Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fulham Football Club and the Math of Khan

For a man who has spent much of his life courting media attention and generating more than his fair share of controversy, Mohamed Al Fayed did a good job this summer of keeping the sale of Fulham Football Club under the radar. For the past eighteen years he has lavished on the Craven Cottage faithful the kind of success which the vast majority of football fans can only dream about - that is to say, hardly any. Yet in an era of billionaire oligarchs, where the upper limit of expectation for most supporters is to push for a play-off place and make the third round of the FA Cup, mid-table Premiership mediocrity is nothing to be sniffed at.

Viewed from within the parameters of possibility as defined by the modern game, where supporters not unreasonably gauge their chances of success by the depth of their chairman’s pockets, Fulham fans will no doubt look back on Al Fayed’s time rather fondly. Following two successive promotions, continued Premier League survival has been punctuated by a number of memorable results, the odd cup run and a brief foray into Europe. It may not be enough to impress their neighbours along the Fulham Road but it testifies to a quiet achievement. Intelligent manager selections were made; aging stars, purchased from ‘bigger’ clubs had their careers extended; young, untried talent (from both home and abroad) was gambled upon. It was football in its most unassuming guise, in stark contrast to both the razzamatazz of the Sky Sports era and the life of its former chairman.

Let’s not forget that Al Fayed has been a veritable headline-factory over the years, although conventions of etiquette insist that we describe him as “colourful and charismatic”. Ever since his arrival in the UK during the 1970s he has courted, most unsuccessfully, the approval of the great and the good in this country, desperate to be accepted as one of their own. For their part, the ruling class, instinctively racist, and in turn repulsed by the Egyptian’s gregarious celebrity, went so far as to deny him a passport. Still, his money opened doors. It bought him Harrods, landed him in a long-running court case, and was partially responsible for ending the political career of Neil Hamilton. By the end a recalcitrant Al Fayed was so at odds with the upper class that he publically denounced Prince Philip as a Nazi who had organised the deaths of Princess Diana and his son Dodi. It was a statement most people believed to be, at the very least, half true. With the exception of that statue, Fulham got off lightly.

Whether judged by the success of his team on the pitch, or the size of his character away from the game, Al Fayed is the archetypal tough act to follow. So step up Shahid Khan. The car-part magnate is rumoured to have spent somewhere in the region of £200 million for Fulham, which now becomes the sixth Premier League team to be owned by an American. Unlike the others in whose wake he follows, the man who looks like the love child of Salvador Dali and Ron Jeremy is capable of giving Al Fayed a run for his money in more ways than one.

Khan, like his Craven Cottage predecessor, is an immigrant, his story charting a journey from Pakistan to the United States. It was this tale that was told in a 60 Minutes piece last year, so favourable it bordered on hagiography. But, hey, when the legend becomes fact, we’ll carry on and print that legend. Born in Lahore during the early 1950s, the son of a professor of mathematics, he idled away his childhood by watching cricket, building radios and displaying an early, and uniquely distasteful, entrepreneurial spirit by charging friends to read his comic books. At the age of 16 he was accepted at the University of Illinois to study mechanical engineering, and arrived in the United States, in January 1967, with just $500 in his pocket. What follows reads like a template for the American Dream. Suspiciously so.

After a night at the YMCA, Khan had an epiphany. If he was to make a name for himself in this land of opportunity, he would have to find employment. He wandered down the street, and found a job as a dishwasher earning just $1.20 an hour. At this point, history becomes blurry. We can say for certain that Khan graduated from university, promptly joining Flex’N’Gate, an auto-part company for whom he had worked during his degree. There is a suggestion that he played a part in developing the first one-piece car bumper, although how great the extent of his input was is rarely discussed. By 1978 he had borrowed $50,000, and ploughed in his $16,000 savings, to start his own company. One can only assume it was an almighty success, because within two years he had bought out Flex’N’Gate for the rather more sizable sum of $800,000.

As with all such rags to riches stories, Khan’s life has a too-good-to-be-true feel about it. Khan is clearly a savvy operator, and one wonders if omission has been just as important as achievement in the construction of his myth. The US media is keen for the story to be true, eager to find an example of someone enjoying life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In fairness to Khan, setting cynicism temporarily to one side, it is easy to see how his image is as much self-defence as self-promotion. Despite his wealth his life has been one of the outsider, the alien. At university he had been accepted into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity, but treated as a “novelty” by his white contemporaries. In the post-9/11 context he has become the Muslim. He talks of being questioned and searched by the police, and was once detained while trying to cross the bridge that links Detroit to Canada. He handles it all with the kind of magnanimity that only the rich can afford: “Well, it’s like, their intentions are good.” By embodying the Dream narrative, his story of success is as American as apple pie.

What we can say with certainty though is that today, according to Forbes, he is reportedly worth $2.9 billion, making him the 163rd richest person in the United States, and sneaking him into the top 500 wealthiest in the world. In comparison Al Fayed is worth merely half this amount. For pities sake, he doesn’t even register in the top 1000 richest people in the world. Khan, in the vernacular of these here parts, is proper minted. He has so much money that he now feels able to carve out a reputation as a philanthropist.

As befits a man of such wealth, Khan’s record on such issues as tax avoidance, environmentalism and workers’ rights is shocking. In 2011 the IRS were investigating both Khan and his wife, on suspicion that they had evaded $85 million worth of tax by “sheltering” the money in off-shore accounts. The following year protests highlighted the accusations that Khan had failed to clean up a spill of carcinogenic chemicals at one of his plants in Michigan. It came at a time when the United Automobile Workers had targeted Khan’s company as part of its union drive. According to Automotive News, “Cindy Estrada, a U.A.W. vice president, said Flex-N-Gate's nonunion employees are paid what she called unlivable wages of $9 to $10 an hour, and said the safety conditions at some plants are among the worst she has seen.” Estrada followed this with a simply classic line, “He [Khan] paints himself as the American dream, but it came at the expense of the workers.”

Like many a bored businessman before him, Khan decided his vast wealth could be used to branch out into the world of sports. In November 2011 he bought the Jackson Jaguars for $770 million, a deal which made him the first ever non-white owner of an NFL team. It was a bold move considering the Jags are the least valued, least popular franchise in the league. By default, Khan has become the face of the team; his avuncular charm responsible for an approval rating of 78%. Not that this should be interpreted as universal support. While still in talks to buy the team Khan was subjected to hideous Islamophobic abuse online, with fans labelling him a “Terrorist from Pakistan”, a “Sand Monkey”, and another asking, “If you buy a Jags season ticket, does it come with a prayer rug?”

There were, however, others who found good cause to take issue with Khan. During a press conference he said, “For me a fan is somebody who is a season ticket holder for the Jaguars.” Now, we all know fans are nothing more than consumers to clubs and their owners, a revenue stream with arms and legs and bank accounts. But it is incumbent upon them to maintain at all times the illusion that they see supporters as the lifeblood of a club. In uttering these words, Khan crossed the line. Quickly he backtracked, claiming he had only been joking, and truly believed that, "All it takes to be a Jaguars fan is to love the Jaguars.  And if you love the Jaguars, you're the most important person to me and the entire organization."

The truth was out: Khan was the same as all the others. He was just another corporate suit playing fast and loose with the dreams of sports fans. And he struggled to learn his lesson. When asked why he chose to buy the Jags rather than any other team he replied, “Well, because you buy what is available for sale. This isn’t like going on Craigs List and picking up a NFL team.” Perhaps aware that the harsh reality of supply and demand is not necessarily what plays best with his team’s fanbase he quickly added, “It was fate, it was destiny, it was kismet.” In truth he is happy to leave the football to others, his vision for the Jaguars extends to the building of “an international brand”, with the goal of playing at least one game in London in the next few years.

In this light his purchase of Fulham appears to have less to do with a love of football, and more akin to a smart piece of corporate strategizing. At least in the States he could claim he was converted to the appeal of American football whilst at college. His plans for a redevelopment of Craven Cottage hint at where his priorities lie: 'The Riverside expansion is a key element, with more hospitality and higher revenue seats. My goal is that Fulham will live on as a viable business long after I’m gone.' More hospitality, higher revenue seats. Not a successful club, but a viable business.

No doubt the majority of Fulham fans would prefer an owner who feels the same way about the club as they do, but their desire is tempered by an understanding of the way in which football is subordinate to business in the Premier League. “All those fans I’ve spoken to are cautiously optimistic,” said David Lloyd, editor of fanzine TOOFIF. “If Khan is as rich as suggested, he’s hardly going to buy a club that just wants to avoid relegation every season.”

That sense of hope has been bolstered by Khan, for once, making most of the right noises. He will have fostered much good will by immediately stating his dislike of Chelsea, talking of Fulham as being a “special place”, and reminiscing about watching the team play in 2007. He pledged to support the club “financially and spiritually” – the former no doubt more important than the latter. Serendipity has played its part once more: “This is the perfect club for me at a perfect time.” And there have been early signs that there will be deeds as well as promises. Already Fulham have signed Maarten Stekelenburg, Scott Parker, Adel Taraabt and Darren Bent. While the deals have been cheap the wages involved are likely to be considerable.

Khan has also stated his desire to take Fulham “to the next level”. For owners and managers at new clubs this is of course a stock phrase, a rhetorical flourish deployed in the middle of a press conference designed to ingratiate them with fans harbouring great expectations. Yet in the case of Khan it functions not only as a statement of intent but as comment on the nature of modern football also. Everybody understands that to move up to that next level, no matter how ill-defined it may be, money must be spent. Lots of money. Fulham have the potential to reach the next level because their new chairman is richer than their last.

It is doubtful that Khan possesses sufficient knowledge about the vagaries of the Premier League to have already formulated a fool proof master plan, one guaranteed to take his new plaything into the Champions League. What Khan does possess is an unshakeable self-belief in his own business acumen and a vast bank balance. This is why he thinks Fulham can succeed in breaking the closed shop of English football; this is why he thinks he will accomplish more than Al Fayed. The sad thing is that, in a league which measures wealth as accurately as form, he may well be right.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Lindy Delapenha - Portsmouth Football Club's First Black Player

Lloyd Lindbergh Delapenha was a trail-blazer. He was the first Jamaican to play top-flight football in England, the first black player to appear in a Championship winning team, and the first black footballer to play for Portsmouth FC. These facts alone make the story of Lindy, as he was affectionately known, an important one. Yet his time on the south coast is scantly recorded and rarely remembered. It is an omission that needs to be rectified, and to do that I need your help.
Born in Kingston in 1927 Lindy grew up excelling at a whole number of sports, representing his school in, amongst other things, football, cricket, athletics and hockey. Later he would join the Physical Training Corps before being stationed in Egypt with the Royal Fusiliers towards the end of the Second World War. It was whilst playing football during this time in the army that he was spotted by an English scout and promptly offered a trial at Arsenal. Unsuccessful Lindy stayed in the UK keen to pursue his dream of playing professional football. In April 1948 he signed for Portsmouth Football Club.
Delapenha was an exciting forward, capable of playing up front as a central striker, as an inside right or out on the wing. Harold Shepperson, who coached Lindy later in his career, remembers him as someone who "possessed a lethal right foot in keeping with his very fine athletic physique... I can still remember his style of play with fierce shots from 25 to 30 yards outside the box, which would crash into the back of the net." 
After a summer turning out for various local representative cricket teams, Lindy found himself in Pompey Reserves. Unlike today when so many new-signings can find themselves catapulted immediately into first team action, young players of the time could expect a stint in the second XI. Still only 22, Delapenha took to his task with gusto and his season began in style. A brace against Bristol City was followed by another two goals against Charlton Athletic in the second game. The Evening News carried a report at the time describing how, “Mid-way through the half Delapenha got a third goal for Pompey with a brilliant shot that knocked Marshall, Charlton’s goalkeeper, over as he attempted to catch the ball.” It continued by noting that “Delapenha was the outstanding forward. His ball control and penetrative ability stood out.”
Despite his undoubted qualities Delapenha managed very few games for Portsmouth. Lindy played just two league games for Pompey in the Championship winning side of 1948/49, and a further five games in the !949/50 season when they retained their title. His only goal for the club came in a third round FA Cup tie against Norwich City at Fratton Park in 1950. At a time when substitutes were not allowed Lindy was competing for a place in the starting eleven against men who were in the process of becoming Pompey legends. Players such as Peter Harris, Ike Clarke and Duggie Reid were exceptionally talented footballers, at the top of their game who very rarely missed matches because of injury. Delapenha had the great misfortune to be playing for a club during the most successful period in its history. As the historian and life long Blues fan Jim Riordan remembers:
“After the war was over, and the regular season resumed, the glory years for Portsmouth FC began. They were high times to be a fan. We were to become one of the greatest teams – if not the greatest – in the world. Pompey were full of exciting players and we won the First Division two years running, from 1948 to 1950. I can see them now in their royal blue shirts, baggy white shorts and red socks: Ernie Butler (in green jumper) in goal, Phil Rookes and Harry Ferrier at full-back, Reg Flewin centre-half, Jimmy Dickinson and Jimmy Schoular at wing-half, Peter Harris on the right wing, Jack Froggatt in the left, Dougie Reid and Len Phillips at inside-forward, and Ike Clarke centre-forward. Heroes all.” 
With limited opportunity to break into a team that had just won back-to-back league titles, Lindy moved on in the summer of 1950, transferred to Middlesbrough. In the North-East, and enjoying a regular run in the first-team, Delapenha blossomed into a Boro legend. He made 270 appearances for the club in all competitions, scoring a total of 93 goals. Only the phenomenal rise of a prolific, young local striker, going by the name of Brian Clough, prevented more impressive statistics. Towards the end of his playing days Delapenha would turn out for Mansfield Town and Burton Albion, before eventually retiring to his native Jamaica and pursuing a highly successful career as a respected broadcaster and journalist.
Although his time at Portsmouth was short, and despite failing to leave a real footballing impression, Lindy's time at the club is important. Other black players such as Arthur Wharton, Walter Tull and Alfred Charles, had come before, often battling racism as much as their footballing opponents. As a black player at a high-profile and successful club in post-war Britain, Delapenha was a pioneer.
When Portsmouth won the FA Cup in 2008, sixty years after Lindy had made his first appearance for the club, black players accounted for eight of the starting eleven. For anti-racists it was a reason to cheer, while bigotry briefly fell silent. But for the majority of the thousands of fans who lined the streets of Southsea to cheer the team aboard their open-top bus it didn't matter one jot. Each and every member of the Pompey team was a hero, regardless of the colour of their skin. The history and struggles of black footballers in Britain, including Delapenha himself, played an important role in making this possible.
That is why Lindy Delapenha matters. And that is why his time at Portsmouth needs to be recorded. The reports of his life, and the limited 'facts' known about his time at Pompey, vary immensely according to which book, article or newspaper report you happen to be reading. There will still be a few people who remember watching Lindy turn out for Pompey in his two seasons at Fratton Park; some may still remember living near him. There will be other people who heard stories from their parents about the first black player in the history of PFC. Maybe there are diaries and letters, hidden away in boxes and attics that make mention of him, perhaps even photos capturing him in his prime. If anyone can help piece together the life of Lindy Delaphena then I urge them to please get in touch. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Premature Ashes Review

What is a hotspot not? A cultural reference many people under the age of 30 will get. Also, it’s not the thing you want to be centre of attention during an Ashes series. Too often over the past few weeks attention has focussed not so much on the men in the middle as on the third umpire, sat high in the stands behind, one suspects, a dizzying array of monitors. Officiating has replaced cricket as the spectator’s summer sport of choice.  
And of course it’s not just hotspot that has drawn the ire of players, pundits and punters. So many virtual column inches have been filled with chatter about DRS, Hawkeye, marginal LBW calls and the (non-existent) tape on the outside edge of Kevin Pietersen’s bat that at times it seemed as though the internet might run out of space.  Even the one controversial story which seemed cut and dried – Stuart Broad’s nick to first slip that could be seen from space, but apparently not from the umpire’s vantage point – has rumbled on. Aussie coach Darren Lehman has called on Australian fans to barrack Broad so hard in the return series this winter that they make him “cry and go home”. Perhaps the England seamer should take a second set of underwear with him wherever he goes, just in case an irate fan tries to give him an atomic wedgie as he leaves the MCG. Or perhaps they’ll just nick his dinner money.
Dubious decisions are nothing new to the world of cricket, having been part of the game’s folklore long before even WG padded up for the first time. Yet very rarely have they generated quite so much coverage (although a dishonourable mention should be made of Mike Gatting and his ugly spat with Shakoor Rana). What started as a debating point of minor interest has become a national obsession. It seems almost as if, with the football season encroaching across the summer, cricket has picked up the bad habits of the national game by osmosis. With a myriad of channels now broadcasting Premier League games refereeing mistakes, analysed from a thousand different angles can fill hours of otherwise dead air. Faulty umpiring works in the same way for the commentary teams, whether they be on TMS or Sky. After all there’s only so many ways to describe a cake or draw attention to Nassar Hussein’s unerring likeness to Montgomery Burns.
Of course the mere presence of technology is enough to spark a lively conversation, particularly amongst the traditionalists. Perhaps during the Ashes there have been more problems than usual, and it’s a given that any new innovation in the game will be under review, its strengths and weaknesses continually assessed. But understanding that new technologies have limitations should not obscure the fact that they can also be of tremendous use. Just like Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, Hot-spot and Hawkeye are here to stay. Only the most conservative (M)CC member could fail to understand this.
Rather than the increasingly monotonous examination of doubtful calls, I expect most people would prefer to be talking about quality strokes, prodigious turn, and the wonders of reverse swing. But herein lies the problem, for what the blather reveals is what most armchair spectators already know: the standard of cricket on show during the five Ashes tests has been decidedly mediocre. In the absence of top quality cricket all we’re left with is a discussion of second class umpiring.
For those of us who grew up equating the Australian Cricket team with invincibility the present side is a sad shadow of former glories. There is not a single player of the current generation who would have forced their way into the teams which contained such legendary figures as the Waugh twins, Martyn, Langer, Ponting, Gilchrist, Gillespie, McGrath and Warne. Prior to the start of the fifth test their unsettled, brittle batting line-up could boast only two players with a series average of over 40. Those same two batsmen, Clarke and Rogers, were the only Australians to score centuries. Equally they have struggled with their bowling unit. Bird, Starc and Pattinson have been less than convincing, and their best spinner has been Steve Smith with his occasional leg-breaks.
This is not to say that there were no exceptional individual performances from what is, in truth, a distinctively average side. For a brief spell, unbridled by fear or circumspection, Ashton Agar lit up the Ashes with a swashbuckling debut innings the likes of which rarely appear outside of childhood fantasy. Yesterday Watson freed his shoulders and took a lacklustre England attack to task, scoring the kind of century that would scarcely have looked out of place in a T20 match. His 176 all but doubled his tally of runs for the series. Michael Clarke managed a captain’s innings in Manchester but the weather robbed it of significance. Of their bowlers Siddle and Harris have toiled with some success but without support. The moments of genuine quality have been few and far between.
Strangely the performance of the England team is more disappointing than that of the Australians. Despite cantering to victory they have failed to excel. Only one batsman has an average of over 40, and although the wickets have been shared around no one could claim that the bowling attack has been firing on all cylinders. Bairstow underwhelmed up to the point at which he was eventually dropped; Brad Haddin knocked Steve Finn around the park with such carefree abandon that he effectively batted him out of the series; Matt Prior, normally so aggressive and confident with the bat, suddenly looks lost at the crease, averaging only 14.
But it is the form of England’s star players that is most striking. England captain Cook and Jonathan Trott have spent the last few years building reputations as veritable, if occasionally ponderous, run machines, yet this series so far has seen them accumulate barely 400 runs between them. Kevin Pietersen’s hundred at Old Trafford has helped to conceal the fact that his batting is a long way below par. If you ignore that innings he averages a little over 23. And, though it seems incredible to say of a bowler with 19 wickets in the series, Jimmy Anderson has seemed below his usual (exceptionally high) standards.
Of course there have been enough highlights to delight England fans. Broad has fired in fits and starts, Joe Root’s stunning 180 made amends for other knocks with scant foot movement, Swann has benefited from Australia’s numerous left-handed batsmen and the rough to be found outside their off-stump. But without question it has been the sustained and unassuming brilliance of Ian Bell that has prevented the series from assuming the status of the instantly forgettable. His statistics are remarkable. He has garnered 500 runs at an average of 71, scoring three centuries and two 50s on the way. Yet impressive as they are the figures tell only half the story. More than once Bell came to the crease with England three wickets down and struggling. With quiet assuredness, and classically beautiful shots, Bell was the difference between the two teams and the reason to keep tuning in.
Aside from the man-of-the-series performances from Bell the series has been short on quality. This need not necessarily make the Ashes any less interesting or exciting to watch. As Ed Smith, graceful opening batsman cum thoughtful BBC commentator remarks:
“[S]ports fans crave an optimal degree of uncertainty. Too little uncertainty and sport becomes boring. Too much uncertainty and the story becomes too complex to follow. There is a sweet spot, a perfect balance between familiarity and drama.”
However the drama has been patchy. The first test augured well, as Brad Haddin and James Peterson took Australia to within 14 runs of an unlikely victory at Trent Bridge. But after England had coasted to victory at Lord’s, and a combination of rain and uncharacteristically hesitant captaincy from Clarke reduced the third test to a draw, that early promise was gone. The Ashes were won, the series decided, pride was all that was left to play for. The drama had ebbed away. Not even the rapid scoring of David Warner on the fourth day at Chester-le-Street could rekindle the spark. Once the early Australian resistance was broken the drama flowed from England’s competition with the clock rather than the opposition.
We’re now in the second dead rubber, both teams with one eye on the next series Down Under. With the little urn retained England have taken the opportunity to blood Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan in much the same disdainful way as Premiership managers pick a host of youth team players for the early rounds of the Carling Cup. The Barmy Army will cheer a victory, and a comfortable one at that, but for us neutrals the cricket has not captured our collective imagination, nor lived up to the Sky Sports hype. With a possible four days left to play it is already possible to review the Ashes. England have proven to be the least worst side in a five test series. And of that they can be proud.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I Vow To Thee My Country

After a summer of sport where, yet again, we have been urged to get behind "our" teams, Rich Moran returns to Inside Left to launch a broadside against nationalism.

As the multi-billion pound gravy train that is the English Premier League gets underway, infesting our screens with a game that has long since ceased to be beautiful, let us take a real look at the resurgent racism, hypocrisy, double standards, greed, historical revisionism and ignorance, which (in many cases inspired by a government, seeking to deflect blame from those really responsible) for me renders this country as bad, if not worse than the USA.

Whilst the British and Irish Lions were winning in Australia I had several conversations/ arguments with people who stated they were reluctant to support them simply because of the predominance of Welsh (Six Nations Champions and by far the best current Northern hemisphere side) players. On many occasions I was told that there should have been more English players in the team, although no-one could quite tell me why. Yet when I ventured the suggestion that they only got my support as they were the British and Irish Lions and had they been (as before) the British Lions I couldn't actually give a toss, I was met with predictable outrage. Going on to certain websites only served to confirm the view as many of the posts were of the same "too many Welsh players" opinion with a significant amount unashamedly English racists.

Likewise Andy Murray's magnificent achievement in winning Wimbledon (naturally co-opted by the press as being British). Again not only did I personally hear so many times that he was just "a Scottish (you can fill in the blanks, but usually wanker)", but he was also "dour," (Alan Shearer, Lewis Hamilton, Damon Hill and most British premier league footballers of course being masters of witty, engaging, intelligent conversation)!
The real cause of their ire (repeated endlessly on the net) was his joke, after being relentlessly caned by Tim Henman and a Sun  journalist (now there's an oxymoron) about the poor performances of the Scottish football team about wanting "anyone but England" to win the World Cup. Even if he did mean it, so what? He is Scottish and perfectly entitled to an opinion voiced far less offensively than I have heard English people refer to sporting contests (and much else) against Germany, Ireland, Wales, Argentina, Scotland, Australia etc.

At a time when the government, the Labour party and certain newspapers as ever, are seeking to deflect from the crimes of the bankers, politicians, warmongers etc by blaming immigrants, benefit recipients and disabled people with a slew of programmes such as 'I love my country' (possibly the most cringe-worthy piece of crap I have ever seen) "Why don't you speak English" and several shows about the benefits system, a significant proportion of the British (although Cameron as usual claimed to speak for the whole nation) public have lauded the birth of a son to Prince William and his wife.

Am I the only one who saw the irony of a child being born into the ultimate family of immigrants (before we get to the German connection of the Saxe-Coburg Gotha's, as that odious racist who happens to be married to the queen is Greek, surely Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward are half Greek) who just so happen to be the biggest benefit scroungers in the country to boot?

The English cricket team have recently retained the Ashes, as ever with a significant presence of South Africans, Pietersen, Trott and Prior. Nick Compton was also I believe born in the RSA. Over the years Tony Grieg, Allan Lamb, the Smith brothers and several others have represented England, as have Graeme Hick (Zimbabwe), Mike Denness and Douglas Jardine (both Scottish) and even the so called quintessential Englishman, Colin Cowdrey, (with his MCC initials) was born in India. Strangely enough, one of the only cricketers of colour to hail from Southern Africa was Basil D'Oliviera, shamefully left out of a tour to the country of his birth, whilst a few years later, scumbags like Gatting and Gooch who took the apartheid rand were allowed to return to test cricket.

Bradley Wiggins (knighted for riding a bike) is another who seems to be seen as British without question (he did win, which always helps), despite being born in Belgium with an Australian father. The fact that he is an arrogant tosser who complained that the behaviour of a cycling fan, would be more suited to football in a sport that is riven with drug cheats is surely mere coincidence.In golf, US open winner, Justin (English) Rose is another born in South Africa.

Somalian born, Mo Farah, wins, smiles a lot and wraps himself in the Union Jack, so he is of course accepted as British, whereas East End born Lennox Lewis was often derided for being Canadian. Perhaps for the benefit of that anti-immigrant rag, the Daily Mail, we better not mention Zola Budd!!!

And so to football, where once again the pathetic demise of the England teams in the European tournaments this summer, is as ever with the senior team blamed on the proliferation of foreign players in the premiership. Yet fans, managers, pundits etc who risibly claim to have the "best league in the world" (check the comparable statistics for La Liga since the inception of the Premiership and even you should be able to work it out) are quite happy to buy, wear shirts festooned with, accept the truckloads of cash and praise said foreigners, who are the ones who make the Premier league, possibly the 2nd or 3rd best. Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville are the latest examples of this rank hypocrisy, calling for academies to not buy foreign players, so English kids get a chance.
This much echoed (racist) bullshit of course comes from many of the same people who are totally against having quotas for Black coaches and managers.

England (whose elevated world ranking is an absolute joke) failed to reach the World Cup in 1974 and 1994 (and may not make it next year) when there were little or no foreigners playing here. Whose fault was it then? I hope all those Liverpool fans and players who actively supported the racist Suarez now feel suitably sickened that he wants to leave. Again with archetypal English hypocrisy (or maybe just the famous ironic sense of humour) I have seen many opinions of him by these fans couched in racist terms.

Likewise as I have mentioned before, those Chelsea fans, players, hierarchy and the England players who had the cheek to go to Auschwitz during Euro 2012, knowing what the odious John Terry had called Anton Ferdinand make me sick to my stomach. Once again before it is pointed out that Terry was cleared in a court of law, there are plenty of innocent people in prison and plenty of guilty people walking the streets. I wonder If Roy Hodgson thought about the apartheid rand he so gladly took whilst he was there, or even more pertinently given his location, the anti-semitic abuse he dismissed that Eyal Berkovic was subject to when Hodgson was at Blackburn, but I think I know the answer!!!

As I have stated many times before sport is often a microcosm of society and with racism so prevalent (and my prediction, although I sincerely hope I'm wrong is, for a huge upsurge in football hooliganism and violence this season) it reminds me of my old P.E. teacher, who shortly after I moved to the south coast from London informed me that he probably couldn't play me in the football team because "you lot don't like the cold". Strange that because I have vague recollections of cold weather in tropical Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and New Cross! This is of course leaving aside the fact that millions of my immediate ancestors were dragged all over the world from Africa, worked to death, beaten, raped and robbed of our basic rights and dignity as human beings, yet 90 minutes in a touch of wind and rain with white boys was obviously a bit much.

Societal parallels also feature heavily in the too many foreigners in the Premiership, not giving our poor boys a chance argument. Yet (and I have heard this so many times) the world's greatest footballer, one Lionel Messi has apparently not proved himself, (because of a comment uttered by a moron and repeated by others) because they would like to see him on a wet Wednesday night in Stoke.

That just about sums up the jingoistic, xenophobic, arrogant superiority complex that I hear pretty much every day. Mr. Messi may have to prove himself to his countrymen (many of whom consider him to be more Spanish, although he has turned down citizenship) by winning a World Cup, but that is all. Why is it that so many deemed here to be "world class" have not proved themselves at Barcelona, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Milan, Inter, Juventus, Bayern Munich etc. The simple answer is the much vaunted Rooney, Gerrard, Lampard, Hart etc are not wanted or needed, because they are not good enough, which they consistently prove for their country at World Cups and European championships.

I would more readily accept some of the bullshit I hear if it had any knowledge of history behind it. This week I have been subjected to the classic "I hate Paki's" line along with the pathetic racism of Godfrey Bloom. So many Asians are apparently not wanted here, yet it was OK for the British to occupy India and when that pesky Gandhi etc decided they wanted independence a British cartographer created Pakistan in roughly the length of the school summer holidays, causing (along with slavery) the biggest forced migration in history, leading to the slaughter of approximately one million people who were left on the wrong side of the lines. It was called Partition, maybe some of you should read about it sometime.
That's without the slaughter at Amritsar and the small matter of the Bengali famine that killed about 2 million people and one Winston Churchill refused to stop. So hats off to him and Mountbatten eh!
Some British people moan about assimilation. In all the places you invaded did you ask whether people wanted to keep their own culture? How many English/British people spoke Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, Yoruba or Ashanti? Having lived in places such as Tokyo and Tenerife I did not meet too many English/British people who were able, much less willing to speak the language.
Imagine if you will, newspaper and indeed public reaction if millions of Greek, Spanish and Cypriot kids came over here every year and pissed, puked, fought and indecently assaulted women in Brighton, Bognor, Blackpool, Southsea, Skegness, Southend etc the way the British do in Malia, Benidorm, Ayia Napa, Magaluf, Ibiza et al (often condoned by their adoring parents on programmes like 'Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents).

If you want to complain about aid to "Bongo-Bongo land" and other such places, perhaps you should first find out about how long and how much money this country paid to the USA under the lend/lease scheme, which was part of their condition for joining World War 2. I think you will be (unpleasantly) surprised.

It would seem though, that English/British people are quite happy to have the Commonwealth Games (a stunning example of colonial power and arrogance) where all the former dominions come together. To this day I still really don't understand why, particularly the African and Caribbean countries don't tell the British to stick them where the sun set on their Empire.

So after being told again this week in that patronising tone I have heard so many times, which came not long after the suntan joke, which is of course completely original, that (when it suits you) I am as British as you are, let me clarify this. I was born in London to Nigerian parents. I have a British passport. I was adopted by an Anglo-Irish family. 
The blood that flows in my veins is 100% African. I consider myself Nigerian, although (owing to my adoptive dad), I support Celtic.
Had I been good enough to play international football, I would have chosen Nigeria. I support them along with Ireland at international level. The cross of St. George  and the Union Flag are actually anathema to me. I feel far more affinity with Ireland and "A Soldiers Song" than I ever will with "God Save the Queen" (I am an atheist and a republican for a kick off), 'Land of Hope and Glory', 'Rule Britannia', 'No Surrender' and all the other rubbish.
As I explained (and there are plenty of other examples already given) when again (yawn) I am told that because I was born here I am English/British, Cliff Richard and Spike Milligan were born in India, ain't Indian though are they?

Do not ask me to revere Churchill, that most vile of racists, responsible for the torture of the Mau Mau (including Barack Obama's grandfather), Bengali famine, the Black and Tans, advocate of violent death for Gandhi, shooting of miners wives in Wales and a whole lot more besides. Don't tell me to regard Elizabeth 1st, Francis Drake or John Hawkins as anything other than the slavers they were. I will not teach my son that Enid Blyton (10 Little Nigger boys) was anything but the bigot she was.
How can I laud the Rolling Stones (Jagger, another vile racist), The Beatles, or the likes of Clapton (who despite making a career of ripping off every Black  American blues guitarist that ever lived was still the reason Rock Against Racism was formed) plagiarists of Black music all?

Before you continue to insult and patronise me, study your own history, because I find so many are willfully ignorant of it. Perhaps if more attention was paid to that instead of to Simon Cowell, Jeremy Kyle, Jeremy Clarkson, Gordon Ramsey, reality TV, Heat magazine, The Sun, Mail, Express and Telegraph etc, people might just start to realise who is really  responsible for the ills of this country. It would also save me listening to the staggering amount of ill informed bullshit I am subjected to. Nigeria only gained independence from Britain in 1960. The union flag still flies over the Northern part of my adopted dads homeland.
So to the BNP, EDL, Traditional Britain, UKIP, Arthur Graham, Dave Mackay, Bobby Ferguson, Chic Bates, Lou Macari, John Turner and so many, many more . I know exactly who I am and where I'm from.

Do you?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Books For A Second Summer Of Sport

After Wiggo, London 2012, Murray in New York, The Ryder Cup and Chelsea winning the Champions League it looked like last summer could never be bettered. And then this summer began... Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews a selection of books that explain sporting success, and failure.

The Lions series victory in Australia, Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon, Froome making it two British Le Tour wins in a row, Mo in Moscow, a home Ashes win as well. Summer sporting success is something the Brits are starting to become accustomed to. Two new books help us to understand the meaning of sport’s enduring, and huge popularity, as well as how economic and social change impacts on the organisation, consumption and performance of sport. Sport in Capitalist Society by Tony Collins is a highly readable historical account from the mid -nineteenth century to the present day of how capitalism has served to shape sport. Victorian morality, Empire, the Cold War, globalisation and much more are each detailed in terms of how they served to change sport. Add all the insights together and a comprehensive picture of today’s marketisation of sport is provided. Edited by Michael Lavalette Capitalism and Sport has a more activist-based approach to the subject. The range is amazing, including cycling, cricket, rugby league, tennis, football and more. The tone is angry yet never fails to be appreciative of the sports the authors clearly hugely enjoy despite their opposition to the economic structure that frames their fandom and participation. An invaluable guide for sporting summers past, present and future.

Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Primarily a case-study of two recent Olympics, Athens in 2004 and the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the book provides a framework for critique that should be key to how London 2012 and future Games are understood too. The first of a two-volume Handbook of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games has now been published. This first volume covers in expertly researched detail the 2012 bid, organisation of the Games, public and governing bodies’ involvement. No other single source of analytical content of this sort exists, for anybody seeking to assess the 2012 Games this book is the essential point of reference. The Olympics is of course rich in instances of the clash between politics and sport. Few as dramatic as the notorious 1936 Berlin Nazi Olympics presided over by Hitler and Goebbels. Daniel James Brown’s newly published The Boys in the Boat is one of the most moving and emotionally charged accounts of the power of sport ever written. Detailing the true-life story of the USA rowing Eight at the ‘36 Games. Why does sport matter so much? Vividly written, the book answers that question imaginatively and definitively, with a passion and insight only a fortunate few sportswriters ever come close to matching.
Jules Boykoff has pioneered an analysis of the Olympics and other sports mega-events as ‘celebration capitalism’, a line of brilliantly original critique now presented in his new book

There’s not much doubt that the single biggest success story in British sport is cycling. Consecutive Tour de France wins, the huge haul of Olympic cycling Gold medals on the track, and road, and now elite performances of this sort beginning to be matched by mass participation bike rides of a size Britain has never seen before. Cycling is a sport too with a rich literary tradition. Sadly now out of print, Tim Hilton’s 2004 book One More Kilometre and We’re In The Showers is an entertainingly written social history of racing on two wheels. Bella Bathurst’s The Bicycle Book has every tale you could ever want to read about the bike as a racing machine, a means to get to work, to explore, even to lead the masses, or at least some of them, on the road to revolt. Richard Moore has been the supreme chronicler of British cycling’s success story over the past ten years or so. To get the full measure of the intensity of competition the Tour de France can generate Richard’s Slaying the Badger, the story of the 1986 Le Tour and Greg Lemond vs Bernard Hinault remains an absolute classic read. Of course the biggest cycling story of recent years has been the drugs, and most particularly the dramatic exposure of Lance Armstrong as a drug cheat. No other journalist has come close to David Walsh in his pursuit of Armstrong, Seven Deadly Sins is David’s brilliant account of the decline and fall of the man who more than any other turned cycling into a world sport and then threatened to destroy it because of his performance-enhancing misdemeanours. Racing Hard by William Fotheringham, without much doubt the best cycling journalist writing for either the national press or the specialist magazines, covers the sport’s development over the past two decades, a period of course dominated by Armstrong and the rising success of GB cycling. Both dominate the book to create an absolutely fascinating read. For most of us, however, cycling isn’t something we do to win Gold Medals, riding a single stage of Le Tour would be beyond our physical capabilities, but neither will prevent us from spinning the pedals, and our imagination. Ned Boulting’s On The Road Bike is an affectionate ride around British cycling culture post the boom inspired by Wiggo, Hoy, Pendleton, Trott et al. The tone is amusing, the message serious though, that compared to other sports cycling right now has the potential to break through towards mass participation. The capacity of cycling to inspire and motivate has traditionally been limited mainly to continental Europe. Wiggo and Team GB on the track has helped the appeal to cross the Channel, Lemond and Armstrong spread the attraction across the Atlantic too. But what of Africa, home of the greatest middle and long-distance runners on earth, surely this is a continent that could produce world-beating cyclists too? Of course there are economic and cultural factors that undermine such cosy assumptions. Land of Second Chances by Tim Lewis is my selection for the cycling book of the year so far. The incredible story of road cycling in Rwanda, it is a tale that quite brilliantly portrays the power of sport to effect change and roots itself in Africa’s challenge to what we mean by ‘global sport.’. Superb, a must-read.

Cricket, like cycling, is a sport that can boast a strongly creative heritage of writing. A modern testament to this is the collection of essays by literary buffs that have been put together in the new book The Authors XI that range over an impressive range of contemporary themes framed by this most English of games. And for a quirky approach to cricket’s history there’s none better read than Gavin Mortimer’s new book A History of Cricket in 100 Objects. Even for the most ardent of fans cricket is by no means a simple game to follow, this summer’s Ashes series controversies with both the use of technology to determine who’s in and out and the definition of ‘bad light stops play’ confirm that issues ancient, and modern, continue to add to its fascination. Harry Pearson is a writer extraordinarily adept at uncovering the appeal of a game of such complications. His previous book was a most enjoyable tale of uncovering the delights of cricket in Northern England, Slipless in Settle. A brilliant title too! His latest book The Trundlers is written with the same wit and insight to tell the story of cricket’s seam bowlers, reverse swing, and how they can turn the game.

Some major sports, unlike cricket and cycling, do not boast a great literature. Athletics and tennis are two that don’t with precious few books worth reading. Perhaps this is because they are dominated by individual endeavour with less of a cultural and social backdrop. I suspect that whatever the greatness of Andy Murray and Mo Farah’s achievements this sporting summer they won’t produce decent books to read. One tennis book written of an earlier era however is an exception, precisely because the backdrop is so much more interesting. The struggle against the sport’s establishment, class, the rise of fascism and popular front politics, professionalism vs amateurism, sexuality and more. The story of Andy Murray’s predecessor as a British winner of the Wimbledon men’s singles title has all this and more, brilliantly retold in The Last Champion by Jon Henderson.

As the sporting summer comes to an end the absolute media monopoly by football will re-commence. The Cambridge Companion to Modern Football edited by Rob Steen, Jed Novick and Huw Richards is the essential guide not only to the new season but just about every aspect of the modern game, home, Europe and beyond. Incisively analytical, keenly critical, a great combination. The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally epitomises one of the new characteristics of Twenty-First Century Football, the obsession with statistics, facilitated by such systems as Prozone. Anderson and Sally however turn the reams and reams of percentages and flow diagrams to their advantage to write an incredibly original book that sets out to dismantle the myths of what makes a winning, and losing, team. Harry’s Games by John Crace is an entirely unauthorised biography of a manager who would seem to represent the complete opposite to football’s transformation into such a technical sport, Harry Redknapp. His cheeky chappy persona with a quote for every occasion has turned ’Arry into something of a media darling, yet John Crace reveals a much more complex figure with contradictions to fascinate both those who rate, and don’t rate, Harry . Unlike Harry Redknapp there are no such divided opinions when it comes to Stanley Matthews, one of the true greats of the English game. Jon Henderson’s The Wizard not only tells the full story of Matthews’ extraordinary playing career but hints too at what this tells about the growth and development of football in England. That growth and development is of course measured more than anything else today by the seemingly eternal ‘years of hurt’ since England won their solitary World Cup back in 1966. The 4-1 thrashing by Germany at World Cup 2010 finally dispelling any notion that we remained genuine contenders, at least for now. Africa’s World Cup Edited by Peter Alegi and Chris Bolsmann however puts a tournament that proved such a sorry one for England on the pitch into a context beyond the touchline. This is a story of development, globalisation, the marketisation of a people’s sport versus cultures of resistance. As World Cup 2014 beckons, another must-read.

A story of social change wrapped around the unique character, and politics of Bill Shankly. David Peace is never an easy read, his style and form demands something extra from his readers. Which is precisely why this books isn’t simply worth the effort, it matters.
But for the pick of the sporting quarter there really is only one contender. David Peace is a writer of the most imaginative fiction who never strays very far from the truth. Class is always at the core of his writing, framed in his first books via brutal criminality and police corruption, then via militant trade unionism and most recently as it is formed by football. His latest book Red or Dead combines this understanding of class with a manifesto for the potential power of football to liberate us from the divisions of class.

Note None of the links in this review are to Amazon, if you can avoid making a purchase from the tax-dodgers, please do.

Mark Perryman is the editor of London 2012 How Was it For Us

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Green Brigade Will Not Be Silenced

Michael Lavalette, Celtic season-ticket holder and editor of the new book Capitalism and Sport, returns to Inside Left to review the latest attacks on the Green Brigade.

On the 5 August Celtic Football Club announced that they were closing section 111 of Celtic Park. This is the section that houses the Green Brigade and this is the latest attack on the group from the club.

Conflict between the club and the GB has been intensifying over the last year – at a time when many GB members have been under immense pressure from Police Scotland (see my earlier post).

The stated reason for the closure is ‘safety fears’. Now clearly no-one wants to be ‘unsafe’ at football or anywhere else, but the safety issue has been trotted out for a couple of years now and there have been no injuries or ‘unsafe’ events at Celtic Park.

The safety issue relates to three things.

Lateral movements during the game. For those not in the know this refers to the movement in the section when they sing ‘We love you ...’

Alternative rows move in opposite directions as they sing the chorus. You can see what this looks like on the GB’s review of season 2012/2013 at 4 mins 16 seconds here.

Just to note, during games almost the entire crowd will turn their backs on the pitch and do the ‘huddle’ (or the Poznan as its known in England). This is far less safe than the lateral movements, but the club and the safety authorities think this is okay apparently.

The second issue is the use of firecrackers and pyro. Neither pyro nor firecrackers are regularly used at Celtic park. But at the ‘carnival’ that was the Cliftonville Champions League qualifier crackers went off. The referee asked that a warning be addressed to the crowd and Celtic were reported to UEFA as a result. In the aftermath Celtic warned the GB about future infringements. The GB responded by claiming that they were not responsible (thought they admitted it occurred in their section). The GB also put out a statement stating that they would remove people from the section if it happened again.

Finally, the club have complained (again on safety grounds) about moshing, crowd surfing and mock fighting in the section.

Now people will have their own views on each of these issues. But it is clear that after the Cliftonville game the GB met with club officials.

At the meeting the GB made it clear that overcrowding has been made worse this season because Celtic have refused to let the GB know who has tickets for the area. They have not been able to police themselves as before – a result of the club’s actions.

They asked that the same security team be allocated to their section each week so they could build up a good working relationship. Not an unreasonable request.

They made it clear that they would act to stop firecrackers in their section. But pointed out the Club had made this more difficult for them by refusing to tell them who has tickets for the section. They also said they would try to control moshing , crowd surfing and mock fighting.

So after the Cliftonville game the GB made significant concessions. Yet after the first home league game of the season (that opened with a magnificent GB display) the club have moved to close the section.

Behind this is the continuing pressure from the PLC to ‘sanitise’ the club.

The PLC are desperate to get out of the SPL for commercial reasons and they clearly think the more boisterous aspects of the GB support could jeopardise this.

It is also the case that the media portrayal of the GB – in itself a gross caricature of their activities – has ramped the pressure on the PLC to ‘control’ their fans. 

There is also a feeling the UEFA are going to hit a club with a big fine for fan behaviour. The suspicion is that they won’t tackle any of the big Italian clubs but might go for a mid-range club like Celtic.

In this atmosphere, the GB have been targeted as a threat to future potential revenues for the club. The firecrackers at the Cliftonville game are being used as the excuse to disperse the GB on tersm that the PLC think will be acceptable to other Celtic fans.

But all is not lost. The GB are considering their position (see their statement here) They have made it clear that, no matter what, they will continue.

There has also been support from other parts of the Celtic crowd – including a petition to re-open section 111 which I’d urge everyone to sign. (available here)

Celtic do not have another home league game until 24 August. So there is time to bring pressure on the club in the hope of getting them to change direction.

But centrally this is part of the continuing battle for the heart of football. On the one side stand the men in suits, the business orientated PLC’s whose focus is on the bottom line dollar. On the other side are fans groups and their right to express their support for their team in whatever way they see fit.

This is battle that will affect all fan groups in football and with that in mind we should all stand in solidarity with the Green Brigade.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Attempting to Unionise at a Virgin Megastore - Some Thoughts and Recollections

The news that some 90% of the Sports Direct workforce is employed on zero-hour contracts has sparked a wave of interest, culminating in protests last weekend and the occupation of one of the sportswear chain’s stores in London.  It is certainly a welcome development that the left – prompted by an article in the Guardian, followed by the obligatory 38 Degrees online petition – should highlight the “precarious” nature of employment experienced by many workers in the retail sector. I put precarious in scare quotes because this piece is not intended as a contribution to the on-going arguments around the concept of the precariat; I have neither read the key texts nor followed the debate closely enough to make informed comment. I have however spent some time working on the shop floor as a sales assistant, and have some limited experience of trying to organise in this type of workplace. Maybe my recollections can be of some use to those in a similar position today.

I left college in 1997 and like many other working class people heading for higher education took a gap year in an attempt to save some money. Between ’97 and when I eventually completed my degree in 2003, I worked in a succession of high street stores (Debenhams, Game, Virgin Megastore) to fund my way through university, clocking up more hours behind the counter than I ever managed in lecture halls or seminar rooms. Without exception the jobs were poorly paid, incessantly dull and repetitive, and, more often than not, staff could expect to be treated with contempt by management and public alike. On a week day, when footfall was low, hours might pass without any human contact. I would wish for a customer to come and break the monotony, only to sigh with huffy resignation when one finally appeared, resenting every second they were there. I would unfold – and then re-fold – piles of designer jeans just to look busy, fearful of the floor-manager’s wrath.  Despite being in my teens my lower back would ache from standing still in the same spot, the pain only slightly alleviated by occasionally shifting my weight from one foot to another.
I went to my first political meeting at the end of 1999, the day before the Battle of Seattle and the birth of the anti-capitalist movement. Until then my politics had been a weak, unfocussed class rage which manifested itself at work in tiny acts of magnificently satisfying rebellion. I would arrive late, stretch out my lunch hour by an extra three or four minutes, phone in sick and then spend the day at the cricket. Later, when I worked in a music store, any customer who I recognised from an anti-war demonstration would be given my 25% staff discount. The class struggle, Marx and Engels noted, was an “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”. During those first few years it was certainly more hidden than open, but it was there.
This changed when I started working at Virgin Megastore, initially taken on as a Christmas temp on a contract that guaranteed no more than four hours work a week. The terms of the contract came as no surprise. In previous retail jobs I had signed a zero-hour contract and another for a 16 hour week, although I was expected to work more hours than were specified. In the new year, having dropped out of university (I was always an ill-disciplined student), I was offered a full time position at Virgin, although the terms of my contract were never changed. The boredom of the job was partially off-set by the eclectic range of music we could listen to, and (as is always the case) the good humour and camaraderie of my colleagues.
The first real challenge came when our supervisor tore a strip off one of the young women who worked part time with us. He was an imposing figure, physically huge and in his late 40s who had previously worked security in the store. All of us without exception were intimidated, if not outright scared by him. I naively and rather self-righteously thought it my responsibility to challenge him. Somehow my intervention worked. He apologised and softened his stance, especially with the youngest members of staff. (Somewhat oddly I later found out that he had been a member of IS in the early 1970s, and I would then regularly sell him a copy of Socialist Review.) Suddenly I had a reputation as someone who would stand up to management, even if that left some staff slightly baffled.
Over time the working conditions deteriorated. The sleek black tops we wore as “uniforms” were replaced by bright yellow and red t-shirts that made us look like walking rhubarb and custard sweets. It was the kind of change that angered staff, who quite rightly felt just a bit silly, but which was so relatively small that management were able to deride any opposition as “petty”. When a water main burst and the shop was flooded staff were expected to work overnight to help re-fit and re-stock the shop, rather than lose profits by having it close for a day or two (we all took turns etching the letters “HMV” into the wet cement before the flooring was put down again). When there was a power cut we were made to work with just the emergency lighting on, despite the obvious concerns over health and safety. Then they started to really take the piss. In lieu of a Christmas bonus, we were all given a copy of the newly published Richard Branson autobiography. They even made sure they gave us copies without a barcode on the back cover, just in case we tried to return them or use them as part exchange for something useful and/or interesting.
The management ‘team’ became more obnoxious, more overbearing. Groups of us would go straight from work to the pub where we’d sit for hours drinking and thinking up imaginative swearwords to describe the boss and his jumped up underlings. Eventually I floated the idea of a union, something I should have done much earlier but didn’t, partly because of a lack of confidence, mostly because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was doing. Three people immediately agreed, although, I thought, with varying degrees of conviction. We decided to call a pub meeting for the following Monday, giving us the chance to talk to the weekend staff.
Around ten people turned up to that meeting, all bar one of us was under 30; not a bad start in a workplace of around 25 people (in addition to the five members of management). Plenty of anger and frustration was vented in language that can only be described as less than politically correct. Although there was a broad consensus that something needed to be done, not everyone could see the virtue of being in a union. No one there had previously been in a union, and while I thought I thought I knew it all in theory, putting the arguments into practice is another thing entirely. Saying that “our fingers by themselves are not that strong, but when together in a clenched fist they pack a real punch” might play well at a branch meeting or Special Conference, but in front of a group of people who were being treated like children by management it just elicited the sort of eyebrow raising that positively screamed, “What the fuck are you on about?”
It was obvious we would need another meeting, and that getting an experienced trade unionist along to speak to us would be invaluable. In the meantime I needed some advice myself. I phoned the SWP centre and explained the situation, and they said that no one had ever managed to unionise a Virgin Megastore before and that I should let them know if I succeeded. I paraphrase of course, but I may have inadvertently made them sound more useful than they really were. Local comrades were far more helpful, spending many hours going over arguments and legal problems, providing the benefit of their experience and helping me sound a little more like I knew what I was on about. I also organised a meeting with the local GMB full-timer. For all of ten minutes he listened impatiently before ushering me out of his office with a stack of recruitment leaflets.
My colleague Chris had far more luck. His aunt, it turned out, was an USDAW rep at the local Tesco, and agreed to come to our next meeting. She spoke brilliantly to a grand total of eight people, and five of us joined on the spot, the others taking the forms away to mull it over some more. The few of us who were really set on the idea of unionising continued to argue, but management now knew about out nefarious activity. A member of staff who had been at the first meeting was now sleeping with a supervisor, and information had been sexually transmitted to the office on the top floor. Since everything was out in the open we started leaving recruitment forms all over the staff kitchen and locker room, but interest never really turned into membership. We called another meeting. Three people turned up – all of us already in the union.
It wasn’t long before I was hauled into the office. “This is not a democracy,” explained my boss. They knew that I was planning on going back to finish my degree and found it relatively easy to force me out. My hours went down, the lousy jobs started to come my way, and they started offering me days they knew I couldn’t work. One of the great fears when you are on a zero-hours contract is that when hours do become available declining them because of prior engagements will lead to being passed over the next time round. This inevitably impacts on your personal commitments, and, as a student, your studies. The wearisome victimisation continued: they questioned me about my relationship with a co-worker; they accused me of breaching health and safety. Accidentally I discovered that they had been using the security cameras to film me over a period of several weeks, desperately hunting for minor indiscretions.
All told, I think seven or maybe eight people had been recruited to the union over a three month period of activity. It forced management to make some concessions, if only smiling more sweetly as they screwed us over some more. In a surprisingly savvy move they constituted a “Store Council”, with elected shop-floor representatives able to speak to management and raise concerns once a month. It was enough to placate some of the waverers who might otherwise have joined the union, and patiently explaining now felt like pissing in the wind. A couple of union bods found other jobs and moved on to pastures new. Feeling isolated and victimised I told management that they could stick their fucking job and walked out in the middle of my shift.
Looking back it wasn’t a bad attempt to unionise our workplace. Certainly, as readers will have spotted, there were problems and mistakes. Personally I think I could have argued more effectively, been better prepared, more persuasive etc. etc. But the major problem was that we were all starting from scratch. None of us had experience of being union members, indeed nobody I spoke to had a close relative who was a union member (with the exception of Chris and his USDAW auntie). Some staff we approached would ask what the point was of being in a union, others would say that they didn’t see themselves being at the store for too long so didn’t want to join, others worked only a few hours a week and were prepared put up with the crap. It needs to be said that not a single person declined to join the union on the grounds that the union bureaucracy was holding back the struggle.
One cannot generalise too much from this, although I would hope that my own experiences might help us, if only in a small way, to see a larger picture emerging - the arguments and conditions are certainly familiar if not identical to today. The need for organisation amongst retail workers is as great now as it was ten years ago, and the current militancy of fast-food workers in the United States is extremely positive. But the struggle we faced at Virgin was not only to build a union branch but to convince people of its very necessity. To create this kind of trade union tradition is a hard ask, but, despite my own failures, it is as possible as it is essential.