lazio, Hamburg or Ajax. Of course when viewed through a political spectrum such black and white reductionism ignores the fact that all clubs have a wide view of political opinion among their support base. Lazio do have a problem with racism and fascist attitudes among some of their fans but to say all of them are fascists is not borne out by facts. Similarly there are Celtic fans who don’t always agree with the messages on banners they see at Celtic Park. To the unthinking though the messages they see and hear from ultra-groups defines their opinion of a club and all of its fans and that can have consequences.

In two weeks upwards of 10,000 Celtic fans will descend on Rome for the return match with Lazio. It will of course give many a chance to visit a fascinating city and I’m sure places like the Vatican, Colosseum and Forum will see their share of hooped shirts. There will also be a huge police operation to ensure those visiting the city remain safe. Violence is not something Celtic fans go looking for at football, especially their trips around Europe but it is a sad fact of life in Italian football. Tobias Jones, a British author who specialises in writing about the dark world of Italian ultras wrote….

‘As with many Italians, the ultras are fixated on appearance and pageantry; for major games they spend tens of thousands of euros on stadium mosaics, taunts, flags and flares. In that sense the ultra-world seems folkloric; the ultra-world view in Italy is a faux-medieval defence of their ‘campanilisimo (attachment to the local bell tower). In fact many ultras say they care nothing for football, it’s about territorial defence, the colours, the fights and the mentality.’

Italy was only unified in 1871 and remains a country of fierce regional rivalries. This finds expression in football rivalries as well as politics and the many Italian ultra-groups are overtly political. They are also organised on scale as yet unseen in the UK. Some have their own clothing ranges while a few have their own radio stations. Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia committee concluded that some ultra-groups use ‘mafia methods’ and are involved in petty and serious crime. The head of Lazio’s ‘Irriducibili’ group was recently convicted of dealing hundreds of kilos of cocaine.

Ticket touting is also an issue as some clubs actually give Ultra-groups tickets to keep them ‘sweet’ as they can do without problems with UEFA when they misbehave. One Juventus capo-ultra was said to be making £25,000 a game on tickets given to his group by the club. The ultras make money and the club is untroubled by hooliganism. It’s an arrangement between ‘suits and soldiers’ which seems to suit them all.

The goading and taunting which went on between some Celtic and Lazio supporters at the game last week was a minor distraction to the majority of fans who were there to watch the football. Hopefully there are no problems in Rome when Celtic visit in a fortnight but it is wise for supporters travelling there to be careful and be aware of their surroundings. Spurs fans were attacked there 2012 for being ‘Jewish’ and abhorrent Anne Frank stickers were used to insult rival teams only a year ago. Most Lazio fans will be there for the football but a minority will have seen the display of banners at Celtic Park and will have taken note. This is where fan groups need to be careful with displays as they can cause problems for others who had nothing to do with them.

I hope the match in Rome is remembered for the football, the passion and colour of the Celtic support and nothing else. Well, maybe a good result for the Hoops too.

Friday, 18 October 2019

Have you no honour?

Have you no honour?

There is a scene in the epic historical drama ‘Troy’ when old King Priam of Troy watches in horror as the Greek warriors swarm into his holiest temple and begin smashing the statues and killing anyone who crosses their path. He shouts at them over and over, ‘have you no honour?’ In their bloodlust and frenzy they don’t hear him and continue the slaughter.

This week social media echoed to the recriminations of another revelation about a coach who abused young footballers. For years Celtic supporters have put up with fans of various clubs chanting about paedophilia in a most despicable manner.  A sizable group among the Rangers support was perhaps loudest in this due to their sheer numbers but they were not alone. It was and remains contemptable to point score over the abuse of young footballers. Young lives were blighted by these wicked men and it is totally abhorrent to use it as a stick to beat a rival club.

The revelations about what occurred at Ibrox in the 1990s sadly came as no surprise but instead of a depressing shake of the head and kind words for the victims, a minority sought a cheap and tawdry revenge. I can well understand the anger that the constant ‘weaponising’ of child abuse provokes in some Celtic supporters but to respond in kind simply lowers yourself to the gutter inhabited by those with no moral compass. It saddens me to see Celtic supporters respond in kind to the moronic jibes they themselves have endured for years.

How easy it is to become that which we claim to despise…

Any cursory search of the internet will soon teach us that these predators exist in all walks of life, all lands, all social classes, all faiths and none. They seek out the vulnerable and powerless, the weak and lost and exploit them for their own twisted purposes. All sympathy must go to the victims and the full force of the law must come crashing down on the perpetrators’ heads. Decent people would never contemplate using these crimes as a basis for point scoring at a football match or in conversations online. These crimes are a problem for our society and indeed for all mankind. No group or sect is free from abusers and it is everyone’s job to be vigilant and help protect the vulnerable.

The internet can be an ugly place at times and the anonymity it affords brings out the worse in some. Footballing rivalries often lead to harsh words online but the Celtic – Rangers rivalry goes way beyond most in that it is a complicated layer of football, politics, identity and history. The depth of naked hatred a minority feel for these two clubs means that nothing is off limits when it comes to goading the opposition. Thus we see a complete lack of balance and conformation bias on an industrial scale when any opportunity presents itself. This occurs when one drunken moron singing about Lee Rigby or some fool cursing the pope is passed off as typical of the whole group when nothing could be further from the truth. Or when a few folk for whatever reason don’t respect a minute’s silence and the thousands who did are ignored or tarred with the same brush. Conformation bias dictates that we seek evidence which supports our pre conceived bias and ignore any evidence which doesn’t. Thus as German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed…

"An adopted hypothesis gives us lynx-eyes for everything that confirms it and makes us blind to everything that contradicts it."

We human beings stereotype whole groups with our bias, subconscious or not. On social media platforms the ‘filter bubble’ magnifies this effect further as the ‘algorithmic editing’ cuts our diverse opinions and leaves us all in an echo chamber of like-minded voices. It’s important that we remain brave enough to call out in our friends that which we so readily condemn in our adversaries. The bitterness we see at times from a vociferous minority in Scottish football poisons the well for us all. It isn’t about the team you follow or the politics you hold to; it’s about decent people saying ‘that’s enough’ when the less inhibited go too far. This deplorable online ‘tit for tat’ debate on child abuse very often goes too far and the victims are reduced to pawns in a slanging match.

The National Association For People Abused In Childhood (NAPAC) suggests that one in 5 people will have experienced some sort of abuse in childhood. This abuse may have been physical, psychological, emotional or sexual. For some it is a combination of them all. Those who make a public display about such issues without thinking for a moment about the victims are reprehensible. The chances are that those who chant about such things at football will have survivors of abuse standing near them. Just as those who use abuse to attack others online will never know the hurt they cause victims who read their comments.

I love football; it’s a great game when played well. It also brings out genuine passions and rivalries which add to the spectacle. But there are some who lose their sense of decency when it comes to interacting with rivals. It’s not clever, it’s not funny and it’s not decent to chant about child abuse at a football match nor is it ever acceptable to use it to attack a whole community when those to blame are the perpetrators of these crimes and no one else. There is no guilt by association although lessons must be learned about how those who commit such crimes can be prevented from gaining access to our youngsters.

It was disheartening to see the slanging match on social media this week but there were those brave enough to say, ‘that’s enough- this isn’t an issue which football supporters should be using in this manner.’ There will always be a minority who don’t give a damn though and they are probably beyond redemption. Old King Priam would be wasting his breath asking them ‘have you no honour?’

 For the decent majority though, there is a responsibility to the victims of abuse to see that their suffering isn’t compounded by tolerating online slanging matches. This is about real people suffering. We should be much better than this.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Boys Keep Swinging

Boys Keep Swinging

John Doolin looked around the walls of the suite at Celtic Park where he was meeting a few friends for lunch before the league deciding game with Rangers; Brendan Rodgers’ side had swept all before them again and looked on course for a second straight treble. The walls were adorned with images of Celtic greats from the past and as life moved on and he got older he smiled to think just how many of those Celtic players he had seen play. ‘Getting old Johnny boy,’ he said to himself as he pushed open the door and entered the already busy Kerrydale Suite. He could hear the buzz of supporters ready for a game which could see Celtic clinch the title against their biggest rivals. Above the laughter and noise he could hear David Bowie’s distinctive voice coming from invisible speakers singing, ‘Boys keep swinging.’ He sure hoped these Bhoys would be swinging today.

His lifelong friend Paddy Murray waved him over to a table which was already boisterous and happy. Paddy’s boyhood red hair was now mostly grey and a fading scar on his left cheek reminded Johnny of a less happy time in their youth. ‘Aw right Johnny boy? Come and have a seat.’ A bottle of beer was pressed into his hand and he sat. ‘We’re just been asking what was the best league winning day you’ve attended? Alfie says Love Street in 86. Geezer goes for the centenary year against Dundee and big Tony reckons it was last year’s invincible season. What do you think?’ John smiled, ‘Ah that’s an easy wan Paddy. You’ll remember it well mate because you were with me,’ As he began to speak, his mind drifted back almost forty years to a very different Glasgow and a very different Celtic Park…

Glasgow 1979
Ma have ye seen my scarf?’ sixteen year old Johnny Doolin called into the kitchen. ‘I don’t think ye should wear a scarf tonight John. You know what that lot are like.’ Johnny sighed, ‘I’ll keep it under my coat till I get tae the game, noo where is it?’ His mother entered the living room of their second floor flat and pointed towards a cupboard with a sigh, ‘It’s in there, son but promise me you’ll be careful.’ He opened the cupboard and found she’d secreted his Celtic scarf in a plastic bag. ‘I’ll keep it in the bag till I get tae Celtic Park.’ Johnny said turning to face her. ‘I’ll be careful Ma, don’t worry.’  She smiled at him, ’I know ye will. Big finale the night, I hope yeez win, son.’  He hugged his mother rather unexpectedly and she smiled, ‘Whit’s that for?’ ‘I don’t need a reason tae hug my maw dae ah?’ he said before heading for the door, ‘I’ll be back straight after the game. I’m heading up tae meet Paddy noo.’

As he skipped down the dank stairs of the east end tenement block he zipped up his jacket, placing the bag containing his Celtic scarf inside it. He stepped out into a blustery but bright May evening and headed along the London Road towards his friend Paddy’s house. They’d been good mates since their day’s at St Mary’s primary school and were both Celtic mad. For Johnny it was inherited from his old man who took him to his first game when he was four years old not that he recalled much about it. He did recall though being perched on his da’s shoulders as they left games and made their way along Janefield Street through the noisy crowd. It was exciting for a wee boy and he’d caught the Celtic bug. The Macaroon bars helped as did the buttery rolls on cheese his old man bought from a guy who sold them outside the stadium from a huge cardboard box.  In the end though he’d just stare at the field watching those green and white hooped players giving their all as the crowd roared them on.

Johnny knew the east end well and knew where to avoid when Celtic hosted Rangers. There were bars, corners and even individual closes it was best to stay away from on such days. The mixture of alcohol and the strong feelings this match brought out in some often led to trouble. He made a habit of looking a good hundred yards ahead as he made his way to Paddy’s house which situated near the Barras Market. He could often spot problems before they occurred and would cross the road, turn a corner or even just do a U-turn if necessary. He could see the blue clad fans outside certain pubs but as he neared the Paddy’s house green became the dominant colour. He bounded up the stairs to Paddy’s first floor flat. The close smelled of urine and the lights were out again, it all gave the impression of dankness. He knocked on the door and Paddy’s long suffering mother smiled at him, ‘Hi John son, Paddy’s in his room. Will you tell him to turn that bloody music down when you go in?’

As Johnny approached the room door he could hear the dulcet tones of Debbie Harry singing, ‘Once I had a love and it was gas, soon turned out to have a heart of glass.’ He liked his music did Paddy. As he opened the door John saw Paddy in his hooped Celtic shirt having a wee dance to himself as he sang along. ‘Alright Paddy, still fantasising about Debbie Harry?’ Paddy turned a little embarrassed at being seen cavorting around his room. ‘Johnny Boy, who disnae want a wee ten minutes with the bold Debbie? Ye could hing a wet Crombie oan it when I think about her.’ Johnny laughed, ‘It’s always been the blonde yin fae Abba for me.’ The two friends laughed before Paddy said, ‘Must win tonight Johnny, no wanting that mob winning another treble.’ Before Johnny could answer the next single on the stack Paddy had set dropped onto the turntable of his record player. The unmistakable sound of David Bowie began to fill the room… ‘Heaven loves ya, the clouds part for ya, nothing stands in your way when you’re a boy….’ Johnny hoped nothing stood in the way of his Bhoys tonight. This really was a winner takes all game.

The two friends stood among the seething mass of Celtic fans gathered in the Jungle as the game began. This was it, the team would need to give their all and so would the fans. There was a ceaseless cacophony of noise in the old stadium that night as they roared and sang themselves hoarse. Rangers scored first but that just seemed to drive the Celtic players on. Under the TV gantry in the Jungle the two friends joined the huge Celtic support in roaring out their defiance. It was as if this mass of humanity became one and refused to accept defeat. The Rangers goal was under siege but somehow held out till half time.

The second half was much the same but things took a grim turn when Johnny Doyle was sent off for kicking Alex McDonald. Amazingly Celtic’s ten men still powered forward, roared on by three quarters of the stadium. When Celtic equalised the place erupted and there were bodies falling, strangers hugging and an incredible level of noise cascading onto the pitch. Johnny hugged Paddy for all he was worth as they literally jumped for joy. Less than ten minutes later Celtic took the lead and again Celtic Park erupted but no sooner had the celebrating fans settled when Rangers equalised; a shot from Russell somehow found its way through a forest of legs before nestling in the corner of the net. There were fewer than fifteen minutes left for Celtic to save the match and win the title.

The Celtic players sensed it was now or never and the 10 men threw themselves at the Rangers defence like men possessed. Waves of attack batted at the door but through luck and some desperate defending Rangers held on. Then with just five minutes left, George McCluskey weaved his way into the box and smashed a shot across the despairing keeper. It hit a defender and spun into the net. Celtic Park went wild! As the game entered its dying moments and fans just wanted to hear the final whistle. Murdo McLeod took possession of the ball on the right side of the Rangers box, ‘Put it in the crowd, Murdo!’ someone shouted but the young midfielder hammered an unstoppable shot high into the net! It was over Celtic had done it. The title was theirs and Johnny and Paddy celebrated like it was the greatest day of their lives.

The younger folk at the table who weren’t around in 1979 listened to Johnny relay this story with a look of awe. ‘What a game that must have been!’ one of them said. ‘Oh it was,’ smiled Paddy ‘but we’ve got a title to win today so another display like that will do just fine.’  As they stood to head for their seats in the huge north stand, Paddy smiled at his old friend, ‘We’ve had some times following the Celts eh?’ Johnny nodded, ‘Better that a date wi Debbie Harry?’ Paddy laughed, ‘It’s close but Aye, the Celts just win it.’

Saturday, 5 October 2019

The Ghosts of Cable Street

The Ghosts of Cable Street

Max Levitas was a child of Jewish refugees who had fled from the dreadful anti-Semitic pogroms in imperial Russia to begin a new life in Ireland. His father had worked with Jim Larkin in Dublin and fought for the rights of workers there although his activities saw him blacklisted and made finding work difficult. Max was born in Dublin in 1915 and his parents had to lie with him and his sibling on the floor of their tenement as the bullets flew during the 1916 rising. He moved to Glasgow when he was 15 due to his father’s difficulty in earning a living in Ireland. Glasgow had a major Jewish population in those times mainly in and around the Gorbals area. It was in Glasgow that Max developed further his own lifelong commitment to fighting for the rights of the ordinary working class people he saw struggling around him in the depression hit city.

His family moved to London in the early 1930s and settled in among the east end’s large Jewish population. Living cheek by Jowell with tens of thousands of Jews in the packed terrace houses of the east end was a large Irish Catholic population who had come to the city to work in the docks which were at that time the busiest in the world. Max recalled being told about the dockers' strike of 1912 when the employers sought to starve the workers into submission. Jewish families fed the children of striking Irish workers as it was plain that many were going hungry. Despite occasional friction between the communities this act of kindness wasn’t forgotten.

The rise of fascism in Italy, Spain and Germany in the 1930s found its parallel in the British Union of Fascists, a Political movement led by Oswald Mosely. Mosely had visited Italy, met Mussolini and saw fascism as the way forward for Britain. By the mid-1930s the British Union of Fascists claimed 50,000 members and adopted some of the hallmarks of European fascism. Anti- Semitism was never far from the surface and when Moseley announced that he would lead a march of thousands of Black-shirted Fascists through the east end of London in October 1936 there was genuine alarm in the Jewish community. They had watched Hitler and his followers terrorise the Jews of Germany and most Jews in the east end came from families who fled persecution in Russia and elsewhere. There was a determination that the black shirts wouldn’t be given free rein to terrorise the east end’s Jewish community.

Max Levitas, who had been arrested a year earlier for painting ‘No to Fascism’ in large letters on three sides of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, saw that a storm was coming. He was determined that there would be no pogrom in London’s east end and joined community leaders in discussing what they should do. When it became clear that Moseley and his Fascists would be funnelled down Cable Street, enabled by a huge Police operation, the local community decided to act. The Jews of the east end were joined by thousands of Irish workers who remembered the Jewish community’s support during the 1912 strike and together they set up barricades to stop the black-shirts. Max Levitas recalled what happened next…

‘Mosely and his fascists wanted to take over the east end, to run out the Jews and communists. We had to stop them. It was the people, united, and fighting together. Suddenly a barricade was erected there and they put an old lorry in the middle of the road and old mattresses. The people up the top of the flats, mainly Irish Catholic women, were throwing rubbish on to the police. We were all side by side. I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic Dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live, how working-class people could get together to oppose the evil of racism.

As the Police attempted to clear the barricades they were resisted by thousands of ordinary people determined to keep the fascists out of their impoverished but proud streets. Children threw marbles under the police horses and some riders fell as their horses slipped and stumbled. Max and his brother Morri (Maurice) were involved for hours in the battles with the Police who were determined to clear the road and get Mosely and his Black-shirts through. Morri would later join the Connolly Column of the international brigades which went to Spain to fight Franco and his fascists.

As the battle of Cable Street was fought out, Mosely was giving fascist salutes from his Rolls Royce car to his followers who were positive that the Police would clear the road and let them march but the people of the east end were equally determined that it would not enter their streets. The barricades, flying bricks and bottles and above all the sheer determination of the people meant that Police officer in charge had to return to Mosely and tell him that there was no possibility of the march going down Cable Street; he would have to turn back. It was seen by the left in Britain as a great victory of ordinary working people over the powerful and insidious forces of fascism.

Bernard Kops was a ten year old Jewish boy in the east end of London then and he recalls that his parents had to review their opinions after the events at Cable Street. He said in a BBC documentary…

“My mother said there were only two types of people in the world. Jews and Jew-haters. Of course, when Cable Street came along, the Irish labourers and Dockers came out and it was them that really made sure Mosley didn’t get through. My mother and father really had to change their minds after that and accept that others did come to help us out.”

Mosely and his movement were far from finished and some UK newspapers supported him openly. He went to Berlin after the battle of Cable Street to marry society girl Dianna Mitford and his old friend Joseph Goebbels hosted the wedding. Guest of honour was a certain Adolf Hitler. The British Union of Fascists was closely allied to the Nazis and when the true nature of fascism became apparent it spelled the end of its seemingly inexorable rise. There was a time when it looked as if Fascism was the coming force in British politics but the horrors of the war demonstrated its true face.

Like many working class lads from Glasgow, my formative years introduced me to left wing politics in a way that seemed entirely natural. We didn’t have much and people with any intelligence would look at the conditions we lived in and asked why it was so. The only people living in the poorer parts of Glasgow who voted Conservative in those times were those of an Orange persuasion. I recall chatting to one such chap at a new year’s party and he told me it was all to do with the Tories being stronger on Northern Ireland than Labour which struck me as odd. To ignore the social issues he saw every day and view everything through the lens of his orangeism blinded him to the reality of the times.

Trips on the supporters’ bus to Celtic park and indeed all over Scotland and Europe also saw many interesting debates on politics. Of course the ongoing conflict in Ireland at the time was a regular topic of discussion and there was a surprisingly lively debate about the nature and place or armed struggle and whether it made reunification more likely or drove a wedge between the communities. There was and remains a smug assumption that football supporters lack the faculty for nuanced debate about complex political issues but trust me that wasn’t the case. I’ve heard men quote James Connolly or Jim Larkin to support their arguments and learned that the poison of sectarianism is not only divisive but detrimental to the progress of all working people.

The music scene then also saw bands with a distinct political message. In those days I saw The Tom Robinson Band, The Men They Couldn’t Hang and a variety of Irish and Scottish folk groups who often sang of working class life and the events which shaped it. Politics then was still largely influenced by social class and the political parties reflected this. Labour was still a party of the left then until the Blair years changed that irrevocably.

Life has changed hugely since those times but Brexit and populism has seen the rise of fascism and racism again across Europe and America. It may not have reached the levels Max Levitas saw in the 1930s but its face is just as ugly. It calls itself the ‘Alt-Right’ or other such pseudonyms but it remains the same in ideology. It is to be hoped that the ordinary people aren’t seduced by its message and resist it as Max did all those years ago.

Max died in 2018 at the age of 103 and never stopped working to improve the lot of ordinary people. To his dying day he warned working class people not to be divided by racism sectarianism or any form of intolerance. That message still resonates today.

We may not be called to the barricades as people were at the battle of Cable Street but we should still resist and challenge intolerance whenever we see it.