Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a writer and the co-founder of Philosophy Football.

USSR Rocket Sweet Tin
Friday, 03 November 2017 17:11

Every revolution needs some smashing plates

Published in 1917 Centenary

Mark Perryman went to the 1985 Exhibition of Soviet Design in London, and learned the real meaning of revolution.

In 1985, Thatcherism reigned triumphant. The Miners' Strike was coming to a sorry end. With Reagan in the White House the second Cold War dominated what remained of international relations. It was perhaps curious therefore that the Crafts Council of England and Wales should choose to open the year with an exhibition of Soviet textiles, fashion and ceramics 1917-1935, Art into Production.

In 2017 there has been a whole host of Russian Revolution centenary exhibitions, conferences, TV specials and the like. But 1985? The extraordinary richness of the art however was more than sufficient to resist and reverse the pessimism that leftist visitors to the exhibition like myself were suffering from as any prospect of a progressive, let alone a socialist, politics receded ever further into the faraway distance. The emotional downturn of opportunities for change in turn created bitter divisions in and around a Left in retreat. If our lot was convinced we were right, then we were absolutely certain the other lot were wrong - and this was just on our own side.

How could a dash of Russian Revolutionary art impact upon this? In the beautifully produced exhibition catalogue, there were some lines extracted from Komsomol’skaya Pravda, the newspaper of the Young Communist League, 28th April 1928 which began to form in my mind a very different approach to a Left cultural politics to the one most of us were used to. And as the 1917 centenary fast approached, with a resurgent Corbynite Left, I’ve been reminded of those words:

We must not accept this ‘non-resistance’. The cultural revolution, like the bugler’s trumpet, is summoning for examination and revaluation everything which mobilises or poisons our consciousness, our will and our readiness for battle!

So far, so familiar. The over-familiar instrumentalism of almost all versions of socialist, and communist too, cultural politics. But then the extract took a less predictable turn:

In this ‘parade’ of objects there are no non-combatants – nor can there be! Plates and cups, ie things we see daily, several times a day, which can do their bit for the organising of consciousness – these occupy an important place.

MP Sofranova plate 2017

Blimey, this was wasn’t the usual socialist fare I was used to. Perhaps susceptible to a workerist ‘proletkult’ tendency perhaps, though the colourful, often highly feminised, designs throughout the exhibition indicated this was a relatively minor deviation (sic). Rather what the young communists of 1928 were mapping out was a cultural politics that was both all-embracing and highly practical. Pluralist and pre-figurative as the leftie-jargon speak I had learnt by ’85 to drop into any conversation of the right political sort might describe such a venture. And they weren’t going to put up with any naysayers and feet draggers either:

We demand that a plate should fulfil its social function. We demand that the role of everyday objects should not be forgotten by our young specialist artists and the bodies in charge of our industry.

It is easy to mock the idealism but if the debates over what happened in 1917 serve to mask the boldly radical ambition in these words, then we surely lose something invaluable. This is what Art into Production all those years ago achieved. and I’ve never forgotten it. More recently Owen Hatherley’s peerless book Landscapes of Communism does something similar via the architecture of the Soviet era, as does poet Rosy Carrick’s stunning reading of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin. And cartoonist Tim Sanders' hugely imaginative depiction of the events of October 1917 via the subversive idiom of a graphic novel, Russia’s Red Year.

All three sit outside the orthodoxy of both an establishment culture that treats the Russian Revolution purely as an historical event, and a tendency on parts of the Left to divorce the insistence on a particular political interpretation of the revolution from a broader understanding of the heady idealism 1917. All these books are a most welcome addition to the centenary celebrations, but also they suggest an approach to understanding the Russian Revolution that can be traced back to those young Communists of 1928 exhorting the production of socialist plates, cups and saucers.

Also coinciding with the centenary has been the release of Armando Iannucci’s blockbuster comedy The Death Of Stalin. The man behind the brilliantly funny The Thick of It which skewered the Blairite world of spin and soundbites with brutal wit, has turned to an era that the film’s posters mischievously describe as ‘ a comedy of terrors’. Only the most po-faced would stifle the laughs as one wisecrack after another demolishes what Stalinism had turned Soviet Russia into. But the film ends up being satirical for a cheap laugh’s sake, and leaves this cinemagoer at least with a sense that if all we are left with is the cynicism of pointlessness then the prospects for change are inevitably narrowed, and all we are left with is the motto ‘who cares, who wins’.

This is what the likes of Iannucci, Private Eye and Have I Got News for You thrive on, a manufactured anti-politics with the lazy assumption that everybody is as bad as each other and never mind either the causes or consequences. The political clowning of Boris Johnson becomes the natural expression of all this, a rebel without a cause except his own personal advancement. Oh c’mon he’s only having a laugh, and what’s the harm in that? £350m for the NHS thanks to #Brexit has at last partly put paid to that sorry myth!

MP Chimneys plate 2017

So instead of rollicking in the cinema aisles as one Death of Stalin joke piles into another, I prefer instead the necessity of having some smashing plates, mugs and saucers. Framed by the utopian idealism for a better world than the one that those in Russia had endured in the years preceding 1917, and visualising via the most vivid combination of imagination, originality and clash of colours the prospect of constructing a new society. When that hopeful vision is absent then our capacity to imagine what change might look like lacks something vital too. A sentiment worth preserving via some tasty antique ceramics. Not trapped by the past - that way spells dogma and cultural conservatism. But there is something wrong too with the ahistorical version of modernity which became the watchword of 1990s Blairism. If it’s old it must be crap, the denial therefore of the past ever inspiring the present towards changing what the future otherwise has in store for us. And most crucially, if you like the revolutionary element, given practical expression via its lived presence in the everyday. Pasokification across Europe has led to a new era of headlong retreat for social democracy but this time accompanied by an insurgent, popular, Left that is seeking to challenge and transcend the limitations imposed upon it by a wholesale surrender to neoliberalism. The advances are patchy, and incomplete, not remotely revolutionary according to the 1917 model but decidedly radical and seeking a decisive rupture with the existing system of ideas. In 2017 that’s more than enough for me.

So where do the plates, mugs and cups of 1917 fit in to all of this? Not to merchandise but to politicise. The revolutionary ceramics, and the process of production the Young Communists demanded, is entirely different from the naff trinkets and trifles emblazoned with Jeremy Corbyn’s name and face the Labour was flogging at party conference.

MP Red Wedge plate 2017

Harmless fun? Well possibly, and to declare an interest Philosophy Football has produced its own COR 8YN T-shirt but if that is the scale of our imagination and productive capacity it just shows how far we still have to go to get anywhere close to the scale of ambition of those 1917 plates. What might a 2017 version look like, fired up and framed by The Corbyn Effect? That’s the kind of question I’d like to hear both being asked, and answered with practical output. And in that process of originality and production creating a great variety of means to identify with a politics that can effect a wholesale shift in the balance of forces from those few, to our many.

Now that’s what I call politics!

The 1917 centenary plates collection reproducing original Soviet designs is available here.


Making an Art of Revolution
Friday, 15 September 2017 20:38

Making an Art of Revolution

Published in Festivals/ Events

Mark Perryman invites us to put on our dancing shoes and celebrate the October 1917 centenary.

To coin a phrase ‘How do you solve a problem like VI Lenin?’ As the centenary of the October revolution fast approaches, the interesting if often deeply flawed exhibtions mounted by the Royal Academy, the British Library and the Design Museum will be cleared away and we will see the politics take centre stage. We’ve already had an inkling of what to expect with the aftermath from Charlottesville, which sparked the moral equivalence brigade and their your-communism-was-just-as-bad-as-their-Nazism so yah-boo-sucks efforts at intellectual debate.

Much of this is easy enough to dismiss and oppose. However, if in doing so we tie ourselves up in left-wing hagiography then I’m not sure how far we advance our cause either. Lenin remains, of course, the most superb tactician of revolutionary change, and deserves every credit for that. He was the leader of an insurrectionary mass movement who in the process laid the basis for an entirely new society. There are precious few political figures from the twentieth century who can match Lenin’s achievements.

Except for the most embittered of anti-communists, none of that should be controversial. The difficulties occur on our side when the tactics, leadership, and new society of Lenin are wrenched out of all context, or as theorists prefer, out of the ‘conjuncture’, to propose a politics of mimicry rather than adaptation to the conditions we face. This is hardly a new debate either, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci first raised this precise issue in the 1920s when he made the distinction between the revolution as a war of manoeuvre versus the war of position.

So a century on, how to celebrate 1917? It would be nice to get it right, after all precious few of us are going to be around for the bicentenary! The imperative of revolutionary change, notwithstanding this conjuncture or that, remains unchanged, and thus makes the best starting point. A notion summed up best by the title John Reed’s epic account of October 1917, Ten Days that Shook the World. An ideal so good that neither Hollywood nor Warren Beatty were able to destroy the message and instead produced a rather decent film version, Reds.

1917 served to inspire across the entire spectrum of the arts. Music, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, fashion, literature, film – has there ever been such a moment where such great art was shaped out of revolution? A revolutionary imperative that not only inspired, but recognised that to flourish these artists, writers, designers, poets would need the space to express this imperative in their own terms, not as servants of the revolution but in its service.

This first made sense to me in the mid 1980s, when the Crafts Council hosted a London exhibition ‘ Art into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics, 1917-1935’. The vivid colours, the variety of shapes, the ever-presence of a sense of movement with a purpose caught my eye and I’ve never forgotten it.

Shortly after and the era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika meant a much wider re-assessment of Soviet power on the world stage, the beginning of the end of what had threatened to become a new cold war. And this was reflected too in a popular appropriation of ‘Bolshevik chic’. Harmless enough in intent, broadly well-meaning but pretty much devoid of political content, there goes that conjuncture again.

And so where do we end up for October 2017? In post-Soviet Russia Putin will seek no doubt to represent 1917 as indicative of the might of his Greater Russia nationalism. This was the era of the USSR after all, a nation on a scale that Putin today can only dream of. Meanwhile across what used to be thought of as the West, parties of social democracy are suffering a phenomenon the writer and activist James Doran has described as Pasokification, a steep decline in support following these parties’ embrace of the neoliberal consensus.

In Greece PASOK has suffered the steepest fall of all but elsewhere in France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Irish Republic, social-democratic parties have not only declined but faced an insurgent challenge from the Left too. None of this amounts to 1917 revisited, but chimes nonetheless with the inspirational motives of radical change.

In Britain the picture is different. Because the insurgency has come from within the party of social democracy itself, led by a rank outsider and serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour of course is not about to become a revolutionary party. It has never been one and will never turn into one. But the sense that a party set on winning parliamentary power can co-exist with the ambition of reinventing itself as a social movement is increasingly prevalent as the defining characteristic of Corbynism.

Finding a way to mix all this together for a 1917 centenary night out is no mean feat. But Philosophy Football, with the help of the RMT, are doing that at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre on Saturday 21st October. Described by Time Out as ‘The Sex Pistols of Balkan Brass’, The Trans-Siberian March band headline with a special Shostakovich-inspired set. Michael Rosen reviews how 1917 produced a wave of childrens’ books at the time. Rosy Carrick performs extracts and interpretations of the brand new translation of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin which she recently edited.

And Des Kapital, the surprise hit of the Edinburgh fringe, recalls the events of the Russian Revolution via the songs of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Robbie Williams – a history lesson like none other, complete with audience singalongs! Add author of Landscapes of Communism, Owen Hatherley and Eldina Begic creator of the Comradettes clothing project to Richard Seymour author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics on the spirit of revolution – and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Art out of Revolution is at Rich Mix, East London Saturday 21st October. Tickets from Philosophy Football.

MP 2 TSMB Promo Pics 300DPI

Football from Below
Friday, 08 September 2017 07:46

Football from Below

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football criticises the commercialisation of football, and explores the possibilities of fan culture as a social movement.

During the international break, a mini-spat over the England players’ pride – or lack of – in wearing the three lions on their shirt, provided a helpful starting point towards the remaking of football as a social movement.

Explaining England’s inability to go even 1-0 up against the proverbial minnows of the Maltese football team until well into the second half has a lot less to do with the lack of emotional commitment from Harry Kane et al to end now more than half-century’s worth of years of hurt, than their actual inability to play.

‘Pride’ is the easy cop-out – what we’re actually witnessing is the ever-decreasing quality of English football. How many of England’s starting eleven would Paris Saint German be chasing after with their chequebooks, or Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund be in the market for after their most talented players have been sold off ?

Of course the best eleven England can put on a pitch isn’t all bad, but mostly their talent is boosted at club level by playing alongside foreign, more technically gifted and able players. On their own they’re not half as good.  

And for those players who turn out for United, City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs, a World Cup Qualifier, and – short of reaching the long-forgotten semi-final stage – the tournament itself, doesn’t come close to being the biggest match of their careers compared to the more realistic chance of Champions League glory.

It gets worse. The enormous wealth the Premier League provides to their clubs means that even for those players who are a long way from making it into the Champions League, the season-long battle to maintain that status pushes England games pretty far down their, and their coaches’, list of priorities. Arguably this also applies to clubs competing for promotion to the Premier League.

Is it lack of passion? No, it is the result of commercial calculation.  This is at the core of the sickness of what football has become, the hopeless confusion of mistaking the richest league in the world with being the best. It’s no accident that the Championship play-off final is described almost exclusively in terms of the riches awarded to the victor rather than the quality of the football played.

MP against modern football

For a while, those of us who were disillusioned with that corrupting commercialisation adopted the mantra ‘Against Mod£rn Football.’ We first turned this into a T-shirt having spotted the words on a Croatian banner at Euro 2008. The sentiment was internationalist enough to make perfect sense. It’s a catchy, oppositional phrase that fits neatly on to chest sizes small-XXL – but ‘Against Mod£rn Football’ is increasingly problematic in two ways. 

Firstly, there’s more than one version of modernity. Is the ‘against’ aimed at the growth of women’s football, or refugee leagues? Is it aimed against a game that has no intrinsic borders, a game that is all about overcoming divisions of race, gender, sexuality and nationality? Being against all that ends with oppositionalism masking conservatism, or worse.

Secondly the business of football has become inseparable from multinational corporate power. The macro-politics to reform the game traditionally adopted by both Labour and groups such as the Football Supporters Federation means any agency to enforce these policies seems almost impossible to imagine. Somehow I think an incoming Labour Government is going to have more immediate issues on its mind than nationalising the Premier League.

For these reasons it is absolutely vital to the future of the game to reimagine fan culture not just as hardpressed consumers, but as a social movement with the capacity to achieve change.

Currently this is very much a minority movement, but all such movements start out with big ambitions and modest advances. Their potential to grow and effect change is dependent on the ability to inspire via small victories which help convince wider forces that this is a direction of travel worth pursuing.

We can see this in the rise of militantly anti-racist ultra groups, at Clapton, Whitehawk and elsewhere. We can also see it in the growth of start-up football clubs – Hackney Wick FC, City of Liverpool FC and the women’s football club AFC Unity in Sheffield. The spread of community ownership up and down the divisions is another encouraging sign, as is the pro-refugees message heard from at least some stands – not on the scale of what was seen across the Bundesliga but present nevertheless.

At the core of any such movement will be gender issues – the recognition that if football is to become modern for all then the sport’s entrenched masculinity has to be challenged. Treating women’s football as different yet equal is a key step towards a truly inclusive game. On this basis the Equality FC initiative at Lewes FC, where the playing budgets are the same for women and men, is a model for all clubs to aspire to if the pressure ‘from below’ can be developed and sustained.

This isn’t fantasy football. It is about the remaking of the political, the recognition that it is in popular culture more than any other space that ideas are formed, the limitations on what is possible challenged and transformations take shape.

Brighton, for example, is now a Premier League club, playing in their own city. This is an ambition only made possible because of a 15-year campaign by their fans developing and sustaining a fan-led club culture.  And it is fitting therefore that it is in Brighton, at The World Transformed Festival which runs alongside the Labour Party Conference, that many of those involved in these practical initiatives will be gathered together by Philosophy Football to launch a discussion on what a campaign for ‘Football from Below’ might look like.

Any such discussion, if it is to have a meaningful purpose, demands allies. Labour and the trade unions via such a dialogue will be forced to address the narrowness of their own agendas and the scarcity of their own alliances. Football is a signifier of so many other spaces in popular culture where Labour and the trade unions need to be present, be part of, connecting ideas to lived experience towards change. 

New Labour adopted football in the same way it adopted Britpop as a cultural accessory, providing photo opportunities and celebrity endorsements. It was a flimsy appropriation, coming out of a flimsy politics.  Corbynism promises something different, the framing of a popular, cultural politics will be vital to any fulfilment of that proud boast.  Football is just one of what should become countless journeys of putting the ideas of Corbynism into practical extra-parliamentary achievement. All of our cultural activities, all of the topics covered by Culture Matters – poetry, film, theatre, visual art, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, the media – should be the subject of campaigns to resist commercialisation and ideological manipulation, democratise access, and reclaim our common cultural heritage. We need culture for the many, not the few.

‘Football from Below’ wears the colours of FC St Pauli as our inspiration. But it is time to make that change in our own image too.  From the bottom-up, not in opposition to those who choose to follow the Premier League moneybagged bandwagon, that would be not only futile but also self-destructive. Instead as a minority we will be pioneering the practical possibility of building a game that doesn’t have to be run in the way it is. Rethinking football as a sport for all not a business to be run.

Idealistic? Guilty as charged.

Philosophy Football’s Football from Below T-shirt is available from here

Summer reading for a radical revival
Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:52

Summer reading for a radical revival

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mark Perryman recommends some radical summer reading, to help us grapple with interesting times.

The audacity of hope versus the mendacity of the weak ’n wobbly. 20 years ago it took until the early hours before that ‘were you still up for Portillo?’ moment established the sheer scale of the Tories’ meltdown. Two decades on this was different. Firstly, the indicator, the exit poll, came a whole lot earlier, leaving viewers with hour after hour of ‘surprise’ results to look forward to. Secondly, Labour’s triumph, despite missing the overall majority, was both unexpected by the mainstream media and clearly based on a radical appeal. 

Of course nothing stands still in politics. Yesterday’s radicalism becomes tomorrow’s consensus while new issues arise to challenge us to change pre-ordained positions. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth were both published prior to 8th June – now they are both required summer reading for Labour politicians and activists who might mistakenly believe that ‘one more heave’ will be sufficient to dislodge the Tories and effect progressive change.

Naomi Klein’s latest, No Is Not Enough sets the necessity for an evolving, always more radical, project in the context of how being against things is never, ever, sufficient – we need to be for something, too.  This is one of our brightest thinkers, writing at her very best.

Rules for Revolutionaries has a similar US bias to Naomi’s book, but is no less necessary to read. Co-authors Becky Bond and Zack Exley draw lessons – what they call ‘big organising’ – from their hands-on experience in the Bernie Sanders campaign. No serious Labour activist can afford to ignore these lessons if a decent second place in the key 66 marginals is to be turned into a runaway victory next time.

MP Thatcherite Offensive cover

The Thatcherite Offensive by Alexander Gallas is an important new contribution from an older perspective – the work of Nicos Poulantzas – towards an analysis of an era most of us would prefer to forget. Taking an admirably internationalist look at the  potential to challenge neoliberalism, the edited collection The Left, the people, populism ranges over a wide range of subjects and European countries, a vital antidote to the parochialism of the English Left.   

Of course such inwardness does get punctured from time to time, recently the #blacklivesmatter movement in the USA has been one such source of inspiration. Wesley Lowery’s They Can’t Kill Us All is the riveting tale of how this movement exploded on the US political terrain and helped begin to shift the boundaries worldwide of debates on race, class and policing to good effect. 

Jess Phillips is best known perhaps for her explosive interventions to burst the Westminster Bubble. Too easily pigeon-holed simply as an arch anti-Corbynite, her book Everywoman reveals instead a grassroots activist-feminist turned MP who more than anything else wants to upset the status quo, whoever or whatever is defending it.

Jamie Bartlett would certainly recognise the necessity of such an opening-up. In Radicals he provides a hugely original account of how outsiders across the globe, not easily placed on the traditional left to right spectrum, are forcing changes on the mainstream.

Leon Rosselson’s short memoir That Precious Strand of Jewishness That Challenges Authority provides a sense of one such source of this radicalism, an important rejoinder to the current febrile debate over what is, and is not, anti-semitic.  But of course outsiders, radicals, can originate from all variety of sources. The English Defence League for a period posed a real challenge to what it was assumed were settled notions of a multicultural and diverse society, fomenting an unapologetic racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration into a street-fighting weekend army.  Loud and Proud by Hilary Pilkington, is a vital study of the EDL in preparation for any revival of a similar type of movement.    

In contrast what might frame an enduring revival on our side? Most would argue that this will depend on the continuing popularisation of the anti-austerity message. Few books will do this better than Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Dismembered, a fact-filled polemical description of the scale and depth of our public services’ starvation of resources.

Housing was a hugely important issue to many of the millennials who cast their vote in such numbers for Corbyn. Rent Trap by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj combines an analysis of the growth of the private rental market and alternatives which would put the needs of tenants first and the profit margins of greedy landlords second. 

There is nothing worse than failing to look back to the past for lessons for today’s and tomorrow’s Left.  Unfortunately, looking to the past often becomes a recipe of being trapped by yesteryear’s models. Don Watson’s Squatting in Britain 1945-1955 is a textbook avoidance of that trait, and it also deserves a wide reading post-Grenfell. Another book useful for those reflecting on Grenfell is Justice Denied, a powerful reminder that righting wrongs is never anything less than a battle – Orgreave and Hillsborough are more than enough testament to that.

MP SwordsInTheHandsOfChildren CVF 1

Gregor Gall’s Bob Crow, Socialist, Leader, Fighter is described as a ‘political biography’ which neatly sums up its appeal. The story of not just a forceful personality who fought his way to the top of his trade union, but the values he sought to protect and promote via the campaigns he helped lead. A very different story is Jonathan Lerner’s autobiographical Swords in the Hands of Children . This is the era of ’68, all that hope, liberation and revolt and when all of that came to nothing, the self-destruction that came next.

Twentieth Century Communism is an uncanny read for those interested in rediscovering the range, content and meaning of perhaps the most important radical tradition of the past century. The latest edition is a special issue dedicated to the literature of communism.

But of course it is 1917 which is attracting the most attention in the Russian Revolution’s centenary year. The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali is not a hagiography, yet the message of the enduring case for revolution shines through, whatever the changes in circumstances. 

MP thumbnail dave sherry 51 37 24 19

For a short and very readable account of the movements that produced the Russian Revolution, read Dave Sherry’s Russia 1917: Workers’ Revolution and the Festival of the Oppressed.  Written with a style few other authors would even attempt to match, October by China Miéville is novel, yet politically compelling, a book to appeal to those who remain drawn to the romance of the revolutionary ideal.

For an insight into the culture the Revolution helped produce and then propel on to a world stage 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dalyuk, is the perfect accompaniment.

Over the decades a culture of resistance has taken many forms, the latest #grime4corbyn being too recent to have very much written about it yet. Trish Winter and Simon Keegan-Phipps trace the English tradition of folk music in their book Performing Englishness. Billy Bragg’s Roots, Radicals and Rockers is a magnificent account of skiffle which along the way Billy claims helped change the world.

MP Punk

Two books that cover more recent collisions of music and politics are Fightback: Punk, Politics and Resistance edited by The Subcultures Network, and the collection edited by Gavin Butt, Kodwo Eshun, Mark Fisher called Post Punk: Then and Now. Dave Randall’s Sound System: The Political Power of Music is an unforgiving call to guitars, drums, keyboards, sax, by any instruments necessary to change the world. 

Of course no summer would be complete without the joys of salads, picnics, barbecues with ice-cold chilled drinks on the side. Be overwhelmed with ideas to sparkle the appetite – and without a sniff of meat in sight – in Sam Murphy’s superb Beautifully Real Food.

MP Mike Rosen

And the other treat no summer would be complete without is of course a decent thriller. Chris Brookmyre’s latest Want You Gone certainly won’t disappoint with his customary mix of dramatic plot turns, rich humour and tartan noir. Nor should the grown-ups be allowed to have all the reading fun either. Michael Rosen’s latest creation, Uncle Gobb, reappears in  Uncle Gobb and the Green Heads, hours of fun for young readers. Adults can ponder if this Gobb character is really the living embodiment of the marketisation of our chidren’s education.

Making sense of 2017’s political surprises requires both an understanding of the present and the ability to connect this to a theoretical framework. The reissue of Perry Anderson’ s  The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci with a very substantial new preface is a superb sign post towards such an intellectual journey. Unarguably the most significant populariser of Gramsci, and one of the founders of the modern academic discipline of Cultural Studies, Stuart Hall, has been treated to a recent spate of well-deserved books of late. His partial autobiography Familiar Stranger has been published posthumously with the help of his long-time collaborator Bill Schwarz.  

David Scott’s Stuart Hall’s Voice consists of a wonderfully original format, a series of letters written to Hall after his death exploring the significance of his legacy to so many contemporary intellectuals who remain enthralled by his influence. And Cultural Studies 1983: A Theoretical History, edited by Jennifer Daryl Slack and Lawrence Grossberg, is also relevant and more than welcome.


And it is Stuart Hall who post-election provides us with our book of the summer too. Wherever we spend the summer relaxing and recovering, the collection Stuart Hall: Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and other Political Essays is both a timely and enjoyable read.

Both as a speaker and on the page, Stuart Hall brought the analysis of politics alive in a way which is sorely missed in 2017. These essays show a sharpness of intellect and a warm embrace of marxist analysis that are a positive joy to read.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. His own book, the edited collection The Corbyn Effect is out from Lawrence & Wishart in mid September.

Nothing to lose but our chains
Friday, 30 June 2017 14:31

Nothing to lose but our chains

Published in Sport

Looking for a communistic sports event to take part in? As the annual cycling spectacle of the Tour De France begins, Mark Perryman argues the case for advancing to communism on two wheels.

Who would have guessed it? Karl Marx was clearly a bike mechanic when he wasn’t plotting the downfall of capitalism. ‘Nothing to lose but your chains’ is handy advice when the derailleur slips and furious pedalling propels bike and rider precisely nowhere.

OK Marx was more interested in liberating the workers of the world than the freedom of the road, though with committed cycle-commuter Jeremy Corbyn quite possibly in need of a Downing Street bike rack soon, there doesn’t seem a better time to make the case for cycling as the people’s sport.

For those who take an interest in the competitive side Le Tour will be on television for the next three weeks as it weaves its way from the Grand Départ in Germany, through Belgium, a quick detour to Luxembourg  and across France to the traditional finish on the Champs Élysées.

That’s two boxes ticked straightaway in my case for a people’s sport. Firstly, despite Sky’s sponsorship of the premier British team competing, the race is broadcast on terrestrial TV – both live and highlights packages are free to air on ITV4.

And secondly this is a genuinely internationalist event. Fundamentally French of course but shared with all manner of other European countries too in terms of where it may start – the stages too – but never the ending, that will always be Paris.  Not quite the proletarian internationalism of our Marxist dreams but not a bad model for a sporting culture beyond borders! And of course lined up along the route in their hundreds of thousands are the fans, none paying even a cent – or nowadays a Euro – for the privilege.

Nor is there any significant infrastructure to waste huge amounts of money on, leaving stadia and other facilities behind never to be filled again. Instead just about the only spend is to improve the road surface, for the benefit of all. It’s a sporting event not for the few but for the many – pedestrians, cyclists and car-drivers alike.

Of course like previous Tours this one will be mired in an unfolding drugs controversy. It’s particularly  awkward for British cycling fans because the spotlight will fall mainly on Team Sky, on rider and race favourite Chris Froome and Team Sky Principal Dave Brailsford.  Allied with both the unresolved drug allegations against Bradley Wiggins and the prolonged furore over sexism and bullying in and around the Olympic Team GB track cycling squad, this has all threatened to dim the golden glow of Britain’s single most successful sport over the past decade.  Cycling has taken a knock, there’s not much doubt about that. But the roots of its appeal are now so deep all the signs are that it will not only survive but continue to flourish too.

MP Cycling chain for tweet

Marx, notwithstanding my spurious claims for his contribution to the art of bicycle maintenance (famously, similar claims have been made for Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance too) is at least partially responsible for the answer. Cycling, like all sport, is socially constructed. It is a leisure activity we can take part in without scarcely even noticing. What other sport can double up as a means of getting to work, to do the shopping, to pop down the pub?  A bike can provide the basis for a family day out too, perhaps best of all it’s a habit we can pick up as children and once we’ve learned not to fall over it’s a skill we never lose. 

It’s true that at the upper end of cycling culture, particularly among men suffering from a midlife cycling crisis, the bikes cost the proverbial arm and a leg. Many observers suggest that this in part explains the decline in golf, and maybe it’s true that middle-aged men who should know better are investing in handbuilt carbon frames with all the gear to go with it, rather than ever-escalating green fees to tee off at the most expensive 18 holes. Yes the recession hurts even the most highly paid, so there’s almost certainly something in this. Still the class enemy on two wheels represents only a tiny fraction of cycling’s growing popularity. 

Likewise with the impact of the drug, bullying and sexism scandals. Elite success, Wiggins and Froome winning Le Tour, bucketloads of Olympic Cycling Gold medals certainly contributed something to cycling’s appeal. It was a bit like Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott’s success on the track coinciding with the late 1970s to early 1980s running boom.

It may be a a factor, but it’s not the total explanation that the media-boosters would like to claim for their coverage. Other more important reasons are implementation of socialist and green policies like increasing investment in safer cycling routes and paths, sunnier summers, and austerity staycation culture. These things help explain cycling’s growing and enduring popularity, not to mention the likelihood of it growing more popular under a genuinely cycle-loving socialist PM. There’s a durability to this appeal which is unlikely to be materially affected by news of dodgy medicines or bullying coaches.

Sport’s core attraction is always assumed to be competition. Wrong. For most this only applies to the spectators, those who watch but don’t do. Being on the losing side bringing up the rear does more to deter the young from sport than virtually anything else. And once deterred, regardless of the presence of compulsory sport lessons, hardly anything else proves effective in reconnecting the inactive with participation.

I think it was Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Undersecretary of Justice in Allende's Marxist government, who said this: 'Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.' So I’ll conclude with a quick mention of just about the most communistic sports event I’ve ever taken part in – the increasingly popular cycling sportive. No, the organisers aren’t planning revolution via long rides through the countryside, but to my mind the format unwittingly subverts the competitive instinct, via equalising participation.  There are staggered starts over varying distances, so nobody knows who the winners are – or crucially, the losers either.

For some people, it’s racing against their own individual clock, but for everyone it’s a collective race against the shared distance and terrain. And more often than not, participants are raising money for a good cause. The same prize, wherever you finish – what could be more politically progressive than that?

Not that I’ve ever seen Marx on one mind, he must be back in his bike shed working on unfettering those chains……

Thanks to Hugh Tisdale for both images. The ‘Nothing to Lose but Your Chains’ Cycling T-shirt is now available from Philosophy Football.

Celebrating the politics of punk
Tuesday, 04 April 2017 20:44

Celebrating the politics of punk

Published in Music

8th April is the 40th Anniversary of The Clash's debut album. Mark Perryman reminds us what the 1977 punk and politics mix was all about.

The birth of punk for most is dated on or round 1976, with the November release that year of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. Music and movement were catapuoted into the ‘filth and fury’ headlines via the band’s expletive-strewn Bill Grundy TV interview.

More Situationist than Anarchist, Rotten and the rest were of course key to the detonation of a youthful mood of revolt alongside the not entirely dissimilar The Damned, Manchester’s Buzzcocks and the more trad rock Stranglers. Giving the boy bands a run for their money, The Slits pushed perhaps hardest at punk’s musical boundaries, their Typical Girls track quite unlike what the others were recording.

But it was The Clash who more than anyone symbolised the punk and politics mix, showcased on their debut album The Clash, released 40 years ago on 8th April 1977. From being bored with the USA and angrily demanding a riot of their own, via hate and war to non-existent career opportunities, fourteen tracks, played at furious speed to produce two-minute classics. The one exception was their inspired cover version of Junior Marvin and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Police and Thieves, played slow, the lyrics almost spoken rather than sung, backed by a pitch-perfect reggae beat.

The album cover shows the youthful threesome of Strummer, Jones and Simonon in their artfully stencilled shirts and jackets that was to become their signature stagewear, completed by the obligatory skinny jeans, white socks, and black DMs. The print quality is purposely poor to add a degree of authenticity that this band more than most hardly needed. But it was the back cover that is the more telling. A scene from the 1976 Notting Hill Carnival Riots with the Met’s boys in blue, these were the days before RoboCop style body armour, riot shields, helmets with visors, in hot pursuit of black youth retreating and regrouping under the Westway flyover.

MP police 2

It was that experience in ’76 that inspired The Clash’s anthemic White Riot and the lines ‘ WHITE RIOT! I WANNA RIOT. WHITE RIOT! A RIOT OF MY OWN.’ At the time the National Front’s streetfighting racist army was laying waste wherever they marched, their leaders John Tyndall and Martin Webster were household names, and the NF was getting enough votes to suggest an electoral breakthrough might be a possibility. The potential for ‘White Riot’ to be misinterpreted then, and now too, is obvious. But the band’s intent couldn’t be clearer. Living and recording in and around the Westway, they embraced the changes this West London community had undergone since the 1950s. Caribbean music, food and fashions were as much a part of The Clash as rock and roll, Sunday roast and safety pins. They sought to share the spirit of Black defiance, not oppose it.

All the power is in the hands
Of people rich enough to buy it,
While we walk the streets
Too chicken to even try it.
And everybody does what they’re told to
And everybody eats supermarket soul food!

A year after the album’s release, The Clash headlined the first Rock against Racism carnival in London’s Victoria Park. The dayglo politics of this musical culture of resistance fitted perfectly with the agitprop look and lyrics of the band, as it did with Polly Styrene of X-Ray Spex’s punk feminism, Tom Robinson’s liberatory Sing If You’re Glad to be Gay, and Birmingham’s Steel Pulse with tales of a Handsworth Revolution. This wasn’t just a line up that commercial promoters in ’78 would die for, it was a platform to challenge prejudice both without and within that we could dance to. In her book 1988 The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion, Caroline Coon predicted of The Clash that "their acute awareness, and ability to articulate the essence of the era which inspires their music, will make their contribution to the history of rock of lasting significance. Happy times are here again."

The Clash inspired, and continue to inspire, a wave of bands who play music we can dance to and march to in equal measure. Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers, Southall’s Ruts, and the Au Pairs stand out from back then. Poets too, who often styled themselves as ranters, like  Seething Wells, and of course Attila the Stockbroker. Then came the unforgettable and much-missed Redskins and the hardy perennial favourite, Billy Bragg. Today? A new wave (sic) of bands whose influences, musically and politically, can be traced back to ’77 era Clash would certainly include The Wakes, The Hurriers, Thee Faction, Joe Solo, Louise Distras, Captain Ska, Séan McGowan and more. Off the musical beaten track yet holding out for a better tomorrow with tunes to match!

Like all successful musicians The Clash did become celebrities, their appeal went mainstream, and the venues became bigger and bigger. But through force of circumstance the band bailed out before they reached U2’s overblown proportions, or outstayed their musical welcome to play into their dotage Rolling Stones style. 1977 is a year to remember but not to fossilise - that would be the antithesis of everything they represented. As the final track from the album put it :

I don't want to hear about what the rich are doing, I don't want to go to where, where the rich are going.

Garageland. That’s where they came from and never entirely left either. Its why more than anything else ‘77 Clash in 2017 matter still.

MP Clash ad for Tweet

‘77Clash Night is presented by Philosophy Football in association with the RMT and supported by the FBU, Brigadista Ale and R2 Magazine. Saturday 8th April, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Clash Debut Album side one played live ‘as was’, side two ‘played now’ by artists of today remixing and rewriting the originals. At Rich Mix, Shoreditch, East London. Tickets just £9.99 from here.

’77 Clash T-shirt range available now from Philosophy Football. This is an extended version of an article first published in the Morning Star.

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge by Alexander Rodchenko, 1924
Tuesday, 21 February 2017 10:52

All Power to the Ideals!

Published in Visual Arts

What kind of cultural celebration, Mark Perryman asks, do the art and the politics of the Russian Revolution deserve?

A century ago, on 23rd February 1917, Russian women workers marched out in protest from the St Petersburg factories to defy Cossacks armed with swords, and took control of the city’s streets. In less than a week they had been joined by hundreds of thousands of other workers. The St Petersburg Military Garrison mutinied in their support. A rebellion led by women for people’s power had begun.

MP Petrograd Soviet for tweet

The 1917 centenary will be one of the publishing events of the year, with writers from Left and Right battling in words over the legacy. The Royal Academy, the Design Museum, British Library and Tate Modern will all host major exhibitions of Revolutionary-era art. In October Philosophy Football, in association with the RMT, will present a night out at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre ‘To Shake the World’ celebrating the culture of the Revolution. On the same day, Michael Rosen and friends will host an event for families featuring the children’s books of the revolution. And there will even be a guided history walk to visit the hidden history of connections between London’s East End and 1917.

Not all agree that 1917 deserves any kind of celebration at all. Art critic Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian rages against the spectacle of the Royal Academy ‘Revolution : Russian Art 1917-1932’ exhibition because “The way we glibly admire Russian art from the age of Lenin sentimentalises one of the most murderous chapters in human history.” Unless the Royal Academy (the clue might be in the title, Jonathan) has reinvented itself as a bastion of Marxism-Leninism it is most unlikely they will be sentimentalising communism. Nor, given their reputation, is glibness likely to characterise how they showcase the art via context.

It is undeniable the Russian Revolution cost lives, millions of lives. It took place in the era of World War One when millions of lives were being lost on the fields of France too. And this was the age of Empire with millions more lives sacrificed in the cause of imperial plunder and subjugation across the world. All three events, 1917, WWI, Empire were bloody. None should be sentimentalised. Each needs to be understood – anything else is the denial of history.

In ’89 the fall of the Berlin Wall was famously claimed to mark ‘the end of history’. Yet a generation later the cause of radical change in an era of #dumptrump and #chaoticbrexit remains .The strength of the connections between these 2017 social movements and 1917 are there to be argued over, the history contested but to dismiss the revolution of a century ago as either wholly irrelevant or entirely the model for change now would be both arrogant nd unwise.

The crucial point of the October Revolution was reached some seven months after those women workers first marched when the Russian Royal Family’s Winter Palace was successfully stormed. The signal for the assault to begin was he firing of a blank from the bow gun of the Russian warship, Aurora. The ship’s crew, inspired by the protesting women had mutinied back in February to side with the Bolsheviks.

MP Aurora for tweet

And what followed 1917 was a movement, in Russia but beyond too, that unleashed an unprecedented wave of creative imagination. It was a cultural revolution. Today the art of the period has become chic, fit to hang on the most respected gallery walls, treated as historic artefact and not a tool of revolutionary change. Of course nobody would decry the simplistic beauty of Lissitzky’s Red Wedge - which of course inspires this website's banner - but to divorce the aesthetic of this, and hundreds and thousands of other pieces from a period when art, poetry, music, film, theatre and more went into production with a revolutionary impulse, would be a travesty.

Perhaps the most famous cultural movement out of 1917 was constructivism. But these weren’t shapes artfully assembled without purpose. This was construction with designs on everlasting change, permanent revolution. Too often this is represented by both the establishment, and reproduced too by those who fail to learn the lessons of 1917’s failings, as a top down, didactic project. Rather at its best, politically and artistically the Russian Revolution was a movement from below, inspired by the human capacity to shake the world in which we live.

MP Soviet Construction for tweet

This is the point those who decry the 1917 Celebrations miss, and some who join with the commemorations miss it too. This wasn’t a revolution made by Lenin, Trotsky, or Stalin. Though all three played their part of course in what it was, and what it became. But most of all this was a revolution made by ordinary people - women factory workers began it, rank and file sailors fired the starting signal. And with their actions and achievements they inspired a vision for a better world. This is what we should celebrate about 1917, and this is what the art of the Russian Revoltuion shows us - the potential that we the people have, together, to effect political change.

This is an amended version of an article which first appeared in the Morning Star. Philosophy Football's 1917 T-shirt range is available here.

After the eating and drinking, the sporting?
Wednesday, 28 December 2016 16:42

After the eating and drinking, the sporting?

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman provides a selection of 2017 sporting reads for the post-festive recovery period.

There’s nothing like Christmas to put on an inch or two where we don’t want to. Sitting in front of the TV for hours and days on end doesn’t help much either. For many, a New Year’s resolution to add more physical activity to the weekly routine of eat, sleep, work, repeat, is the self-imposed antidote. So what better time to recommend a sporting title or two to your 2017 must-read list?

Anthony Clavane’s A Yorkshire Tragedy is the best possible starting point for such an endeavour, combining as it does social history and an insight into why both participants and spectators put themselves though the trials and tribulations of winning and losing. And no you don’t have to be from God’s own county to side with the author’s appreciation of Yorkshire grit either. Or for an alternative explanation of the special appeal of sport, try Sports Geek by Rob Minto which in words, statistics and pictures explains what it is about sport that will provoke endless arguments in the coming year.

No sport comes close to football in the breadth and ferocity of the arguments it provokes. For everyone who loves a club there’ll be others who loath it. Europe’s ‘super clubs’ provide such emotional splits in abundance, and Uli Hesse’s Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub tells the story of the growth of one such club, known throughout the Bundesliga as ‘FC Holloywood’ for the non-German reader.

For unpicking what it is about Argentine football that appeals and appals in almost equal measure, read Angels with Dirty Faces by Jonathan Wilson, one of those writers who writes about the familiar in the most unfamiliar of ways.

Every now and then an individual player comes along who transcends almost all loyalties to inspire dogged interest and irresistible admiration. Johan Cruyff was undoubtedly one such player, and his posthumously published autobiography My Turn helps us to understand why.

Cruyff passed away in 2016. Another kind of passing away that was no less emotional than the loss of a footballing great was West Ham’s move from their beloved ground to the super stadium built for the 2012 London Olympics, chronicled with sensitivity and sensibility in Pete May’s Goodbye to Boleyn.

It was a move that provoked much controversy in terms of public subsidy, sporting legacy, access, community and more. The Routledge Handbook of Football Studies is testament to the necessity of recognising this kind of context in which the game is played and watched, and as such is surely destined to become the definitive academic text on the subject.

A more lyrical approach to football’s qualities is provided by Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard in his elegantly written Home and Away. For the dark side of world football there’s no better source of understanding the going wrongs at FIFA than the peerless John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson – Football, Corruption and Lies revisits their earlier writing on this subject.

Football at its best means we can always dream of something better. Duncan Alexander’s Opta Joe’s Football Yearbook will surely become an annual classic to distinguish the fantasy of football’s dreamers from the statistical reality. But then we will always have the fairtyale of Leicester 2015-16 , retold brilliantly by Rob Tanner in 5000-1.

The international stage for England at any rate has been more horror than fantasy pretty much since World Cup 2010 onwards. Steve Mingle provides a reminder of happier, more successful times in When England Ruled the World.

Perryman lionesses

At least in 2017 there are no tournaments for England to make an early exit from. In contrast Don’t Take Me Home by Bryn Law is the story of semi-finalists’ Wales successful run at Euro 2016, told through the tales of the team’s huge and boisterous travelling support. England’s women meanwhile have Euro 2017 to look forward to and as World Cup semi-finalists this century, 2015, unlike their male counterparts, who haven’t made it that far since 1996, they remain serious contenders. Carrie Dunn’s Roar of the Lionesses is an unrivalled account of the rise, and rise, of an England women’s football team to the top of their game.

Following football however cannot be reduced to World Cups, Euros, the Champions and rich runners up League, your Chelseas, Uniteds and Cities. Need a 2017 football New Year’s resolution? Why not try a game in a city you’ve never visited at a club you don’t know? For those with such internationalist ambitions Stuart Fuller’s The Football Tourist, his second volume of such epic travelling tales, is the very necessary handbook for overseas trip ideas and inspiration.

If the domestic game will suffice to provide 2017 with reinvigoration of a love of football, the photography and accompanying text in Beyond the Turnstiles by Leon Gladwell is just the the kind of cure likely to be required. Many of Leon’s photos feature the non-league game, a portion of the game of increasing appeal to the disillusioned and no better book has ever explained the reasons why than Nige Tassell’s The Bottom Corner. Fed up with football as a day tripper’s day out, never off the TV, players on the front pages for all the wrong reasons, the riches and the greed? Despite Leicester none of this will be getting any better in 2017. Read Nige’s book, and if not already a fan give one of the clubs he visited a try out – my own Lewes FC gets a tasty mention – and ensure yourself a happier new year.

Perryman This mum runs cover

The basic appeal of football or any other sport, is the fulfilment of impossible dreams. Few will ever come close to Jo Pavey’s story in that regard. An elite athlete for her entire adult life and a big chunk of her adolescence too, Jo won her first ever Gold Medal at the age of 40. This Mum Runs is her story. For most of us though running is more about just getting round, perhaps a PB, and a prized finisher’s medal too. This is what continues to make running races such mass participation events which for many have little or no connection to the competitive. Don’t Stop Me Now by Vassos Alexander provides story after compelling story from every level of athletic prowess to reveal the enduring attraction and challenge of completing a 26.2 mile marathon, with or without time to spare.

The GB 1980s jogging boom has a lot of parallels with the cycling revolution of the past five years or more. The fashion designer Paul Smith’s Cycling Scrapbook is a beautifully produced account of the visual culture of cycling that has proved seductive enough for men who really should know better to kit themselves out in lycra.

Perryman Circus

Magnum Cycling with text by Guy Andrews has an array of, mainly archive, photography that will persuade almost anyone that road cycling is simply the most photogenic of all sports, bar none. Camille J Macmillan’s Circus does a similar job with modern day cycling, the incredible sight of Le Tour on the road as engaging as it has ever been. A key part of the look is of course what the riders wear, and The Art of the Jersey by Andy Storey provides a richly well-informed history of this most essential, and colourful, piece of any cyclist’s kit. Apart from that it’s all about the bike, or in Lance Armstrong’s case who made the phrase his own, it turned out it wasn’t. Lined up on the road in the peloton, breakaways, bunch sprint finishes and the rest it can all get hellishly complicated to follow. Fortunately ITV4 have recruited one of the finest double acts of sports reporter and former star in any televising of a sport, Chris Boardman and Ned Boulting.

They both have new books out which explain their appeal as presenters and why they work so well together on air. Triumphs and Turbulence is Chris’s autobiography from Olympic success in ‘92 to businessman and broadcaster today. Ned’s Vélosaurus helps the reader to understand the universally French language of Le Cycling with wit and insight, s’il vous plait. But of course with cycling watching is not even half the story, it is what we can do that really counts. What other sport can be a means of getting to work, carrying the shopping home, excuse for a day out with the kids or holiday even? RideStrong by Jo McRae is a handbook of do-it-at-home exercises to condition our bodies for faster and longer rides in 2017.

Perryman The Meaning of Cricket

Next year will close with an ‘away’ Ashes series in Australia with most of England’s test cricket between now and then seen as a build up to this most serious of grudge matches. Jon Hotten’s The Meaning of Cricket is the perfect companion volume to explain why the long wait will be more than worth it.

In terms of GB sporting success in 2016 nothing came very much close to the Gold, Silver and Bronze haul at the Rio Olympics and an historic third place in the Medal Table, helped it has to be said though by the justifiable yet significant absence of most of the Russian team. The Impact of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games edited by Kevin Dixon and Tom Gibbons details the significance, or otherwise, of such Olympian success by looking back to the previous, ‘home’ Games and their meaning today. Then before you know it the 2018 Winter Games will be upon us and then Tokyo 2020. The Olympic Cycle is never-ending, hardly giving any space for reflection and critical analysis. Providing plenty of the latter and helping perhaps to prevent all the excitement over the success of Rio’s Team GB obscuring continuing falls in levels of sports participation, Understanding the Olympics by John Horne and Garry Whannel provides a good read for those whom the next sporting year will include a fond look back at Rio 2016, while wondering what all those medals won will mean for the rest of us in 2017.

But it isn’t just the quadrennial Olympics that should ignite the need to engage with the collision between the sporting and the political. The Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics is broad-ranging, comprehensive and incisive in its cataloguing of how this mix happens and shapes so much of life beyond the arena.

Beyond all those good but serious reads, my New Year treats include a strip cartoon, a spot of colouring in, some fiction and the first of a splendid new series of children’s sports books. The Illustrated History of Football by David Squires is a comic-book style approach to where our much-fabled ‘People’s Game’ came from and how it’s ended up. With an adult colouring book we can create our own such books, providing hours of endless drawing fun.

Two sporting versions of the format that stand out are Colouring the Tour de France by James Nunn and William Fotheringham with its attention to historic detail, and Richard Mitchelson’s Grand Tour, which features a vast array of artistic games and puzzles to provide hours of endless fun, while waiting for the cold, dark wintry morning to clear before the joys of a springtime ride.

Alternatively, another very good football novel from Anthony Cartwright is Iron Towns, which is set in the Black Country . Few authors manage to combine sport and fiction with any degree of success, but Cartwright does it superlatively well. Don’t let the grown-ups have all the fun either – Football School by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton will appeal to primary school-age children, via the cunning use of football as the means of learning.

Perryman grand tour cookbook

And for the kitchen? Yes sport and the pleasures of eating can be combined, though very few cookbooks make that link. Hannah Grant’s The Grand Tour Cookbook does though, with the imaginative device of a stage race through recipes to fuel the cycling body. It’s suitable for most other endurance sports too, and will be one of my favourite reads in 2017.

But my top sports book choice as a New Year must-read has to be Games without Frontiers by Joe Kennedy. Not long, but packed into its 132 pages is an analysis and context to help us understand football, sport, everything else in-between via political theory and cultural studies and a fine writing style. Read it before January’s out and the rest of the sporting year will make a heap more sense.

Note: No links in this review to Amazon, if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers please do so.

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

An end to humbugism
Friday, 09 December 2016 17:03

An end to humbugism

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mark Perryman provides a seasonal round-up of the best books to cheer up the radical spirit in us all and give us food for Blake's 'mental fight'.

From chaotic Brexit to the triumph of Trump via the summertime Labour coup, 2016 will be a year to forget for many who cling on to an optimism that a better tomorrow remains not only necessary but possible too. The toxicity of racism, the brutal closure of the Calais refugee camp, the political murder of Jo Cox, the human disaster unfolding in Syria and ever-increasing landmass temperatures signalling the onward march of climate change - more than enough to have us all digging into our pockets for the humbugs while giving the holly and the ivy this year a miss. But there’s another side to all of that, for every setback there’s a fightback and in and amongst the mix more than enough to keep at least a semblance of belief in a radically different future. There’s always next year after all!

In Britain, across Europe, and in the USA, progressives are now up against a populist Right, which requires a populist Left in response. The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis is a richly analytical account of the similarities and differences of what this year emerged as a global phenomenon of racist reaction while Europe in Revolt edited by Catarina Príncipe and Bhaskar Sunkara reveal the resources of hope an insurgent European left provides. For the prospects of ‘what might have been’ read Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders and imagine what a President Trump-free 2017 might have looked like.

MP Our Revolution

Such an alternative right now however remains at a very low ebb. Books that begin to map out the beginnings of a journey back are needed more than ever. Fortunately 2016 began to provide a good variety of such handy volumes. Now out in paperback Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism remains for many the best of the bunch and for those who don’t have it already a must-have for any Christmas radical reads shopping list. A personal favourite for the combination of design, format and writing is ABCs of Socialism edited by Bhaskar Sunkara. A book to bring the optimist back to earth is The Corruption of Capitalism by Guy Standing, pioneer of the ‘precariat’ analysis, who continues his well-studied research to reveal the transformation of work being effected via the rentier economy. An updated edition of the trailblazing Inventing the Future from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams provides a manifesto of change to counter the miserable terms and conditions Standing’s ‘precariart’ are forced to endure. But of course these conditions aren’t created simply by the world of work. Edited by Jeremy Gilbert Neoliberal Culture provides a much-needed breadth of critique that takes our understanding of the neoliberalism beyond any tendency to cling on to a workerist model of explanation. Taking a similarly broad scope is author Mark Greif, the title of whose new book rather gives this away, Against Everything, the perfect seasonal gift for oppositionalists everywhere, not that they will appreciate the gesture, being against such fripperies after all.

CM nunns thecandidate

After that little lot the season of not enough goodwill and too little peace may require a bit of cheer-me-up. The Candidate by Alex Nunns should do precisely that for the convinced Corbynite, with an account in riveting detail of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to power which reads more like a thriller than a chronicle, and that’s a compliment by the way! And for the year ahead, those plotting the downfall of Corbyn’s opposition from the Labour Right have the perfect Christmas present in the way of David Osland’s rewrite of the activist classic How to Select or Reselect Your MP. The annual Socialist Register 2017 edition is entitled Rethinking Revolution with a range of fresh thinking on a great theme ranging from Corbynism, the European Left and South Africa’s ANC to radical change in Bolivia plus a range of essays questioning the legacy of 1917’s revolutionary model.

Of course in 2017 there’ll be no escaping the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Get ready to make it a revolutionary New Year with the classic dissident account, Victor Serge’s Year One of the Russian Revolution. Or for a wholly original approach, treat yourself to the brilliant comic-strip style approach of 1917: Russia’s Red Year by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger. Quite the quirkiest account of 1917 I’ve read though, and all the better for it is Catherine Merridale’s incredibly original Lenin on the Train which describes Lenin’s journey to the revolution as a kind of communist version of great rail journeys: superb! The latest edition of my favourite journal Twentieth Century Communism has a particular interest in communist nostalgia, ranging over instances of this perhaps not very quaint phenomenon in Romania, Italy Greece and elsewhere. Without decrying the historical significance of the Russian Revolution there are plenty of other starting points for the revolutionary impulse. The Leveller Revolution from John Rees expertly and passionately describes the tumultuous times of the 1640s English Civil War as one such starting point. Not exactly a year of revolution but one of change nevertheless David Stubbs in 1996 & The End Of History chooses the year of Blur, Oasis, Three Lions and the eve of Blair as PM to entertainingly conclude that those particular twelve months were a kind of start for what became postmodern Britain.

To understand the evolution of an historical tradition of thought and action there’s no better collection than the recently re-issued Antonio Gramsci Reader. This peerless thinker and revolutionary’s writings from1916 to1935 remain the single most important application of 1917 to the world after WWI and the rise of interwar fascism; moreover they have stood the test of time better than most. A new collection of Eric Hobsbawm’s writings on Latin America Viva La Revolucion is a wonderful way to explore how interpreting the world can enable us to change the world, to kind of misquote Marx. Today such a philosophy, what was once called praxis, finds many different expressions in varied locations and situations. One example is activist-photography on the frontline between the state of Israel and Palestinian resistance, which is the subject of Activestills edited by Vered Maimon and Shiraz Grinbaum.

In 2016, as in 2015 and 2014, too the pivot of radical change on this island remains Scotland. Scotland voted against #ToryBrexit, for a social-democratic and green majority in favour of Scottish independence, led by the most impressive by far of all domestic party leaders. It is no surprise then that writing on Scotland and its politics produces some of the most thoughtful insights either north of, or all points south, of the border. Neil Davidson’s latest collection of richly intellectual essays Nation-States reinforces his reputation as the most creative author currently writing out of the Marxist tradition on the theories and intersections of a nationalist politics. Davidson’s writing combines critical analysis with a grand global overview. Scotland the Bold by Gerry Hassan is focussed more specifically on Scotland yet this liberates rather than restricts Gerry’s radical imaginary which he brilliantly applies to the present and future of this most turbulent of nations.

The dark side of versions of nationalism rooted not in liberation but blood and soil are covered in two powerfully critical memoirs. Gaby Weiner’s Tales of Loving and Leaving deserves to become a modern classic. This is a book that expertly yet effortlessly weaves family and generation into two of the most epic events of the twentieth century, the Russian Revolution and Hitler coming to power, while linking both to a consequence that we continue to live with in the 21st, century - mass migration. Fascist in the Family is the kind of title to get the reader to sit up and take notice before they’ve even started thumbing through the pages. Left-wing writer Francis Beckett retells the story of his father: elected as Labour’s youngest MP at the 1924 General Election, he became one of Oswald Mosley’s key allies in the British Union of Fascists, until he found even this lot not Nazi enough and helped found the National Socialist League. Told with a brutal honesty, it is a book of horrific tragedy.

To add some fiction over the holiday break, try Andrew Smith’s The Speech. Taking as its starting point the real-life Enoch Powell ‘Rivers of Blood’ tirade, Smith engages with themes of culture and community to reveal a fictional plot rooted in reality and hope. Originally published in the wake of Italy’s ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 the novel We Want Everything by Nanni Balestrini is both framed by this period of revolutionary youth culture but not trapped by it. As such, this is a novel of enduring inspiration as well as a riveting portrayal of revolt. Europe today is a very different place to ’69 and for a chunk of the British electorate they can’t leave the continent quick enough. Bruno Vincent’s pastiche Enid Blyton story Five on Brexit Island is the near perfect stocking-filler for politicos, remainers or leavers alike.

But why should the grown-ups have all the best books? A new Michael Rosen is the highlight of almost any Christmas for younger readers and his latest Jelly Boots, Smelly Boots will do anything but disappoint. Newly translated, An Elephantasy by Argentine children’s author María Elena Walsh combines surrealism and humour via an adventure that is every bit as revealing as it is funny.

CM The Elephantasy

Even post Bake Off sell-off, Christmas is arguably more than almost anything else a culinary event. For those looking to go past the Delias and Jamies, there are three cookery books to expand any chef’s horizons. Ideas to make a break with the traditonal yuletide fare, or simply spice up mealtimes the whole year round, are aplenty in Meera Sodha’s new book Fresh India. Looking beyond Christmas the latest Leon book Happy Salads by Jane Baxter and John Vincent will have any wannabe chef eagerly awaiting Spring to try out the vast range of recipes offered for warmer days. Substantially updated and entirely redesigned, the second edition of Laila Ed-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s The Gaza Kitchen is internationalism as you eat. History, politics and delicious recipes for those who like to cook up some solidarity.

And the perfect gift to put under the tree for the activist who is anti-consumerist until he, or she, realises that means no prezzies? The new edition of Verso’s Book Of Dissent will have ‘em whooping with revolutionary delight not just on the 25th but for the next twelve months too. Or if a different kind of inspiration is required, one from Michael Rosen for all from young adults to fully fledged grown-ups, What is Poetry? It's an easy-to-follow guide to both reading and writing poems, perfect for those with the secret ambition of releasing the inner rhyming couplet. Though our favourite gift is another from Verso, their 2017 Radical Diary destined to resurrect the annual Big Red Diary that some of a certain political age will remember with fondness. Luxurious design, historical dates and details, quotes, illustrated throughout, it has enough to turn the most dogged pessimist into an optimist for the year ahead.

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And our book of the seasonal quarter, our number one for Santa’s red list? Well we have not one but two, because we’ve chosen a theme and there is a pair of such outstanding titles it has proved impossible to separate them - so we recommend splashing out and getting both. Trump, Farage the #brexit fallout, has seen a revival of a right wing populism built round a naked racism, and with Le Pen 2017 could be worse still. What we desperately need is a popular anti-racism, not talking to each other to confirm our own opinions but to reach out, not pandering to the haters and the misinformed but conversing and where required challenging too. Daniel Rachel’s superb Walls Come Tumbling Down chronicles one such effort, via music, from Rock against Racism via 2-Tone to Red Wedge. A period when pop and politics, including Labour, learned how to work together towards what both understood in different ways as the common good. But no such effort would have been remotely possible without the singular experience of Rocking against Racism, a story now retold via Reminiscences of RAR edited by two men who set it all up, Red Saunders and Roger Huddle. This a book full of such sublime enthusiasm and vision it can only leave the reader wondering why nothing remotely like it has come again and what we can do in 2017 to make that happen. Daniel Rachel’s book will help convince us of the pitfalls of simply recreating the past, Roger and Red’s that despite this, when culture and politics click anything is possible.

Culture Matters indeed! 


Note: no links in this review to Amazon: if you can avoid buying from tax dodgers, please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

A recent protest in Rio de Janeiro
Wednesday, 10 August 2016 07:14

More of a marathon than a sprint

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman offers an exhaustive reading selection for a sizzling summer of sport.

Exhaustive? Exhausting more like! The never-ending summer of sport from Euro 2016, the British Grand Prix, English rugby down under, Test Match cricket, Le Tour, Wimbledon fortnight , Rio 2016 and then before you know it the football season has started. It was ever thus, the sport has just got bigger that’s all, if not always better.

To help navigate our way through the cause and effect of the highs and the lows, there’s no better place to start than John Leonard’s Fair Game, an easy-to-read history of the clash between politics and sport. To take a more philosophical approach means engaging with competition vs participation, another one of those big match this versus that binary opposition which serve more to obscure than inform.


Losing It by the superlative Simon Barnes teaches us more than we will ever need to know about the joys of not being on the winning side. But the sharpest divide in sporting culture has nothing to do with winners and losers but gender. Can you name a single sporting culture which isn’t fundamentally shaped by gender relations? Anna Kessel’s Eat Sweat Play is a popular read on this complex but essential subject, an absolute must-read for the future of sport, any sport.

Once every four years the Summer Olympics are so huge that for two or three weeks they both block out almost all other sport - and plenty more besides - while providing a platform for sports that otherwise hardly ever get a look in. The latter is arguably one of the few remaining redeeming features of the Olympic ideal, well covered by Dave Zirin’s fully updated Brazil’s Dance with the Devil. It deals with both the Olympics and football’s World Cup, and their impact on Brazil in 2014 and 2016.


Of course most of these failings are not new. Jules Boykoff's Power Games is a political history of the Games which explains the scale of the failure both historically and theoretically via the highly original concept of ‘celebration capitalism’. During Rio this will be our favourite read between the breathlessly exciting sporting action on the TV.

Ordinarily the combination of a European Championships and the fiftieth anniversary of ’66 would have turned 2016 into a footballing summer. But for the English, after Iceland 2 Poundland 1, no chance of that! Peter Chapman’s exercise in nostalgia Out Of Time reminds us of a year when for England, almost anything seemed possible, on and off the pitch, 1966.

A perhaps less obvious year to choose to revisit with such English optimistic intent is 1996. But this was the year of England’s Euro 96, Britpop (actually English pop) and new Labour on the eve of a General Election landslide, including a majority of English seats. When Football Came Home by Michael Gibbons and When We Were Lions from Paul Rees both cover this epic tournament with one eye on the politics and culture of the time too. For thirtysomethings and older, a really great read about something England have failed to do this century - make it to a tournament semi-final!

Taking a longer historical view is Colin Shindler’s Four Lions which imaginatively chronicles English footballing history via the life, career and times of four England captains: Billy Wright, Bobby Moore, Gary Lineker and David Beckham.

Taking a more conventional approach to all things post ’66, Henry Winter in Fifty Years of Hurt records with the finest of insights all that has gone wrong, and the reasons why, since that singular golden moment five decades ago. The paperback edition will make even more painful reading mind no doubt, with the defeat to Iceland tacked on and the dawning of the age of Big Sam as England supremo.

MP3 Fifty Years of Hurt

For a variety of studies of the modern game, the edited collection by Ellis Cashmore and Kevin Dixon Studying Football provides some academic explanations which are both rich in detail and deep in understanding. But my top choice to pack for the new season’s away trip reading has to be And The Sun Shines Now by Adrian Tempany.

I first read this superb book as a review copy a year ago, but then it was promptly withdrawn because of the Hillsborough Inquest. This is a book that begins and ends with Hillsborough, and in between deals with the mess modern English football has become. Delayed because of the Inquest and the legal restrictions of the legal proceedings on such a book, twelve months later it is if anything an even more powerful and compelling read.

Without the Ashes cricket struggles to get much of a look-in even during the summer months, selling off the live TV coverage to Sky has reduced wider public interest still further. Emma John’s Following On is therefore a timely reminder of cricket’s appeal, even when it’s not actually very well played.

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Football of course has been dominant for so long now in English sporting culture it is hard to imagine other models for how to consume sport, and a five-day Test Match is perhaps the most incongruous alternative imaginable.

My favourite other way to consume sport is cycling. Decentralised, free to watch, pan-European, and on terrestrial TV, thousands ride the course to reach their best roadside vantage point, and the Brits always win - well almost always.

I’m talking of course about Le Tour. The classic account of this most famous of cycling contests, Geoffrey Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race, has recently been republished, a superb mix of cultural history and sporting commentary.

And a novel to expand our understanding of what it takes to ride this greatest of all races? From Dutch author Bert Wagendorp comes Ventoux, the story of a group of friends who decide to ride to the summit of this most iconic of climbs and the effect the effort has on all of their lives.

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The Science of the Tour de France by James Witts takes a more practical approach. In spellbindng detail along with magnificent photography and graphics the author carefully explains what it takes to ride this most punishing of races spread over almost an entire month of varied and arduous competition. And there is probably no rider better equipped to put that experience into words than David Millar, and he does precisely that in his very fine new book The Racer.

What is special about cycling is the connection between competition and participation, what other sport can you use as a means to get to work, do the shopping, a family day out? Team Sky rider and Team GB Olympian sketches out precisely those connections in his amusing yet informative book The World of Cycling According to G.

The most basic sporting test however of human endurance remains running. Arguably the one truly universal global sport, requiring no equipment, no facilities, any body shape, and for the lucky few a route out of poverty too.

Richard Askwith has established himself as one of the best writers on the sport, Today We Die A Little is Richard’s biography of one of the greatest long-distance runners of all time, Emil Zatopek, which reveals both what it takes physically to take one’s body beyond the limits of human endurance, but also the political context of 1950s Eastern Europe which drove Zátopek to run.

But there’s one feat Zátopek failed to achieve, nor any runner before or after him either - breaking two hours for the marathon. Ed Casear’s Two Hours combines investigative journalism, sports science and athletic travelogue to find out whether this near-mythical barrier might ever be broken.

And my sports book of the quarter? There is only really one choice. Not content with writing a peerless global history of football in The Ball is Round, and a riveting account of all that is wrong with English football in The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt has now written the definitive and best history of the Olympics, The Games.

MP6The Games

What David does so effortlessly well as a sportswriter is combine hard won facts and tales with original opinion and ideas, to construct both a story and an alternative. This is the must-have book, to go with those late nights and early mornings watching the Rio Olympics - and long after too.


Note: No links in this review to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from tax dodgers please do so. Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football.

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