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Strai(gh)tened Times - History
By David Walsh

Nelson Mandela

Know your history: your future may well depend on it!

History is a complex and contested issue. Everywhere we look accounts of the past are contradictory and contentious. A few years ago here on SpeedwayPlus two stalwarts of Long Eaton Speedway, Reg Fearman and John Bailey, had a minor spat over their recollections of events at Station Road in the 1960s. Happily, through the democratic medium of the internet, both were able to have their say and come to some kind of amicable understanding over the events in question. The exchange is now written down, archived and part of speedway's historical record.

That particular example is instructive as to why history matters. It tells us who we are, where we've come from and, if we're lucky, it will help us understand the present and show a path toward an enlightened future. That would be the hope, anyway.

You'll be familiar with the dictum, "history is written by the victors." There's a good reason why writing the history matters to the victors. If history can be somehow 'owned,' then the way we see our place in the world and that future path can be honed, too. In this sense writing history is, in fact, all about maintaining power and influence. Hence, another expression that perfectly sums up history as a contested space would be: "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist."

That adage is, of course, very topical considering world affairs over the past decade. While not condoning acts of terrorist violence by anyone, including those carried out by the state, one wonders what, exactly, would have been the fate of revered world statesman, Nelson Mandela, had the practice of drone warfare been the norm during his armed struggle against the racist apartheid regime of South Africa? Mandela's story, going from 'terrorist' to great African leader, illustrates how the passing of time can alter our perception of what has gone before, depending on new, hard evidence, the release of formerly censored archives or the all too slow evolution of civilised human values.

The process of acquiring documented versions of history is central to our culture; history needs to be written or recorded before we recognise its validity. A rule of thumb in television news, for example, is that if the pictures don't exist, the event 'didn't happen,' so dependent have we become on visual verification. In other cultures, and in bygone ages, oral tradition is and has been the accepted method of remembering.

In his book, The Great Peace of Montreal, 1701, author Gilles Havard quotes a European negotiator expressing his astonishment at the precise recollections amongst natives of conversations held years before in previous treaty negotiations. Those skills, listening and remembering, are in danger of being lost in our heavily mediated society. Now, we needn't remember anything, just a quick visit to Wikipedia or the family photo album seems to suffice these days.

Happily, the sport of speedway provides the means to precisely document the turn of events at the arena through the process of completing a programme. It's one of the unsung attractions of the speedway experience. Decried by many as 'anorak-ish,' filling in a programme without mistakes is not only a minor challenge in itself, but also represents the making of a valuable historical document that tells the story of a meeting in hard numerical facts. Of course, a programme's editorial adds depth to the 'story' while passionate discourse and chat on the terraces allows for that magical element of 'living the history' for those with a ticket and bearing witness from the stands.

All of these things adds up to a sporting experience that in some fundamental way serves as a microcosm of history being played out on a universal scale: an allegory, if you like, of life itself. That may be stretching it a bit in most people's eyes, but the drama as it unfolds at the speedway track is without doubt inextricably linked to the greater dramas being played-out beyond the stadium walls, out in the wider world.

That could be classed as an inconvenient truth for most speedway supporters. One of the main motivations for attending the speedway is precisely to forget that wider world for two or three hours. One of the joys of all sport, in fact, is to experience some other-worldly excitement, a diversion, if you like, from every-day life, and a great speedway race certainly provides that.

But is it possible to completely divorce oneself from the outside world and focus on an interest in speedway to the extent that nothing else matters other than those numbers that fill up the middle pages of a programme? I don't think it is possible and nor do I think we should try to separate those things out. That's a view that goes some way towards explaining this series of writing, Strai(gh)tened Times, here on SpeedwayPlus.

I know that many people will disagree with what I've attempted here and believe that the themes I've covered over the past few weeks have no place on a dedicated speedway website. Well, to those people I say: fear not, this week's submission is the last one of the series! You could say that straitened times are history at last, hoorah! Well, not so fast, it's not over yet. If only it was, I hear you plead. No, first a bit more...History...

To quote Karl Marx: "[Georg] Hegel says somewhere that, upon the stage of universal history, all great events and personalities reappear in one fashion or another. He forgot to add that, on the first occasion they appear as tragedy; on the second, as farce."

This Marx quote (history repeating itself as farce) has certainly become an oft-quoted cliché. Marx meant it as a satire on mid-nineteenth century revolutionary France. However, of current affairs it could also be applied to the great banking crash of 2008, the second such crash in just eighty years (yes, back to that subject again, but it is quite important, you know!). And it begs the question: how farcical would history be if it was repeated many times over, not just once? Just how farcical could it get? Could making great historical mistakes repeatedly simply be put down to forgetfulness? Would forgetfulness be enough to explain yet another banking crash in a few decades time?

With all our knowledge and experience we should surely know enough from history the causes of such calamitous economic implosions like the one experienced in 2008. And, despite what you may have read in the tabloids, the causes of our current economic plight can't seriously be levelled at single teenage mothers, the poor, disability claimants or those who can't find regular employment. This neoliberal economy of ours is beset by systemic problems and needs reasonable regulations to be imposed by strong government for stability and to avoid a repetitive cycle of historic booms and great crashes. Why, it's almost as if someone somewhere wanted the crash of 2008 to happen!

Meanwhile, it was reported on 16th January that Goldman Sachs planned to defer paying its staff their bonuses until after the start of the new tax year, in April. Its bankers would then pay less on their hand-outs since the top rate of income tax is due to fall from 50% to 45%.

Clearly, corporations and wealthy bankers continue to accumulate more wealth through tax-breaks, tax-havens and City bonuses, while everyone else is subjected to a bitter programme of public services cuts and austerity, which is especially hard on the most disadvantaged in our society. It's utterly scandalous. Perhaps Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" provides the answer for what's really going on?

So, why talk about all of this (again) in relation to speedway? Well, I've kind of already answered that, but to be more specific it's necessary to return to the concept and practice of oral tradition.

This is going to be contentious but, quite simply, many years ago my father verbally passed on to me a quote about speedway history he'd come across either in the speedway press or programme which was attributed to a long-serving, experienced and well respected promoter. Word-of-mouth from a trusted source is the bedrock of oral tradition and I trust that the message my father passed-on was accurate. He told me that the promoter in question had stated that, whether national or local, "speedway only thrives in this country when there is a Labour government," or words to that effect. That was it. No further quotes to corroborate or evidence presented. Is the quote worth repeating? I don't know. I will do anyway because if it has any merit at all it's surely of interest to regular readers of SpeedwayPlus. Here it is: "Speedway only thrives in this country when there is a Labour government."

The reasoning behind such a view, I believe, could only be that under Labour in postwar Britain the predominantly working-class masses tended to be generally better off and could afford to follow an array of leisure pursuits, spectating at the speedway being one of them.

Well, what to make of this? It implies that, conversely, speedway tends to suffer under a Conservative government.

I haven't examined this question at all and so have no idea whether such a statement can be justified. Very quickly, I suppose, you could identify when the country has been hit with economic recessions and increased unemployment over the years and see who was in government and draw a conclusion from that. Or perhaps look at when speedway tracks have shown a tendency to either open or close and match those periods to the political cycle.

For me, all that would be far too simplistic, particularly in recent years when on the major questions concerning Britain's governance the main political parties have more or less accepted a post-Thatcher neoliberal consensus. New Labour's shift to the right in the 1990s certainly 'muddied the waters' where clear demarcation lay in British politics. It's a shift that goes a fair way to explain the growing popularity of the Scottish National Party and the emerging possibility of the break-up of the UK itself.

So, no, there isn't a ready answer to this one. It would take an in-depth study of speedway's sociological history to verify or refute an assertion that speedway's fortunes fared better or worse under governments of different political colours, and there certainly isn't scope to do that here. I would suggest such a study could be the basis for an excellent and original doctoral thesis. Speedway has been cruelly dismissed and over-looked by many public institutions over the years, academia included, and a close, wide-ranging and objective analysis of the sport's history would be a welcome addition to Britain's social archives.

Furthermore, such a history of speedway could also prove valuable in understanding and addressing problems that currently beset the sport. I note with interest a live thread on the British Speedway Forum which seeks to identify the beginning of speedway's perceived general decline, and one contributor, perhaps jokingly, blamed it on Margaret Thatcher! That comment/joke certainly chimes with the view of our promoter, cited above, though overall it's a subject that deserves some well thought-out answers if speedway folk, notably present-day promoters, seriously seek them. Maybe then we could set about formulating some well thought-out solutions to speedway's perceived problems and light-up the way for a more 'well-prepared track' into the future. So, whether political party good, or political party bad, I'm simply going to leave it at that.

To conclude, Hegel may well have believed that great world-historical events and personalities appear, so to speak, twice, though we mustn't forget the farce! Something else Hegel said was that, "we learn from history that we do not learn from history!" Aye, that sounds more like it.

More recently in an influential book of 1992, "the end of history," no less, was confidently declared by neoconservative 'cheerleader,' Francis Fukuyama, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Well, contemporary political developments in South America and the rise of China seem to have put paid to such delusions.

Wonderfully, amongst the aboriginal traditions of Australia there was no concept of past, present or future. In hundreds of dialects and languages there existed no word for time. Theirs was/is the mystery (to us) of the Dreaming. For the Australian aborigines, history, as a linear notion of progress, simply didn't exist at all.

Therefore, you may well ask, what exactly is this history of ours? Does it really matter? Is it, in fact, just a dream? Or a make-believe confection, if you will, made up by society's victors?

To help dispel such cynicism, I have met marvellous historians in Britain and North America whose commitment to history as a rigorously objective discipline can't help but contribute positively to human understanding. Conversely, however, epistemological nihilists would say that history, whatever the provenance, but perhaps official history in particular, was all just rubbish, no matter what. Hmm, you needn't be a nihilist to learn a little something from that, though, on balance, I'd definitely side with those champions of objective rigour.

How does this relate to speedway again? Staying true to past form I'd put it like this:

Complete your
Programme right
Or bookmark the
Researcher website

Those figures
Ain't for dreaming
Those figures
Convey meaning

What's more, they tell
The purest form
Of history
You ever could
Be reading!

In short: Pay attention; make sure what your figures say makes sense; and, most important, don't believe the hype!

So, the History of Strai(gh)tened Times. We thought it was all over...but now it is!



This article was first published on 27th January 2013


  • Tracy Holmes:

    "Good heavens! Had to look up my dictionary for sure. 'epistemology'; the theory of knowledge, the critical study of its validity, methods and scope. 'Nihillism'; a total denial of all established authority and institutions. Well, to be honest, I still dont get it BUT, I do like the line "Complete your programme right."

    There were 21 stagings of The Internationale and I have a complete file of its history with all 21 programmes. [ umm, not quite complete, I do need a snap of the 1981 top 3 if anyone can help?] Sadly, one programme was filled in completely wrong. Was someone just having a laugh or were they there under protest and just pretended to be getting it right? Who would know. Thankfully newspapers and magazines carrying correct results negate such practices.

    But is it important? Who really cares? History does need to be kept accurate and correct, otherwise people can re-write it to suit their own narcissism. So as a speedway nut and amateur historian, I go all out to make sure things are right and if that means exposing lies, no matter who tells them, so be it. Im not at all sorry for that. I do feel sorry, however for people who applaud such practices. But it's between them and their conscience. If what I have said makes no sense to what the article was about, I do apologise! I have certainly enjoyed, if not fully understood the read."

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