A wilder people I never saw in England; the men, women, and children filled the street as we rode along, and appeared just ready to devour us.
So the Methodist leader John Wesley described his travels in Huddersfield in 1757. Plus ça change, then, according to the riders through the first and second stages of the 2014 Tour de France. That professional sports celebrities don´t always seem too keen to meet their adoring public is hardly new (and yet an understandable reaction to the sense of public ownership over them). But trying to tease out what was happening on the Tour´s visit to England has unsurprisingly raised a range of views: Dave Brailsford, the self-styled father of British cycling, and Robert Miller – “cycling the winner” -have little difficulty connecting the dots between patriotism and popular support; while the regular bike-riding Mary Beard admits to not seeing the point of the Tour, and Howard Jacobson asks:
But still the crowds gather, wave flags, point phones and cheer. So what are they cheering? There can be only one answer to that. Themselves. They have secured an unrivalled view of something not worth seeing simply for the sake of securing it. They can tweet they were there. At the event. What event? Any event. Because being at an event beats not being at an event.*
Two themes stand out for my part. First, the public got little value for their support. If the Tour returns let´s hope that an effort is made to provide both a genuine sporting occasion and a spectacle. Stage 2 should have been a test of the riders and teams -an extended team time trial would have sufficed, rather than conniving with the machinations of the peleton.
Second, while half the fun of watching the Tour from the sofa is looking at the countryside of northern Europe, the helicopter shots also illustrate the shortcomings of landscape approaches.
Consider: in the period from the 1780s to 1830s the Tree of Liberty was firmly planted throughout the first and second stages – that is through some the more contested areas of the English political landscape, where the French, industrial and urban revolutions crashed into one another – that witnessed the struggles of the English Jacobins, the weavers, croppers, colliers, artisans, the ´mechanics´, and the new factory-based working class, against the ´Church and King´ mobs of the counter-revolutionary regime, Old Corruption, and the ideologues of laissez-faire orthodoxy. Sounds familiar.
Early industrialisation´s most egregious characteristic (and national shame) was child labour in the mills and the factories. The wholesale destruction of traditional skilled labour based on hand-operated looms in the upland weaving villages took place with the establishment of mills in rural villages such as Aysgarth, Skipton, Keithley, and in larger towns such as Huddersfield, Bradford and Leeds. The cotton industry begat the growth of the ´manufactories´and the opening of coal mining and iron production. From the helicoper we are shown a disneyfied view of the Yorkshire landscape, in which industrial and housing estates are distant or unseen.
It was a time of widespread political debate, bookended by Thomas Paine´s Rights of Man, and the Poor Man´s Guardian, together with political activism – from the Luddites in the Holmfirth valley in 1812, the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, the establishment of early cooperatives (for example in Ripponden in the 1830s with it´s stated fundamental principle that “… labour is the source of all wealth; consequently the working classes have created all wealth”), and to the Chartists, culminating in the reforms of parliament starting with the Reform Act of 1932 and trade unionism.
Many of the descendants of those ´wilder people´ (the displaced rural families, migrant labourers) celebrating the Tour´s Grand Départ continue the fight for a social contract that counters present day inequality, through for example a living income, and the fractured economy and against state and corporate corruption and surveillance, and that seeks solutions to environmental crises that currently paralyse our political parties.
* the romantic Bryon would counter: “The great object of life is sensation- to feel that we exist, even though in pain.”