Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. He is the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation.


What's there to get hot under England's collar about?
Monday, 01 April 2024 13:40

What's there to get hot under England's collar about?

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman gets to grips with Nike v St. George, with image above by Hugh Tisdall

"This virtue signalling, namby-pamby, pearl-clutching, woke nonsense must stop now. Any more and I'll be on the first flight to Rwanda."

- Lee Anderson

Wembley Stadium, Saturday morning – with a bunch of friends I spent four hours laying out 7000 cards that just before kick-off for the friendly England v Brazil were held up by fans to form a huge St. George Cross.

I've been doing the same for the past 26 years. So do I have a view on 'shirt-gate'? Yes, just a bit.

'Raise the Flag' started in 1998 after I went to Rome for Italy v England, a vital World Cup qualifier. A night of mayhem, Italian fans chucking everything they had at us, the Italian riot police wading in to England's end with their batons flying, not caring who they hit, and after the game (the best 0-0 I've ever seen, England had qualified for World Cup '98) we're all kept back for 2 hours with the lights off.

However just before kick-off the Italian fans had held up cards to form the Italian flag. It was a magnificent sight. Which left me thinking why don't we do something like that for England? It took six months to persuade the FA but for the last home friendly before France '98, with Philosophy Football co-founder Hugh Tisdale adapting the ingenious Italian's 'mosaic' method to Wembley and thousands of England fans holding up red and white cards to form a huge St George Cross Flag, we finally did it. And ever since!

For me and Hugh 'Raise the Flag' has become a small business organising stadium crowd effects, mainly for football, some rugby, London 2012, the late Queen, Take That and Bruce Springsteen. But for England games we do the effect on a not-for-profit basis because it all began with us being England fans. 

And for all those countless fans' St. George Cross flags we've created not once have we seen the need to add a line of navy blue, indigo, purple, scarlet or brown. It's our flag, so why mess with it?

But then no flag has ever been created by a fashion company. 

Long ago Nike gave up being an outfit producing kit for serious sportsmen and sportswomen. That's an historic side-line, for Nike their big business today is as a fashion brand. Whether its trainers or England shirts what they're selling is fashion not something to actually play sport in. And with a football shirt design for entirely commercial reasons only lasting a maximum of two years this necessitates a new look to make a basic kit colour, a white shirt in England's case, different. Hence the multicoloured flag, and nothing to get too hot under the collar about (sic).

Rather more irksome is why change the kit every two years at all? To make money of course, and at an almighty £125 for the match replica version, £85 to be worn in the stands. That's for something that is basically a bri-nylon T-shirt, with a sell-by date of two years hence. And unless England win the World Cup wearing it, 58 years and counting, never likely to be worn again.

So of course a touch of colour to the flag to make the 2024 edition of this vastly overpriced short life item is what is required to make it a tad different because this kind of thing is what the entire replica shirt business is based on.

Me? I prefer the sheer simplicity of the flag. The ways fans make it our own. Nobody forces us to hold up those cards to 'Raise the Flag' we do it because we want to, it means something to us. But best of all how fans 'deface' the flag, adding our club name and badge, pub, family and mates' names to make it truly ours.

A bri-nylon, overpriced and short shelf life England shirt? Despite following England to four World Cups, four Euros and countless away trips I've never seen the need to purchase one. Preferring (obligatory product placement) a tournament T-shirt instead from Philosophy Football, of course.   

And as for those manufacturing all this confected rage. Nigel Farage, Barbour jacket and corduroy trousers, never, ever, seen him in an England shirt, have you?

Rent-a-gob Lee Anderson, the man who boycotted England's first time since 1966 in a Tournament Final, Euro 2021, because they're now a team of the 'woke' aka they take the knee as an act of solidarity with all, including team mates, who face racist abuse or worse.

Keir Starmer, so eager to please he tells the Sun he's against the St. George Cross being tampered with. This from a leader who cares so much about the St. George flag that he authorised Labour Party membership cards in Scotland with the Scottish Saltire on them, fine; in Wales with the Welsh Flag on them, good; but in England no St. George Cross on Labour membership cards. Opportunism and hypocrisy doesn't even begin to describe this Sir Keir.

It's our flag. It's not a fashion icon. It's not a battleground for politicians' soundbites.

We're perfectly capable of making what we will with it ourselves. No thankyou very much.


Philosophy Football's Lee Anderson St. George Cross T-shirt is available from here

'Don't Tell Him, Pike!'
Thursday, 08 February 2024 20:36

'Don't Tell Him, Pike!'

Mark Perryman argues that Dad's Army was the most popular front of them all

U-Boat Captain Your name will go on the list! Vot is it?  

Mainwaring Don't tell him, Pike!

It's nigh on impossible to read those words and not summon up a smile. A smile of remembrance too, as this week the last surviving member of the Dad's Army cast, Ian Lavender, aka Private Pike, passed away.   

The very first appearance of Private Pike and the rest of the Walmington-on-Sea volunteers featured Lance Corporal Jones the butcher sabotaging any threat of a Nazi invasion by reversing the road signs ‘To the town’ and ‘To the sea’. The result was obvious, a local motorcyclist stops, takes now the wrong turning and off camera there is a loud splash. A comedy classic has begun.

It is easy to mock but a decisive connection is made via Dad’s Army with the Popular Front against Nazism which is ever-present amongst all the English slapstick humour. The bank manager, his hard-pressed chief cashier and the most junior of junior cashiers, the butcher, the miserabilist undertaker who is an English coastline economic migrant from Scotland, the pensioner, the local ducker and diver, the vicar, the verger and their precious Church Hall, the busybody greengrocer. What brought them all together? The defence of Britain and all it meant to them from all that they feared Nazi rule would do in the name of hate. 

Only a few years previously Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists were being cheered on by the Daily Mail ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. Despite the best efforts of the stalwarts of Cable Street, even in the autumn of 1939 after the declaration of war Mosley was still able to attract crowds to his ‘peace rallies’ numbering in their thousands. The mood of appeasement remained ever-present, spearheaded by the Tories’ Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax.  

The middle-class, and very English, pomposity of Captain Mainwaring of 1940 is too easily confused with the nasty populism of Farage and his like – but this is to seriously misunderstand and misrepresent what Walmington-on-Sea’s finest were all about. 

These were ordinary men (women, apart from Mrs Pike and Mrs Fox, are almost entirely absent) doing extraordinary things, and in the course of this reinventing what Britain could become. The selfless sacrifice of Mainwaring’s volunteers in the face of a Nazi Blitzkrieg that to date had laid waste to all resistance in its path is remarkable. In 1941 Hitler would launch Operation Barbarossa and do the same to any resistance in his way on the Eastern Front, until Stalingrad started the turning of the tide of course.

The sacrifice is obvious in every episode, the heroism perhaps less so, although when a washed-up U-boat commander tries to take over their seaside town, Mainwaring’s epic instruction when the Nazi demand his young private’s name ‘Don’t tell him, Pike’ creates perhaps the show’s funniest moment of all. Never mind, the fierce and heroic resistance is obvious in Mainwaring’s voice and puffed-up chest, no fascist was going to push old Blighty around. 

Of course, class divisions remain within the platoon, as they did right across the war effort, although it is the public-school educated Sergeant Wilson who invariably loses out in the battle of will and leadership with the grammar-school educated Captain Mainwaring. It is however on the ideological front that in the fictionalised Walmington-on-Sea and the real Britain of 1939-45 that a battle was being fought, and won.

A popular mood of co-operation, the common anti-fascist cause and a wide recognition that a society led by and benefitting solely those most used to being in charge was no way to win either the war, or the peace. All of this created the basis for Labour’s 1945 landslide including the election of two Communist Party MPs, and the electoral defeat of Churchill’s Tory Party. We’ll never know whether the Walmington-on-Sea constituency went Labour, countless similar seats certainly did, but we can be sure that for at least a time the town wasn’t the place it was pre-1939. 

There is a danger in dismissing the cult of nostalgia that Dad’s Army represented, then and now, that we lose the meaning of that moment. Mainwaring, Wilson, Jones, Frazer, Godfrey Pike & Walker were in their own way the most popular Popular Front of them all. 

But a near-constant harking back to World War Two has created a peculiar version of English patriotism. The politics of anti-fascism are airbrushed out. The Labour victory in ’45, despite Churchill’s wartime leadership, scarcely mentioned. The Battle of Britain reduced to a football chant – ‘Ten German Bombers and the RAF from England shot them down’ – what kind of tribute borne out of ignorance is that? The RAF was never 'from England' and in this most heroic of its battles alongside Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, there were pilots and aircrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Canada, South Africa and more. 

World War Two memorialising has become translated into a petty anti-Europeanism framed by a resentment at France or most particularly Germany, and not Britain being the dominant forces in European politics. Dad’s Army gives us an alternative model. Unlike Allo Allo, that other long-running BBC comedy set in World War Two, the Germans rarely make an appearance and thus their hateful fascism is never trivialised or turned into a misjudged excuse for a laugh.

Mainwaring’s platoon are hopelessly funny but never a joke. The opening credits spelt out what was at stake in 1940, Britain versus the swastika making its mark across Europe.  This was an anti-Nazi war, not England vs Germany of ’66 vintage and since. 

Dad’s Army was broadcast for 9 years, 1968-1977. Its ending pre-dates the rise and triumph of Thatcherism. It was under Thatcher that Europhobia, or more accurately Germanophobia, came to define the Tory Right and would eventually create the basis for UKIP’s growth too.

Given Farage's heartland support lies in England’s left behind coastal towns – he's considering standing in Clacton apparently – it is too easy to rewrite Walmington-on-Sea’s Mainwaring as Thatcher, or Farage, incarnate. But no, rather this was a platoon of community, common cause and, if called upon, no little courage. 'Don't tell him, Pike' is hilariously funny but they are also words of resistance against the Nazis. You have been watching? The people vs fascism.


Philosophy Football's Don't Tell Him Pike, T-shirt, designed by Hugh Tisdale, is available from here


The Ever-Changing Picture of Going to the Match
Friday, 01 December 2023 10:45

The Ever-Changing Picture of Going to the Match

Published in Sport

70 years on, Mark Perryman and Guardian football cartoonist David Squires (see image above) revisit LS Lowry's greatest painting 

Reputedly a Man City fan LS Lowry's 1953 masterpiece Going to the Match depicted not Maine Road but Bolton Wanderers' then ground, Burnden Park. A ground that no longer exists, long replaced by an out-of-town stadium named after a building products company who paid a decent sum for the right to have Bolton's home named The Toughsheet Community Stadium, having previously been known since 1997 as The Reebok, Macron and University of Bolton Stadium. What price the durability of history versus naming rights deals and their expiry dates? Guardian football cartoonist David Squires' 70th anniversary recreation of Lowry's original artistically catalogues seven decades' worth of this and many other changes.    

Lowry's 1953 version of Going to the Match is of course most famous for his matchstick men Bolton fans, identically dressed, as far as we can tell all male, all white, the 1950s industrial working class writ large. The manufacturing economy represented by factories hemming in Burnden Park, from where these men exited the belching smoke for ninety minutes of unadulterated bliss. The factories have long since closed down, and working practices, class uniformity and what theorists term 'Fordism' – an entire way of life and social organisation – has gone with them.

Writing a couple of decades earlier JB Priestley put into words what LS Lowry had portrayed in his painting: 

"It turned you into a partisan, holding your breath when the ball came sailing into your own goalmouth, ecstatic when your forwards raced away towards the opposite goal, elated, downcast, bitter, triumphant by turns at the fortunes of your side, watching a ball shaped Iliads and Odysseys for you; and what is more, it turned you into a member of a new community, all brothers together for an hour and a half." 

Football remained relatively unchanged until the 1970s. The Manchester United players who lost their lives in the 1958 Munich Air Disaster weren't 'the subject of 'tragedy chants'; instead Liverpool FC lent players  to their bitterest rivals so United could complete their season. When England won the World Cup in 1966 it didn't elevate the players into multi-millionaire celebrities. Ten years after Munich, Man Utd won the European Cup at Wembley, lining up for their opponents Benfica Eusebio and Coluna immigrants from the Portuguese imperial outpost Mozambique, that rarity in those days, black players in a football shirt.  

Globalisation of line-ups

For United their European Cup-winning foreign contingent consisted of a Scot, a Northern Irishman, two Irishmen and a Scottish manager. The United 1999 team that won it for them the next time? A starting line-up consisting of one Dane, one Norwegian, one Dutchman, one Swede, one Trinidadian and Tobagonian, one Irishman, one Welshman, alongside their four English players and a Scottish manager – bloody hell! 

But it wasn't simply the globalisation of the line-ups that had changed in those intervening year, it was the monetisation of their playing skills too. In Rome 1977, Liverpool won the first of six consecutive European Cups by English clubs. John Williams, author of a social history of Liverpool FC, The Red Men, describes the scenes in Rome after their victory and what has changed since:      

“The extraordinary party in Rome after the 1977 final involved Reds supporters and the players together. These groups were still broadly drawn from the same stock, drank (and got drunk) in the same pubs, had pretty much similar lifestyles and diets, and footballers had not yet moved into the sort of wage brackets that later had them sealed off behind tinted-windowed cars the size of small, armoured trucks.”

Globalisation of team line-ups, player wage rises that outstrip inflation a millionfold and more, funded by no longer free-to-air broadcasting deals of a scale unimaginable prior to the 1992 creation of the Premier League and the Champions’ League, both serving to attract foreign investors to take over clubs and fund such largesse on a previously unimaginable scale. 

In 1980 sociologist Stuart Weir described the state of the relationship in English football between clubs and their supporters as:

"The clubs are under the control of local business elites who restrict the participation of their followers to separate supporters' clubs."  

There's only one word that needs to be changed in that sentence four and a bit decades on – local becomes global. In the era of Lowry through to the early twenty-first century, clubs were owned by the local butcher, baker, candlestick-maker. In Man Utd's case quite literally, the Edwards family were butchers.

Now such owners are almost entirely replaced by Russian oligarchs (until the Ukraine war forced their sanctioning), European, Chinese and US investor conglomerates, and Middle Eastern petrodollar states. Many favouring the multi-club model which is the money men's antithesis of what it means to be a fan. 'A multi-club fan' oxymoronic, and then some.

Football disasters

None of this however should allow an over-romanticisation of football's past. Lowry's Burnden Park in 1946 had been the scene of a stadium disaster, 33 fans died and hundreds more injured because of a human crush caused by poor crowd management. It happened again with the Ibrox Stadium disaster of 1971. By the 1980s such horrors should have been confined to the history books, but they weren't. 

Last game of the 1984-85 season, Bradford City at home, they've already won the Third Division championship, a party atmosphere. In the 85th minute a fire starts in the wooden main stand. Season after season a pile of litter had built up in the space below the tier where fans were sat. A cigarette started a fire which within minutes engulfed the entire stand. 56 fans lost their lives, simply because they'd gone to a football match.

The next day this is how the Sunday Times reported on football's part in the tragedy at Bradford City:

 “A slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up."

It is scarcely credible such words were used back then, the day after 56 deaths, but it is also scarcely credible such words would be used today to describe football, the stadiums games are played in and the fans in the stands. 

But before that would happen yet another stadium disaster, in 1989 at Hillsborough. Here’s John Williams, again:

" The disaster was attributable to a planned general deterioration of public facilities in Britain, a development that had also brought a range of recent disasters on public transport, as Tory policies had prioritised the private sector and devastated areas such as Merseyside. It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deaths were also connected to deep-seated problems in terrace culture and poor relations between some football fans and the police. The English game had gone down a fatal route and was routinely treating all its customers (sic) as potential threats.” 

The 1980s saw Hillsborough; over 800 England fans arrested and deported from Euro 88; the team knocked out at the Group Stage; and all English club sides banned from European competition following crowd trouble at the 1985 European Cup Final. Different causes, different consequences, but overall, the game looked irrecoverable.

An evening with Gary Lineker

And then Italia 90, with England the least welcome guest at the World Cup party, and the draw fixed so all their group games were to be played on the island of Sicily, 60 miles off the Italian mainland. In England's group were Holland, Egypt, one of Africa's strongest teams, and the Republic of Ireland, who'd beaten England at Euro '88. Home before the postcards reach England? That was the widely held expectation, and for our Italian hosts, hope. 

The morning of the semi-final every English newspaper led their front pages with dire expectations of win or lose, England fans would be rioting. But then instead an entire nation spent 'an evening with Gary Lineker' – and everything changed.   

Pete Davies wrote a runaway Italia 90 best seller All Played Out and coined the brilliant term 'planet football'. Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch about what it means to be an Arsenal fan, and in his wake just about every club has had a book published about what it means to be their fan too. Pre-digital media, club fanzines are written, published, flogged outside the ground, creating another alternative narrative of our fandom. 

A fanzine style football magazine When Saturday Comes is on the shelves of WH Smith. The Football Supporters Association emerged as an effective and respected fans' campaign, with the group's founder Rogan Taylor a hugely impressive TV and radio studio guest. 

Product placement alert!

Fantasy Football League starts, is adopted by every national newspaper, goes from being a cult radio show to peak time TV. And – obligatory product placement alert – Hugh Tisdale and Mark Perryman, a pair of self-styled 'sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction' co-founded Philosophy Football.

All to the good, especially the T-shirts! But before the tournament had even begun one critic, Stan Hey, was already predicting what a successful Italia '90 on the pitch might produce beyond the touchline: 

" The global success of football has almost certainly sown the seeds for the game’s corruption. There is now a momentum which seems to be beyond control. Those of us who have retained an optimism for football’s capacity for survival and ability to re-invent itself are already checking our watches. It’s starting to feel like we’re in injury time."

Injury time? Within two years of Italia 90 we were already well past that. In 1992 the English first division is reinvented as 'The Premier League' with the sinister Orwellian consequence that the old second division becomes the Championship, and to take the Orwellian parallel to a ludicrous extremity the third and fourth divisions became League One and League Two. A pedant writes? No, as Orwell taught us, language matters because it is indicative of powerful forces at work behind the bastardisation of language.

And the European Cup, the finest cup competition in world football, bar none, in 1992 was reinvented as a Champions’ and Rich Runners’-up League. Purely to serve the interests of the mega clubs, and the element of risk that they might not make the competition's latter stages and win it was almost entirely removed.

Is there any hope that the commodification, the foreign investors, the corporate sponsors, and the media moguls won't have it all their own way? 

Yes! Because in the 2021 summer of lockdown, fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, City and Spurs protested and defeated a proposal that entirely served their own self-interest. It was for a so-called 'European Super League' with their clubs not having to compete for qualification but guaranteed entry not via points on the board but the marketing men's co-efficients.

No, those fans didn't look very much like Lowry's 1953 stick men going to the match, but they did stand up to be counted, and saved at least for now and however much already compromised, a part of football's heritage – competition. Even if it meant sacrificing a guaranteed place in Europe, where they all wanted their clubs to be. Win, lose, draw, the final score, league position, European qualification never a dead cert. Whatever the cost, something every bit as valuable to those fans at Lowry's painting, which was sold at auction in 2022 for a cool £7.8 million.

And David Squires' version of Lowry's original? The commodification and regulation of our fandom, sponsors' logos ruining a classic kit, the scourge of ever-present betting, football on the phone, never mind the match in front of us, VAR, kick off times dictated by broadcasters at maximum inconvenience for away fans, our stadiums named after airlines and the like.

Going to the match has changed a lot in seven decades, yet still we go. Thank you LS Lowry and David Squires for reminding us then, and now, why. 

David Squires redrawing Going to the Match 2023 is exclusively available as a Philosophy Football framed print and tea towel here      

Bobby, Frannie and what we have lost
Friday, 27 October 2023 10:39

Bobby, Frannie and what we have lost

Published in Sport

Bobby Charlton: 1966 World Cup Winner, 1967 First Division Champions, 1968 European Cup Winner.

Frannie Lee: 1968 First Division Champions, 1969 FA Cup Winner, 1970 League Cup Winner and European Cup Winners' Cup Winner. 

The red and the blue halves of Manchester have always been divided, yet for four years were united – no not that United – in their pomp, a shared Mancunian Supremacy. Never before, never since, always been one, or the other, or neither. Only the city Liverpool – no not that City – can boast anything similar, not that any Manc would admit as much. From seasons 1981-82 to 1989-90, just once did Arsenal break the Liverpudlian First Division Supremacy of Liverpool six league titles, Everton two. Two clubs, two cities divided, but united by these shared periods of quite extraordinary success.

Northern clubs and cities, too: London clubs have had their moments – well Arsenal and Chelsea – but it is different in a two-club city when fans are for one and against the other. Add the geographical antipathy to all things southern, and London in particular, and how much this means to the fans is obvious.

Toxic masculinity and fan culture

This Sunday, City visit Old Trafford for the Manchester derby. Tuesday’s Champions’ League fixture at the ground came too soon for all the pomp and circumstance to mark the passing of undeniably United’s greatest player, Bobby Charlton – arguably England’s greatest too. Sunday will be a uniquely poignant moment for the vast majority of fans, red and blue, perhaps for a vocal minority the opportunity to offend too. Hence the emergence of the phrase ‘tragedy chanting’, indicative of a rotten element within all that is so magnificent about fan culture. Never a majority, or even close to, but ever-present nevertheless, it justifies itself by the warped morality of love of our lot, hate of the other lot. It’s amplified by the toxic masculinity uniquely generated by male football fan culture.

But for the vast majority of fans, whether we follow United, England or not, the passing of Bobby Charlton has been marked by a sense of loss. The opportunity to connect this loss to a collective experience as part of a stadium crowd makes it all the more poignant and powerful. In a way, almost no other act of mourning comes close to stands packed with the raucous crowds of fans, transformed into universal silence for a few moments – and then the release of a huge shout when the moment ends.  

Sunday’s derby will of course have an extra edge. City are enjoying a period of absolute dominance over United in terms of trophies won for an extended period. The reign of Guardiola is condemning the Ferguson era of even greater success to the history books – and to date there is no sign of a new edition.

To extinguish this rivalry is to remove what makes football’s fan culture so uniquely special. The ingrained loyalty, the warm feeling inside that when the other lot chant ‘Where were you when you were shit?’ we were there with our team, never forsaking them, keeping the faith, and now able to enjoy the success – the promotions, the cups and league championships – all the more, thank you very much.

Of course, none of this ‘being shit’ applies to either the period of Bobby Charlton’s greatest success, 1966-68, nor City legend Frannie Lee’s, 1967-70. The pair of them overlapped in life and now in death, Frannie having passed away this month too.

They shared something else too. They were undoubtedly stand-out stars of their respective clubs, yet also very much part of teams of all the talents. Denis Law, George Best and bobby Charlton at United. Francis Lee, Colin Bell and Mike Summerbee at City. The site of Law, Best and Charlton’s statue at Old Trafford is currently besieged by fans’ wreaths and tributes. City are currently finalising their own stadium statue for Lee, Bell and Summerbee. Football, however modernised, commodified and globalised it has become, can never escape from its history: good!

Nothing is constant but change

This history, however, shouldn’t be the subject of a hagiography. In those halcyon days of the 1960s it was a parochial game, a foreign player back then meant a Scot, a Welshman, a Northern Irishman. It was a mono-cultural game, black players almost entirely absent. In the stands by the end of the seventies there was a racist layer of support that was to take shape in large numbers of votes for the fascist National Front, and streetfighters for the neo-Nazi British Movement.

The women’s game was close to non-existent, and where it did exist was frequently banned from using men’s pitches and facilities. None of this should be extinguished from our memorialising. 

Remembering what we lose, when the greats who for one generation loomed so large in our growing-up as fans, and for the fans of today feature as a star-studded cast of our club’s history, must be multi-dimensional if it is connect past to present and future. There’s a need to frame what we miss in this moment of loss, the forces behind the changes from then to now, because as the philosopher Hegel so wonderfully put it, ‘Nothing is constant but change.’ 

And when the minute’s silence is over, to use Hegel’s maxim, we must loudly understand why our present, good, bad and in-between, is so vastly different to the one belonging to those we mourn.


The memorial T-shirts Law, Best & Charlton and Lee, Bell & Summerbee are exclusively available from Philosophy Football  

The Old Oak - and the legacy of great films by Ken Loach
Thursday, 28 September 2023 18:56

The Old Oak - and the legacy of great films by Ken Loach

Published in Films

Ken Loach's latest film The Old Oak, opening in cinemas this weekend, may also be his last. At 87, if it really is time for Ken to hang up the clapperboard and exit across the cutting room floor, there is little doubt that apart from his bitterest critics this is a moment to mark an unrivalled career in film.

Documentaries, thrillers, historical pieces – Ken Loach has made the lot, but what makes most of his films which exist outside of these genres so special is their mix of comedy and socialist realism. A Ken Loach film always provides a compelling exposure of society's failings, while never omitting a lighter touch to lift spirits and aspirations. It was the critic David Widgery who was the first to name a fundamental cultural failing of the left, 'miserabilism'. But without exception Ken's films, however depressing the circumstances they depict, always find the means to go above and beyond leaving his audience feeling miserable.

That's not to say he's a hopeless romantic in the manner of the many films that seek to portray the sunny side of capitalism. Instead, his work is rooted in an unapologetic class politics which is centred on the liberatory potential of collective action – especially trade unionism. And at the same time, they are movies to sit back and enjoy, in between the popcorn.

Compare and contrast to Richard Curtis, a latter-day contemporary. It would be a tad miserabilist to deny chuckling along to the trilogy of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003), but these films portray a twee, middle-class version of England which is entirely disinterested in anything apart from its unchanging self.  The coincidence with the rise of Tony Blair, and plenty more like him, is surely not coincidental.

There are other films that share Ken Loach's cinematic ambition. Brassed Off (1996) and Pride (2007) are two obvious examples, both depicting the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike in a Loachian manner and along the way expressing a counter-narrative to Blairism. But these were pretty much one-offs, fondly enjoyed because they were so rare. Steve McQueen's extraordinary Small Axe (2020) a five-film anthology about immigration, racism and resistance in London, is perhaps the closest thing yet to what Ken Loach has managed to achieve.

What makes Loach unique is the scope and longevity of his work – he has kept on keeping on, making films for the best part of sixty years. This is an extraordinary achievement, and the values and subject matter he champions have remained unchanging, yet never samey.

The early days saw classics Up the Junction (1965), Cathy Come Home (1966) and Kes (1969) The 1990s saw Riff Raff (1991). His first Palme d'Or was for The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006). Then there was Eric Cantona as himself in Looking for Eric  (2009), followed by the late flowering of I, Daniel Blake (2016)  and Sorry We Missed You (2019).

Homelessness and poverty, the 'gig economy', Irish republicanism, mod£rn football, the cruel indignities of the social security system – what other film-maker can match Loach for this kind of subject matter, made into damn good films? But don't take my untutored word for it. Just a short selection from an impressively long list of awards he has won would include the Palme D'Or for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and in the same year the accolade of a BAFTA Fellowship. In 2012he won the Cannes Jury Prize for The Angels’ Share, and in 2016 he became one of the few to win a second Palme D'Or, this time  for I, Daniel Blake – the same film also landing the 2017 BAFTA for outstanding British film of the year.

Film reviewers greet his films with near universal praise. The Guardian has made The Old Oak its 4-star film of the week describing it as 'a ringing statement of faith in compassion for the oppressed.' While the Evening Standard  welcomed The Old Oak with this ringing endorsement 'we need someone with Loach’s righteous fury to make films about the deplorable treatment of Britain’s often invisible and maligned underclass.'

Not a single reviewer, not a single awards jury, his films have won an astonishing 117 awards in total has ever cited Ken Loach for antisemitism. And as an occasional filmgoer I can't for the life of me remember a single anti-semitic trope appearing in any of his many films. Which rather leaves the Labour Party expelling him for antisemitism a tad out on a limb does it? And begs this question – what does the Labour Party know that legions of film reviewers, film award panels, and filmgoers don't?

Endlessly repeated Labour figures claim Ken's expulsion was for antisemitism, but it wasn't. Most recently Rachel Reeves made precisely this claim until unlike most she was corrected by her interviewer Simon Hattenstone, who happens to be Jewish. Yes, Ken signed a petition protesting against members – a high proportion who are Jewish – being expelled under the charge of antisemitism. That's a protest, not a trope.

A celebrated former Director of Public Prosecutions is presiding over the replacement of this right to protest, to replace it with guilt by association. And along the way as under Sir Keir Labour expels more Jewish members than any other time in its history, the title of a much celebrated account of antisemitism, Jews Don't Count, is reinvented by Labour as 'Some Jews count more than other Jews.'

Earlier this year Jamie Driscoll was banned from standing as a Labour candidate for North East Mayor for interviewing Ken Loach at one of Newcastle's leading arts venue about the film, The Old Oak, and two previous films, I, Daniel Blake and Sorry We Missed You, that he'd made in Jamie's patch, the North East. The reason for the ban? By appearing with Ken Loach, he was allying himself with anti-semitism.

Has Loach ever erred to such an extent to deserve being ostracised by Labour, and only by Labour, to such an extraordinary extent? In 1987 he directed the play Perdition written by his long-time collaborator Jim Allen, which was then withdrawn before opening at the Royal Court Theatre. The play centred on a much-contested suggestion that one branch of Zionism sought to negotiate with the Nazis free passage to enable some Jews to escape being sent to the concentration camps. In typing those words the very obvious explosion of anger that giving any kind of platform to such a tale can act as a means to legitimise anti-semitism is startlingly obvious.

In my personal opinion Loach's decision to direct the play was wrong - but enough to disqualify his entire legacy of work? I don't think so. At the time, 1987, Neil Kinnock's Labour Party leadership, not exactly backward at expelling known Trotskyists and others, didn't think so either, taking no action against Loach who'd been a party member since 1962. Is the suggestion therefore that Kinnock was soft on anti-semitism? And if he was, why does he continue to sit in the House of Lords as a Labour peer? Put simply, none of this adds up, and outside the world of the current Labour leadership few would countenance a blanket ban on Ken Loach or on any kind of association with him.

So this weekend as Loach's film opens, what is it to be?

Will we have a Labour Party three-line whip barring the Shadow Cabinet, MPs and members from  a crafty looksie at The Old Oak? Accompanied by Constituency Labour Party picket lines (oh I forgot Labour MPs are barred from those too) outside the flicks to collar any waverers? Because that is the logical conclusion of where Labour's strictures on Loach have ended up.  Anything less and we're tempted to suspect all the huff and puff about Loach's antisemitism is for show.

Or will we have a celebration of a much-loved maker of films that fire up indignation and hope in equal measure? Films that depend not on a star-studded line-up but jobbing actors we've never heard of, and for most parts those who've never ever even acted before. The Old Oak follows this unique Loach tradition and is none the poorer, quite the opposite, for it. And Ken Loach is most certainly the only director who would include in his final film a banner made by a Syrian refugee and a former mining community, to march behind together at the Durham Miners’ Gala.


The words they choose for their banner? 'Strength, Solidarity, Resistance', in English and Arabic. It makes a great banner - and a great T-shirt too. The exclusive and strictly unofficial Philosophy Football Old Oak Banner T-shirt is available from here.



Steve Bell, the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation
Monday, 19 December 2022 22:41

Steve Bell, the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation

Published in Visual Arts

Mark  Perryman shows how Steve Bell's visual dissent targets the entire establishment. All cartoons are courtesy of the man himself

Politics can be an ugly business. There is a nasty habit of refusing to listen to those we disagree with, a failure to recognise that through difference we can learn from each other. Such inbuilt attitudes are common across left, right, in-between and green. Nor are sections of social movements immune either. So where lies the political cartoonist's right to offend?

Copyright Steve Bell 2016/All Rights Reserved e.mail: tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

Steve Bell is without much doubt the pre-eminent political cartoonist of his generation, or in other words from Thatcher to Sunak. He mercilessly caricatures the lot of them, not a physical, or political feature is spared. This is The Political Establishment and they deserve everything they get, but Steve's work is never hateful. It’s sharply critical certainly but almost warmly appreciative of the make-believe characters he crafts out of their reality.

This year marked the fortieth anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War. With Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out Out! Out! plumbing the depths of unpopularity the Argentine invasion of these faraway and half-forgotten island with considerably more sheep than human occupants the opportunity to wrap herself in what Stuart Hall described as:

A rampant and virulent patriotism. Once unleashed, it is an apparently unstoppable, populist mobiliser - in part, because it feeds off the disappointed hopes of the present and the deep and unrequited traces of the past, imperial splendour penetrated into the bone and marrow of the national culture.

Steve draws in outright opposition to such ideas but with a humour almost entirely lacking in conventional so-called activism. His militancy represented by his penguins, reducing Thatcher's militarism to the sheer stupidity of the idea that the Empire was back, the 'Great' put back into Great Britain and you can stuff that up yer Argies.

The necessity for such dissent couldn't have been more obvious at the time with Labour led by  Michael Foot, once a key figure in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in hot pursuit of the Tories' march to war. Stuart Hall, again: 

More scandalous than the sight of Mrs Thatcher's best hopes going out with the navy has been the demeaning spectacle of the Labour front-bench leadership rowing its dinghy as rapidly as it can in hot pursuit. Only of course - here the voice of moderation - 'Not so far! Slow down! Not so fast!'

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Penguins, John Major with his underpants on the outside, Tony Blair as the manic moderniser, a condom-headed David Cameron accompanied by an S&M clad George Osborne, Bumface Boris Johnson and most recently Sir Cardboard Starmer. This is the political establishment, but as we're used to knowing it.

Copyright Steve Bell 2022/All Rights Reserved e.mail: tel: 00 44 (0)1273 500664

And then there's the British monarchy. Sainted, any critique beyond the pale. What better target for Steve's visual dissent? But why should the monarchist majority have all the fun of the royal family merch and tat? Philosophy Football first worked with Steve on the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, his Damian Hirst-inspired 'Diamond Liz' mug perfect for raising a disloyal toast. Since then we've 'celebrated' a Royal Wedding, birth, another Jubilee, and of course next year for many the first royal coronation of our lifetime. With each and every subvertised Royal Crest he creates for these occasions as always with Steve the opposition is sharply obvious, the human warmth of his caricature conjuring humour out of dissent.

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When the Guardian made the ludicrous decision to axe Steve's If... cartoon strip he marked his final week with those much-loved penguins. Anti-establishment to the last, a quiet rebellion in the face of all that's wrong in politics, an exposure of the limits of a commonsense discourse that is anything but commonsensical, by penguins! Nothing could represent  Steve Bell's artistic genius of visual dissent better, and whatever 2023 holds, King Chuck the Third with the crown on his head,  Sir Cardboard Starmer knocking on the door of Number Ten, we'll need plenty more of that. 

Steve Bell's King Charles III Coronation Mug (below) is available from Philosophy Football. Tons of Steve Bell's brilliant cartoons can be viewed and purchased here.

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Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb
Monday, 17 October 2022 10:45

Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb

From Daleks to Strictly, Mark Perryman explores the meaning of the BBC at 100

For decades those of us of a certain age have been able to measure our lives out with episodes from the BBC. Playschool for early years (remember them?) with Brian Cant and Floella Benjamin looking after our every need – so long as the TV was on.  Not forgetting the best maths teacher we never had, Johnny Ball.  The fact Johnny 's daughter Zoe came to be the media face of 1990s ladettes via her stint on BBC Radio One, before graduating in the 2010s to presenting on Radio 2, only adds to this sense of us as listeners and viewers growing up and old with this great British institution.

Characters from the original Magic Roundabout

Primary school years coincided with the Magic Roundabout, a five-minute dose of the magical just before tea time. An extraordinary, and total, reinvention of the original French animation to give Dougal, Zebedee, Brian and more, an entirely new, and much-loved, meaning.  'Time for bed?' Yes please, leave all the nasty news for the grown-ups to endure!


Blue Peter was more didactic, though in a kindly way. From the 'Get down Shep!' of John Noakes via that elephant dropping an almighty poo on the studio floor, to creating all kind of d-i-y artefacts with 'sticky-back plastic' when all of us trying it at home knew it was Sellotape! Achieving a Blue Peter badge became the not-so-secret ambition of the aspirational child.


Teendom dawned along with the Thursday night post-supper treat of Top of the Pops. This was Glastonbury, The Brixton Academy, and looking good, before most of The Arctic Monkeys were born, not on the dance floor but in our living rooms. Dictated by whatever was topping, rising, bubbling under the week's charts as broadcast live by Radio One the preceding Sunday evening, TOTP was broad enough to be the first introduction for many to Bowie, reggae, punk, Two Tone and a lot more. 

But the real insight into all that music had to offer beyond the charts was provided for punky-indie adolescents by the incomparable John Peel broadcasting on Radio One from 10pm, a strictly under-the-bedclothes night-time pleasure for those still of school age.

The BBC had a knack of conjuring up shows which were perfect for growing up with. Doctor Who has changed an awful lot from the era of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Via regeneration, after regeneration, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker and Ncuti Gatwa are not the same as their Whovian forebears. Yet so many continuities exist to provide reassurance. Daleks, exterminate! Where would we be without them? Modernisation, as we've learned from politics, has its limits.

bbc Monty Python rev

Not only that, change can also serve to disappoint. Monty Python existed on the outer edges of English surrealism. It was a miracle the show was ever broadcast – there had never been anything quite like it before, nor anything like it since either. The dead parrot, the four Yorkshiremen, the People's Front of Judaea not the Judaean People's Front achieving a crossover on the big screen to the popular that few of a surrealist disposition achieve, or more likely even seek. John Cleese, Minister of Python's Silly Walks, with Fawlty Towers moved this Pythonesque caricature of Englishness to an even bigger and broader audience. The fact John has now himself become a caricature of Basil, his most famous character, is for many a grave disappointment. Or is it perhaps rather the most surreal, ridiculous consequence imaginable? 

1968 was a year of revolt. The Mai events in Paris, the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, with communist revolutionaries reaching the very edge of the Saigon US Embassy compound. Meanwhile in good old Blighty something is stirring on the seafront of Walmington-on-Sea. Yes, '68 really did mark the first broadcast of Dad's Army, a defiantly and most particular English version of anti-fascism. The bank manager, his assistant manager and junior clerk were united across class and status divisions with the local butcher, funeral director, seaside retiree, local spiv and more, against Hitler and what his stormtroopers would do to their beloved town.

OK so it wasn’t exactly the Anti-Nazi League but for a comedic version of the breadth and reach of the wartime popular front against fascism, none will ever match Mainwaring, Wilson, Pike, Frazer, Godfrey, Walker but most of all Lance Corporal Jones. As Jones endlessly reminded us about fascists, 'they don't like it up 'em'!


Does any of this really matter? For some the BBC is a century-old voice of the Establishment. For others it’s a cabal of the woke. But as Raymond Williams sought to teach us, 'culture is ordinary'. For most people, it is in the nooks and crannies of children's TV, soaps, celebrity-led reality TV, and comedy that ideas are formed, dismantled, remade, rather than simply via the news. Stuart Hall (no, not the disgraced former BBC It's a Knockout Presenter, the other one, the cultural theorist) applied Williams's premise to an entirely new way of 'doing' politics:

It is through culture that processes of social change make themselves most dramatically visible. Culture is a constitutive dimension of society.

Hall believed that popular culture was the site where everyday struggles between dominant and subordinate groups are fought, won, and lost. Culture thus has to be thought of as an active, key part of society.  In the process politics becomes inseparable from popular culture, and traditional class alliances are eroded and new ones formed by the mass media. From Daleks to Strictly, this is why the BBC not only informs and entertains, but matters to us all. Happy hundredth, BBC!

Note: Philosophy Football has a BBC Centenary T-shirt range, including a half-price offer on David Hendy's The BBC: A People's History from here.

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Commonsense socialism: Liverpool, Shankly and solidarity
Saturday, 24 September 2022 08:14

Commonsense socialism: Liverpool, Shankly and solidarity

Published in Sport

The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life. 

- Bill Shankly.

In 1995 the newly elected Labour leader Tony Blair persuaded the party to drop 'common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange' from Clause Four of Labour's aims and values. The left intellectual, and huge Liverpool fan, Doreen Massey found Shankly's 'socialism' quote and urged us to produce it as one of our T-shirts in response. The fact that during his playing career Shankly wore Number 4 on his back at Preston North End – well how could we resist?

Shortly after its release the legendary DJ, and another huge Liverpool fan, John Peel, phoned me. Would I drop one round to his BBC studio, he was off to Glastonbury the next day to front the station's TV coverage of the festival. This was product placement from heaven! The following week our postbag, pre-internet, was bulging to overflowing with orders. One was from the other reds and deadly Liverpool rivals, Manchester United first teamer and legend Brian McLair. Shankly's socialism appeal is universal.              

Another left intellectual, Stuart Hall had been there when Doreen hunted out the Shankly quote from her bookshelves (this shirt had the most extraordinary of gestations). Almost a decade later in an essay co-written with Alan O'Shea, Stuart set out a view of common sense that in many ways explains both the Shankly version of socialism's appeal and its radical potential:

" The battle over what constitutes common sense is a key area of political contestation. Far from being a naturally evolved set of ideas, it is a terrain that is always being fought over."

Shankly's description is of a socialism located in a core value for any successful team, individuals working together as a collective, teamwork. And any rewards for the success that this delivers – it helps of course that Shankly led Liverpool to a lot of success – should be shared out equally too. Brilliantly he then connects these values he instilled in the Liverpool boot room, training ground, and on the pitch at Anfield, to life beyond the touchline too.

Commonsense socialism

This is a mix of common sense with a distinct politics. Unless the two are combined, however accessible the language is, it becomes devoid of any meaning in the thwarted ambition of seeking to appeal to all. This week's Labour conference meets under the platform slogan ' Fairer, greener, future'. What does that even mean? Is there anything in those three words anybody could possibly object to? In what sense does this amount to political contestation of the sheer scale of the crisis the Tories are plunging this country into? And for those who suggest none of this can be achieved by a single slogan, in their very different ways Margaret Thatcher 'There Is No Alternative' and Tony Blair 'Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' achieved precisely that, mapping out a distinct, easy to understand political position.

Hillsborough disaster main

By Hillsborough Justice campaign

As a footballing city Liverpool provides a single tragic moment to reveal the horrific consequences when common sense isn't contested.  On the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster Andrew Hussey wrote a New Statesman essay 'A city in mourning, a game in ruins' which made precisely this link: 

A crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. A crowd little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black and white newsreels across the world.

What did those pictures portray? Andrew's description of their impact is suitably evocative:

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

But within two decades an unsuccessfully contested commonsense Thatcherism had entirely transformed this sympathetic representation:

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working-class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum.

And on 15th April 1989, for 97 who went to a football match, dead. The decades-long fight for justice for those 97, which still hasn't ended, has been as much as about contesting this lethal 'commonsense' meaning of the crowd that day, as exposing the ways they were appallingly treated, and killed. The two are inextricably linked.

And Shankly's socialism in practice? From the campaign for Hillsborough justice to Steve  McManaman and Robbie Fowler in '97 stripping off their Liverpool shirts to reveal underneath  T-shirts supporting the Liverpool dockers' strike – here's hoping the current squad do the same for the 2022 strike. The matchday collections outside Anfield and Goodison, uniquely uniting Liverpool and Everton fans as ' Fans Supporting Foodbanks' which Ian Byrne, now a Labour MP, helped found. Or the public campaigning work on issues including homophobia and Brexit, by Everton legends Neville Southall and Peter Reid. And Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson organising all his fellow, and rival, Premier League club captains to raise huge sums in support of NHS key workers throughout the pandemic.

The 2022 version of the Shankly Way, a commonsense socialism, contestation and solidarity, not a bad three to have at the back. But will Keir Starmer's Labour even allow that threesome on the conference pitch?

Further reading: David Peace's novelisation of Bill Shankly's life, career and politics Red or Dead.

The Philosophy Football Shankly 'socialism' T-shirt is available from here.

Building a popular, progressive sporting culture
Friday, 02 April 2021 16:01

Building a popular, progressive sporting culture

Published in Sport

Mark Perryman has been reading up on the sport we’ve lost, and what sport might become, as what seems like a never-ending lockdown gradually eases

Way back when, during the first lockdown, March ’20, Jonathan Liew wrote a brilliant column on small sport vs big sport. What Jonathan meant by ‘big sport’ was what we watch, for the lucky few as fans in person, for most on the TV. And ‘small sport’? What we do, a jog, a bike ride, a workout session via Youtube, an open water dip. Can be done on our own, non-competitive, little or no kit required, cheap, and in theory open to just about all. It is ‘small sport’ that has persisted through the pandemic while ‘big sport’ has been cancelled, postponed, threatened with financial oblivion, struggled on in a much-reduced version.   

1 The age of fitness

As a handbook for these curious conditions and whatever might follow few will better Jürgen Martschukat’s timely The Age of Fitness.  His pioneering argument is that the obsession with individual performance via such ‘small’ sport is emblematic of, a product of, neoliberalism. Competition, individualism and commodification certainly all play their part.  But does the potential exist for a sporting counterculture?  I would argue it absolutely does – but first we have to understand sport that cannot be reduced to a simple binary opposition, big bad sport vs small good sport. This book brilliantly provides the framework for just that necessary insight.

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics are pencilled in to mark big sport’s return with a  vengeance this summer. Postponed from 2020, the sensible move would have been to keep to the quadrennial Olympic cycle and defer instead to 2024. But commercial interests and lucrative broadcasting rights outweigh any such good sense in the hands of conservative sports administrators. ‘The Games Must Go On’ becomes the mantra, and the latest edition of Understanding the Olympics by  John Horne and Garry Whannel is the best possible explanation of where this unwelcome alliance of commerce, broadcasters and conservative officialdom with big sport has come from.  

That isn’t to say there isn’t much to enjoy about the Olympics, or as I put it in the title of my own book for London 2012 ‘Why the Olympics  Aren’t Good For Us, and How They Can Be’, countervailing tendencies exist. Gender is one such way in which what the Olympics represents is challenged, and Jean Williams’ pioneering Britain’s Olympic Women is of the ‘hidden from history’ feminist tradition of uncovering those whom otherwise would be forgotten.

From the first games of the twentieth century via the early postwar and Cold War games to the 1980s and the impact of professionalism Jean Williams tells the story, including  athlete Audrey Brown at the Nazi Olympics of ’36, swimmer Margaret Wellington at the ’48 austerity games, equestrian Pat Smythe and the 1952 Cold War games, and so many more to leave readers questioning why we hadn’t we heard her story before? Uncovering such a story and many others of women Olympians is, eventually, a happy ending.

Bullying, abuse and drugs

The big fear is that the modern pressure to succeed at the highest level has no such positive conclusion, instead bullying, abuse and drugs in the chase for gold. Where might this end? The Medal Factory by Kenny Pryde achieves the difficult task of reminding readers of the collective joy and national pride as Team GB’s cyclist swept the medals board while not ducking the dark side of the coaching and competitive culture that lay behind all that success.  A revealing read.        

Pandemic sport, either watching it on the TV or doing it ourselves, has offered many a relief from the horrific daily updates on ever-rising death rates. A snatched moment of normality, win, lose, or draw, the chance to dream. Ian Ridley’s The Breath of Sadness was written before Covid yet its incredibly emotional trail around country cricket as a journey through the loss and grief of losing his relatively young wife at the age of 56 to a lethal cancer is sadly very much a book of the current moment. 

2 Where Theres a will

Where There’s a Will by Emily Chappell shares a similar theme, sport versus grief, in Emily’s case the distraction of endurance sport, ultra distance cycle racing.  But also the inspiration sport can provide to help untangle the tangled emotions of death for the living – why them, why not me?  

Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike approaches this emotional role of sport from a different angle , an instant classic when originally published in France , now translated into English, this is a story of the bike as companion, purveyor of agony and ecstasy, the perfect vehicle for a two-wheeled two fingers to everything the pandemic has thrown at us.

Meanwhile in ’20 what ‘big sport’ lost was the sense of being there, in the stands,  down the pub, watching with mates, and for the lucky victorious crowd, celebrating too. Few missed the latter more than Liverpool fans, a first domestic league championship since the old First Division title of 89-90. Anthony Quinn’s Klopp is testament to all that Liverpool achieved in this most unusual of seasons and the manager arguably uniquely well-placed to make this long-awaited achievement possible. 

Liverpool’s era of nearly-but-not-quite coincided with a failure to find a successful managerial culture to follow the immensely successful ‘bootroom’ era of  Shankly and Paisley era, and to a lesser extent Evans and Dalglish too. Man Utd found the same in the wake of both Busby and Ferguson, and now at Arsenal too, after the Wenger years. While Arsène’s autobiography My Life in Red and White isn’t exactly a ‘kiss and tell’ – few football autobiographies are that revealing – there is more than sufficient insight to reveal what Wenger brought to Arsenal and the scale of the problem in coming anywhere close to replacing his contribution. 

For that missing element in a decent football book, the confessional, Rob Steen has this down to his customary fine writer’s art with The Mavericks. Originally published in 1994, now reissued and updated, Rob’s book goes behind the changing room door to reveal the backstory of a generation of 1970s flair players whose ability to entertain on, and off the pitch, was much more about their lawlessness and free spirit than sticking to the plan and playing for the team.

Harry Pearson’s Far Corner, subtitled ‘a mazy dribble through North-East football’ was also first published in 1994. Rather unexpectedly, almost three decades later, Harry’s written a follow-up called The Farther Corner, this time subtitled ‘a sentimental return to North-East football.’ Of course sentimentalism in and of itself is not enough, although any book that takes in the clubs Newcastle Benfield, Pontefract Collieries, Seaham Red Star  and plenty more where they came from will help convince that it is an emotion not to be lightly dismissed in a time of such chronic uncertainty.  

Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters

For an appreciation of all that we have missed for the past year, and a reminder of both from where our football clubs came from and mod£rn football’s insatiable desire to consume the traditions they helped generate, the books of Daniel Gray are an essential pleasure. Hatters, Railwaymen and Knitters, telling the story of what Daniel dubbed ‘England’s football provinces’ – or in other words life outside the big city clubs – was the first of what has become a quartet.

The latest Extra Time adds a further 50 (50!) ‘eternal’ delights of  mod£rn football  to the 50 he’d uncovered previously in Saturday 3pm which just goes to show putting the £ into ‘modern’  cannot destroy everything we hold dear – well not yet.  In between producing these two finely optimistic books Daniel also managed to find ‘50 lost wonders of the beautiful game’ neatly summed up in the book’s title Black Boots and Football Pinks. Sadly there will be ample scope post-pandemic for a second volume of these losses too.

A visual memento of what a year not going to games has robbed us of us is superbly provided by British Football’s Greatest Grounds compiled by Mike Bayly. I have shelfloads of football photography books, all much treasured, but I was beginning to think the genre might be exhausted by now. Mike’s book confounds that assumption, with photos that give an all-round sense of the stadium located in its surroundings, and sharply observed essays to accompany the photos. As for ordering the must-see 100 grounds with my club Lewes FC’s Dripping Pan at number one, I couldn’t possibly comment! But the ‘100’ will have readers  arguing over the selection and  ranking for years to come, and that’s what I call a formula for a great book!  

In his book Because It’s Saturday Gavin Bell defiantly describes lower league football as the game’s ‘heartlands’ though even here the march of Mod£rn Football isn’t entirely absent. In which version of Orwellian Newspeak was the fourth division reinvented as ‘League Two’? For an insight into the commodification of the ability to stop, make and score goals, Daniel Geey’s Done Deal is both unrivalled and deeply unsettling.

7 Projecvt restart

When Coronavirus struck there were those in the game, as the saying goes, unwilling ‘to let a good crisis go to waste.’ The most extreme version of this became known as Project Restart, to entrench the wealth and power of the ‘big’ clubs at the expense of the rest of the Premiership. Jon Berry ingeniously subverts the phrase for the title of his book Project Restart  to describe the impact of twelve months’ worth of virus and lockdown on a sport that stretches from Sunday league to Premier league, and all points in between. And Berry concludes with the interesting question – when it’s all over, can football be part of making the post-pandemic world a better place? Let’s hope so.

Fan ownership

Long before the current crisis Jim Keoghan established himself as a chronicler of  how to turn such hope into reality. First came Punk Football, Jim’s spirited account of the rise of fan ownership, a hugely significant movement vital to a better football. Although as recent reversals at Swansea, Portsmouth and Wrexham  illustrate, the commitment even amongst fans to such a model, when a rich investor comes calling promising success on a plate,  remains fragile. 

The continuing need nevertheless for fan ownership is made via the title of Jim’s new book How to Run a Football Club – well it would be with the simple insertion of the word ‘not’. The argument made in this finest of reads is that whatever level football is enjoyed the ‘simple love of the sport’ should be paramount, but isn’t.  Fan ownership would inevitably mean scaling back the huge operating budgets of the behemoth clubs, and would that be such a bad thing? What precisely would we miss, and what would we gain?

Unlike the supporter ownership movement Football’s response to #BlackLivesMatter, however laudable, was characterised by a corporate version of social responsibility, in this case anti-racism almost entirely divorced from any kind of initiative that could be described as fan-led. When ‘taking a knee’ becomes an obligatory pre-match ritual rather than how it originated as an act of rebellion, it is increasingly doubtful this is a player-led response either.

3 Pitch resized

Two recent books explore an entirely different situation where sporting officialdom, players and many fans too pitched themselves against anti-racism. Geoff Brown and Christian Høgsberg’s short book Apartheid is Not a Game revisits the notorious 1969 South African Springboks’ rugby tour and South Africa’s 1970 cricket tour of Britain, and the successful efforts by mass protests, disruption and sabotage to stop them. Pitch Battles by Peter Hain, one of the key organisers of those protests and his co-author, South African scholar and activist André Odendaal, connects sport’s boycotts and protests vital role in the anti-apartheid movement to a wider struggle for an anti-racist sporting culture, bringing the story up to date with both present-day South Africa, lockdown and #BlackLivesMatter. A superb read for resistance and change in ’21. 

Racism and English Football by Daniel Burdsey points to all the complex, but very necessary, challenges in developing such a response. Until these are faced a truly anti-racist football will remain as far away as it was before last year’s explosion of black resistance.  A fine and vital book – but academic publishers and authors who produce such invaluable books, why no cheap paperback edition?

8 St Pauli

What might a fans’ resistance movement look like, on race and the extreme  commodifying this most fabled of ‘people’s games’ look like? Three recent books provide an inkling. St Pauli: Another Football is Possible by Charles Viñas and Natxo Parra connects the history and development of this club as icon of resistance to a wider social movement of change rooted in fandom but not restricted by it.  

Football from below

In Ultras Mark Doidge, Radoslaw Kossakowski and Svenja Mintert describe a very particular fan culture that is in turns passionate, orchestrated and performative, global in appeal though to date English fandom has remained largely unaffected, unimpressed even. Digital Football Cultures  edited by Stefan Lawrence and Garry Crawford points to an experience of supporters which today is more genuinely international, following the game online, building fan communities, expressing a cultural ownership of club, team, and players, in a manner not always welcome. A football from below?  Possibly. 

Finding the answer to these questions isn’t easy, but to treat football with the seriousness it deserves means we have to at least try, and the conventions of both the game and politics barely equip us with the ideas and tools the task requires. As the co-founder of Philosophy Football, Stephen Mumford’s book Football: The Philosophy Behind the Game quite naturally appealed  to me. It didn’t disappoint with its stimulating mix of the game’s attractions, including beauty, chance, victory and the ideas we observe, but sometimes miss, in the course of ninety minutes. 

For those of a particular inclination David Goldblatt is the Eric Hobsbawm of football writing – just like the greatest of historians tracing of our society’s past to explain the presen,t David has done the same with football. His latest The Age of Football surveys a sport in the grip of neo-colonial power, the crisis of an institutionalised Europeanism, corruption and shifting power politics. In David’s hands context is all and makes for the very best of footballing reads.    

The unprecedented support for #BlackLivesMatter across the sporting establishment couldn’t be more different to how sport responded, if at all, to Colin Kaepernick’s original act, which was absolutely of anti-racist resistance.  And Colin wasn’t alone, as fellow pro American footballer and Superbowl winner Michael Bennett details in his sharply titled book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

This is a movement of protest, against injustice, opposition to racism and the way black communities are policed . How neatly all of this can co-exist with the most powerful forces in sport seeking to co-opt it remains to be seen.  A book that provides the kind of framework to help us not only anticipate such outcomes but shape them too is The Game is not a Game by Robert Scoop Jackson, who like Bennett and the peerless Dave Zirin all hail from the USA, and all three authors are published by the leftist book publisher Haymarket Books.  So here’s a question – why doesn’t a sports-obsessed culture like Britain’s produce very much committed leftist sports writing of this sort, published and produced by left-leaning British publishers in cheap, accessible and attractive formats? 

Tennis from below?

There are three examples of what is possible in this respect from three different British independent publishers, and on a sport we might not expect for such an endeavour. First off, from Pluto Press we have David Berry’s A People’s History of Tennis in which he traces the making of a sport beyond the Pimms, strawberries-and-cream set, constructed instead out of feminism, socialism and migration. ‘Tennis from below’, who’d have thought it? 

5 Racquet

Next up, from Repeater, same sport but a very different  approach. Racquet is a celebration of the sheer diversity  of tennis, edited by David Shaftel and Caitlin Thompson,and  consisting of articles from the magazine of  the same name. The downturn of the late twentieth century boom of tennis as a popular recreational sport, the roots of elitism in tennis versus race, gender and class on and off the court, the sexualising of Maria Sharapova – here is a range of politicised sports writing to enthuse and inspire others, whatever our sport.

My third example pushes at the boundaries of possibility. Self Made Hero has published Czech author Jan Novák’s graphic novel Zátopek, a pioneering combination of words by Jan with the comic-strip art of Jaromír 99 which creates a mix that both engages the modern reader and informs us of the achievements of one of the true athletic greats. It’s also about the kind of postwar East European  communism that framed his achievements on the track. Form and content are combined to produce a truly memorable read.

6 The Miracle

And my book of the Spring? The Miracle Pill by Peter Walker would be the ideal book any year as we emerge from Winter, spring into Spring and look forward to Summer. Combine this with the pressing desire by many to reassess their lifestyle choices after the best part of twelve months under one lockdown restriction or another, and Peter’s book is spot-on perfect. What makes this read really special is the argument that the sedentary position isn’t an individual choice but the product of social imperatives that diminish, ignore and do little to encourage an active life. The consequences are severe and costly but the alternatives are cheap and beneficial. It’s a progressive, popular, commonsense vision of building a better sporting culture. A miracle? I’m told they can happen.

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

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