Promised Land – An Extract from Anthony Clavane’s Book About Leeds United

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Promised Land

Anthony Clavane’s book, ‘Promised Land: The Reinvention of Leeds United’ is a brilliant and compelling modern history of the city of Leeds and its football club. Combining the deeply personal with the sociological, Clavane reveals the extraordinary links and parallels that the city shares with its famous sporting temple. In this extract, the club and the city are facing the dark days of the 1980s…

“Though I’ve a train to catch my step is slow.
I walk on the grass and graves with weary tread
over these subsidences, these shifts below
the life of Leeds supported by the dead.

Further underneath’s that cavernous hollow
that makes the gravestones lean towards the town.
A matter of mere time and it will swallow
this place of rest and all the resters down.”
Tony Harrison,V, 1987

1975. Leeds v Anderlecht. The European Cup quarter-final. Despite being at the top of the Kop, whenever Leeds go on the attack I can’t see a bloody thing. The swirling fog has made it impossible to follow the game. During one Leeds attack I get into a conversation with three other lads.

promised land leeds united cover“I must be an interloper”

One of them asks if I’m Leeds. “Of course,” I reply. “Where you from then?” “Leeds.” “Where in Leeds?” “Scott Hall Road.” “Everyone’s heard of Scott Hall Road. Biggest A road in’t fucking country.” One of his mates unbuttons his flies and takes a piss. “Where were you born?” “St James Hospital.” He says: “Everyone knows Jimmy’s. It’s fucking famous.” I’m not sure what to do. Continue telling the truth? But every answer I give is so obviously ‘Leeds’ that it has, in their minds, to be a lie. They have decided, by my accent – which, admittedly, is beginning to lose its Leeds twang – that I am not a Loiner. That I must be an interloper.

“So where d’you go to school?” “Roundhay.” I think it unwise to add: “And before that, Selig Brodetsky Jewish Day School.” There is a long pause before they ask the final question. “Name the Revie team then.” This one is easy. I look down at the dark concrete steps and smile. This is my party piece. The litany. The mantra. The Greatest Team In Football The World Has Ever Seen. I can recite it in four seconds flat.

“Theatre of hate”

“Sprake, Reaney, Cooper, Bremner, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Clarke, Jones, Giles, Gray.” But when I finish one of the lads, I can’t remember who, punches me in the face. “Madeley,” he says. “You missed out fucking Madeley. From fucking Beeston.” 1979. A year after his death, I say a Kaddish for Harry Clavane, son of Phillip Clavanski, even though he was an atheist. And then I say a Kaddish for a generation who are dying in the wilderness, not quite sure, perhaps, if they have fully accomplished their task. A generation who got a glimpse of the Promised Land but will never enter it. And I say a Kaddish for Leeds, which has become a bleak, ugly termite mound on a washed-up landscape.

Try as it might, the beastly city cannot shed its skin, erase its ugliness, scrub off the muck of ages. Before going to the Crystal Palace match I climb the steep hill to take in the cold, clean air and escape the fug below. We are all leaving Leeds now, fleeing the three Rs – the recession, the Ripper and the racism. At the game the Kop make monkey noises and give Nazi salutes. The fog is everywhere. Up the river, down the river. Fog on the Aire and on the northern heights and on the bleak uplands that surround the theatre of hate. It seems to hang constantly over Elland Road, like some mysterious impenetrable miasma.

promised land

“Poisonous atmosphere”

I left Leeds in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power and began to read the old, industrial north its last rites. In the eighties – as I lost my accent and found a new voice, and a new life, in the affluent, Loadsamoney south – I only came back for funerals. As my grandparents’ generation were, one by one, laid to rest in the barren hills overlooking Elland Road, I couldn’t wait to get the hell out and leave the increasingly poisonous atmosphere behind.

I didn’t want to end up drifting between two parallel existences: the old world of dark, depressing, broken dreams and the new one of sun, sea and sensual adventure. A year after my paternal grandfather, Harry Clavane, died, I went to the top of the hill and looked out at the vast panoramic sprawl of my benighted city. I had just witnessed Palace’s teenage striker Vince Hilaire being taunted with monkey noises and Nazi salutes. I vowed never to return to Elland Road.

promised land extractAfter we had said a Kaddish for Harry, uncle Louis congratulated me on the short story I’d just had published in a newspaper. It was a Billy Liar-type fantasy about scoring the winning goal in a European Cup Final and writing a best-selling novel – and then waking up to find it had all been a dream and that I was still living in a city of concrete flyovers, psychopathic skinheads and serial killers.

“A tough and unforgiving place”

The Motorway City of the Seventies, the brave new world of shopping centres and high-rise flats, had turned out to be crass and materialistic. Post-war northern regeneration had been a mirage, as had the fanciful notion that a tired, post-imperial society could reinvent itself as a white-hot technological powerhouse. As the corpses of its dead parent industries slowly rotted, Leeds became a tough and unforgiving place.

And Elland Road became the home of a nasty, embittered and racist element. There was a growing aura of menace, a climate of fear and paranoia. A sense of victimisation. The city, like its football club, battened down the hatches and adopted a bunker mentality. It became, once again, identified in the public mind with the darker, more primitive side of life. Property experts advised businesses to move out. The town centre became a night-time haunt of disorderly youths, tramps and alcoholics.

“A slow and steady decline”

As the centrifugal force of seventies Britain quickened the spiral of talent, power and influence down to London, the capital reasserted its authority and Leeds turned in on itself. Halfway through the decade it began a slow and steady decline. Manufacturing, the basis of its wealth, collapsed and unemployment soared; in 1976 it reached 5.5 per cent – fifteen years later, it had almost doubled. Between 1979 and 1990, as jobs in the new hi-tech industries were generated in the south, manufacturing in the north fell from 31 to 22 per cent. Leeds seemed to be slipping into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. There was a tangible sinking feeling, a perception that, like the country as a whole, it was going to hell in a handcart.

promised land author anthony clavane

Author, Anthony Clavane

There was a retreat into an imaginary, nineteenth-century golden age. The leading architectural critic Kenneth Powell, a member of the Victorian Society, highlighted his hometown in his 1985 pamphlet The Fall of Zion. Slum-clearance programmes were all very well, he argued, but look what had replaced the back-to-backs: ugly, brutalist, high-rise flats.

“Brave new world”

The Gipton, my dad’s ‘utopian’ estate, was a no-go area. Seacroft shopping centre, like most civic showpieces, had become a concrete monstrosity. In their haste to get rid of the old and embrace all that was new, shiny and modern, the developers had mutilated the town centre and unleashed an aggressive, self-aggrandising Titan which had greedily swallowed up the rolling surrounds of a once-proud and independent people. My parents’ generation had swept away, concreted over, their grimy past.

They had climbed out of poverty, escaped their economic incarceration and reaped the benefits of the consumer boom. My generation had been born into this brave new world but we were entering adulthood in an era of dystopian gloom, lost illusions and reduced expectations – and in a Leeds which had stopped making things: clothes, writers, football teams.

The old Leeds was dying and the new Thatcherite service economy had yet to be born. During the interregnum, a stalking beast cast its morbid shadow over the city. On 30 October 1975, a milkman discovered the body of Wilma McCann, the Yorkshire Ripper’s first victim, in Chapeltown. Twelve weeks later Emily Jackson, another prostitute, was battered to death in Sheepscar. Peter Sutcliffe committed at least another dozen murders over the next five years. His third killing took place in a field outside my school and the fourth was at Chapeltown Community Centre. I can still remember the ‘voice of the Ripper’ – which turned out to be a hoax message – being played at Elland Road. As the monster prowled the streets, killing with hammers, screwdrivers and Stanley knives, some fans wore badges boasting that United were “more feared than the Yorkshire Ripper”.

Promised Land by Anthony Clavane is published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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