Leeds born author and journalist Anthony Clavane speaks to Hugo Greenhalgh about the history of Leeds, its football club and its Jewish community…
For those who haven’t heard of Anthony Clavane, the two events that sandwich my interview with him sum him up perfectly. The night before he had been giving a talk in Headingley on football and the post-war kitchen sink writers. “It was paralleling the rise of Leeds United with the rise of Northern realist writers, the Beatles, the North in the ‘60s – that’s my theme really.” A theme which Clavane weaved into an entire, award-winning book, ‘Promised Land’, published in 2009.
Clavane’s other appointment is taking place that night – the Leeds Jewish Pride Awards, where he has been nominated for Sports Person. Clavane is Jewish and his ancestors emigrated to Leeds in 1900. It was a subject he covers extensively in ‘Promised Land’, linking the stories of Leeds United and the Jewish community to the wider history of the city. While Clavane reassured me that the book is more than just an autobiography, it is the perfect analogy for his own life. He is a football fan, a Jew and a Loiner and these traits are intrinsically linked.
As his award nomination demonstrates, Clavane is something of a figurehead for Britain’s Jewish community. I asked him about the issue of racism in football, and specifically anti-Semitism, which has reared its ugly head over the past year. But is this a problem that ever went away?
“No it’s not. It’s being noticed more now because it was always Tottenham who were getting it because they are seen as the Jewish club. Funnily enough Leeds United got it from Huddersfield Town and people sometimes associate Leeds fans with being anti-Semitic or racist. But to Huddersfield they’ve always been the Jewish club and there’s always been taunts.Maybe in the last few months you’ve had the rise of high profile racist incidents, nothing like as bad as it was 20 years ago, you’ve seen high profile players like John Terry, Luis Suarez, get banned for supposedly using racist language. And you’ve also had West Ham fans taunting Spurs fans with Nazi salutes.”
In his new book, ‘Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?’, Clavane writes about the under appreciated contribution that Jews have made to football in this country. Clavane says anti-Semitism “unfortunately covers up for the role that Jews have played in the past”, adding that “there’s a secret history of Jewish involvement that goes beyond Spurs and it involves Leeds, Arsenal, Manchester City, Leyton Orient and it goes back 100 years and people don’t know that.”
“In writing my new book I try and dispel these myths that Spurs are a Jewish club or the only Jewish club and I look at anti-Semitism and it was a lot worse 100, 50 years ago, 20 years ago – it’s still there and we should be vigilant about it.”
Before he became a journalist, Clavane’s background was in academia. He taught History for six years at the University of Sussex and still uses the same research techniques when putting together his books. He talks of a strong emphasis on “history from below” and the influence of Marxist historians such as EP Thompson, who taught at the University of Leeds for 17 years. His way into history is through football and he’s happy to see his work categorised as history or sociology, as well as sport.
“For the new book I used a lot more primary source. For example, I went all the way to Southampton to talk to the 91 year old widow of a Jewish footballer who’d played for Leeds. I talked to an 80 year old daughter of the first ever Jewish footballer in this country. So a lot of it was based on one-to-one interviews. I interviewed a lot Jewish figures in the game such as Lord Triesman, David Bernstein and David Dein, the former Arsenal Vice Chairman. I read a lot of books – Alan Sugar’s autobiography, David Gold’s autobiography where they talk about their Jewish upbringings.”
We turn to the identity of Leeds and what that means to him. He points out how the city has changed a lot over his lifetime but still struggles to define itself. “I’ve tried to show the good and the bad. There were bad things in the 70’s, particularly. It was the era of the three R’s – racism, riots, recession…And also this terrible R, the Ripper. It’s hard to imagine just how scared a lot of the population were, not just women. It was this beast stalking Leeds and its surroundings for about eight years.”
“Leeds as a city has got a personality, it’s schizophrenic, it’s got two sides. And even now as we speak, you’re not quite sure which way it’s going to go. So rather than take the marketing view of Leeds as the ‘Barcelona of the North’, transformed from an industrial city to a service economy, a Mecca for shopping, I would rather take a more nuanced, complex view; that there’s a dialectic between the good bit of Leeds and the bad bit of Leeds, between the visionary elements of Leeds and the depressing, sinister side of Leeds.”
And what does Clavane suggest for students wanting to escape the bubble of Headingley and Hyde Park and explore the city? “I would go to Elland Road. I would look at Leeds’ fantastic Victorian civic architecture that was designed by Cuthbert Brodrick. The Town Hall, the Corn Exchange, the City Museum. I’d get on a bus, go on a bus journey and discover the social history. Go to the top of the hill in Beeston and read Tony Harrison’s poem ‘V’. Maybe that’s one of the first things I would recommend people to do.” He also talks with pride about local authors who deserve to be read, not just Alan Bennett, but younger writers such as David Peace, Bernard Hare and Wes Brown.
Clavane finishes with a smile. “It’s not as swaggering as Manchester, it doesn’t have as long a memory as Liverpool; Leeds as a city, Leeds as a this ‘Promised Land’ will always disappoint us but we never stop striving for it!”