Eric Hobsbawn and Speedway

It’s to Charleston that I head before the Knockout Cup encounter with Peterborough, a meeting that will bring Peter Karlsson back to the
track for his first appearance since his recent display of dangerous petulance. Interestingly, despite the historic strength and importance
of Eastern Europe as a region that over the years has provided a steady stream of gifted speedway riders, this rich seam of recruitment
has slowed though Peterborough still have a pair of brothers who ride for them who come from what we now know as the Czech
Republic. As a teenager, my first close encounters with almost any foreigners was through speedway, since these meetings had a varied
mix of nationalities in comparison to, say, the then more limited exoticism of football. There was a glamour, hardiness and rarity value to
the speedway teams that used to often visit from Poland, Czechoslovakia or Russia. It turns out, in retrospect, that this was the high
water mark of those generations of gifted riders that come from that region. Nowadays, the vibrant speedway culture that still prevails in
Poland enjoys the same fanaticism among the fans, but has become diluted through the impact of the legions of gifted foreigners that
now conversely ply their trade in their leagues. At least that is how it appears viewed from this country, where a prolonged bout of
insularity has affected the appeal of the various levels of British speedway for all but the most brilliant and ambitious of the most recent
generation of Polish riders. It’s partly the demands of the travel, the poorer levels of pay compared to home (a reversal of the historic
norm) and because of the ever-changing imperatives of the points structure that underpins our team composition but we’ve really lost
something when it comes to regularly seeing Eastern European riders ride in our leagues. Riders from Scandinavian countries are still
very well represented in Britain, as are the Aussies and the Yanks and after that every other country only features to a lesser extent,
including the nearby Eastern European and Nordic countries. You hesitate to link this decline in the supply of riders to British speedway
from those regions to the impact of the recent economic resurgence as well as the change in the political make up of Eastern Europe
sped up by the decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. But it appears that speedway, despite itself, must have some
connection with contemporary historical events and the subsequent greater emergence of the free trade or open market economy.

To investigate this further prior to the meeting, I drive up a narrow single-track road that takes me to the famous farmhouse in Charleston
that was the country home of the influential cultural phenomenon of the Bloomsbury Group. A loose association of influential artists,
writers and thinkers dating back to the first half of the 20th century (so called because of the part of London they lived in) they used to
escape from what they viewed as the narrow restriction of bourgeois, upper middle class life in the city to the freedom of the
countryside. It was a time of free love and freethinking well before the swinging
60s. The impact of their brilliant, challenging and modernist work endures to
this day in art, philosophy and politics, but is often unnoticed since so many of
their ideas have now been incorporated into what would be considered the
mainstream. Anyway, it’s a beautiful idyllic location, surrounded by hills, woods,
unspoilt country walks and rivers. I park on a narrow chalky lane close by the
cottage, still decorated throughout with the artifacts of the Bloomsbury Group
and, more interestingly, their bizarre murals or paintwork that adorn every room
in the house, created in an age when home decoration, especially weirdo artist
decoration, wasn’t an activity pursued by the middle classes but only by their
servants under strict instruction to ensure conformity and normality. Sadly, I
don’t get to visit the house itself – so I don’t find out if Virginia Woolf had a
room of her own there – since the talk I will attend is held in a tent in a garden
large enough to accommodate quite a crowd. It’s a huge white billowing affair,
the kind you imagine they might erect at the more popular village fayres in the
summer, and it’s already crowded with comfortable and prosperous looking
people who sit on the rows of school hall chairs that have been laid out before
the slightly raised podium.

The average age group of the audience would be considered old even by the
standards of speedway crowds, as the median age seems to be well into the late
50s or earlier 60s. The absence of children and families is noticeable. Sitting
next to me I have a famous London television and Sunday newspaper journalist
who carries a pile of books and a deliberately understated but battered leather
briefcase chosen to proclaim his credentials as a busy man of ideas and letters.
His wife or partner is even more ostentatiously bohemian; she flamboyantly
wears ‘casual clothes’ and make up that appears to have no regard for the
sensual contours of her sleek figure. Her physical appearance provides a sharp
counterpoint to her consciously dishevelled man of letters too busy to care about
his appearance, demeanour or paunch. She has a brown leather jacket that you
can only describe as beautiful, the sort of article of clothing that asks to be
smelled or stroked. Her handbag is small but magnificent in its craftsmanship
and the one time I glance inside it, I notice that it’s filled with exotic and
expensive feminine utensils. They seem completely happy and isolated, in the
crowd but not of the crowd, although the tent is conspicuously crowded. She
plays with her glossy and elegantly cut long dark hair throughout, and frequently
takes her Alice band off and on or just fiddles with her plain but expensive rings.
Both of them don’t wear socks. It’s a sunny day and since they wear deck shoes
you can maybe excuse or understand it. Though there’s quite a breeze that
causes the sides of the tent to flap alarmingly at times and there is a chill when
you’re out of the sunshine. They seem oblivious but everything about them is
carefully chosen and slightly affected, as he scribbles notes with a Mont Blanc
pen into a moleskineTM notebook, and she dangles her shoes in carefree
fashion off her painted toes. Needless to say, they don’t say hello.

So what’s all this got to do with speedway? Nothing really apart from the huge
contrast I encounter an hour or so after the talk by Eric Hobsbawm ends.
Actually, I lie. Born in Vienna in 1918, Hobsbawm is a historian of the Left now
in his late 80s who speaks with an intensity and perspective that enthralls his
audience. He recounts his impressions and experiences of many important
historical and political events, as well as great individuals and artists. From the
rise of Hitler, the optimism, decline and fall of the communist system, the
swinging 60s, American foreign policy since the war, the rise of Europe, damage to the environment and so many other topics. His
knowledge is polymathic and he shores his memories and incisive insights with some style and fluency. He’s alive to his past and alive
to his present, and despite the frailties of his body his mind retains a brilliance and sharpness that illuminates the tent. Given his
background, experiences and predilections, despite the historic lip service paid to the importance of the proletariat on the Left, you know
that he doesn’t attend speedway regularly. Though Hobsbawm has written widely on jazz and its wider social context, it would have been
illuminating if he had similarly interested in the shale and applied his brilliant mind to an analysis of the speedway!

However as a historian, his life has been spent witnessing or explicating human history and, in an era of rapid amnesia and short
attention spans, he is an enduring reminder of a significant and important past. Speedway, in my experience, also has its fair share of
men and women who’ve devoted themselves to the sport through eras of boom and bust, through thick and thin, with memories
triggered by the racing, key figures of the past, or just evoked by sounds and smells that continue to allow the sport’s history to live on
in the collective memory and affect the sport today. In a society that sometimes fails to value the aged, infirm and dispossessed,
speedway appears old fashioned in its links with the past, but still welcomes all comers into its broad church. I don’t want to romanticise
this too much, but these slightly ‘retro’ values of consideration, respect and memory definitely apply to the fans, helpers and track staff at
Arlington as well as everywhere throughout the UK, but it’s an attitude and ethic that applies equally to most of the riders and their
families. Some of them are superstars who travel the world and get paid superstar wages. Yet they still seem somehow approachable and
comparatively normal, a boy-next-door type although obviously a somewhat deranged one who’s ready to risk life and limb in a
dangerous, high-speed activity. While, you can admire them for the risks they take or the bravery they show, you can’t help but notice
too that in order to ride at any level you must have extreme dedication to hard work. The demands of the sport are such that, as a
competitor, you must regularly expose your vulnerabilities by continually racing and proving yourself over again, almost every night
throughout the season. It’s this basic but heightened work ethic and, the straightforward and uncomplicated nature of the competition
that inspires the loyal devotion of speedway fans. These are same attributes of competition, hard work and a deep desire for success that
Eric Hobsbawm enthrallingly describes, delineates and outlines as the engine of history at Charleston that afternoon. These valorised
qualities are inevitably found at the more mundane everyday level of the local community with its hobbies, sports and obsessions. In the
crowd at Arlington we all play our small part in this tiny version of human history. Nothing too grand, it won’t change the world but it is
important and it is history nonetheless.

 

taken from When Eagles Dared (apologies for weird spacing)

In memory of Eric Hobsbawm 9th June 1917 – 1st October 2012

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