I’m sorry but you won’t find here the just-in-time-for-Christmas sports autobiography blockbusters. With just enough manufactured controversy to ensure blanket coverage when they are launched. Even a skim read will reveal that, on the contrary, they tell the reader very little they didn’t either know or suspect already.
Instead I would recommend a weighty volume of this sort. A Companion to Sport edited by David Andrews and Ben Carrington. The range of coverage from Monty Panesar to football’s 2010 World Cup is matched by the variety of insights, sport as a contested space being the overarching theme. As an academic book scandalously expensive, but any well-stocked library should have a copy.
As a writer Rob Steen straddles that frustrating divide between the academic and the journalistic. His new book Floodlights and Touchlines reveals the richness of writing this mix can sometimes produce. A living history of the relationship between the spectator and his, or increasingly as Rob chronicles, her sport. This is social history of the very highest standard. Simon Inglis is rightly renowned for his writing on the cultural significance of stadia and other sporting buildings. Simon’s Played in Britain project has helped transform our understanding of what these structures mean to their localities, and his latest account of this relationship, Played in London not only continues the richness of Simon’s explanation but is unarguably his finest book in this extraordinary Played in… series yet.
Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956 is a new edited volume, put together by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, which will be published this month by Manchester University Press. While not attempting to be a comprehensive overview of the far left in Britain over the last 60 years, the book looks to highlight new areas of historical research into these left-wing groups and movements that have often been overlooked by other scholars. The book includes contributions from activists, established academics and up-and-coming scholars, presenting chapters on a wide range of political organisations and the movements that they were involved with.
Although it has a hefty price tag for the hardback edition, the editors are hoping that a paperback edition will be published in 2015-16. A slightly cheaper hardback edition can be bought from here (if you are willing to buy from large corporations).
Below is an edited excerpt from the book’s introduction, giving an overview of the history of the British far left from 1956. The editors hope that it piques the interest of Socialist Unity readers and leads to a fruitful debate about how we look at the history of the far left in Britain. As Mark Perryman wrote about the book for Philosophy Football: “this is one for the activists, the old hands for the nostalgia trip of reading of old battles, the new wave to read of past mistakes and dream of not repeating them.”
The editors are also keen to hear of anyone doing research into the British far left, particularly on areas that have been overlooked in this volume. Please send them an email here.
In 1972, Tariq Ali, editor of the radical newspaper Black Dwarf and leading figure in the International Marxist Group (IMG), wrote in the introduction to his book, The Coming British Revolution:
The only real alternative to capitalist policies is provided by the revolutionary left groups as a whole. Despite their smallness and despite their many failings, they represent the only way forward1.
At the time, the British left appeared in the ascendancy. And yet, within a short while, the fortunes of the British left began to fall as sharply as they had risen. Certainly, by the end of the 1970s, the far left’s forward march, which had been gathering pace since the political eruptions of 1956 seemed – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – to have ‘halted’2. Thereafter, the British far left continued to debate how best to react to the changes in the political, economic and social landscape that occurred under Margaret Thatcher and New Labour. In so doing, it realigned itself, fractured and evolved as new struggles emerged to test preconceptions and continually thwart the expected ‘breakthrough’. Whatever way you shape it, the revolution did not come around. Nevertheless, the far left played its part in shaping what remains an on-going historical epoch, challenging social mores and providing a dissenting voice within the British body politic.
Outlining the history of the British far left
The year 1956 may be seen as representing ‘year zero’ for the British left. Prior to this, the CPGB had dominated the political field to the left of the Labour Party. The party had grown out of the unification of several socialist groups in 1920 and gradually built itself as the radical alternative to Labour during the inter-war period. By the end of the Second World War, its membership was over 40,000 and the leftwards shift by the electorate in the 1945 general election gave the Party hope that the transformation of British society towards socialism was imminent. The 1945 election saw the CPGB win two parliamentary seats and was soon followed by 215 communist councillors elected at a municipal level3. Simultaneously, the party began to suffer in the face of the anti-communist hysteria that came with the onset of Cold War. Even then, its promotion of a parliamentary road to socialism and a future Communist-Labour alliance ensured that it maintained a foothold in the British labour movement.
Trotskyism and left-communism developed as two oppositional currents in the Communist Party during the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until the post-war period that British Trotskyism really emerged as an alternative left-wing movement to the CPGB. The genesis of post-war British Trotskyism can be traced back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which contained all of the subsequent leading figures of the Trotskyist movement and held the position of the official British representative of the Fourth International between 1944 and 1949. The RCP made some headway in the rank and file of the trade unions, particularly by supporting strikes when the CPGB was still promoting co-operation with the government, as well as in the anti-fascist activism against Mosley’s newly-formed Union Movement. However, the RCP soon split over questions concerning entrism within the Labour Party and how the Fourth International should view the ‘People’s Democracies’ of Eastern Europe. By 1956, Gerry Healy’s The Club (soon after the SLL) was the main Trotskyist group in Britain, with the others being relegated to discussion groups or journals in this period.
Such alignments across the British left would change in 1956. Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of personality’ that arose around Stalin and admission that crimes had been committed during Stalin’s reign had a major impact on the CPGB. While many party members wanted a discussion over the CPGB’s uncritical support for the Soviet Union, the leadership sought to quash any frank and open debate, particularly amongst the rank and file at branch or district level. Soviet intervention in Hungary later the same year only exacerbated matters, leading to some 8,000 people leaving the CPGB between February 1956 and February 1958.
Mark Perryman from Too much Christmas pud, cake and ale over the seasonal break? Feet up in front of the TV for an indecent chunk of the duration? Sport defined as watching it rather than doing it? The first few weeks of January are often the period to make a personal pledge to get active, lose those bulges and finally dust off those long-forgotten running shoes, a bike, pair of swimming trunks or whatever and put them to the use they were intended for. A month later ending up back at square one, well that’s certainly the case for most of modern, inactive, Britain. Why has sport evolved into a multibillion global industry yet activity plummets, obesity rockets? This New Year resolution reading list might help us to understand why, and vitally do something about it too. Click to continue reading →
Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football provides a guide for books to give the Leftist in your life this Christmas
Cheer up, it could be worse? Well, under this hapless government probably not but a bit of seasonal present-giving might at least keep the temptations of miserabilism at bay. 2014 will mark the start of the 1914 centenary hoopla, you know the thing ‘ The War to End All Wars’ and all that guff.A superb read therefore over the 12 days would be the poetry collection compiled by Carol Ann Duffy 1914 Poetry Remembers, moving and thought-provoking from the War Poets and today’s verse-writers too. An equally moving recollection is provided by Nicholas Rankin’s Telegram from Guernica. The extraordinary story of war reporter George Steer, and in particular how he smuggled out from Spain in full gruesome detail the horrific impact of the carpet bombing of Guernica. Steer was part of that 1930s generation who across the political spectrum were decisively shaped by the cause of anti-fascism. Idealism and commitment from another era, and continent in Beverley Naidoo’s beautifully written Death of An Idealist. Told in graphic and merciless detail, the tale of the murder by the Apartheid authorities of a young, white, doctor who had dedicated himself to providing medical help in South Africa’s Black townships. Click to continue reading →
It was three decades ago, in 1983, that Garry Whannel wrote the pioneering book Blowing the Whistle: The Politics of Sport. The book was part of a series ‘Arguments for Socialism’, created by The Socialist Society, an alliance of Left-wing thinkers writers and campaigners, and published by Pluto Press. Despite the dreadful defeats at the hands of Thatcherism , and the jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands War the Left felt livelier, more open-minded and with a greater sense of ambition and purposefulness than it sometimes does today. Garry’s book, reminding the Left that sport and leisure matters was part of this liveliness. He summed up what was then a prevailing attitude both on the Left and the Right and remains largely the same 30 years on today in the book’s neatest of phrases. “Sport is marked down as a natural, taken-for-granted activity. You don’t need to talk or write about it. You just do it.” The book was a few years ago republished in an updated and revised form Culture, Politics and Sport and remains one of the defining texts for any serious understanding of sport.
One of the huge changes since Garry Whannel wrote those words is the breadth and number of sports books published. David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: What Makes The Perfect Athlete is the kind of book, immersed as it is in the nurture vs nature debate, that connects sport, knowingly or unknowingly, to much broader issues and reveals it as anything but ‘Just Done’. Incisive, a book that examines the varied conditions that creates sport’s winners . A very different approach to the same subject was offered by Christopher McDougall in his classic book Born to Run. This is sport as anthropology, examining the phenomenal endurance running of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico then translating this into a manifesto for the simple appeal of running, including in its purest form, barefoot.
The bare essentials is hardly how the modern sport of cycling is best described. With the genius behind the two-wheeled success of Team GB and Team Sky Dave Brailsford describing his philosophy as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ the attention paid to the smallest engineering, physiological and psychological detail is obvious. It is an evolution that is retold quite thrillingly in Edward Pickering’s book The Race Against Time. This is the story of the 1990s rivalry of Chris Boardman vs Graeme Obree and their battle for the one hour track cycling record. Boardman remains well-known today thanks to his TV work as a pundit, Obree meanwhile has become a virtual recluse, a superbly gifted athlete who doubles up as an inventor. Its a great story, which in many ways created the base for the later success of Hoy, Pendleton, Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome and Trott. The story behind the most successful sport in British sporting history, track and road cycling, is revealed in an honest and well-written account provided by Team GB Elite Coach and Team Sky Performance Manager Rod Ellingworth in his book Project Rainbow. One of the most refreshing aspects of cycling as a sport is the key protagonists’ willingness to engage openly with their public. Cycling ‘s openness may be in part due to the legacy of the criminal cover-ups that we now know dominated the Armstrong era but whatever the reason it is a sport now keen readers can acquire a fill and proper insight into, Rod Ellingworth’s book is testament to that. The same can be said for two autobiographies from cyclists who straddle cycling ‘ Before and after Wiggo ‘. For years Sean Yates was by far and away the most successful British rider in the Tour de France since Tommy Simpson. Then came Cavendish, Froome and most of all Wiggins. After retiring from racing Sean Yates was to become Team Sky’s Race Director and a figure central to Wiggins’ 2012 Tour victory. His book It’s All About The Bike is a great and once again revealing book . Easy Rider by former racer Rob Hayles covers a slightly later period. As the success of track cycling began to take off after British success at the Athens 2004 Olympics, eventually to be translated into success on the road too. Rob Hayles was one of the pioneers of that breakthrough and provides a fascinating account of the reasons why British cycling became, and remains, such a success story.
Socialist sportswriter Gareth Edwards makes an interesting case in a three-party online essay for taking the playful appeal of sport seriously. To that end many of these books are about only one, distinctly minority, aspect of sport, competition at an elite level. Most of us who ‘do’ sport just do it for leisure, recreation and pleasure Some compete, most don’t, and it is competitive sport that has suffered the most severe decline in levels of participation. The Rules : The Way of the Cycling Disciple is in this regard a very different kind of sports book. Its about the likes of us who are never going to win a race let alone enter a national, European or World Championship for glory .We just get on our bikes to stretch ourselves in the cause of some kind of enjoyment. That’s not to say such sport doesn’t have its own culture and this book seeks to catalogue precisely this, with a touch of ultra-narcissism on occasion. But perhaps we need to broaden our definition of sport, or at least physical activities much broader, to include the recreational. It would be hard to justify ‘walking’ as any kind of sport, but it is the most common form of physical activity most of us take pat in, sometimes with a dog, a relationship wonderfully chronicled in Harry Pearson’s book Hound Dog Days.
Once the football season starts, and nowadays it never seems to end, most other sports, never mind any coverage of recreational, and non-competitive sports are pushed off the back pages to the exclusion of coverage of almost anything apart from football. Two recent biographies, Dennis Bergkamp’s Stillness and Speed and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s I Am Zlatan get to grips with football’s undoubted appeal to the fans. Both are a pleasant respite from the ghost-written dross served up by most players, and managers, including Ferguson’s non-revelatory latest. Perhaps because in both cases these are foreign players, writing for a non-English audience, with well chosen co-writers, in Bergkamp’s case the superlative David Winner. And the result are books that begin to explore in a serious way football’s enduringly hegemonic appeal, now on a global scale. Mike Carson’s The Manager is a different kind of endeavour, putting fans’, and the media’s, obsession with football’s managers in a broader context of the cult of managerialism, framed primarily by business culture. Insightful and thought-provoking, a great read for the next time a club’s manager is sacked. Lose to a rival, and any manager is going to be under pressure. In world football few rivalries provoke such interest and passion as Real vs Barca. Sid Lowe’s Fear and Loathing in La Liga is unsurprisingly very good, Sid Lowe is the always well-informed Spanish football correspondent of the Guardian. Combining the historical, cultural, political because as Garry Whannel had patiently explained 30 years ago sport is shaped by all three and there’s not a better example of this truism than Barca vs Real , which Sid Lowe explains with an eye for detail and pacey writing to create a really good read. Spain are of course the reigning European and World Champions, England meanwhile have managed to squeeze past Montenegro, Poland and the Ukraine to at least qualify for World Cup 2014 but with no one, including the team captain, expecting them to get anywhere close to winning the tournament. What’s new? No semi-final appearance by England since Euro ’96, one single semi-final appearance at a tournament outside of England, at Italia ’90. So in a sense why are so many of us surprised when England’s prospects remain so dire? A combination of the ’66 legacy, the burden of Imperial history, two World Wars oh and inventing the game, plus the self-appointed Greatest League in the World. For a coach-centred grassroots analysis of what is wrong with a football culture incapable of producing enough technically gifted players to muster a decent national team there’s no better book than Matthew Whitehouse’s outstanding The Way Forward: Solutions to England’s Football Failings.
Nine years after Garry Whannel’s socialist analysis of sport was published Nick Hornby wrote the best-selling Fever Pitch. The rest is, publishing, history. The bookshop shelves are heaving with an ever-expanding range of sports titles, many of them treat sport in that ‘just done it’ unproblematic way that Garry critiqued. In his own way Nick Hornby taught us something different, the meaning of sport in general, football in particular, the way that it connects with us emotionally, as individuals, impacting on our relationships, and group loyalties. Hornby wrote in that most feminine of styles the confessional and his writing touched his audience, mainly male, in a previously unheard of way because of it. Two decades on much of today’s sportswriting has reverted to type, but there remain precious exceptions.
My book of the sporting quarter stands out precisely because it is is exceptional. Author Michael Calvin’s previous book on Millwall, Family: Life, Death and Football already stood serious comparison with Fever Pitch as an all-time sportswriting classic. With his new book The Nowhere Men Calvin has produced an even better book. The extraordinary, and untold, tale of football’s Scouts, how talent is discovered, often missed, recruited by the clubs, looked after, not always very well, and ends up the other end as a Premier League superstar. Sportswriting at its very best, investigative, compelling and revealing.
No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing from the tax-dodgers please do so.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football }
Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Fifty years later, the speech endures as a defining moment in the civil rights movement. It continues to be heralded as a beacon in the ongoing struggle for racial equality.
Discussing his new book The Speech, author Gary Younge skillfully captures the spirit of that historic day in Washington and offers a new generation of readers a critical modern analysis of why “I Have a Dream” remains America’s favourite speech.
Misogyny. No other word can capture the avalanche of abuse that was heaped upon Caroline Criado-Perez, Stella Creasy, Mary Beard and other women just under a month ago. It was frightening and disturbing. Misogyny, after all, is one of those things official society thought was dealt with in the dim and distant. If women marched and protested in the 1970s, then the Spice Girls and Girl Power in the 1990s signalled women’s integration into society as equals. It was done. Women were happy working, raising families, and shopping. Just like men. The rape threats and violent language directed at the aforementioned has forced society into having a conversation it didn’t think was needed, and why a minority of men work to bully, harass and hound women who do have a public platform.
Growing up at the tail end of the Analogue Age, I didn’t go on the Internet until I was 18 and at university. Back then, in the mid-1990s, it was a clunky thing. All you could really do was skip from one website to another, sign up to email lists, join an intentional community or (text-based) role-playing outfit, chat, or, horror of horrors, subscribe to Usenet groups. But for all that it promised something new. It was a digital frontier thinly peopled by a brave few pioneers and homesteaders. At this point, just as hype about the Internet was building in wider culture, cyberspace – a term that barely gets used any more – was a place of hopes and dreams. True, even then there was a moralising undercurrent about the ubiquity of porn, but in the main the emerging internet culture flowed with utopian naivete. The Internet offered disembodied forms of communication where our gendered, colour-coded bodies no longer mattered. We could relate to each other as human beings and not as appendages of the categories society liked to slot us into. It offered a promise where gender, sexuality and race were completely up for redefinition. Or at least went the claims of early philosophers and academic cheerleaders. Digital sociology and cultural studies had a soft job of tracking and reporting on the negotiation and emergence of new identities, new tribes.
The past, as they say, is a foreign country. Reading Laurie Penny’s latest book, Cybersexism, I was struck by the very different online lives we had, 10 years apart, at the same age. She writes the Internet “was a place where I could be my ‘real’ self, rather than the self imposed by the ravening maw of girl-world that seemed to be opening to swallow me up.” (p.6) The 10 year difference meant Laurie was maturing when the formerly clear-cut division between online and offline was blurring. More and more, participation in the spaces the Internet afforded required users collapse the distinction between the two. Laurie credits LiveJournal for learning “not just how to write, but how to speak and listen, how to understand my own experience and raise my voice” (p.9). But being online now requires that one comes out of the ‘gender closet’ and as a woman with something to say. One risks becoming fair game for misogynist attacks. For example, recalling a journo party a couple of years ago she mentions how a young man “in an overstuffed M&S suit” let her know the website he worked for had acquired some photos from her Facebook profile, photos that were of the playful, semi-nude and ever-so-slightly risque kind. They were going to publish them. Why would someone go out of their way to acquire juvenile pictures, and then use them in such a way to threaten, belittle and intimidate if it wasn’t about men feeling they had power over a woman?
This is just an example of how patriarchal social relations conspire to keep women in their place. For years, the press and successive governments have warned parents, young women, and girls about the dangers of grooming, of harassment and sexualisation that awaits at the end of a mouse click. There’s always a horror story that can be told, or rumours related of slut-shaming websites that will destroy a girl’s reputation forever. Social media’s dominant platforms – Facebook and Twitter – are technologies of open surveillance. The possibility of being watched, at any time, by a parent, a teacher, a boss, a police officer, or a misogynistic troll is ever present. This is Bentham’s Panopticon writ large, the ever-present potential of getting seen and therefore caught out. Hence certain habits are inculcated, a certain conduct becomes the way to behave. And speaking up as a woman about politics and gender, that definitely is not acceptable. In this respect, the new surveillance technologies are a mere extension of the kind of scrutiny women’s bodies and behaviour have always attracted. Though, in quite an apposite point, Laurie notes that surveillance technology has brought home to men how they too are now surveilled in the same way.
Naturally, any discussion of cybersexism cannot ignore pornography. Of it, Laurie notes “online misogyny, like any other misogyny, is about power, resentment and frustration, and not about sexual overstimulation, although it can be sexually expressed” (p.16). Therefore Internet porn isn’t inherently sexist, though many of the tropes it features are congruent with rape culture. Interestingly, while Laurie rejects differentiating between online and “real” sexuality she notes that the corporates who dominate the web are terrified of allowing porn slip onto its networks. Hence for anyone active with social media and uses the Internet for sexual activity, there has to be a split between the public-facing performances of self and the other, however that is lived out. Similarly, attempts to regulate the Internet in the name of Protecting Our Children From Sick Filth lets patriarchy off the hook. Banning it, or splitting porn away into a twilight existence prevents a public conversation from developing about sex in the Internet age, and in particular questioning the misogynistic degradation of women in a lot of mainstream het porn. It seems the only “polite” conversation about porn that is permissible is when a performer contracts HIV.
Women therefore are expected to behave in a certain way, and how misogyny can frame women’s depiction in porn is taboo – at best it’s a private matter, and at worst porn in general is something to crusade against. It is as if Internet culture has drawn a veil over women’s behaviour and women’s bodies. So when a woman is “unwomanly” enough to draw back that veil and uses a public platform to campaign on something as relatively innocuous as women’s representation on banknotes, they’re asking for it. The storm of sexist hate that fell on Caroline Criado-Perez’s shoulders came as a troubling wake up call for everyone on the left. I had known about instances of misogynistic bullying of women online in the past. Indeed, Laurie herself had previously written about it. But the volume and extremity of the abuse was something else, and I think came as a deep shock to many – women and men both. However, by making itself visible it has galvanised a pro-feminist backlash against it. Bigotry, usually hidden away in whispers or behind closed doors, has come into the open. It has provided a handy focal point to rally against.
The big question, of course, is how to go about it. Cybersexism, though readily identifiable, is a dispersed series of memes, tropes, and attitudes. They are not a series of wrong ideas that can be sorted out by a civilised one-to-one over Skype. Online misogyny is rooted in some (young) men’s responses to how masculinity is lived and experienced, in particular the gradual but real erosion of gendered privileges associated with it. Addressing what I understand by a “crisis” of masculinity (and its attendant social pathologies, including this) is beyond the scope of Laurie’s book. But the suggestion she does make is, despite not having any illusions in its own problematic relationship to gender and masculinity, the exploration of an alliance between feminism and geek culture. In general, geek culture does value personal autonomy and freedom from censorship. If it can be shown that those values are shared values, and that cybersexism presents a fundamental threat to them then feminists might have a powerful ally that can root out misogyny. After all, Anonymous has form unmasking hate pedlars, such as this charmer.
Cybersexism is a short book packed with insights about the recoding of gender in the digital age, up to and including male privilege, rape culture, and trophy wife syndrome. It’s also a book about women’s appreciation of the opportunities the Internet offers and how patriarchy’s misogynist excrescences tries to deny them to half of the population. And as well as all of these, it’s a call to arms. Laurie’s is an important contribution to the ‘new’ feminism, and stands every chance of becoming an influential one.
After Wiggo, London 2012, Murray in New York, The Ryder Cup and Chelsea winning the Champions League it looked like last summer could never be bettered. And then this summer began… Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews a selection of books that explain sporting success, and failure.
The Lions series victory in Australia, Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon, Froome making it two British Le Tour wins in a row, Mo in Moscow, a home Ashes win as well. Summer sporting success is something the Brits are starting to become accustomed to.
Two new books help us to understand the meaning of sport’s enduring, and huge popularity, as well as how economic and social change impacts on the organisation, consumption and performance of sport. Sport in Capitalist Society by Tony Collins is a highly readable historical account from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day of how capitalism has served to shape sport. Victorian morality, Empire, the Cold War, globalisation and much more are each detailed in terms of how they served to change sport.Add all the insights together and a comprehensive picture of today’s marketisation of sport is provided. Edited by Michael Lavalette Capitalism and Sport has a more activist-based approach to the subject. The range is amazing, including cycling, cricket, rugby league, tennis, football and more. The tone is angry yet never fails to be appreciative of the sports the authors clearly hugely enjoy despite their opposition to the economic structure that frames their fandom and participation. An invaluable guide for sporting summers past, present and future. Click to continue reading →
Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football provides a beach reading round up for those who take their politics on holiday with them
The silly season? For the Westminster bubble it would be hard to identify a month in the year when ‘silly’ isn’t too soft an epithet to describe what most MPs get up to, supposedly on our behalf. But with Parliament in recess the commentariat like to spread the idea that politics is taking a break too. A politics reduced to the Cameron v Miliband knockabout is something plenty of us can’t get to the beach quick enough to escape from. A broader definition of politics, one that engages with the everyday, the popular, the cultural is something that subverts and is the starting point for a political summer books list that would liven up any reading to be done on the beach, or anywhere else for that matter. Click to continue reading →