I guess I first became aware of the bitter rivalry between the football clubs of Southampton and Portsmouth during the 1970s when I was studying at the University of Southampton and became a regular visitor to Southampton’s home ground, The Dell. Hampshire’s cricket HQ was at Northlands Road, which was not much further than a Gordon Greenidge six hit from the football stadium. Even in those days, football was light years ahead of its cricket cousin in sport medicine and technology. We at Hampshire didn’t even have an infra-red machine to treat muscle injury, so those so afflicted would limp down the road to the football ground to be treated by amused, but helpful, physiotherapists. “You don’t even have a physio?” would be the amazed reaction of their medics, “And you call yourself a professional outfit!” Well, that was just the way it was back then.
Of course, I was conscious of rivalries between football teams and their supporters long before I went to university. Tottenham Hotspur, the team I supported as a kid, hated Arsenal. Liverpool were sworn enemies of Everton. The Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers seemed to arouse more animosity than most. I have in recent years been to West Bromwich Albion encounters with Wolverhampton Wanderers and the atmosphere at those games can be poisonous. Another team I watch is Cheltenham Town. Their clashes with nearby Forest Green Rovers are – rather amusingly, in my opinion and with a nod in the direction of El Clasico, Barcelona versus Real Madrid - termed ‘El Glostico’! However, I was totally taken aback by the simmering hatred exhibited by the fans of Southampton and Portsmouth. In one sense, I cannot for the life of me understand the irrational hatred felt by one fan for another just because their respective football teams are in reasonable proximity to one another. But there, I have other things to think about between Saturdays than the fortunes of my football team; clearly such devoted fans think of little else.
During one home match at The Dell, I asked the gentleman standing shoulder-to-shoulder alongside me (no seating in those antediluvian days), what was the reason for the animosity between Southampton and Portsmouth? Surely it must be something more than geographical? He explained in surprisingly articulate and knowledgeable detail that it all came about because of the General Strike in 1926. Both Southampton and Portsmouth are important ports. The dockers at Southampton, a commercial port, it should not be forgotten, went on strike in solidarity with the locked-out miners. The dockers at Portsmouth, a naval port, were not permitted to strike because the Royal Navy safeguarded the nation and it needed to remain fully functional at all times.
But it did not end there, claimed my new-found friend and historian. “They called us ‘scum’ and we called them ‘skates’.” The use of the term ‘scum’ in relation to strikes was one of which I was fully aware. But ‘skate’? “It’s a fish,” he said. My brows must have furrowed because he gave further explanation. A skate is a fish, not terribly photogenic, but fish are there to eat, not to pose in front of the camera. His clarification of the connection between a fish and Portsmouth fans I cannot possibly divulge in case my granddaughter gets to read this. Later I did a bit of research. Nobody has been able to track down the original strike that caused the agitation one hundred years ago but the use of the word ‘scum’ in relation to this piece of trades union terminology was originally an acronym for the Southampton Corporation of Union Men (SCUM). Allegedly.
We all know that ‘scum’ (a layer of dirt or froth on the surface of a liquid) can be used as a term of abuse. There was a sign just outside Upton-upon-Severn, a riverside town near where I live, which had daubed on it ‘Tory Scum’, and there it remained for years. I wonder how long the local authority would have had to wait before being ordered to remove the offending message had it said, ‘Labour Scum’. But there we are; this is not meant to be a political polemic. It was famously the Duke of Wellington who gave the word its best-known utterance as an offensive slur. He was reacting to an outbreak of looting - something he abhorred - in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars: “We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers.” Mind you, he was more than happy to laud the bravery and discipline of his men at the Battle of Waterloo.
If the connection between the term ‘scum’ and striking first originated in the General Strike of 1926 and was very much part of the political landscape in the 1970s when I was making acquaintances of Southampton footballers on their treatment tables, it is once again very much in the news today. As we have already made reference to the Royal Navy and ships, it might be of interest to point out that the word ‘strike’ was first used to describe a work protest in 1768 when sailors, in support of riots and political unrest in London, ‘struck’ or removed the topgallant sails of merchant ships in port, thus removing the means for them to operate.
Once the Industrial Revolution was underway, strikes became a feature of the political landscape as large swathes of workers realised that collectively they held considerable sway in their demands for fairer wages and better working conditions. It was a phenomenon first noted by the German philosopher, political activist and revolutionary socialist, Friedrich Engels, a movement which would become an articulate and effective challenge to the political, capitalist establishment:
“By its numbers, this class has become the most powerful in England and woe betide the wealthy Englishmen when they become conscious of this fact.”
However, whatever sympathy I had for the working classes in their struggle against exploitative owners and bosses that I had gleaned from my study of the 19th century had largely been dissipated by the extremist rhetoric and tactics of Arthur Scargill and his fellow trades unionists in the 1970s. I even clambered off the fence to vote for Maggie Thatcher following the Winter of Discontent. It was a question of who was running the country…. and it certainly wasn’t the Government.
Now we seem to have come full circle, with the country facing a winter of industrial action (shouldn’t that be inaction?) very reminiscent of the dreadful 1970s. (I say ‘dreadful’ but not for me; I was having a whale of a time playing cricket for Hampshire.) The rights and wrongs of each public sector striking for higher pay do not concern me here. I do have serious misgivings, however, about certain professions going on strike. There’s something in me that finds strike action by nurses, doctors, teachers, first-aiders, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, police and civil servantsundesirable, even morally reprehensible.
Yes of course nurses are underpaid. My sister was a nurse at King’s College Hospital, south London (the youngest sister in the history of the hospital apparently) and she was paid peanuts. My father, who came from a long line of schoolmasters, warned me that if I wanted to make any money, I should not go into the teaching profession. (He might have said the same about cricket, but that is another story.) Why, he exclaimed, even Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander the Great, complained to his employer, King Philip, that he was not being paid enough. The point is that money, a rich reward in a pay packet, is not everything. Job satisfaction and a feeling that you are making a difference in people’s lives can never be overstated. To withdraw labour and put your patients, your students, your public in harm’s way is – to my mind – insupportable.
I fully realise that my rant might be considered a political polemic, despite my earlier disclaimer. I do not want to be called a member of the Southampton Corporation Union of Men. Nor am I particularly keen on being called a type of cartilaginous fish. I had my cartilage removed 50 years ago, thank you very much.