My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen follower of the current BBC2 series Ripper Street, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, both in its general atmosphere, and in its impressive knowledge of the main themes, mores and characters of that period, which are skilfully mined for its plot lines. There are a few things that jar on me, like the modern slang that occasionally appears among the show’s otherwise very correct-sounding dialogue – I’m pretty sure people didn’t use the words ‘wanker’ and ‘pisshead’ then, for example. And it sometimes appears slightly anachronistic in the way it pursues themes that seem to be redolent of the present day. But I’d recommend it wholeheartedly, both for entertainment, and for serious instruction in British social history.
Monday night’s episode was a joy to me personally, because the plot (a gruesome murder) centres around the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC, of course, was the original name of my beloved West Ham United, the ‘Hammers’; hence the chant, still heard today, of ‘Come on you Irons!’ In this episode, we see them playing, convincingly – i.e. roughly but skilfully – in late-19th century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of its star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
As well as this, it touches tangentally on the topic of the broader social significance of football at that time, about which I’ve posted elsewhere (http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2014/12/22/bernard-porter/like-the-ancient-romans/#more-20273): namely its importance as a factor forging working-class identity. In the course of it, the team’s trainer shows Reid around the works. It used to be run almost co-operatively, he claims, with the men having an input through their Unions. (I’m not sure if that’s historically true, but it serves to make the writers’ contemporary point.) Now all that is coming to an end. The masters have taken control away from the men. They’re trying to break the unions, ‘prising the men away from their fellow men’. ‘But this,’ he says, pointing to the players on the field. ‘The football. They can’t take that away from us.’
But of course, in the long run ‘they’ have. The latest stage of this theft or bourgeoisification or capitalist exploitation of football (or whatever you want to call it) is the recent physical removal of West Ham United FC from its cultural roots in Thames Ironworks country, contrary to most of its fans’ wishes, to its huge posh new ex-Olympic stadium in Stratford. Did the writers of this episode of Ripper Street have this in mind? I’ve not visited the new ground yet – I plan to soon – but I’m informed that the ‘atmosphere’ there, both in the ground itself and its environs, is flat by comparison with the old Upton Park. (I bade farewell to that in another post: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/05/11/bernard-porter/goodbye-to-boleyn/.) Who knows: this may have something to do with West Ham’s results so far this season, which are pretty dire.
(A shortened version of this is on the LRB blog: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/09/21/bernard-porter/on-ripper-street/.)
Off back to Stockholm tomorrow, where Hammarby SK are my local club. I went once, and was surprised to hear shouts of ‘wanker’, ‘pisshead’ and the like from the terraces behind me. No, not British visitors, but fat Swedes – yes, there are some – who had obviously learned the language of football hooliganism from us. Another thing to make one proud to be British.