Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

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

London is drowning – but keep the faith
Friday, 13 December 2019 20:09

London is drowning – but keep the faith

Published in Music

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman recalls the Clash's epic album of 40 years ago. Image designed by Hugh Tisdall for Philosophy Football

14th December 1979 – the year of Thatcher’s election was seen out with the release of London Calling, widely regarded as the finest of all Clash albums.  Forty years later, 14th December 2019, another Tory nightmare begins and London's drowning. So it seems timely to look back, in hope.

The Clash had burst onto the fast-emerging punk scene in ’77 with their debut album. The band’s second long-player Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released to mixed reviews. It was over-produced, so the raw energy edge of its tracks was somewhat blunted. All this was to change however, with London Calling.

From double album length, weighing in at an astonishing nineteen tracks across four sides, to the stunning cover pic of Paul Simonon doing some serious damage to his bass guitar, this was to become an instant classic.  The rich mix of sounds showcased the foursome’s ever-expanding musical influences – jazz, reggae and dub, the blues, rockabilly, ska. This by and large wasn’t what was expected of 1970s English punk bands. Despite that, both fans and critics loved it.   

On their debut album Joe Strummer had belted out the anthemic ‘We’re so bored with the USA’ yet two years later The Clash appeared to have fallen hopelessly in love with the place.  The influences were obvious, from Montgomery Clift to Cadillacs – a wholesome embrace of Americana minus the shrill anti-Americanism of the band’s more obvious politics.

The band were emerging as fulsome internationalists too. Every bit at home belting out their tribute to inner-city resistance The Guns of Brixton as their very particular account in Spanish Bombs of the battle against Franco’s fascists. For many listeners these tracks would be their first introduction to either subject. The Clash were a genuinely educational, as well as innovative, outfit, a key influence shaping a generation whose politics were framed by being anti-Thatcher on the home front and soon enough against Reagan on the global front too.  Sounds familiar?        

Two tracks in particular stand out. Not only as unforgettable when first heard but uncannily prescient four decades on too. 

What are we gonna do now?
Taking off his turban, they said, 'is this man a Jew?'
'Cause they're working for the clampdown
They put up a poster saying: 'We earn more than you'
We're working for the clampdown
We will teach our twisted speech
To the young believers
We will train our blue-eyed men
To be young believers

This ‘clampdown’ mixed authoritarianism, race hatred and economic power. What The Clash railed against in 1979 remains the shape of Johnson and Trump’s right-wing, racist populism today.

And then of course the album’s title track, London Calling:

London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared and battle come down

This was the era of the Winter of Discontent, the Special Patrol Group, war in Ireland (and soon enough in the South Atlantic too), the Nazi National Front on the march, Brixton and Toxteth ablaze, civil disobedience against Reagan and Thatcher’s nuclear arms race, and then the year-long Miners’ Strike.  ‘War is declared’ – they weren’t far wrong.

The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growin' thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I, I live by the river

The meteorology might be a tad skewift but a frightening vision of the future has become the vivid reality of the present-day climate emergency. A melting polar ice cap, record-breaking heatwaves, agricultural growing seasons in crisis, and rising seal levels.

We can rest assured that The Clash of yesteryear would have been playing Extinction Rebellion benefit gigs today.  It’s Revolution Rock, ’79 vintage – play it loud in 2019, and keep the faith.

Philosophy Football’s 40th anniversary London Calling T-shirt is available from here.

How to read an election
Friday, 29 November 2019 11:36

How to read an election

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mark Perryman provides a handy reading guide to the General Election

There’s not much doubt politics is getting hot, hotter, hottest – just as the nights draw in and get cold, cold, colder as Boris Johnson seek to bring some kind of ending to the sorry saga of all things Brexit.

A December General Election? The first at this time of year for goodness knows how long. And to sort out Brexit? Well the last one didn’t, and there’s absolutely no guarantee the result of this one will either, whichever way it goes.

In the immediate aftermath of ‘17 there was much talk that for Labour it was the manifesto that wot (nearly) won it. Mike Phipps’ For The Many helps us understand the original’s appeal and the ideas required to win this time.

Most of the contributors to the essay selection Rethinking Britain are slightly more detached from the organised Labour Left than those contributing to Mike’s book, though they share the same intent ‘for the many’, ranging over economics, employment, investment, and social security.

One of the brightest voices for such a brand of ‘new’ economics is Grace Blakeley, her first book Stolen is a compelling account not only of all that’s wrong with how financial power is misused but also what could be done about it.

The abolition of tuition fees was a vote-winner in 2017, makes good sense but surely we also need to ask what are universities for, not just how they’re being paid for. A good step in the former direction is provided by Raewyn Connell’s The Good University complete with the rather excellent sub-title ‘ what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change.

My favourite source for ideas in and around Labour however, is the quarterly journal Renewal. Issue after issue it never disappoints – the latest is themed around the issue of democracy, with a stand-out essay by Lewis Bassett on the vexed question of democracy in the Labour Party.

Radical, new, policies broke through at Labour’s 2019 party conference including the 4-day week, abolition of private schools, a Green New Deal. Most of these have found their way into Labour’s 2019 manifesto. But in any general election these face the problem of how they are affected by the Brexit impasse which isn’t going to disappear in a hurry.

Also, Labour’s antisemitism crisis will be an issue too. Strange Hate by Keith Kahn-Harris firmly and correctly puts the resolution of that crisis in the context of anti-racism. While for those unfamiliar with the specificities of Jewish culture A Jewdas Haggadah provides a much-needed introduction, with occasional hilarious results.  

people get ready

For a primer chronicling the history of the rise of Corbynism read David Kogan’s Protest and Power : The Battle for the Labour Party. As to what happens if Labour wins, Christine Berry and Joe Guinan’s People Get Ready! deals strategically with how Labour might govern while seeking to implement a post-neoliberal economic strategy unimaginably radical in its ambition. Wow.

But to get even close to that point, Labour’s arguments for ‘real change’ need both to be made popular and to challenge a resurgent right-wing racist populism. J.A.Smith’s Other People’s Politics charts precisely this terrain via a rigorous deconstruction of the populist surge, and what kind of response from Labour this requires.

Labour’s ‘Momentum Left’ is often derided as extremist and Marxist. In fact it is overwhelmingly non-marxist – Marxism no longer offers the pole of attraction for those who favour politics against the mainstream that it once did. In its place there is a greater range of models of critique. But that’s not to suggest it is dead, buried or irrelevant. The Corbyn Project by John Rees is testament to the necessity of a Marxist critique of even the most left-wing versions of reformism,. We may choose to disagree with the critique, but to ignore it entirely is a serious error.

The new edition of the classic Tony Cliff and Donny Gluckstein The Labour Party: A Marxist History now updated by Charlie Kimber to take in both the Blair-Brown years and Corbynism, carefully records from a Marxist standpoint the errors Labour governments have made over the decades. Again we can differ over the precise nature of the causes and consequences, but those causes and consequences need accounting for.

If Marxism is no longer sufficient to explain everything about the modern world, that doesn’t mean it is analytically redundant. Testament to that proposition is the sharply titled, and written, Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism . Full of techno-politics of an unashamedly left complexion, the book is described as ‘a manifesto’. Notwithstanding the free broadband offer, Labour still doesn’t entirely share Aaron’s somewhat breathless enthusiasm for the progressive potential of technological change.

However, modern politics needs to understand how digital technology is transforming the terrain on which we contest. An unpicking of the contradictions this generates is provided by Jamie Woodcock’s Marx at the Arcade, a careful survey of video games and the politics they produce.    

Another ‘unofficial’ manifesto is The Socialist Manifesto by Bhaskar Sunkara, who offers up a political platform which is historic in inspiration, futuristic in vision, and practical for the present.

In a similar vein Nancy Fraser’s The Old Is Dying and the New Cannot be Born takes Gramsci’s famous dictum as a starting point to understand the twin, opposing, potentials of left and right populism out of the current global impasse typified by Trump, and Brexit. It is one of the first of a very welcome new pamphlets series from Verso, short enough to be read between canvassing sessions – relevant, intelligent writing leaving campaigners wanting more.

For the ‘new to be born’ demands that the ‘old’ has to be subject to critique. Stephen Duncombe describes this process as ‘reimagining politics’ which he explains in a new edition of his superb 2007 book Dream or Nightmare, updated to take in the age of Trump.

Such a reimagining demands an engagement with what politics means for those whose entry post-dates the 2008 financial crisis, 2019’s first and second time voters on whose support Labour is counting so much. Keir Milburn’s Generation Left should be considered the set text for connecting with these voters’ practical ideals.

And after all the votes have been counted, what changes and how much? The annual Socialist Register has taken for its 2020 theme ‘new ways of living’ with an admirably global view of the cusp of new versus old.

A scary vision of how such a transition might end up is provided by Peter Fleming’s The Worst is Yet To Come, described as a post-capitalist survival guide, ranging over economic decline, social division and environmental detonation. Oh well, it wasn’t good while it lasted.

TheTwitteringMachineCOVER

To prevent such a vision becoming a reality requires a conversational culture that enables differences of opinion to be shared, rather than as a badge of rising intolerance. Two contrasting approaches to this are provided by Billy Bragg and Richard Seymour, yet both take a similar starting point, social media. Billy’s The Three Dimensions of Freedom champions democratisation in the face of what some have described as ‘surveillance capitalism’. While in The Twittering Machine Richard Seymour tackles the degradation of political debate the entire social media edifice has helped bring about. In time honoured fashion we need both, institutional change and taking personal responsibility to effect that change. The importance of both approaches cannot be underestimated with elections increasingly fought as much online as on the doorstep.

Even in the heat of the such campaigns we need to locate change, personal and political, in the midst of what theorists call ‘the conjunctural’, the terrain of the present. A special edition of the journal New Formations takes this as its theme, This Conjuncture drawing on the work of Stuart Hall to apply the theory to a wide range of what constitutes the present.

Of course any sense of this particular ‘conjuncture’ is pretty much defined by all things Brexit. But of course the issue and what it raises has a history too. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson’s Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire makes this precise point very well – imperial nostalgia is still a powerful political mobiliser.

cover The People s Flag and the Union Jack

Similarly, in The People’s Flag and the Union Jack Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw apply the consequences of an Englishness entwined with the imperial and the martial to the enduring failure for Labour to engage with either the break-up of Britain or the consequent re-emergence of the English nation. Both are of course vital to any understanding of Brexit.

It isn’t however a crude reductionism to suggest that Brexit must also be understood via the prism of class. Mike Carter’s All Together Now? is an epic journey, walking half the length of England to help provide that prism, looking at the deindustrialised communities almost entirely disconnected from the body politic. What kind of answer are the parties providing to their howls of rage?

In a similar vein Our City by Jon Bloomfield is an incredibly powerful testimony of how race and migration shapes the modern British city, in this case Birmingham, establishing grounds for both unity and division, the choice of which is entirely political.

Riding for Deliveroo, the debut book from Callum Cant, is another potent rejoinder to those who would reduce the entire General Election to all things Brexit. Callum’s spirited case for a resistance to the ‘new economy’ should be more than sufficient to convince it shouldn’t be.

If an election shaped by the Brexit impasse fails to respond to these many and varied howls of rage, the future will be anything but progressive. Cas Mudde’s The Far Right Today connects such an understanding to Brexit’s transatlantic equivalent, the 2016 triumph of Trumpism. A triumph framed by a populist racism coupled with authoritarian populism that has its origins in, and message projected by the alt-right.

The New Authoritarians by David Renton is an important new analysis of this phenomenon, that distinguishes this radicalised, racist right from more traditional versions of classic fascism. It is all the more dangerous for this shift. As David argues, our opposition and offering of alternatives is strengthened not weakened by understanding the nature and appeal of what we are up against. Casting votes will not be enough.

The biggest issue in the election should surely be the Climate Emergency. This will condition the shape of politics to come, so it’s useful to have a handbook to guide us. There is none better than Paul Mason’s latest, Clear Bright Future, a guide to past and present crises beyond any conventional electoral focus and a map of what a radical future in their place might look like too.

A more conventional response is provided by System Change not Climate Change edited by Martin Empson. It’s conventional in the sense that most of the contributors derive their politics from Marxism. It’s not to deride the entire legacy of this most revolutionary of ideologies to recognise that firstly its contribution to our understanding of the environmental crisis is negligible, and secondly other revolutionary ideas are serving to make up for that absence and inspiring millions to action.

For example, Greta’s short book No One is Too Small to Make A Difference , which would be my pick as the perfect 2019 Manifesto. And for a campaign guide, Extinction Rebellion’s handbook This is Not A Drill showcases the scale of audacity, action and creative resistance this campaign has generated in such a short time.

But however imaginative, however creative, in the same way that voting is not enough nor will blocking roads be sufficient if the Climate Emergency is to be reversed. We need ideas that become policies and in turn become government action. Labour putting a Green Industrial Revolution at the centre of its message is a hugely important development in this regard, although Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams’ The Economics of Arrival shows how far traditional, including left, governments need to travel to produce a society that is sustainable.  

Despite the claims of politicians on the stump, nothing in politics is ever entirely ‘new’. It pays to take more than a moment to pay heed to the past. Portugal in 1974 is one such instance, the most potent example yet of revolutionary change where we’ve become accustomed to least expect it, Western Europe. It’s an episode brilliantly recalled by Raquel Varela’s new account, A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution.

rebel

Closer to home the new edition of Rebel Footprints by David Rosenberg is a guide to the streets and other parts of London that carry with them a radical past. It’s a history lesson on the move – what a way to spend a Sunday afternoon after 12th December, with David’s book in hand, strolling for socialism.

Anti-racism is a strand that runs through much of this past, or at least it should. Evan Smith’s history British Communism and the Politics of Race may focus on one particular part of the Left and its changing relationship to anti-racism, yet the insights provide a much broader perspective on what makes, and what doesn’t make, an anti-racist Labour Party.

To keep up to date more broadly with the historiography of communism there’s no better source than the journal Twentieth Century Communism. The latest issue is testament to its customary eclectic mix, containing Eric Hobsbawm, the Brothers Grimm and the Communist Party of Cyprus.

A range of new titles offer an impressive revisiting of how to construct a political culture. Too little has been done on this front by Labour, since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. In the rush and tumble of the campaign theres’s Fck Boris and Grime4Corbyn – but what will remain of this after the polling stations close? If 2017 is anything to go by, not a lot.

Beautifully produced, the songbook Working Class Heroes: A History of Struggle in Song edited by Mat Callahan and Yvonne Moore provides like-minded artefacts from the past to inspire us that a radical political future is not only necessary but possible – and the beauty of this is that with instrument in hand, the music can be turned into a weapon of change here and now.

Visual Dissent is an extraordinarily vivid collection of works by the much-celebrated photomontage artist Peter Kennard. If only more of the Left took note of Peter’s ability to communicate with wit, humour and impact.

The LGBT movement is never backward at coming forward with communicating its hopes, ambitions, demands for change. The origins of that political and cultural imperative are beautifully chronicled in the photos and accompanying essays from Stonewall ’69 which comprise Fred W. McDarrah’s Pride: Photographs after Stonewall.

And for a soundtrack? In Don’t Look Back in Anger Daniel Rachel chronicles the rise and fall of Cool Britannia, a music that just like the politics of the same era, the 1990s and the noughties, promised so much but in the end didn’t deliver. Better luck this time, eh?

And as for when the cut ’n thrust of the campaign serves to get a tad blunt and tawdry, I recommend a turn to How to be a Vegan and Keep your Friends from Annie Nichols. Individual, lifestyle choices aren’t sufficient in themselves, we need governments to effect change on the scale the Climate Emergency requires, yet reinventing our diet and ‘keeping our friends’ provides more than an inkling of both what is possible and necessary. Tasty too!

Who knows what the future might hold after 12th December? We can but dream, with many sacrificing evenings and weekends to help make it happen. A very welcome return therefore of the Big Red Diary to help plan the first year of supporting, resisting – or maybe even a mix of the two – a new government.

poems for when your phone dies

And my book of the General Election campaign? Matt Abbott’s debut poetry collection A Hurricane in my Head: Poems for When Your Phone Dies. Poetry? And these are for children too! What’s that got to do with 12th December, eh? Heaps. This is a once-in-a-generation vote, not only to determine Britain’s relationship with Europe via the EU, but also the scale of ambition to tackle the Climate Emergency.

On both fronts those of us of a certain age will struggle on and learn to live with the dire consequences, if the worst possible result imaginable materialises and Johnson is back at Number Ten on the morning of 13th December. But those at secondary school, the age group Matt’s book is primarily aimed at, will have to live with the fallout for most of their adolescence. A Johnson victory moreover will cement the popular shift to the Right, institutionalise its grip on power for a considerable time to come, so those at school will face a grim future.

At the very moment the Climate Emergency needs reversing most urgently, the least will be being done to stop it. The school climate strikers symbolise an entirely different discourse, hope on the move, pinning the blame for the dire prospects for their future squarely on those old enough to know better. Matt’s poems capture this hope and potential superbly, with a line in humour that the grown-ups will smile along to warmly. 12th December, for those not yet old enough to vote is just the beginning – and this is their book.

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

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

What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?
Wednesday, 17 July 2019 13:44

What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?

Published in Sport

 Mark Perryman criticises the exclusive way some sports are managed, and suggests some progressive policies to bring out all the benefits of sport – for the many, not the few.

Cricket’s version of the ‘years of hurt’ – 44 in this case – came to a spectacular end early last Sunday evening. Thrilling, eventful, and glorious – no wonder the front pages the following morning were full of it. The sub-editor who came up with the headline ‘Champagne Super Over’ is surely in line for a hefty bonus.

For a certain version of a miserabilist leftism, all this amounts to is a concocted, nationalistic, distraction from more important matters at hand. For others, it’s hip-hip-hooray! The world has changed at the flick of a super over and superior number of wickets taken! The nation will take up bat and ball! Obesity crisis, what crisis! The truth lies somewhere in between, or as CLR James famously put it ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

The hoo-hah over the tournament’s TV broadcasting rights sold off to the highest bidder, a Sky TV subscription channel, illustrates this perfectly. The England and Scotland women’s World Cup campaigns attracted record-breaking viewing figures, with over 12 million for England’s semi-final. But until the final was after much pressure shared with Channel 4, the cricket World Cup scraped by on a few hundred thousand viewers.

The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Ever since the birth of satellite TV, hyped-up claims have been made about the virtue of its ‘generous purchase’ of TV rights. Yet in every single case numbers following the sport on TV have plummeted, popular interest has been squandered, and participation levels have declined.

It’s been a disaster. Why on earth would any host nation allow the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a domestic World Cup to be be squandered in this way? Yet this summer we have had not one but two examples, in cricket and netball.

MP 2

Netball in particular has wasted the biggest chance it has ever had to grow the sport. Most women in this country have played the game during their schooldays, but the overwhelming majority promptly gave it up when they left school, never to return to the court. There’s been a modest reversal of this depressing trend following England’s gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, but nothing like the kind of platform a World Cup offers.

These sports’ governing bodies, and there are plenty of other examples, clearly cannot be trusted with the wider interests they are charged with. Of course most are hard-pressed for funds, but when participation is sacrificed for the short-term injection of cash, and to boost profits of privately-owned media companies, then something is clearly amiss. Some – though not enough – of the broadcasting rights to sporting events are regulated. They are not available to the satellite channels, and have to be broadcast on terrestrial TV. As a first step, an incoming Labour government should significantly extend that list, to include any domestic World Cup or World Championship for starters, and the Ashes too.

Nanny state? No! It’s standing up for the nation’s sporting interests. Those interests are centred on two roles sport performs like no other cultural activity – encouraging participation and framing a common-sense nationhood.

Sport is socially constructed

On the same weekend as that epic cricket World Cup final, terrestrial TV also treated us to the Wimbledon finals and the British Grand Prix. Both attracted huge audiences, yet neither will lead to many viewers taking up driving round Silverstone as a hobby, or picking up a tennis racquet for the first time.

That is because participation isn’t just about what we can watch on TV from the comfort of our own sofa, it is about providing the means to get us off that sofa too. Sport is socially constructed. A local go-kart track for the child inspired by Lewis Hamilton’s 100mph derring-do might do for starters, but the numbers who can afford to enter this hugely expensive sport at a competitive level are minuscule.

And tennis? The annual platform Wimbledon provides tennis frames it as an intensely upper middle-class pursuit, from the Royal Box guest list to strawberries and cream followed by a glass of Pimms. A revolutionary reinvention of tennis would reframe it as an urban, inner-city sport. A network of concrete tennis courts would not only be vandal-proof, they would require virtually zero maintenance. Add on an army of local authority coaches providing the much-needed structure to encourage those who pick up racquet and ball, and the whole sport could become about mass participation

It could become a sport for the many, not the few – ring any bells? And the few who made it up the ranks to play at Wimbledon would be a pleasant surprise and a welcome side effect, not the sum of our ambition. Having regulated the broadcasting rights, an incoming Labour Government should run an audit of every sport’s governing body’s finances. Those that failed to meet tougher objectives around mass participation would be deprived of the generous state support they receive, from taxpayers and Lottery players. Totalitarian? Not at all, it’s just common sense – these sports have lost the right to be trusted with the organisation and management of cultural activities which are so important to people’s health, happiness and well-being.  

Participation in physical activity is key to the nation’s health. But sport can deliver even more than that. A World Cup, in any sport, reaches the parts of a sporting nation like nothing else. When Liverpool won the Champions’ League the blue half of Merseyside looked away with studied indifference, while they were hardly dancing in the streets of Manchester, North London and elsewhere either.

A World Cup win is of a different scale. The casual observer is mobilised to become hardened fan for a month at least. In Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant phrase ‘An imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’

But of course that ‘imagined community’ is hugely contested, never more so than in this era of the Brexit impasse. Jacob Rees-Mogg clearly hadn’t spent very long on the playing fields of Eton if he could in all seriousness tweet after England’s World Cup victory, ‘We clearly don't need Europe to win.’

MP3

Yet this was an England team with an Irish-born captain, an opening batsman born in South Africa, a man of the match born in New Zealand, and wicket-takers born in Barbados and the grandson of a Pakistani immigrant. It was diverse, multicultural, and all the better for it. Of course this isn’t enough to roll back a resurgent popular racism – but it’s a start, an unrivalled platform for a very different imagined nation to the one of Rees-Mogg’s elitist and xenophobic imagination. Nothing reveals faux-populism like a politician’s ignorance of sport.

What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows? Not enough! The failure to understand the social impact and construction of sport leaves the political left incapable of contributing to the kind of national conversation that Sunday’s World Cup win has ignited.

Fortunately, what CLR James also taught us is that sport matters for its own sake too. For many millions of people, sport is not a distraction from the real world, but an invaluable and central part of that world. Let’s join them, savouring without apologies the victories of England and Wales – and along the way, hopefully learning lessons for the next Labour government’s more progressive policies around the ownership, control and regulation of sport.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. Their World Champions T-shirt, celebrating the diverse and multicultural England team is available here. Illustration is by Hugh Tisdale/Philosophy Football.

Liberté, Egalité, Velocité: the Bicyclists' Road to Socialism
Thursday, 04 July 2019 09:37

Liberté, Egalité, Velocité: the Bicyclists' Road to Socialism

Published in Sport

As Le Tour begins, Mark Perryman offers up a 5-point transitional programme for a cycling revolution

It's July – the month when since 2012 first Wiggins, then Froome, and last year Thomas, turn Le Maillot Jaune into Le Maillot Britannique. Or in Thomas’ case Le Maillot Gallois. And on the back of this comes a surge in riding our bicycles, rather than simply watching the excellent television coverage.

Or not! According to the latest figures from the Department for Transport, only 6% of the UK population cycle at least once a month, just 1% of primary school children cycle to school, and a mere 3% of secondary school children. Compared to Europe we remain the third lowest of daily cyclists, at 4%. Only Cyprus (2%) and Malta (1%) get on their bikes less than the Brits.

Once again the myth that elite success, Le Tour, Team GB’s hatful of gold medals in the Olympic Velodrome, the cycling world championships coming to Yorkshire in the autumn, is proved to have next to no impact on increasing participation.

Yet cycling not only helps generate a healthier population by getting us out of our cars – the same data revealed that the average length of a car journey is 8.5 miles – we can help alleviate urban air pollution, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy.

Le Maillot Jaune won’t achieve any of this, but La Révolution might. It was Trotsky who once offered up a ‘transitional programme’ from capitalism to socialism: mine is a tad more modest – from four wheels, to two. After all, we have nothing to lose but our chains......

MP We have nothing to loose but our chains1

Socialist cycling club, 1939. Available as a postcard from Leeds Postcards

1. No VAT on Bikes

A signature move would be to remove VAT on bicycles. A 20% reduction across the board on the price of a bike, anything from £200 upwards, isn’t to be sniffed at. It uses tax gathering as a tool to actively shape lifestyles, something that will be required more and more by any government seriously committed to a sustainable economic strategy.

2. Socially Useful Bicycle Production

In the past few years there has been a spate of car factory closures. This is unlikely to slow down, as consumer habits are changing. Sadly, it’s not that car-drivers are driving less, it’s that they’re driving existing models for longer. The urgent need to upgrade every couple of years is coming to an end, and electricity is coming to replace the petrol in the tank.
Good, but where does the electricity come from? If not renewables while pollution may be reduced, the impact on climate change much less so – and the same applies to E-bikes.

Those factories could be taken over by the state, and used to churn out cheap but well-made bikes. Forget about front-wheel suspension, which is entirely unnecessary for the vast majority of journeys – lightweight steel is what improves the quality of any ride. Focus on this for a new line of nationalised, not-for profit children’s and adults’ bikes. Traditional centres of car manufacture are unlikely ever to recover, certainly not on the scale they once had – but what if they became centres of bike manufacture?

3. Bicycles on trains

Eight and a half miles isn’t a bad standard to aim at. Of course many car journeys are considerably less, so there’s no need to aspire to Le Tour standards straightaway. Most of us, depending on any hills getting in the way, could do those 8.5 miles in well under an hour. In big cities that will be quicker than by bus, and no wait for the next train either.

For some, however, the journey to work is considerably longer. Why then does commuting by train actively discriminate against those who’d take a bike to complete the journey? The only ones permitted are those who can afford the expensive ‘2nd bike’ option, the fold-away. And at the weekends it’s no better, a ride in the country for city-dwellers is made difficult because the train ride to get there has next to no space for bikes.

None of this applies on the continent where it is not uncommon to find entire carriages given over to cyclists and their bikes. What new train design in the UK has even begun to address this? There is ever-decreasing provision for carrying bikes, which is sheer madness – both commercially, and for the environment.

4. A bike shed for every workplace

OK, 8.5 miles is going to leave some of us a tad sweaty. If you’re into all-weather cycling, quite possibly soaking wet and caked in mud as well. No way to start the working day! So every workplace needs to be kitted out with a bike shed, changing room and showers. Central and local government should set the example in their offices, but tokenism isn’t enough. It needs to be in planning regulations for new workplace builds, with interest-free loans for all existing workplaces to add this provision.

5. The cyclists’ road to socialism

In the early years of socialism ‘Clarion Clubs’ of socialist cyclists would take body, soul and the message for change from city to countryside. A late 1980s version was the annual Oxford to London Nicaragua Solidarity bike ride, that thousands would take part in every year.

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Clarion House’s annual Big Red Picnic, which is a Morning Star fundraiser Photo: Joan Heath

Despite the supposed frailty of Jeremy Corbyn being challenged by pictures of his regular Islington to Westminster – 4.5 miles according to my road map – cycle-commuting is a culture largely absent from the Left nowadays.

A left cycling culture could help generate instead what the writer Lynne Segal has described as moments of ‘collective joy’ – a day out yes, but with a world, not just a wheel, to change too.

I could add, of course, safer cycleways and paths. These are certainly needed, because fear remains a major impediment to the revolutionary growth in cycling for our individual and collective benefit I am advocating. Yet the overwhelming emphasis on this, to little or no substantial change, serves only to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s that dangerous, which it isn’t, and nothing is being done about it, which it hasn’t, why bother?

Like any decent manifesto for a revolution mine is the advocacy therefore of hope, not despair.

Liberté? Yes. Egalité? Of course. Velocité? Why not? Driven not by profit or an economic system driving our planet to destruction, but by ourselves. A Révolution in anybody’s language.

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Out just in time for Le Tour: Philosophy Football’s Liberté, Egalité, Velocité T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football.

 

Spring into Sport
Thursday, 09 May 2019 10:36

Spring into Sport

Published in Sport

In the run-up to several of one sport’s major prizes, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews Spring books on sport and the perennial struggle against commercialising, capitalist pressures.

April. The Carabao, or those of us a tad old skool, League Cup Final is long gone. The FA Cup staggering its past-the-sold-by-date towards the Final, ditto the Champions and Rich Runners-Up league. Up and down the divisions clubs have jostled their way to win promotion, staved off relegation or clung on to mid-table mediocrity. And for the few, not the many, the Premier League title. Before you know it, all this will be done ’n dusted ready for it to begin all over again, the 2019/20 edition.

What better time therefore to reflect on the modern meaning of our much-fabled People’s Game? For a comic-strip insight mixing fine art with bittersweet commentary there’s none better than David Squires. David’s strips, 2014-2018 are now handily collected in one very tasty volume, Goalless Draws.

Stuart Roy Clarke likewise takes a visual approach to locating the lost meaning of football, via a photography that he has made his own under the rubric ‘homes of football’. Stuart’s latest collection The Game combines the finest photographic record of the changes in football, with a superb accompanying text from the one of the founders of football’s academia, John Williams. Together they make for a superlative double act.

Part of Stuart and John’s argument, and the appeal of their book, is that there really is no substitute for ‘being there’. This is an experience that has changed markedly since the ’89 Hillsborough tragedy, a moment caught most poignantly by David Cain’s book-length poem Truth Street.

Many of these changes have been for the better, but no one can pretend that ‘being there’ is the same as it once was. This is a point expertly made by Duncan Hamilton in his new book Going to the Match, a journey to games which confirms that despite all the worst efforts of corporate homogeneity, the proverbial wind and the rain of 90 plus minutes in the stands cannot be beaten.

What the modern ‘matchday experience’ (ugh!) has become is the effort to convert our fandom from active participants to passive consumers. Dave Roberts is having none of that in Home and Away, in which he travels round non-league football to find a game largely untouched by the trappings of what has become disapprovingly known as ‘Mod£rn Football.’

For those who can afford the time and the expense – though with a bit of careful pre-planning these trips can be surprisingly cheap – another way of escaping the way our domestic game is consumed can be via a European away weekend.

For an excellent starting point towards choosing such a trip read Neil Frederik Jensen’s Mittel and discover the appeal of heading off to see a game in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. A more familiar trip would of course be to La Liga or the Bundesliga. For the former pack a copy of Jonathan Wilson’s latest, The Barcelona Legacy in which Jonathan provides his now customary digest of tactics to better understand the game unfolding before our eyes. And for Germany, take with you Uli Hesse’s Building the Yellow Wall for a superb account of this most idiosyncratic of clubs, not least because this was where Jurgen Klopp learnt his managerial trade and Jadon Sancho is currently building his formidable playing career.

Of course the biggest and best away trip of the past twelve months has to be the one those lucky England fans made to World Cup 2018, bringing home England’s first World Cup semi-final appearance in 28 years for their troubles. In How Football (Nearly) Came Home Barney Ronay tells the full, and unforgettable story of that glorious English summer of football. If the wait is as long again as it was from the previous one, at least we’ll have a classic read that stands comparison with Italia 90’s All Played Out by Pete Davies to savour in the meantime.

Some football destinations are more welcoming than others. That’s not to say fans shouldn’t take the risk of being pleasantly surprised. Andrew Hodges helps readers towards that happy outcome by unpicking the more complex reality behind the fearsome reputation of Croatian football in Fan Activism, Protest and Politics: Ultras in Post-Socialist Croatia.  

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Closer to home Michael Calvin has an unrivalled reputation for chronicling football’s pluses, and all too many minuses, via a series of award-winning books. His latest State of Play ranges over stories of players, managers and clubs to create the kind picture of English football that rarely makes it on to the back pages, yet is way more important than who scored what against whom. Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg’s The Club doesn’t have much doubt what has caused the perversion of the sport – the unseemly wealth and disruptive influence of The Premier League.

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The latest edition of Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski provides a highly accessible, and entertaining framework to understand the Premier League’s evolution. Or for an unashamedly radical deconstruction of the entire edifice Gabriel Kuhn’s Soccer vs The State, also now available in a new edition, should satisfy all who harbour such an ambition.

If on the other hand the preference is for an alternative universe of football then David Wardale’s Wasting Your Wildcard is a hugely entertaining and indispensable guide to that mid 1990s throwback, Fantasy Football – and I add that historical footnote writing as the co-founder of another football-inclined mid-1990s throwback!

Football, fantasy, philosophy, Mod£rn or any other version has of course become an almost entirely sedentary pastime – a national obsession divorced from any kind of desire to physically partake in it as a sport. Football more than any other sport demolishes the role model / emulation model. If the Premier League or an England World Cup run can’t get the nation off our sofas what hope for any other sport?

The exception, for a while at least, has been cycling. Although of late even this seems to have levelled off at best –or even slipped downhill. Cycling’s temporary success in boosting numbers on two wheels coincided with unprecedented British cyclists’ success at both the Olympics and Le Tour. How to Ride a Bike by Chris Hoy handily combines both, all the glamour of a six-time Olympic Gold Medallist with a how-to-guide for those who’d like to cycle both further and faster.

Unfortunately, however closely we follow Chris’s helpful hints, only a tiny minority of us will ever reach the kind of speed, uphill and downhill, catalogued in The Cycling Podcast by Richard Moore, Lionel Birnie and Daniel Friebe, who are as much a joy to read as their podcast was to listen to. Of course there’s not much doubt what was the highlight of cycling’s 2018, Geraint Thomas surprising everybody – not least himself – by winning Le Tour, a story he retells in his own inimitable way The Tour According to G.

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Meanwhile for those of who still hanker after two-wheeled speed and endurance, Peter Cossins has written the near perfect book Full Gas in which Peter seeks to instruct mere mortals in the tactics of the peloton. If we cannot dream, well what exactly is the point of doing, or watching sport?

As the sporting summer fast approaches there’s plenty of contenders for the standout event. A home cricket world cup? The women’s football world cup? The debut of the UEFA national leagues’ semis and final? Another home world cup, netball?

In years gone by an Ashes summer would have seen off the lot of them, but not anymore since the disastrous decision to sell live and free-to-watch Test cricket to the satellite TV moneymen. And cricket has its own problems as a sport too – Australia’s fall from grace via a ball tampering scandal is brilliantly chronicled by Geoff Lemon in his Steve Smith’s Men.

And then there’s the Rugby World Cup in the autumn to look forward to. It’s hosted by Japan for the first time, instead of one of the ‘traditional’ rugby nations; but the globalisation of rugby, like cricket, remains faltering at best. It’s a world cup model adopted to ape football for the usual commercial and capitalist reasons, but lacking any cultural ambition to truly spread the game. Perhaps rugby’s bigwigs should read Stuart Barnes’ full-on rugby memoir Sketches from Memory to remind themselves of what the sport at its best has to offer the world.

Golf has its own version of globalisation, with the Ryder Cup being the only sporting event with a team competing under the EU flag. But what will happen with GB golfers in Europe’s side, post-Brexit?

Tiger Woods is the one golfer of the current era to reach beyond the sport’s core support to spur some kind of revival of interest, as shown by his April 2019 win at the Masters. He is a hugely talented but much troubled figure, and Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian’s unauthorised biography Tiger Woods helps untangle the reason for why Tiger is, and remains, a figure who towers above his sport.

Wimbledon fortnight provides a sudden burst of interest in tennis. Apart from that it’s down there with the also-rans. Gregory Howe’s Chasing Points is a welcome insight therefore into the pro-tennis tour as players scramble points to climb up the rankings. It’s a revelation, and helps to put the world of All England’s SW wotsit into some kind of perspective.

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But for a sport on the up, look no further than darts. The rise and rise of ‘arrers’ is hilariously chronicled by the always brilliant Ned Boulting in his new book Heart of Dart-Ness. Bullseyes, the pub game, a packed Ally Pally, world champions, and those garish shirts – Ned’s book has the lot, and then some.

Darts is a sport just about anyone can play. OK there might not be as many pubs with a handy dartboard as there once were, but this kind of accessibility still provides darts with its instant appeal. Too many sports don’t have that, whilst others, despite the appeal of so-called ‘role models’, never had it in the first place.

Helen Croydon’s This Girl Ran provides the kind of inspiration, in shedloads rather than the odd spoonful, to get off our collective sofa and enjoy the doing , rather than the watching, of sport. Helen’s tale takes this to extremes, the triathlon, but the maxim remains pertinent – we can all run. Bump, Bike & Baby by Moire O’Sullivan takes this how-to philosophy to another level, combining pregnancy, parenthood and ultra-endurance adventure racing.

Remarkably, she proves the combination is not only possible but desirable. The latter may not be the response of too many readers, but the very fact that Moira survives to tell her tale could just prove sufficient inspiration for others to follow in her footsteps – just not quite as many!

Of course, most won’t. This has precious little to do with individual choices, rather it is down to the social construction of sport. Vikki Krane’s Sex, Gender and Sexuality in Sport is as near as we’re ever likely to get to a comprehensive analysis of just one dimension of the exclusions that sport both produces and reproduces.

There are, unfortunately, plenty more. Despite this, it is rare indeed to find any kind of politics that takes this seriously. Gabriel Kuhn has shown what’s possible, however, by rediscovering and translating Julius Deutsch’s writings in the 1930s on AntiFascism, Sports, Sobriety.

But one writer, and political activist, above all others effortlessly made the connections that others either struggle with or dismiss entirely. In his classic work Beyond a Boundary, pan-African, Marxist and cricket-lover CLR James asks the rhetorical question ‘What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?’

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The same question could be asked, and answered for each and every other sport too. My pick of the quarter therefore is Marxism, Colonialism and Cricket. The editors – David Featherstone, Chistopher Gair, Christian Høgsberg and Andrew Smith – have achieved something truly special, combining James’ personal and political lifestory, the context of cricket in the West Indies, and the past, present and future of cricket writing. It is superb – just the read whilst that old imperial encounter, The Ashes, seeks to nudge the Premier League’s off-season from the back pages this sporting summer.

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

The Making of a Two Tone Nation
Thursday, 07 March 2019 14:46

The Making of a Two Tone Nation

Published in Music

40 years on, Mark Perryman celebrates the release of the debut single from The Specials 

On the 3rd May 1979, Margaret Thatcher leads the Tories to a crushing General Election defeat of Labour. The next morning I pop into the small independent record shop tucked away by the platforms at Hull railway station to pick up the eagerly awaited debut single by The Specials, a double A-side with label mates The Selecter on the reverse. What an antidote!

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For the preceding couple of years the National Front had threatened both a street-fighting and electoral breakthrough. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) mobilised in opposition everywhere and appeared to challenge the fascists’ ability to organise. The investigative magazine Searchlight exposed via fearless intelligence-gathering the Neo-Nazi origins of the NF’s leadership and key organisers. And most imaginatively of all, Rock against Racism, via a mix of huge carnivals and local gigs, had spread the message that the NF stood for ‘No Fun, No Freedom, No Future’, in order to drive a wedge between the nihilistic appeal of punk, and the NF. Punk’s flirtation with the faux-shock value of the swastika and Nazi chic had until this kind of intervention the potential to provide a useful base of support for the NF.

A fortnight before polling day the ANL had organised a massive protest outside an NF election rally which was provocatively sited in multicultural Southall, and was to be addressed by their wannabe Führer-in-Waiting, John Tyndall. The counter-demo was brutally policed by the notorious Special Patrol Group, so brutal that their actions resulted in the death of one demonstrator, Blair Peach. The late 1970s were dangerous times.

When the ’79 General Election votes were counted, the NF had been humiliated at the ballot box. Despite standing in seats from Accrington to York and most places in between, they barely topped 1% of the vote in these contests nationwide. Their best single result still only a measly 7.6% for Tyndall in Hackney South and Shoreditch. But the NF’s setback, however welcome, was less due to the defeat of their racism than its embrace by the more mainstream Tories.

In January 1978 Thatcher had said during a World in Action TV interview of immigration:

By the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.

Despite her qualifying these remarks elsewhere in the televised conversation, the message was perfectly clear – vote Conservative, stop the ‘swamping’ of ‘our’ culture, you don’t need to vote NF because the Tories will do their job.

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The Specials stood for an entirely different version of ‘this country’ to Thatcher’s. A 2 Tone nation celebrated their music via riotous gigs and frantic dancing, mixing up the anarchic energy of post-punk with the original sound of Jamaica’s Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Harry J. Allstars and others. Dressed up to the nines in tonic suits, loafers, button-down collar shirts, it was a musical movement rooted in the hugely contradictory sub-culture of skinheads. Rocking against racism was no longer just a prescription, more the natural consequence of the sounds we loved. Ska was being reinvented in the multicultural spaces of Birmingham, Coventry and North London, by the bands we followed up and down the motorways, north, south, east and west.

Hull was as affected by all this as anywhere else. The SWP had a bookshop on Spring Bank that had become pretty much the hub for a thriving local Rock Against Racism scene. The Wellington Club, affectionately known as ‘The Welly’ to all who frequented it, was a hotbed of punk, indy and post-punk. Both helped pull together a mainly young crowd, who would fill coaches to stop the NF and British Movement wherever they threatened to march. One memorable excursion of this sort to protest against the Far Right’s favourite racist landlord, Robert Relf, then languishing in Winchester prison, left Hull past midnight so the music crowd could also see Howard Devoto’s Magazine gig at the local FE College.

There was an uglier side to this mix though. There were pubs to avoid because they were well-known NF hangouts, places where a visit to the toilets was likely to end in a bloody confrontation. They firebombed the SWP bookshop, too. However, ska helped mould the activism and the music into some sort of movement. The coolest kid in these parts was Roland, a diehard Clash fan, mixed-race with a blonde rinse. His nickname, before any of us knew any better, was ‘Guinness’. His mum ran a second-hand clothes shop, if we wanted the sixties ska look on the cheap, that was the place to find a vintage bargain. And when Roland formed a ska band, The Akrilykz, it was the Communist Party who provided the lead guitar and drummer. Now that’s what I call a Popular Front! And Roland was mesmerising on lead vocals, despite his moniker, personifying everything we believed in. His quietly understated voice soared with the breathless melodies that a few years later he, Roland Lee Gift, would bring to the Fine Young Cannibals.

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2 Tone and its offshoots rapidly became this kind of movement everywhere. Not in the conventional political sense, nor like the gloriously disorganised effectiveness of RAR’s self-styled Militant Entertainment either. When the first 2 Tone Tour reached Sheffield, I joined it on a minibus from Hull. The dancehall was heaving, on the cusp of some kind of musical rebellion, threatening yet joyful at the same time. The notorious South Yorkshire police however suspected something untoward was afoot and tried to close the gig down. I’ll never forget the response of Terry Hall, the Specials’ lead singer. He bounded on stage, asked us all to sit down on the dance floor and then to the senior police officer’s face led the entire audience in chorus after chorus of the ‘Harry Roberts Song’. Grudgingly, and knowing the alternative was likely to be a seriously wrecked venue, the police didn’t have much choice than allow the gig to proceed. 1-0 to 2 Tone.

Another unforgettable ’79 night was spent at the tiny Dingwalls nightclub in Camden. It was the evening of the first performance of Madness on Top of the Pops, and to reward their loyal fans the band were playing live straight afterwards. I was one of the lucky few crammed in, packed shoulder to shoulder with British Movement skinheads. This was genuinely scary because although my hair was short enough to pass muster, my politics certainly was not.

It was one of the contradictions of 2 Tone, and the original ska numbers too, that a sound imported from Jamaica and reinvented by inner-city England was embraced and danced to by some young people who were avowedly racist. But mostly not, of course. Messy, even violent on occasion, the irresistible beat of 2 Tone belonged mostly to a predominantly working-class fan base who fancied a good time, while having the common sense to leave any racism they might be bringing along to the show at the door.

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In this way music, like most aspects of popular culture, is a staging post towards social change, rather than the vehicle for it. We ignore the politically progressive potential of the former at our peril, but try to enforce it into becoming the latter and we starve the music of its originality and dynamism.

That’s not to say the bands weren’t political. The Specials topped the charts in ’81 with their epic Ghost Town and headlined the Leeds Rock against Racism carnival, which ended up being the last UK live performance of the original line-up. While label mates The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret was the definitive anti-Tory dance number for a generation.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the breakthrough of 2 Tone didn’t exist in a vacuum. Thatcher’s elevation of a racist discourse around ‘swamping’ was followed by the raw nationalist-populism of the Falkands War and an increasingly punitive law and order agenda. The street-fighting fascist Right remained an ever-present threat. The mix was toxic but ska, and The Specials most of all, did at least provide the national anthems for a 2 Tone nation in the making.

In the era of Thatcherism this seemed like another country. But no, it was ours, and despite their worst efforts that other lot could never take it from us.

All illustrations are by graphic designer Hugh Tisdale co-founder of Philosophy Football and available as T-shirts from the company here.

Mark Perryman is the author of The Corbyn Effect , his new book Corbynism from Below is published in September by Lawrence & Wishart.

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019
Thursday, 27 December 2018 22:38

An armoury of ideas: reading for rebellion in 2019

Published in Cultural Commentary

Kitted out with optimism, Mark Perryman makes a New Year selection of books as weapons to help bring down a government

Not much doubt which argument will rage on long after any Christmastime peace and goodwill has disappeared – Brexit. Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure is an account of this most dismal of sagas which locates its gestation in a mix of imperial delusion and cultural confusion rather than this deal, that deal or no deal.

On a similar front England’s Discontents by Mike Wayne is an exploration of English national identity that provides a highly effective insight towards understanding the political terrain of post-Brexit Britain. This new terrain will be sited on competing definitions of ‘control’ and precisely who, or what, we need to take it back from.

Gianpaolo Baiocchi’s We, The Sovereign describes models of sovereignty that retain both an egalitarian impulse and the power to transform.  Most on the Left would regard staying in the EU as a necessity towards any such ambition but that doesn’t mean the arguments in the new book The Left Case against the EU from Costas Lapavitsas should be discounted either. Leave? Remain? The key surely is Change. 

Whether or not Labour can come out the other side of the seasonal break from Brexit starting to look more and more like the next Government will be the crucial question of early 2019.  Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England, by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon, revisits the roots of Corbyn’s rise to provide readers with credible optimism towards that end.  Matt Bolton first wrote up his critique of Corbynism as a blog, describing it as possessing a ‘terrifying hubris’. Harsh but his was a critical account that was decidedly well thought-out and deserving of a considered read. Now Matt, with co-thinker Frederick Harry Pitts, has turned their shared line of argument into a book Corbynism : A Critical Approach.  I wasn’t convinced by their answers but there are some very good questions raised, too good to simply be dismissed out of hand.     

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Here’s one question that most certainly needs asking – will it be the economy that shifts things in 2019, stupid? Yes, almost certainly. The publication of the collection Economics for the Many edited by John McDonnell is a comprehensive range of the kind of policies that will not only roll back austerity but also in the process lay the foundations for a durable alternative.

However, any such project should also be about the quality of the lives we lead, which is why Melissa Benn’s Life Lessons is such a vital companion volume.  Making the case for a ‘national education service’ this book is an explicit critique of the managerialism that has monetised our children’s education.

Of course the New Year is also a time to look back over the past twelve months. No one is better equipped to inject some biting satire into remembering the events of 2018 than cartoonist Steve Bell. If Steve’s latest collection Corbyn: The Resurrection, covering the years 2015-18 failed to make it as a stocking-filler, my advice is to rush out and buy yourself a copy to be sure of a happier New Year.  

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Of course neither Brexit nor Corbynism exist in a vacuum. Trump and the revival of the Democrats in the mid-terms, especially the breakthrough of new, young, Left candidates, was a 2018 transatlantic example of certain commonalities. Where we go from Here  is an account by Bernie Sanders of the two years since Trump’s election and what this means for the future of American politics.  By the end of 2019 the next round of Democrats’ Presidential primaries will be fast approaching, making sense of the parallels and differences with our situation in the UK that Bernie helps reveal thus becomes increasingly vital. 

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Both Trumpism and Brexit have unleashed some ugly forces. The Chris-Howard Woods, Colin Laidley and Maryam Omidi edited collection #Charlottesville details one particular moment when a nakedly white supremacist politics came up against militant resistance. But for an insight into how to build a mass, popular and victorious movement around anti-fascism and racism there is no better book than David Renton’s latest, Never Again, a historiography of Rock against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, 1976-1982.

Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin in their co-authored National Populism describe the resurgent Right from Trump via the German Afd, Liga in Italy, and Marie le Pen in France to the Brexiteer ultras with ‘Tommy Robinson’ in tow  as a revolt against liberal democracy. A useful schematic for understanding the causes, it however fails to address what a progressive and in particular anti-racist alternative might look like.

A much better, and hugely original, starting point therefore is the one outlined by Will Davies in Nervous States. Utilising a wide range of both analyses and examples Will points to how reason has declined, and feeling has come increasingly to take its place. He doesn’t patronise the latter but via an understanding of it reasserts the cause of a rational, radical politics properly equipped for the era in which we live. Brilliant.

What kind of political organisation may be up to the task of not only resisting the rise of this populist-racist right but also reclaiming the cause of reason versus reaction? Paolo Gerbaudo’s The Digital Party is a wide-ranging, and international, survey of those parties that have gone furthest to embrace the organisational changes the new modes of communication demand of us all and as such is a compelling read for the future of politics.

 While some things change, others remain the same. The brutal, dehumanising treatment of the Palestinians by Israel continued in 2018. And this time the shooting by the Israeli army of unarmed protestors who joined Gaza’s Great March of Return offended even many of Israel’s hitherto staunchest supporters. But sadly still nothing seems to change.  What a relief therefore to read Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language they Understand an unashamed search for a principled compromise, that won’t satisfy entirely either side but will most.  

One of the welcome after-effects of Corbynism has to be the revival of a Left intellectual culture. One of the best examples of this is the journal  Renewal.The latest edition in particular carries a superb piece by left-wing economist Christine Berry available as a free download ‘how does a movement prepare for power.’  

Compass has always confounded convention by combining the work of a thinktank with the ambition of being a campaign hub. Occasionally wrongfooted by the rise of Corbynism, the latest Compass publication The Causes and Cures of Brexit showcases the organisation’s thoughtful strengths at their best, not demonising the support for ‘Leave’ but seeking to understand its rationale, something too few even recognise. Also available as a free download here.   And my favourite popular-intellectual initiative of 2018? The return of the political pamphleteer in the shape of Dan Hind’s excellent ‘New Thinking for the British Economy‘ series.

In the twentieth century it was 1917 that framed the efforts of those who followed in the footsteps of revolution.  John Maclean, by Henry Bell, details Scotland’s flirtation with revolutionary politics, while a special edition of New Formations marks the 2019 centenary of  Rosa Luxemburg’s murder with a range of essays detailing her continuing influence and significance.  

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The journal Twentieth Century Communism remains the unrivalled source of insights into 1917’s aftermath worldwide, the latest issue providing a rare focus on African communism. That aftermath was, of course, not unchanging. The first transformation we might date to the post-1956 New Left, chronicled in a brand new Socialist Register Reader with contributors ranging from Ralph Miliband and Jean-Paul Sartre to Rosana Rossanda and André Gorz.

And then a decade later a further convulsion, 1968, which in 2018 celebrated its 50thanniversary. The Voices of 1968 is an invaluable collection of original material from this most extraordinary of years ranging right across Europe and the USA for its sources.  Fiercely critical of the ‘official’ communist movement yet ardent defenders of its own particular interpretation of 1917, and Leninism more widely, John Kelly’s critical, yet not unfriendly, account in Contemporary Trotskyism details the particular appeal of this version of a revolutionary politics.

Of course ‘revolution’ in the era of late capitalism has come to mean all manner of things.  Alan Bradshaw and Linda Scott’s Advertising Revolution accounts rather brilliantly for the word’s evolution via a Beatles hit into a Nike advert and a message even Trump embraces. Taking a different tack Oli Mould in Against Creativity demolishes all manner of claims to ‘liberate’ body, soul and mind via a corporatised version of the power of the creative. Neither critique eliminates the necessity for social change, but both books force us to tackle a bastardised vocabulary as a barrier to making it happen. 

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Versemongering in the cause of social change has a long and rebellious history. Dread, Poetry & Freedom by David Austin provides not simply a biographical account of Linton Kwesi Johnson but a political history of the context of his poetry. Fusing their poetry with street-level activism the ‘Poetry on the Picketline’ collective stand unashamedly in the tradition of LKJ’s campaigning performances. Their debut collection Poetry on the Picketline, published by Culture Matters, gives a great feel of what they bring to any protest party. I also recommend that you aim to experience them live on picket lines in 2019. 

At the core of much of this is an admirably do-it-yourself ‘We are all poets’ philosophy. To help us on our way, iambic pentameters and the like, there’s no finer how-to read than Michael Rosen’s classic What is Poetry?    

Undoubtedly the political novel of 2018 was Jonathan Coe’s Middle England. A funny, if sorry, tale of generational political drifts and divides set in the present and immediate past. An epic – read it before Brexit Day, 29thMarch, ouch!

For children’s reading in 2019 how about going back in time? Michael Rosen has edited a new collection of old socialist fairy stories Workers’ Tales and he’s also adapted an all-time favourite Dickensian tale, Oliver Twist, into a brand new story retold alongside his version of the original, Unexpected Twist. Or for something entirely of the present, the third in Michael’s Uncle Gobb series Uncle Gobb and the Plot Plot is bound to be a 2019 favourite.

Pushkin Press are past masters at hunting down children’s books from around the world for translation and republication. Two of my favourites from 2018 were Jan Terlouw’s Winter in Wartime, a tale of a Dutch teenager in the wartime resistance, and Ele Fountain’s Boy 87 a story of childhood, refugees, and survival.

For the practical task of planning the year ahead there’s no better tool than the hugely stylish Verso Radical Diary and Radical Planner  – the perfect New Year treat for the well-organised person in your life. Sadly, there’s no entry for a 2019 General Election date, not yet......

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And my book of the New Year? Michael Rosen has collaborated with Kimberley Reynolds and Jane Rosen to produce a fantastically illustrated anthology of radical writing for children called Reading & Rebellion. Stretching back to the start of the last century right through to the beginnings of the 1960s revolt this book is an absolute treat of a revelation for children, and grown-ups, of all ages. The perfect read for a New Year and a new generation who more than anyone else will help ensure a future where peace and goodwill is more than a seasonal marketing gimmick but instead at the core of human existence.  

No links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid purchasing from this tax-dodging low-wage employer please do so. Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence & Wishart in Autumn 2019.

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left
Friday, 21 September 2018 08:53

Minding the depth and breadth: a round-up of books for the Left

Published in Cultural Commentary

As Labour gathers for its annual conference Mark Perryman welcomes the variety of thinking a range of authors, new and old, are offering the Left at this vital time

It has taken a while but the past few months have seen a near avalanche of books seeking to explain, from a broadly sympathetic point of view, the phenomenon that is Corbynism. Liam Young’s Rise is certainly sympathetic – Liam is an unashamed enthusiast and activist for the cause. Yet in seeking to understand the youthquake that underpinned Labour’s vote surge in 2017 he is hard-headed enough to recognise that this is the beginning, not the end of the story.

The Socialist Challenge Today by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin comes from a different generation – Liam is twentysomething, whilst they are of pensionable age. This isn’t to pit the generations of the Left against one another, rather to point to an old legacy on which Corbynism builds and a new audience to which it appeals . This short book helps to bridge the gap with an argument that makes all the right connections.

Culture Wars performs such a role in a different way. First published in 2005 at the height of Blair’s ascendancy, the authors, James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley have added new chapters for this second edition, to bring their discursive analysis of the vexed relationship between Labour and the media bang up to date.

An outbreak of fresh thinking on what Labour might become is also hugely welcome. Chantal Mouffe’s For a Left Populism develops the ‘Hegemony and Socialist Strategy ‘analysis she first pioneered with co-thinker Ernesto Laclau for an era dominated by the rise of a populist Right, countered by what she believes should be a progressive Populist Left .

Could Corbynism turn Labour into such a party? A New Politics from the Left by veteran activist and thinker Hilary Wainwright argues for a not dissimilar project though rooted more in the forms and practice of social movements. Described as a ‘ toolkit for revolution’ in The Shock Doctrine of the Left, author Graham Jones fuses this radical thinking legacy with the dynamics of new generation activism.

It will be crucial to its enduring impact that the Momentum-led Labour left doesn’t isolate itself from such extra-parliamentary thinking. For a regular injection of just such bridge-building the journal Renewal is an essential read. The latest, a pre Labour Conference edition, features an outstanding contribution by former Momentum National Organisers Adam Klug and Emma Rees on Labour as a social movement, free to download here.

For an insight into the political practice of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and in particular during the 2017 General Election campaign there’s nothing that comes close to Steve Howell's Game Changer. Steve is not only acute politically on how Jeremy transformed the political landscape, in and beyond Labour , but also during the course of the eight weeks of the 2017 General Election campaign he was a key member of the leadership’s strategy group. Now out in paperback with a new postscript to account for the political fallout since 2017, it is an unrivalled read for Labour Conference, and after.

A politics rooted in the current vitality of the Labour Party requires a broad perspective on issues that matter, and few are more important than an understanding of changing class relations, a subject brilliantly covered in Charles Umney’s Class Matters.  

A failure to address such changes produces a trade union sectionalism which defends jobs at any price, ignoring issues such as socially useful production. The first and best example of a more progressive kind of trade unionism was The Lucas Plan as written up by Dave Elliott and Hilary Wainwright and now re-issued – and it simply couldn’t be more timely. One small gripe: compared to the 1982 original, both page and font size have been shrunk, making it more difficult to read than it needed to be.

Another challenge to sectionalism is to lift our horizons beyond the national, which has always been the ambition of the annual Socialist Register collection. The 2019 Socialist Register ‘ A World Turned Upside Down’ considers globalisation, in the era of Trump vs the rise, and rise of China.

The 2008 financial crash led to a revival of Marxism. Pre-crash, Michael Kidron was one of the finest practitioners of such thinking, and his wide-ranging writing has now been collected together in a new volume Capitalism and Theory.

Kidron’s writings are mainly drawn from the 1960s and 1970s. Bringing Marxism bang up to date, the much–acclaimed Mike Davis and his new book Old Gods, New Enigmas which deals with two key themes, the agency of change and the solution to a mounting environmental crisis.

The latter may not have featured strongly in the original, though Martin Rowson’s superbly illustrated Communist Manifesto adaptation is perhaps one of the best ways of finding out what insights it does still provide. 

Of course reducing the politics of radical critique simply to the lexicon of Marxism is no longer enough, if it ever was. My favourite dose of theory is therefore provided by a huge volume of the late Mark Fisher’s writings K-Punk. Brutal oppositionalism combined with a razor-sharp wit, broken down into easy to digest chapter chunks, makes for critical thinking that is a joy and pleasure to read.  

Ways and means of understanding the resurgence of a racist populism in America and elsewhere couldn’t be more urgent. Sarah Churchwell’s historical account of what lies behind it in Behold, America is both hugely informative and absolutely terrifying. Sarah’s book focuses mainly on the neo-Nazi 'America First' movement of the interwar years.

Alt-America by David Neiwert provides more recent post-9/11 background and how that period was marked by the revival and eventual triumph of the American Radical Right. As an accompaniment, Mike Wendling in Alt-Right provides an unrivalled digest of the various groups and ideas which peddle their ways and wares in and around Trumpism.

However, the best single read on this most unwelcome of subjects is Lawrence Grossberg’s Under the Cover of Chaos. Why? Because in one tightly-packed read Lawrence unpicks the conjuncture that produced this ugliness, not as an inevitable product of circumstance, rather an avoidable curse, and how.

More than anything else Bernie Sanders’ bid to be the Democratic Party Presidential candidate represents what an alternative to Trumpism might look like and in that sense Crashing The Party , Heather Gautney’s inside story and analysis of the Sanders campaign, is the antidote required.

If all of this seems an Atlantic faraway, two books from the increasingly impressive Repeater Books serve to remind us of both the global roots and appeal of rightwing populism. Eliane Glaser’s Anti-Politics expertly situates this most unwelcome of phenomena in a long-term project to demonise ideology, the authority of ideas and the role of the state. Joe Kennedy covers not entirely dissimilar ground in his new book Authentocrats via a wonderfully abrasive dissection of the false promise of ‘real people ‘ delivering ‘commonsense politics’ that populism depends upon for its appeal.

Criss-crossing these various manifestations of the Populist Right is an unabated racism, and thus the resistance must likewise be characterised by an unrestrained anti-racism. The provocatively titled Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge has in the past year become pretty much a primer – and deservedly so, for a politics concerned with how privilege is highly racialised. Back to Black by Kehinde Andrews takes as its starting point what a modern and radical Black politics might look like. Be warned, Kehinde’s argument is that this demands a withering critique of previous models of radicalism.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader, the party’s claim to be an anti-racist party has come under sustained assault, with critics describing it as institutionally anti-semitic, and thus racist. The debate – such as it is – confuses legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-semitism. What this ignores is the rising opposition to the Israeli government within Israel itself, the global Jewish community and Western progressives including, but beyond too, the organised Left, all expertly described by Ben White in his book Cracks in the Wall.

A very different, though complementary, approach is taken by Jamie Stern-Weiner in his edited collection Moment of Truth. Expertly guiding the reader through what he describes as the ‘toughest questions’ affecting the Israel-Palestine relationship, Jamie has assembled a range of authors to respond to each question in turn. A complex format but it works brilliantly.

How can Labour re-engage with the tasks of being a party of anti-racism following the summer’s impasse over anti-semitism? By rooting its politics in a sense of place, that’s how. Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) is a vital starting point on that difficult but necessary journey of understanding. This is a book that fulfils the mantra of ‘the personal is political’ to illuminate both the challenges of, and oppositions to, racism.  

Akala’s Natives achieves something similar via a series of essays, some personal, others political, yet one never divorced from the other. Space, the nation, is of course a contested place, none more so than the histories that frame our present. Kill All the Gentlemen is the chilling title not of a murderous thriller, but Martin Empson’s rather excellent history of the sometimes violent class struggle that has shaped the English countryside, a classic of the ‘hidden from history’ genre.

Great (sic) Britain is of course made of many different places, and nations too. We are increasingly familiar with the tensions of a single unitary state containing four nations within one Union. Patrick Barkham further enriches the issues with Islander, his incredibly engaging trip around just some of the offshore islands and their communities which reveal this island as an archipelago.

Such islander stories, criss-crossed with anti-racism and a rediscovery of the radicalism buried in those histories, is a good starting point for a Left politics that matters. But the Left has a history of its own too that needs accounting for. Phil Cohen’s Archive That, Comrade is an affectionate and highly personalised, trawl through what that past can mean as we come to terms with the present, and the future too.

For those lacking the kind of collection of artefacts Phil can boast, a subscription to the journal Twentieth Century Communism will more than suffice. Unearthing in fascinating detail all manner of aspects of the legacy, the latest issue surveys how the centenary of 1917 was celebrated in places ranging from Belarus to Portugal. That was last year of course, 2018’s big Left anniversary was the 50th of ’68 though my impression is that it hasn’t been celebrated as widely as the 40th in 2008.

The books however have been impressively thoughtful, including the republication of the original 1968 Mayday Manifesto. The Manifesto was a product of the British ’68; Mitchell Abidor’s May Made Me is an oral history of the infinitely more famous May events in France. But the appeal of ’68 as an historical moment was that it was everywhere, an impact powerfully recorded by George Katsiaficas in The Global Imagination of 1968.

Of course like all histories ’68 is contested, sometimes bitterly so. Richard Vinen skilfully navigates that contest in his The Long ’68, and the one thing he leaves readers certain of is that it was a year that mattered.

What made ’68 of such lasting significance was the seamless fusion of the political and the cultural. It is a mix the Left has always struggled to achieve yet when it does the possibilities are unlimited. Few writers come close to George Orwell in providing such a mix, writings that deserve to be visited and revisited over and over again. John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles is a critical but sympathetic account of Orwell’s politics and lasting significance, while being peerless in its deconstruction of the weaknesses and contradictions therein.

Orwell would often use the device of a kind of travelogue to frame his political writing, and of contemporary authors Owen Hatherley is the outstanding exponent of this style. He combines his journeys of political exploration uniquely with incredibly well-informed explanations of the social construction of the architecture of the places he visits.

Owen’s two latest books are Trans-Europe Express, which applies his writing mix to Europe in this precarious pre-Brexit moment, while The Adventures of Owen Hatherley in the Post-Soviet Age has him traipsing across Russia to find the lived-in remnants of a bygone era and what has happened to them.

My favourite writer of the political-culture mix of the current era however is Mike Marqusee, who so tragically passed away in 2015, the year his friend and longstanding comrade Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party. There is absolutely no doubt Mike would have contributed hugely to the changes that then erupted in and around the Labour Party. It is enormously welcome therefore that a collection of Mike’s essays, Definable Traces in the Atmosphere has been published, perfect to remind those of us who knew him what we miss so much, but perhaps more importantly for new, younger, audiences to discover his magnificent prose and acute political insight.

Of course such a political-cultural fusion can never be reduced simply to the written word, however well-written. The two latest titles in the excellent Four Corners ‘Irregulars’ series, Poster Workshop 1978-81 and Leeds Postcards illustrate the contribution the visual arts can make, superbly. The former catalogues the anarcho/agit-prop look of a strand of the libertarian Left which sought to flypost its way out of the nightmare of Thatcherism with graphic intent. The latter was slightly less ‘in your face’ but no less subversive, turning the humble postcard into a propaganda weapon. It’s a very English version of cultural resistance, with lots of humour thrown in to good effect.

As for a soundtrack to all this dissent, while there are plenty of contemporary contenders I remain a tad old school and still hanker after the music that helped to propel me into politics in the first place. How welcome therefore to read Jim Dooley’s Red Set, not only for the definitive history of The Gang of Four, but along the way explains why their music meant so much for the embryonic left-wing ideas of their dedicated followers, my younger self included.

For such a culture of radical intent we need poetry too, yes please. One of the finest practitioners of this purpose over the past 30 years or so, Benjamin Zephaniah, tells the story of how and why in his sparkling biography The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah . Reinventing this tradition for the present is the absolutely outstanding Potent Whisper, live he is electrifying, his collection The Rhyming Guide to Grenfell Britain a pocket-sized spoken word chronicle of our modern times. Poetry has both a very contemporary voice via Potent Whisper’s spoken word style and roots in our radical past.

CM book Arise cover 

arise! by Paul Summers, a celebration of the Durham Miners Gala, is also testament to all that. It is one of a stream of new, beautifully illustrated radical political poetry books coming off the presses of Culture Matters.

There’s also been some great new fiction, a literary form which is key to expanding the political imagination. In recent years there have been few better at that than the sublime Anthony Cartwright. His latest The Cut manages to fulfil the criteria of the fast-growing sub-genre ‘the Brexit novel’ with enough excitement, thrills and spills to produce a ready-made page-turner.

But perhaps the most subversive way to transform the body politic is through what we cook for ourselves. Anybody who needs convincing of the potency of cookery as a political force should take a read of Yasmin Khan’s Zaitoun, a beautifully produced book combining both stories and recipes from a Palestinian kitchen. For younger readers, Clive Gifford and Jacqueline Meldrum’s Living on the Veg explains the politics and morality of vegetarianism for children accompanied by dishes to cook, their strawberry cheesecake a mouthwatering favourite of mine already.

Which brings me rather neatly to childhood. My philosophy is simple, judge the progressiveness of any party or movement via the way it treats their children. If it can’t be bothered with children, then why trust it on how it will treat others? It is the application of that excellent socialist-feminist maxim, ‘the personal is political’.

The prime exponent of this genre, however, remains Michael Rosen. His latest book How To Make Children Laugh provides theory, practice and some very, very funny jokes. And for adolescent boys jealous of the girls and their Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls there is now a kind of companion volume by Ben Brooks called Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different, which wears its values on the cover via the lovely strap-line ‘true tales of amazing boys who changed the world without killing dragons.’

Siobhan Curham has written an absolute gem for young adult readers Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow combines music, football, refugees and my hometown Lewes in East Sussex. First on the list for teen readers reading to stretch their horizons.

And my book of the quarter, the perfect Labour Party Conference, and afters read? I am never one to diss theorising, the historical, the cultural and more, but as someone else once noted ‘the point is to change it.’ In the search for practical outcomes from all this reading, and the ensuing fervour of debate Michael Segalov explores the art of making that change possible in his brilliant debut book Resist! How to be an Activist in the Age of Defiance. A practical how-to-guide for campaigners, stylishly illustrated, easy-to-follow and not so hard to put into practice either. Read it, act upon it, the Tories won’t know what’s hit them.

Now that’s what I call a good read!

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

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018
Tuesday, 31 July 2018 08:17

Le Maillot Gallois: Tour de France 2018

Published in Sport

C’est magnifique, Geraint! declares cycling fan Mark Perryman, and calls on Labour to develop a socialist culture policy to encourage popular, grassroots cycling.

Britain took 109 years to achieve its very first Tour de France winner in 2012. And now we can hardly stop winning it, with the single exception of Italy’s Nibali in 2014 (when Chris Froome crashed and was unable to continue) every year since. The French aren’t best pleased mind: ‘Boring, Boring Team Sky’ is one of their less impolite responses.

Each of our winners has been different. Wiggins in 2012 was impeccably English, complete with RAF roundels mod-style on his helmet and a fondness for The Jam (the band, not what we spread on our toast). His victory was immediately followed by the London 2012 Olympics where he also triumphed in the Time Trial, to win a Gold Medal to add to his Yellow Jersey.

Pictured astride a throne at Hampton Court, where the race ended, Bradley with Wiggomania in tow was rampant with the Union Jack enjoying a late Cool Britannia renaissance. It was a moment when most of us thought Wiggo could do no wrong, until we found out via a jiffy bag that maybe he could.    

Then along came Chris Froome, Wiggins’ number two in 2012 who didn’t much fancy playing second fiddle to anyone, least of all Wiggo. Born in Kenya, educated in South Africa, Froome pays (or rather doesn’t pay) his taxes in Monaco. Never mind, he could climb a mountain on a bike like nobody else, never out of his saddle, twig-like arms outstretched with hands ‘on the hoods’ staring into the distance as if the gradient barely existed.

Four wins in five years 2013- 2017, a legend in the making. The idea that in order to be a world-beating sports superstar an athlete needs the ‘personality’ to go with it is an unwelcome product of our celebritified era, but there’s not much doubt it helps. Froome’s achievements dwarf Wiggins but he was never a hit with the great British sporting public in the same way, most of whom don’t have much more than a passing interest in watching cycling. And so his near downfall via the over use of an asthma inhaler didn’t have quite the big hit of Wiggo and his dodgy jiffy bag full of we know not what. All it did was confirm those deep seated suspicions that the superhuman qualities of Grand Tour cyclists aren’t as naturally-produced as they might appear.

And now we have Geraint Thomas. Previously a super-domestique, always happy and willing to help his leader, as the cliché goes – road cycling is an individual sport played by teams. His emergence first to lead Le Tour and finally win it shocked just about everyone, not least himself.

Yes undoubtedly the suspicions linger, cycling will never entirely be rid of these, but Geraint’s is a homespun story of a Cardiff kid who joined his local cycling club, went to a secondary school with superlative sports facilities, and was talent-spotted at an early age. His is a rare ability, that took him first to Olympic glory and then on to the road, grinding out the hundreds of kilometres mainly in the cause of more-celebrated others. He is in this regard the perfect combination of Wiggins’ personality and Froome’s athleticism on a bike.

So are we about to witness ‘Geraintmania’? If back, and in most cases front, pages are anything to go by on the Monday morning after the Champs Élysées triumph the afternoon before, we might like to think so. Handily sandwiched after World Cup 2018, Wimbledon and the British Open, before England’s test series against India and the start of the football season, a British Tour de France win now receives the kind of blanket media coverage that before Wiggins barely existed. But somehow I doubt the scale of any ‘mania’.

Thomas’s backstory, and particularly his Welshness, adds something to the mix, however. He’s more understated than Wiggins, but someone to warm to in a way Froome never quite manages. Yet short of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, it is hard to imagine Thomas will be much in the news in the interim. Despite that, as he revelled in his victory all the media-talk was of how he would inspire others to follow him in the same way he’d been inspired to get on a bike by Le Tour as a kid. 

 This is the cruel myth-making of any sporting triumph. It’s not being a killjoy to point to the social construction of sport, rather it is the only means of understanding how to change participation from sofa-watching to getting off that sofa. 

Cycling in this regard has a lot going for it. It is a means of transport and freedom for children, a way to spend time together as a family, a means to get to work or to do the shopping for adults. And all the while we can dream we are Geraint Thomas.  

Yet each of these opportunities are shaped by the socio-economic circumstances of the world we live in. Fewer children cycle to school than ever before. Safe cycling routes to enjoy for parents and children ambling together on two wheels remain few and far between. Towns and cities are ill-equipped to cope with expanding demand to cycle to work, and we have a rail system that actively deters the carriage of cycles.

Don’t believe me? Visit any other European country and both the much better participation statistics and vastly more positive lived experience of cycling put Britain to shame. Yes there’s been a post-Wiggins increase in cycling but mostly it has been those who have given up one sport, anecdotally marathon-running and golf are often cited, for another.

There’s been next to no overall reversal in ever-declining physical activity participation rates. So well done Geraint, but I’m afraid to change all this its going to be down to another cyclist. Over to you, Jeremy Corbyn!

Thomas Tour Win 2018 s s rev1

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’, aka Philosophy FootballTheir Maillot Gallois T-shirt is available from here. 

Fields of Play
Wednesday, 11 July 2018 08:07

Fields of Play

Published in Sport

As England prepare for their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, Mark Perryman joins the dots between pitches and politics and makes a practical suggestion to the Labour Party about developing a 'football for all'.

It seems like almost yesterday that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ became England’s national anthem, an England shirt our national dress, and not being able to move for St George’s Cross Flags. 2018 is fast becoming the new ’96, and English hope springs eternal that this time there might be a happier ending too.

Football’s coming home is the cry, and one of those fronting it is comedian and writer David Baddiel – born in New York, his father Welsh, and his mother a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Baddiel neatly sums up the patchwork of identities most modern, and some ancient, icons of Englishness are constructed out of.

When it was originally written, the song was wrapped up in the mildly imperious idea that England is somehow the home of football. It was a message that framed the disastrous English bid to host the World Cup in 2006, an arrogance that resulted in a humiliatingly low vote. And irony of ironies who got it instead? Germany.

Twenty-two years later the song seems more of a joyful lament than back then. Willing the return of the World Cup to good old Blighty’s shores, it’s been away for too long, far too long. Oh, and it’s got a catchy and easy to remember chorus, that helps.

Does any of this matter very much? Well actually, in the big wide world outside of both Westminster and Planet Placard, yes it does. The South African academic and activist Prishani Naidoo wrote this about football, whilst her country was hosting World Cup 2010:

The field of play it produces stretches far beyond the boundaries of its goal posts and pitches – fields of play that sometimes bring into question the ‘taken-for-granted’, ‘the natural’, the ways in which ‘we are meant’ to be in society.

For many the most important event this week will be the very public falling-out of Tory ministers with each other over Brexit. For others the event they are most looking forward to is Friday’s march against Trump. Both are hugely important, but for millions of others it is all about England v Croatia and the sniff of a World Cup final appearance for the first time in 52 years.

Yes some have a stake in all three but a Left that aspires to be popular should be effortlessly making the connections, joining the dots between Wednesday night’s ‘field of play’ and that process of ‘bringing into question’. The football writer Barney Ronay has located the link superbly well:

The FA neither owns nor controls the mechanics of grassroots football. It has no power to dictate what Premier League clubs do with young players. It isn’t the nation’s PE teacher. It is instead something of a patsy. One of the FA’s significant functions is to act as a kind of political merkin for the wider problem. Which is, simply access for all: the right to play, a form of shared national wealth that has been downgraded by those in power for decades.

These extremely wise words were written several years before World Cup 2018, following yet another earlier-than-we-hoped-for exit . The first part of Barney’s argument has been addressed as far as possible by the FA. Unable to regulate the Premier League clubs’ treatment of young players, they have invested heavily in their own youth teams with startling success.

The core of Southgate’s squad has been playing for England junior teams since their teens, travelling away to tournaments, learning to get on with each other as well as play alongside each other. And Southgate for a period was their Under 21s manager too, with a watching brief on younger squads as well. His appointment has proved to be inspired, but one that within the constraints of ‘free market football’ went alongside the FA re-asserting its role as a governing body, the game’s regulatory authority, if you like.

But the second part of the argument remains as sharply evident now as ever. Those England players who before the tournament revisited the primary and secondary schools where they first learnt their football would have found those institutions with hard-pressed PE departments. In plenty of cases school playing fields have been sold off, and those that remain struggle for the finances to be kept properly maintained.

The youth football set-ups, where these players developed their talent before being spotted for bigger things, struggle to find public pitches to play on and are deprived of the resources to build their own facilities. This is the austerity-driven reality for all those inspired by Russia
2018, young and old, to lace up their boots and drag themselves away from the sofa – sport as not simply something to watch, but to play.

A radical commonsense politics connects the popular with the political. So here’s an idea. On the day of England’s biggest game in 28 years Jeremy Corbyn gives Brexit a rest, leaves the Trump-bashing until he arrives on our shores tomorrow and instead pops down his local park. Not to make the rather trite current Labour party offer of a national (sic) holiday should England win the World Cup, though this does have the added bonus of getting the Scots and Welsh behind the team. Nor a New Labour style photo-opportunity, y’ know the one Blair doing the keep-uppies with Kevin Keegan.

No, to make a serious-minded speech about playing fields, their selling off by successive governments and how a politics of football for all is how we make this most wonderful of World Cup summers actually mean something. 1-0 to Labour and England to win: that will do me nicely.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, aka ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their World Cup and other T-shirts can be found here

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