A Year in Batley: Rugby League, Gay Pride and 21st Century Northern Culture
For a story about a small-town rugby league team, “Underdogs” contains multitudes. More than a great sports book, it is a gripping and witty insight into a neglected, working-class community struggling to find its place in a changing world. Redolent of “Friday Night Lights”, author Tony Hannan does for Batley, West Yorkshire what that classic did for Odessa, West Texas.
The year Hannan spends embedded with the Batley Bulldogs is tumultuous. On the field, the modestly resourced club have their most successful season in years. Off it, their colossus of a captain, Keegan Hirst, comes out as gay. The Brexit referendum highlights the long-ignored struggles of towns like Batley – most tragically of all when the popular local MP, Jo Cox, is murdered. Meanwhile, issues of racial integration and economic decline remain unresolved.
The support Hirst receives from within the club and (mostly) beyond as Britain’s only openly gay, active professional rugby player is a heart-warming demonstration of how, in some respects, society has changed for the better. In this and so much else, the tone is quickly set by one of “Underdogs” central characters, the inspirational club coach, John Kear, who matter-of-factly takes the issue in his stride.
Even when Hirst’s sudden national celebrity threatens to take the club into alien territory, down-to-earth solutions are found. Batley may not have previous experience of stars who fail to return on time from glamourous weekends in Ibiza with famous actors. But they do have time-honoured procedures for handling prop-forwards who have over-indulged, which serve perfectly well. Questionable but consensual humour continues to play its part in binding everyone together too. When Hirst suggests a “Village People” theme for the end-of-season trip to Blackpool, a teammate points out “It’s supposed to be fancy dress, not your normal daywear”.
The beating heart of the story, though, is the wonderful and ridiculously under-appreciated sport of rugby league
The flip-side that shows society still has some way to go is Batley’s inability to engage the town’s large British Asian population. Efforts to do so are well-intentioned but too sporadic to succeed and undermined by misconceptions on both sides.
The divisions that are pulling most strongly in Batley, though, become tragically clear when the popular local MP and friend of the Bulldogs, Jo Cox, is brutally murdered by a right-wing terrorist during the Brexit referendum campaign. Brexit divides opinion at the club and in the local community. “Underdogs” eloquently indicates the dangers of leaving proud and once prosperous places like Batley to sink. The old wool and textile industries are gone and little government thought has been given to incentivising new ones to replace them.
The decline of Batley is symbolised in one of the most engaging parts of the book by the closure of the Batley Variety Club. Uniquely for a town of its size and location, this once renowned entertainment venue regularly hosted legends such as Louis Armstrong, Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey. Perhaps its closest and most incongruous association was with American superstar Roy Orbison. One of the many delights of “Underdogs” are the colourful characters that populate its pages, none more so than Sammy King – local man and unlikely composer of hit songs for “The Big O” Orbison.
The beating heart of the story, though, is the wonderful and ridiculously under-appreciated sport of rugby league. League (as opposed to the much wealthier rugby code, Union) is a piece of working-class social history and a distinct culture, as much as it is a leisure pastime.
The life-affirming answer to “why do they do it” is what “Underdogs” brings out best of all
Hannan does a magnificent job of illustrating just how much more intricate this phenomenally tough game is than initially meets the casual observer’s eye. The commitment these part-time athletes, who almost all have other full-time jobs, give to it is simply staggering.
Given the intense demands, you cannot help wondering why they do it. It is certainly not for the financial rewards. Many players also have a physically demanding day job such as rat-catching or building work and risk losing more cash than they make from rugby when the frequent, serious injuries side-line them from both sources of income. The nearest thing to a row over money that briefly flares up is about bonuses for a season of high achievement. Fans of Premier League football and will be astounded by the small sums in question for sportsmen who are putting the bodies on the line in such superhuman fashion.
The life-affirming answer to “why do they do it” is what “Underdogs” brings out best of all. Ultimately it is about the human spirit at its finest. Rugby league’s toughness and the intense difficulty of doing what it takes to play it well are, in fact, its attraction. The pride, discipline and camaraderie generated by collectively taking on this challenge cannot be found elsewhere in everyday life. This is topped off with the wholesome glory of representing a community with few other focal points – which the players and staff of Batley Bulldogs do in style during the season covered by the book.
“Underdogs” is a richly rewarding read for anyone with even a passing interest in rugby league or sport in general. It is a must-read too for anyone interested in 21st century life in a northern town. Which everyone should be because, as Brexit shows, what happens in unheralded places like Batley will shape the prospects of the whole country for a generation.
Underdogs by Tony Hannan is published by Bantam Press and is available now.
About the author
Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.
He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.
All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.
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