Of Football, Potholes and Britishness

Girish Shahane
Anything That Moves
Opinions - IN

I read the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn Rovers' defence. Other journalists are bound to pinch and twist John Lennon's words, as I have done, in describing Blackburn's 1-7 defeat to Manchester United. There will probably be a few chicken jokes thrown in as well. The 27 November encounter was, after all, only the second game after the team's takeover by Venky's, an India-based producer of broilers, hatchlings and powdered eggs. Venky's obviously found it easier to buy into the EPL than the IPL. The firm's surprising acquisition underlines an issue that's been discussed with increasing urgency in recent years: What is English about the English Premier League?

A similar question could be asked about the town of Blackburn. One of the earliest cities to experience the benefits of the industrial revolution, it flourished as a textile centre operating within a classical imperialist paradigm: importing raw materials from India and exporting finished goods to that same country. Blackburn Rovers Football Club was established near the height of the textile boom, and was among the original members of the Football League. An interruption of trade caused by the First World War gave a fillip to indigenous Indian textile mills and hurt Blackburn's economy. Post-war tariffs imposed on imports to India exacerbated the damage, and the town entered a decades-long slide. Its infrastructure crumbled and population waned. One day in the mid-1960s, John Lennon read in a newspaper about the many potholes in Blackburn's roads, and wrote that fact into music history. In the 1970s, an influx of Asians began altering the Lancashire city's demography. Today about one in four residents is of Indian or Pakistani origin; also, one in four is Muslim. However, you wouldn't guess it if you watched Blackburn Rovers play at their home ground Ewood Park. Whether the new owners will succeed where diversity programmes have failed, and attract more Asian fans to the club, remains to be seen.

In recent years, there's been a growing feeling in Britain, as in other west European nations, that the immigrant population has grown too large in places like Blackburn. Englishness, or Britishness, is seen as being under threat. When pressed on what these terms mean, most English people use defining terms like 'fair play' and 'decency', implying, perhaps without meaning to, that other cultures are inherently indecent, or un-decent. After years of propagating multiculturalism, the last UK government reversed course, bowed to public pressure regarding immigration, and instituted a test for those wanting to settle in the country. Though popularly called a Britishness test, it really only examines a person's ability to understand rudimentary English, and to cram from a book about Britain. Osama bin Laden could pass it without too much trouble. Britishness, whatever that is, lies outside the test's purview.

Although suspicious of cultural definitions of nationality, I do recall experiences from my time as a student in England which conveyed to me that Britons' love of individuality, fair play and liberty is not a myth, but something real and worth preserving. One of these episodes had to do with football. It was the evening of the FIFA world cup final, and a bunch of us had gathered in the graduate common room for the pre-match analysis. When the kick-off was a few minutes away, a student named 'Can' known for his, how shall I put it, unusual disposition, sauntered in, grabbed the remote and switched channels. When asked what he thought he was doing, he replied he wanted to watch the Simpsons, and had booked the television for the evening. We had a system in place that allowed students to ensure they didn't miss their favourite programmes. Nobody had considered reserving the telly for the world cup final. As one of the few people in the room to have cordial relations with 'Can', I thought I could bring him round. "How bad will it be if you missed The Simpsons one Sunday, huh?" I asked. Others chipped in. "They show The Simpsons three times a week, you can catch a repeat." "Come on, mate, there's two dozen of us and only one of you". My half-Belgian, half-Turkish friend was adamant. He watched the Simpsons every Sunday at this particular time, and wasn't going to give up his weekly fix for some stupid sports programme.

As it became clear we would make no headway in the argument, panic descended on the room. Everybody scanned their mind for options: a sprint to the nearest pub; a friend in a neighbouring college; an acquaintance who owned a TV set; the keys to the junior common room, closed during summer break. We rushed out of the room, heading for our chosen destinations, hoping not to miss too much of the match.

Not one person had suggested taking the remote from 'Can', imposing the will of the majority by force. However unreasonable and inconsiderate he was being, 'Can' was perfectly within his rights, and that fact was recognised and respected. I wonder how matters would have played out in an Indian hostel, say at one of the IITs or IIMs. Would 'Can' have had any hope of catching the latest episode of his beloved animated series? I doubt it. How would he have fared in different regions of the world? I don't know enough about China, Brazil, South Africa, Italy and Egypt to decide for sure, but I have a feeling the world cup would have won out in all instances.

Even after two decades of crackdowns on violence, English football remains associated in most peoples' minds, at least to some degree, with hooliganism. In contrast, thanks to that world cup experience, 'England' and 'football' always relate for me to a fine lesson about how democracy and freedom have little to do with majorities, and everything to do with individual rights.

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.