Monday 19 November 2012

Steve Ely: Poet of Sunday Leagues and Sainted Rebellion

Steve Ely is a poet and author from Yorkshire, England. When I first came across his work, thanks to social media, it struck as very different indeed from much of the poetry that was being written. Consciously intellectual, with historical subject matter and archaic language, it celebrated an England of northern saints and doomed peasant rebellions.

It also challenged the reader to understand the references. It was poetry to be read, rather than consumed in seconds and forgotten. The work had gravity.

From my point of view, Steve's viewpoints on history and culture seemed to resonate with some of my own. When I first read Steve's work, I had just read the late Mick Imlah's 'The Lost Leader'. Imlah's book, with its reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie in its title, was a poetic treatment of Scotland's history. Often obscure in its references, it used poetry to both inform and make wider historical and contemporary points. It used the past to illuminate the present.

Steve's work seemed similar to me, certainly in some of its textures and fundamentals, its stating points and attitudes. He writes about football players as well as monks, Falklands War heroes as well as medieval saints.

This is ambitious poetry, stimulating work which goes far beyond the merely observational or solipsistic. I spoke to Steve about his writing, his sporting passions and what drives him to express himslef in the way he does. Of particular interest to me were his references to sport in literature, and how playing and watching sport had contributed to his work.

Firstly, your writing seems to indicate an intriguing and, to many people, probably baffling mix of the archaic and the radical. You use Catholic faith, Anglo Saxon language and archaic forms in your writing, as examples, but you are also a socialist and a self-professed hater of Tories, as well as liberals. How do you reconcile what seem to be such competing instincts? Is it hard work to make a coherent whole out of such varied and seemingly competing instincts?

 In a word, yes!  I’m a former socialist – I was in and around the left for large parts of the early eighties and early nineties (with an interlude in the Green Party) and I retain some of the atavisms of the left, such as a knee jerk animus to Conservatism.

But I haven’t been a member of a political party since 1996 and my political activism since then has been non-existent.  However, since my second, unpublished, book of poems, JerUSAlem, which was an exploration of American extremism and concepts of the American Dream, pretty much everything I’ve written has had a political edge.

Over the last four years I’ve been exploring the roots of England in my work and my embracing of Catholicism is part of that.

But I’m a poet, not a politician, and although you’re right to suggest I’m working to a synthesis of sorts, I’m not looking to reach a manifesto position – I don’t see that as being my job.  I want to raise important themes through my work and challenge my audience.  But most of all I want to create striking and evocative work with a powerful affect.

You have written about war as well as sport. What do you make of Orwell's 'war without the shooting' reference to sport?

I think Orwell’s statement is often understood in the simplistic sense of, ‘young men used to go to war and sow their wild oats of allegiance and violence but now there aren’t as many opportunities to fight in wars, so playing and supporting sport is a surrogate outlet for the same emotions’.

It’s an interesting perspective, with some truth in it, but ultimately obfuscatory.  If you’re part of a team – as player or supporter – you inevitably get that electric sense of belonging, mutual responsibility, support and communal striving in which your individual identity is harnessed in, and to some extent subsumed, in a greater whole.

Given that sport, by definition, involves asserting yourself against an opponent in a context of physical exertion and high emotion (competition), violence and aggression will never be far beneath the surface.  When overlaid by aggravating factors of politics, religion or long standing rivalry (Celtic-Rangers, Fenerbache/Galatasary), for example, it can be seen as analogous to war. But I wouldn’t push it beyond an analogue. Sport isn't war.

So, if sport cannot be called 'war', can it be called 'art' with any justification?

At its best, sport is an art form, or a thing of beauty at any rate. The movement and grace of Barca in the 2010-11 season, the vision, technical accomplishment and audacity of Ibrahimovic’s last goal against England the other night, Bergkamp’s goals against Argentina, Leicester & Newcastle, Carlos Alberto’s winner in the 1970 world cup final – these things take the breath away – like Lawrence says about the ‘shout’ of the tortoise - ‘it sounds on the plasm direct’ - not just an aesthetic, physical or intellectual impact – the moment impacts whole body.

What do you think watching sport offers writers in the way of inspiration or understanding?

Having played team sport all my life, the thing sport has brought me is an appreciation of the importance of what might simplistically be called team spirit – that the individual is always part of a larger collective and has a responsibility to fulfil a role in that collective that is reciprocated in the care and support the individual receives from the team. 

Or, as we used to say when I played for the Travellers FC - ‘one in - all in’.  That’s what Camus meant when he said, "all that I know of morality and obligations I owe to football." Bill Shankly and Brian Clough called it socialism. It’s certainly Catholic Social Teaching in a brightly coloured shirt.

The other week saw a great clash in Glasgow between Celtic and Barcelona. Both those teams have strong religious/ethnic/nationalistic identities, albeit in Celtic's case that of a non-native tradition. Do you think that attaching such strong cultural significance to sports teams is healthy?

The fervour generated in the Old Firm matches can provide legitimisation for psychopaths – there was a horrible incident a few years ago when a Rangers ‘fan’ slit the throat of a Celtic fan outside Ibrox in an unprovoked attack, purely because the latter was wearing the hooped shirt. 

That was exceptional, but there’s no doubt that this ‘sectarianism’ gets more or less routinely out of hand.  But, for better or worse, Rangers and Celtic have become emblematic of the identities of many of their supporters, and the affective power arising from that, alongside the context of wider politico-religious conflict, is what makes the Old Firm. 

You regret the excesses, but ultimately, would you have it any other way? 

Barca is different.  For the almost forty years of Franco's dictatorship, Barca was the only expression of Catalan identity and nationalism the Catalans could get away with, and it is why Barca is ‘mes plus un club’.

Take that away, and all you’ve got is Man City, or Chelsea.  You can’t separate politics and sport, because sport is not just about entertainment – it’s about allegiance, activism, commitment, engagement and identity. So often, sporting teams emerge from very specific communities and are the flagship of those communities.

Every time Nottingham Forest play at Oakwell, chants of ‘scab’ echo around the ground – and the thing is, they used to before the 1984-5 strike – the folk memory of the terraces was remembering the aftermath of the 1926 strike, when the Spencer’s bosses union split Cook’s NUM. 

‘Politics’ in sport ramps up the intensity and makes for a more electrifying experience – but you’ve got to rein in the nutters.

What sports do you like? Who are your sporting heroes and why?

Football is my main sport.  I played to a decent standard Sundays (and sometimes Saturdays as well) for over twenty years. 

I was a striker.  I began as a Stan Bowles-type dribbling inside left, evolved into a Steve Claridge type workhorse and ended my career as a Grant Holt style lump. 

As a kid I supported Sheffield United and saw them play River Plate in 1978 just after Argentina had won the World Cup. United had just bought Alex Sabella (now the coach of the Argentinian national team) from River and the pre-season friendly was part of the deal. 

Leopoldo Luque, Daniel Passerella and Ubaldo Filliol of the cup winning team played. United won three-two, with Alan Woodward scoring the winner from the spot.

Aged about sixteen, I switched teams and started watching Barnsley with my mates, largely because I was sick of going to Bramall Lane on my own – nobody else I  knew supported United.  I had a season ticket at Oakwell for six or seven years but I haven’t been for ages now. 

I never really felt an emotional connect with Barnsley, because I was a latecomer to them, I suppose. 

I also watch a lot of Rugby League on Sky. I used to play league as a young kid. 

At middle school we had a teacher, Mr Milnes, who was from Featherstone, and he introduced the game to the school. We were very good at that age – we used to beat sides from Cas and Fev, who were not hapy that a team from outside the league heartlands was besting them. 

I love the mercurial geniuses: Maradona, the greatest of all time, Messi, who will supercede him, Best, Gascoigne, Rivaldo and Dennis Bergkamp, for his purity.

From League I like Rob Burrow and Sam Tomkins, for the same reasons.

Your own English nationalism is very different from that of groups like the EDL. You also have an Irish connection. What made you think of yourself as English? Is being from Yorkshire more important that being English to you?

My concept of England is based on the concept of the people in the land and the corollary opinion that, over centuries, the people have been expropriated and the land degraded and destroyed.

I suppose I’m a utopian in the tradition of William Morris - my project is heuristic and archaeological, seeking to bring to light neglected aspects of Englishness – the Anglo-Danish heritage, the pre-reformation English Catholic Church, the traditions of resistance running through the silvaticii rebels against the Norman occupation, the Peasant’s Revolt, the Pilgrimage of Grace, the radicalism of the English revolution, the nineteenth and twentienth century working class movements and the particular experience of ‘the North’, as well as the wider heritage.  

From these, to use Eliot’s idiom, I assemble the fragments ‘I shore against my ruins’.  

It is a tragedy that discourse of Englishness, or of English nationalism, is pre-sullied by the reactionary racist populism of the EDL or the fascist successors of Moseley’s BUF from the NF to the BNP.  

It’s up to the rest of us to wrest the discourse of identity and nationality away from those motivated by confusion, fear and hatred.  And a precondition for this is engagement with the past to re-discover the wellsprings. 

For all our alleged national obsession with ‘heritage’, (the ‘mad parade’ of the Sex Pistol’s in God Save the Queen), there is probably no developed country in the world in which the person on the street is more ignorant of even the basics of the history of the nation to which they belong, not to mention their local history.  There has certainly been no European nation quicker to throw it away. 

Yorkshire is important to me as county and regional identity should be to everyone - but ultimately, county identity should find its place in that wider polity of the nation. 

I’m also, for better or worse (sometimes better, often worse), very class conscious, almost instinctively so. At the core of my developing, incoherent worldview is what might be called transcendental parochialism.

I vision a time when people can name the birds and animals in the farmland near their town, know the significance of the funny old building on the corner and the gnarly old tree in the town square, understand why the river running through their village is straight and not meandering, know who the guy on the statue was, why they’re living in a tower block, their local and national history (etc) – as well being engaged in current affairs and global issues. 

I suppose I’m tacitly proposing a kind of informed civic engagement in which people secure in their identity and interests and with a sense of solidarity with their corporate community, are empowered to assert their interests and shape their world.

In my recent work, I use archaic forms – Old and Middle English, quotations, epigraphs and references from/to ancient and neglected texts, the spellings and syntax of the Wyclif and King James Bibles, for example – to emphasise my vision of the essential continuity of England and the English. 

Historical and literary studies impose a series of arbitrary disjunctions – Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Mediaeval, etc. 

This has the effect of severing ‘the past’ from the present, resulting in its neglect. The very term ‘History’ in the popular conception implies something definitively past, therefore irrelevant and thus something that can with good conscience be ignored. My forthcoming book Oswald’s Book of Hours (February 2013 – available for pre-order on Amazon!) and my work in progress, Englaland, are synchronic and synoptic looks at England. The tributaries flow into a single stream.

Lastly, would you have preferred to write a bestselling book or to be a sports star yourself?

Well past the time when it was a clearly a pipe-dream, I clung to the forlorn hope that I could ‘make it’ as a professional footballer, go on to play for England, score in a Cup Final and so on. 

It was never my ambition to write a bestselling book, as such, because that seems to imply a certain pandering to the audience which inevitably compromises artistic vision. 

I write what I have to, what I’m driven to and if anyone else likes it, that’s a bonus.  So professional footballer it is.  I could’ve written in the afternoons when the rest of the lads were playing snooker.

Steve's novel 'Ratmen' is available from Blackheath Books.

Steve Ely was talking to Zack Wilson,  the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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