Here comes the summer of sport

Mark Perryman reviews the best of this summer’s sports books

Circus Maximus - coverEnglish football’s Premiership (sic), the best league in the world? The same 4 clubs, well give or take one perhaps, could be jotted down on a scrap of paper every August with a cast-iron guarantee they will fill the Champions League places, year in, year out. Tedium, its the brand value the Premiership has become past masters at providing, yet barely a word of dissent ever breaks through the breathless excitement football’s boosterists provide across the print, TV and radio media.

Meantime despite the sportification of society levels of participation in scarcely any form of physical activity continue to rocket downwards. Football, the richest and most high profile of all sports has amongst the sharpest rates of decline in numbers taking part, unless of course we count watching it from the comfort of our own sofa.

Cutting through sport-hype takes a combination of a love for and understanding of sport with a critique of all that it threatens to become. Jules Boykoff is a renowned expert at precisely this kind of combination, his latest book Activism and the Olympics provides a chronicle of activist opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and London 2012. Andrew Zimbalist does something similar over a longer timeframe, and taking in both the Olympics and Football World Cups. His conclusions in his book Circus Maximus are devastating, the socio-economic benefits of hosting are next to negligible and more often than not actually negative. Yet despite almost every pledge made by London 2012 remaining unfulfilled as Rio 2016 approaches the self-satisfied bandwagon that the Olympics has turned into will steamroll almost all critical voices into the margins. Perhaps what is needed to resist is the kind of ideological rigour that features amongst those profiled in the pioneering collection Sport and Revolutionaries edited by John Nauright and David Wiggins. Lenin and Che Guevara, who would have imagined the centrality they both gave sport and physical culture in the cause of human liberation? Or likewise social movements spanning Irish Republicanism, the overthrow of colonial regimes, anti-racism and civil rights. Each in their own ways , as essays in this excellent book recount, saw the importance of sport towards their ends. Two pleas though to an otherwise excellent publisher, Routledge. Why only the high-priced hardback edition limiting the sale to libraries? And why the standard, one-design-fits-all cover ? Both factors will seriously reduce the potential popular impact of what is an important book.

From the back page to the front room - coverGetting to grips with the enduring absence of a social, economic, political and cultural dimension of too much mainstream sportswriting is vital to any kind of appreciation of how sport is consumed. If is only via this kind of project that recreation and leisure will become framed by the contribution it makes towards human liberation rather than simply consumed as a big screen extravaganza. Roger Domenghetti’s superlative From the Back Page to the Front Room provides an unrivalled account of the evolution of football’s monopoly of the sports media, with interviews and insights that are both informative and compelling. Jamie Cleland provides something similar, if more wide-ranging, in A Sociology of Football in a Global Context. This is a textbook study of the new football, ranging over almost every subject the serious student of the game might want to consider. Same publishers as Sport and Revolutionaries so same two pleas apply! Hugo Borst’s O, Louis is a supreme example of how sportswriting can capture the cultural and the social at its best without any negative impact on its ability to reach and engage with a mass audience. Van Gaal, despite his modest first season at Man Utd, remains set to be one of the great characters of English football for some time to come. His foreignness, his Dutchness, every bit as intriguing as Wenger and Mourinho’s otherness, if not yet framed by the same degree of success.

A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White is an alternative history of football told via 100 quotations’ from ‘There is Great Noise in the City’ describing 1314 street football to World Cup 2014. Jim White is a great sportswriter, he has chosen his quotes carefully while providing his own informative yet idiosyncratic narrative. Brilliant! But words alone, however well-written, can never entirely capture the appeal of football. Edited by Reuel Golden Age of Innocence is a combination of the very best world photography of football in the 1970s with a skilfully written set of introductory commentaries about the decade. Age of Innocence? This is domestic football both before the Premiership but also prior to the Bradford Fire, Heysel and Hillsborough too. Three very different events but each in their own way defining football in the 1980s. A book of global reach too, the world of football depicted as much less of a corporate enterprise than it is now.

But how to push at the boundaries of the limited meaning that modern corporatised football has become? Firstly breakdown its gendering. A process that has accelerated in the twenty-first century, from lets say the near non-existent to the painfully slow. Events recorded very well in the new book by Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, Football and the FA Women’s Super League (sadly though another academic publisher with a standard boring cover and high priced library edition hardback only, why?) Second, confront and expose the corruption in the administration of the global game. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s The Ugly Game investigates in breathtaking detail the sheer magnitude of the corruption at the highest levels of FIFA. Third, provide practical examples of what an alternative might look like. Rather confusingly also titled The Ugly Game Martin Calladine’s book is a very welcome pioneering effort to do just that. Fourth, dump the ridiculous rhetoric embraced by fans as well as the corporate brand managers, that the Premiership is ‘the best league in the world’. It’s the richest yes, but in almost every other regard it is inferior to several others, most notably the German Bundesliga. Read Ronald Reng’s very good Matchdays to find out how German football gets by without foreign owners, clubs 51% owned by their fans, mainly German players on the pitch, drinking and standing on the terraces. Didn’t that use to be ‘the English way’ when Liverpool, Notts Forest and Villa won European Cups and an England side could make to it to a World Cup semi-final. All pre-Premiership no thankyou very much.

Football Italia - coverFew football books manage to provide the breadth and dept of insight with the very obvious passion for the game that Mark Doidge combines in writing Football Italia. From the country of Gramsci, Mussolini,post-war Eurocommunism, Berlusconi and more it is no surprise that Italian football also is a game of extremes. What Mark Doidge manages, definitively, to explain is how a nation’s football can never be divorced from how a national culture has been shaped too, all with a neat line in understanding why sometimes despite that process Italian football retains a fateful appeal for fans the world over.

It is only in English football’s ever-shortening summertime off-season that much of any other sport gets any kind of look in. And even that is reduced in a year of a World Cup or a Euro. For a fortnight or so the media will go overboard for the tennis at Wimbledon. Such coverage aided when the rivalry that singles tennis generates reaches out beyond the strawberries and Pimms brigade. Peter Bodo’s account, Ashe vs Connors records just such a moment from the faraway summer of 1975. This is sports writing as social history against the backdrop of towering personalities and supreme talent, all the makings of a really good sports book.

An Ashes Summer used to more or less guarantee a mass audience for cricket. But since the appallingly short-sighted decision of cricket’s governing body to dump free-to-air live TV coverage interest has plummeted and is unlikely ever to recover, despite what looks like a fast-improving England team. In his newly published autobiography Curtly Ambrose provides a compelling picture of the heights of popularity Test cricket once enjoyed. A thrilling West Indies team becoming a symbol of resistance, diaspora and nationhood. This was international sport at its very best, fiercely competitive, individuals combining for the common purpose of the team, imagined communities acquiring some semblance of the real. Will we see the like of it on a cricket pitch again? Possibly not. Rob Smyth like Jim White uses 100 quotations to track a sport’s history. This time, The Ashes in Gentlemen and Sledgers . Rob depicts the changes from the pre TV era, the broadening popularity of cricket via television and radio coverage, England’s return to glory in recent years and then the catastrophic decline on the pitch accompanied by the loss of terrestrial TV coverage. Despite all this the 5-day 5-test Ashes series remained throughout one of the most epic contests in the world of sport and Rob’s book helps us to appreciate the reasons why.

It is only in recent years that Le Tour has featured very much at all as part of the Great British sporting summer. In the era that William Fotheringham described in his classic biography of Italian cycling great Fausto Coppi Fallen Angel the 1940s and 1950s cycling up mountains was something best left to continental types. And the domestic popularity of cycling hadn’t changed so very much by the time of his latest biography, the greatest French cyclist Bernard Hinault in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it is by reading William’s books the latter-day domestic popularity of this most extraordinary drama of human endurance can begin to be accounted for. Alpe D’Huez by Peter Cossins accounts for the kind of physical achievement Grand Tour cycling represents via the challenge of just one epic mountain these cyclists are expected to climb on their two wheels. The greatest climb? Quite possibly, though the greatness perhaps lies in the realisation that for these cyclists once they have done one day’s climbing another follows, and another, with next to no respite. It is a sport that borders on the inhuman, the biggest single reason for the scourge of performance enhancing drugs that for a while threatened to engulf cycling. Yet with dedication these climbs, or something like them, can be done. This is the dream of the sporting everyman, or increasingly everywoman too. Ian McGregor’s To Hell on a Bike rather brilliantly tells just such a tale, an ordinary cyclist who trains himself to tackle Paris-Roubaix, widely regarded as the toughest of all the one-day classic cycle races.

deTour de Yorkshire - coverTwo Days in Yorkshire by Peter Cossins and Andrew Enton superbly captures with stunning photography and great prose the sheer magnitude of what Le Tour starting in Yorkshire in 2014 came to represent. An unforgettable experience and one that deserves to be remembered as far more important than London 2012 in terms of its possibilities for reshaping English sporting culture. Rick Robson’s beautiful book, De Tour De Yorkshire again combines photos and prose, this time to point towards the kind of legacy Le Tour might yet leave behind. Showcasing Yorkshire as England’s capital destination for cyclists, to race or for pleasure and all points in-between.

Natural born heroes - coverThe thrill of physical activity, recreational or competitive, for many is not only to maintain a decent level of fitness but to test what our bodies might be capable of. Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall gives the active reader something to aim towards, an approach to ultra-fitness that is almost philosophical in its gritty determination to inspire ever greater achievements of endurance. This is thriller-writing for fitness junkies. Adharanand Finn achieves something similar in his new book The Way of the Runner a gripping account of the place of marathon running in Japanese sporting culture. If all these sounds a bit macho read Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim, more than enough to reassure that both sexes are almost equally susceptible to the kind of physical obsession that can drive some in search of the very limits of our body’s potential.

Playing as if the world mattered - coverOur sports book of the quarter? Opportunities to play sport, any sport at any level are inevitably socially constructed. The failure to understand this both narrows the scope of most mainstream sportswriting and at the same time ensures most writers on politics to wilfully ignore sport. Gabriel Kuhn is an author who would never make either of these cardinal errors. His Playing As If The World Mattered is an illustrated history of sport as activism. Refusing to treat one as the opposite of the other Gabriel weaves together stories and episodes, some familiar, many not, to portray sport as a vital space for and method of human liberation. The writing is effortlessly informative and inspiring while the full colour illustrations do a similar job visually. Together this is a truly great book to savour for a better future as well as to read now to help improve the present, on or off the pitch, track , inside and outside the ring or pool,wherever your sporting fancy takes you.

Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid the offshore tax-dodgers, please do so.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football

Beyond the froth

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football picks out the best of the autumn sports books

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.

Played in London

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.

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Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain: The British Far Left From 1956’

Against The Grain - The British Far Left From 1956Against 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.

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New year sports resolutions

Mark Perryman from Handbook of London 2012 Olympic gamesToo 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.
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Presents tense

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football provides a guide for books to give the Leftist in your life this Christmas

On resistanceCheer 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.
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Books for a season of rain & grey skies

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews an autumn of sports books.

Culture, Politics and SportIt 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.

Easy RiderThe 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.

I am ZlatanOnce 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 }

Gary Younge on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” 50th anniversary

Martin Luther King's speech - book by Gary YoungeMartin 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.

Gary’s book, The Speech, is available from Philosophy Football

And remember, Philosophy Football has produced some great shirts to commemorate the speech – read about the shirts and buy them here.

Gary has made 3 short films, just 5 minutes long, about the speech:

On the context

On the march

On the speech

Review – Cybersexism by Laurie Penny

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.

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Books for a second summer of sport

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.

capitalism-and-sportTwo 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.
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