Last week the Independent ran with an article by Peter Geoghean headlined ‘Past reality too often obscured by Celtic’s complicated present’. It is one of countless examples of spurious and barbed journalism that has been directed towards the Celtic support over the years and seemingly shall be ad infinitum. Surrounded by highly visible and institutionally promoted discourse in this vein, it seems fair to suggest that alternative modes of political, cultural and historic discourse have an existential urgency amongst those who are targeted, misrepresented, and painted as inferior by this brand of journalism. Off the top of my head one example of an alternative discursive mode would be folk song.
The problem with this article isn’t that it is writing the history of the ‘forgotten’ Celtic player Peter Johnston or that it is publicizing the Celtic Graves Society, or even that its discussing Celtic and the ‘Glasgow Irish’ in the context of the First World War. I would love to live in a world where articles like that were published in the papers without any agenda. The problem is that all of this is contextualized within a constant implied accusation that if the Celtic support, and specifically the Green Brigade who he names in isolation, oppose the Poppy then they have forgotten the history of their club and they are wrong to do so. Or in ex- British soldier (‘and Celtic fan’) Ian McCallum’s words, it is born from ‘the lack of knowledge of the war among the Glasgow Irish’. The most obnoxious McCallum quote in the article is ‘When I was on leave from the army, I’d go to Celtic Park and sing IRA songs. There were thousands of soldiers like me.’ This seeks to contextualize condemnation of the actions of the British army in Northern Ireland, or republican sympathies and anti-imperialist beliefs, purely within the realm of football. They are produced by and part of ‘footballing hothouse that is the west of Scotland’ and McCallum even explains the mechanism by which they are born: ‘If Rangers do anything the natural reaction of Celtic supporters is to oppose it’. Geoghean and McCallum are saying, in other words, that these political positions exist purely and exclusively within the context of football rivalries and are not legitimate, tenable, realistic political positions. Celtic fans react and act within the realm of football and the realm of football alone. Their politics are not politics. They are symptoms of football. Moreover these symptomatic positions depend on a collective amnesia about the history of Celtic football club, the history of Glasgow’s population descended from an Irish diaspora (he doesn’t mention why this diaspora came to Glasgow, mind you), and the history of the First World War.
Firstly, and only in passing, the picture at the top of Geoghean’s article is the Green Brigade’s anti-Poppy display from two seasons ago. Last season when the minutes silence was being observed the Green Brigade stood in the concourse and boycotted the minute’s silence. Anyone who wanted to observe it observed it, whoever didn’t waited in the concourse and let others do it. Which isn’t to agree with or condone the Poppy and the minute’s silence but Celtic is a football club open and welcome to all (is this another example of Celtic’s natural reaction to oppose anything Rangers do?) and this was a show of concession for those amongst the support who wanted to do it. A show of concession from the supporters, not the club, because the club, by having that minutes silence, gave those amongst the support offended by the Poppy campaign and who remember family members and ancestors killed by (and in) the British army, no such courtesy.
The main point that has to be made is that this article features a popular reductionist reading of the Poppy campaign. Geoghean writes about Celtic’s involvement in the First World War and, except for attempting to depoliticize republican sympathies by implying that McCallum would sing ‘IRA songs’ in between tours of Northern Ireland, doesn’t mention anything else that the British army has been involved in throughout history. Geoghean’s view of the Poppy campaign is reductionist because he attempts to write out by omission massive portions of the history of the British army and refuses to analyse the army itself. Here’s the reality of the Poppy campaign: it does not discriminate. It valorises all British soldiers in all conflicts throughout history equally and in a triumphalist discourse of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Geoghean ironically quotes McCallum again in support of the Poppy campaign: ‘But remembrance should be a personal thing, not a political thing.’ If remembrance should be a personal thing then what is this all about? Why is this article being written? Why is it an issue if certain portions of the Celtic support’s personal conceptions of remembrance aren’t something that can be neatly partitioned within a state-sponsored discourse of us-versus-them?
Ultimately this article, like the majority of visible discourse about Celtic and the Poppy campaign, is trying to naturalize the message that it is wrong to not unconditionally support ‘our troops’ and by extension the crown and Parliament. Imagine working class people doing that!
The cliché is to post a Wilfred Owen poem at the end of an article like this to sum up the idea that the British state has been and continues to mercilessly use working class boys and girls as cannon fodder in protection of the interests of a bourgeoisie British few. It would draw together anti-imperialistic and working-class sentiments underneath the banner of the old lie and nicely sum up why opposition to the Poppy is a perfectly tenable and legitimate political position, and also contextualize articles like Geoghean’s within a discourse of deceit.
Here’s a war poem I prefer:
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Sassoon, ‘Suicide In The Trenches’