Black Lions

A strange sort of positive to read that GB News presenter Guto Harri was cancelled for taking the knee after England’s defeat in the European Final vs Italy. The team’s three black lions, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed their penalties in the final shoot-out. All three are being subjected to ongoing racial abuse.

Non-white children are being abused at school, lumped in with the three black lions in a outbreak of a sub-dermal malaise that has always lurked in England—it’s there too in France and Germany, America and Canada and Australia but I’ll stick with what I know.

It’s there of course in the coke-eyed football yobs. It is passed to their St George Cross face-painted children. It is there, more quietly and rarefied, approaching its pure form, behind the dense hedgerows of upmarket rural England. Upper Hartfield, Cirencester, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire. It is there in Brexit.

Perhaps here and there—Luton or Bradford, say—there is a sad tale of Ye Olde England dribbling away, old folks driven from their own neighbourhoods by tides of brown and black folk, intent on usurping the Kingdom by breeding.

The numbers tell a different tale of course. According to the 2011 Census, more than 80% of the UK is white British. London is different. There white people make up less than 50% of the population. At the same time, white British people were most likely to live in the South East. Black and Asian people are most likely to live in London.

I was born in East London, and have lived there, South, West and North London and more recently in East Sussex, not to mention Edinburgh in Scotland, and more recently still, in the Peruvian Amazonia and Andes. Being often somewhat on the outside, I am somewhat expert at looking in.

Moving out of the diversity and tolerance nurtured by the metropolis, one finds its statistical force tails off rapidly, and one finds oneself in a country that is, as the numbers say, more than 80% White British. Most of the time it’s not a problem. Indeed it is wonderful that such a country should field three black lions—four including striker Raheem Stirling. It is…what is it—a shame? Ironic? In the fateful final shoot-out, the two white players—Harry Kane and Harry Maguire—both Harry, like our ginger haired champion of diversity—put the ball in the net, while the three black lions did not.

Marcus Rashford was the first. He stuttered, feinted, took a strange, crooked approach and ultimately only fooled himself. Perhaps it was a sort of ill-placed showmanship—like when flamboyant Colombian goalkeeper Rene Nguita was caught out by Cameroon legend Roger Milla in the round of 16, Italia 90, (arguably the greatest World Cup). We could also mention Muhammad Ali, Chris Eubank, Naseem Hameed, Ronaldinho of Brazil. Black and brown showmen who brought a certain something else to the game. As opposed to, say, the white man corporate efficiency of Germany, which destroyed samba-dancing Brazil 7–1 in 2014. Worth mentioning in counterpoint to fire-engine-driving Eubank, is of course Nigel Benn, who is black. His British Army stoicism was much touted as the antidote to Eubank’s euphoria in the ring.

Rashford shot to broader fame, and an MBE, when he launched his End Child Food Poverty campaign in September 2020. This is how I first heard of him—my involvement in football has been minimal since Italia 90. Rashford’s television appearances impressed viewers as much as his football, and his campaign was widely applauded, including for showing up the—mostly white—British Government as hypocritical, nepotistic and selfish. It is a shame that his trajectory crashed at Wembley.

Or did it?

The furore over, not so much the missed penalty, but the disgusting torrent of racist abuse that ensued, is surely revelatory, if not cathartic. Rashford, in his own words, a 23 year old black from Withington, Manchester, continues to be a model citizen, a model man, in his honesty and vulnerability. At 23 too. With such models, there is great hope for the UK.

Still though, there lurks this sub-dermal malaise. Paul Mason has written extensively on the rise of the far right in Britain. It is not something that will go away by itself. It must be dragged into the light and either healed or cauterised.

The issue has become acute in the football world over England players taking the knee, the gesture of solidarity with racial and social justice that emerged in the cold light of the George Floyd murder, much of which has been subsumed under the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Donald Trump, probably most infamously, smeared #BLM as a covert communist plot, along with #LGBTQ and Jeremy Corbyn. The idea (not that Trump originated it of course) was quickly taken up by the far right on both sides of the Atlantic. The absurdity of the white response to taking the knee is the work of far right agitators like Steve Bannon, and sock puppets like Piers Morgan.

There is a generation gap. The England Europe squad had an average age of 24. As this excellent DW article argues, the sizeable minority of older English fans—gammon in a word—are, after Brexit, “indulging in yet another act of Great British self-harm.”

We could talk about the fact that the UK is an island, the world wars, the various invasions over the centuries. We could trace links back to Dickensian poverty and ongoing class apartheid. We could talk about the weather. The damp, pinched ambience of the United Kingdom does not lend itself to great generosity of spirit. Probably not flamboyance either.

We could say that the limited land mass makes for a certain instinctive protectionism. We could read a UKIP or EDL article and wonder if indeed our schools and hospitals can—or should—cope with the waves of people washing against their doors. We could drive round Luton with Tommy Robinson, and wail about all the mosques. We could look to films like This is England, where working class moronhood is stoked and brainwashed by members of the elite like Nick Griffin.

How is it possible to be educated and racist? One observes Chief White Mischief-Maker Boris Johnson, or arch Grey Man Jacob Rees-Mogg and realises that this peculiar form of ignorance goes back a long way. As Gary Lineker tweeted, “If you boo England players for taking the knee, you’re part of the reason why players are taking the knee."

England (and Scotland and Wales ) are moving steadily forwards, fielding black and brown footballers and actors, awarding Great British Bakeoffs to Muslim women and so on. There is a genuinely Great Britain being born. One that can continue to light the way for other countries, be a model of inclusion, understanding and fairness.

A great blow was dealt this Britain by Brexit. Whether or not departure from the EU turns out to be economically prescient, the Leave campaign united racists and isolationists, aping Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again and affording platforms for the likes of Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins and the appalling Rees-Mogg. The appalling behaviour of English fans towards their German counterparts would seem to fly in the face of Robinson’s UK Pegida dreams.

Against these losers, the conduct of greater figures like Linker, and current England manager Gareth Southgate in their support for taking the knee and therefore Black Lives Matter is a relief. It is 2021, not 1921 FFS.

Much as there is uncertainty, fear and hatred in the world, there is far more respect, compassion, dignity and an instinctive understanding that, despite cultural, religious and political divides, we are all in it together.

The UK has a wonderful track record of diversity—it practically invented it. Those hurling racist abuse at Rashford and colleagues are traitors. They betray not only Great Britain but the whole human race.

Black British footballers show Great British integrity and strength of character. In taking the knee they stand tall as leaders—towering above those in Whitehall. Younger fans will perceive all this. It is a matter of time before those little white boys with painted faces turn and question their booing parents. And from there, onwards and inwards to the high-hedged bastions of elite racism.

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Nizami Thirteen

Nizami Thirteen

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Green light from the other side. Perspectives on convergence, divergence and emergence.