Friday, October 11, 2013

Jack Wilshire and the Ghost of Norman Tebbit

Taxi for Jack Wilshire! Earlier this week Wilshire, the 22 year old Arsenal and England midfielder, committed the cardinal sin of saying something extremely stupid at the single most inopportune time. Speaking to the BBC, Wilshire explained that he believes the England team should be for ‘English’ players. Coming hard upon the announcement that tin-pot fuhrer Tommy Robinson had left the English Defence League, Wilshire’s remarks give the unfortunate impression he is ready to challenge for the vacant leadership post:
"We have to remember what we are. We are English. We tackle hard, are tough on the pitch and are hard to beat. We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard. We have to remember that. The only people who should play for England are English people. If I went to Spain and lived there for five years, I'm not going to play for Spain."
 From such evidence one can only conclude that Wilshire has all the awareness and media-savvy of Godfrey Bloom on PCP. At the civil partnership ceremony of two black lesbians. From Poland. Arsene Wenger must be shitting kittens.
What is most striking – lazy stereotypes of national footballing cultures aside – is how little ambition Wilshire seems to have. England he tells us are “brave” and “tackle hard”, not like those “technical” Spaniards. This is what we “have to remember”. Yes, exactly. You wouldn’t want England to play like Spain now, would you? Who wants to play brilliant football or win trophies, eh? Never mind the inconvenient truth that the last two times England have reached the semi-final of a major championship – Italia ’90 and Euro ’96 – the team was packed with technically proficient, attack minded players. Wilshire is at least right about one thing: even if he lived in the country for five years he wouldn’t play for Spain. This, however, has nothing to do with his patriotism and everything to do with not being good enough.
The context for his meanderings was the explosive debut of Manchester United teenager Adnan Januzaj, who scored both goals in the Reds 2-1 victory over Sunderland. Januzaj is eligible to play international football for a number of different countries, and could theoretically play for England at some future point, assuming he were to meet the five year residency requirement. To date the voice of Januzaj has been missing from the whole affair. To the best of my knowledge he has made neither a statement nor a decision about his international future, although it appears he has so far spurned the advances of Belgium. It may well be that he wants to represent Turkey, Serbia or Albania. There is certainly no indication that he wishes to commit to an international career of scraping qualification for major championships before exiting, via penalty shoot-out, in the early knockout rounds.
Wilshire subsequently took to Twitter claiming, rather unconvincingly, he was not referring to this particular case. Later he received support from Alan Shearer – a kiss of death if ever there was one - who said, “I am of the opinion that to be English you should be born in England.” What this means for the likes of current England internationals Raheem Sterling and Wilfred Zaha, born in Jamaica and the Ivory Coast respectively, remains to be seen. Maybe Wilshire and Shearer are of the view that ex-England stars John Barnes and Terry Butcher, neither of whom was born in England, should hand back the combined 156 caps they won during their careers.
It is unclear whether or not Wilshire intended his sound-bites to come across in such a crass manner. I, for one, would be surprised if the lad has investigated the concept of nationality in a globalised world with significant intellectual rigour. But the very fact that these comments were ill-thought through demonstrates how pervasive the growing narrative of them and us has become in English football. Or to put it somewhat more accurately: the narrative that there are too many of them in the English game and not enough of us.
This is the line being peddled by the likes of new FA head honcho, Greg Dyke, although the man who once controlled the BBC is more careful in his use of language than your average footballer. It is the argument being pushed by Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, the two recently retired Premiership stalwarts now paid to air their views on Sky Sports. It seems they remain totally oblivious to the fact that their paymaster is an Australian with greater influence over the English game than anyone from this country. The icing on the cake was provided by the millionaire ex-pat Vinny Jones recently bemoaning that England has become “unrecognisable” from the country of his youth.
The trouble is that Wilshire pronouncements are more insidious than the standard racist line of “They took our jobs!” It seems to suggest that players from different countries possess certain innate qualities. Moreover, in saying he would never represent a national team other than that of the country of his birth, there is an implication that England players born beyond these shores would not give their all when wearing the three lions. This is exactly the kind of crap racists once threw at John Barnes. And there is just the faintest echo of the notorious Tebbit test.
In 1990 Norman Tebbit, a hard-line Conservative backbencher, proposed a way in which the loyalties of Asian immigrants living in the UK could be tested: who did they cheer for when England played cricket against India or Pakistan? He dressed his miserable racism in the language of “integration” but the implication was clear enough. People born abroad could never be considered truly British – whatever that might be. It provoked a memorable response from the veteran Labour left-winger, Dennis Skinner. When asked which team he would cheer on he replied simply, “Anyone but England.”
This is not to suggest a line of moral equivalence between Tebbit and Wilshire. Tebbit’s was the considered, deliberate intervention of a vile racist; Wilshire‘s an unpleasant, knee-jerk reaction. But the cricket reference is apt because it was left to Kevin Pietersen to take Wilshire to task. The South-African born England batsman castigated the footballer, tweeting, "Interested to know how you define foreigner...? Would that include me, Strauss, Trott, Prior, Justin Rose, Froome, Mo Farah? Same difference. It's about representing your country! IN ANY SPORT!"
Pietersen has a point. What’s more he could have picked scores of other sportsmen and women as examples. The worlds of cricket, rugby, athletics and cycling have adjusted to a world where the cosy certainty of national identity is long gone – if those times ever really existed at all. People have dual-nationalities, parents from opposite sides of the globe. They are displaced by war and famine, or simply travel to find work. By comparison football, once again, seems to be struggling to come to terms with this reality.
At least England Under-21 boss Gareth Southgate is aware of the issue “We have lots of boys in our squad who were not born here, whose families have fled here. There are some wonderful stories and they are all incredibly proud to play for England. I'm torn with it. The world is changing. People move and work abroad. It is important to know why someone wants to play for you." Wilshire should pay heed to the former England defender, if for no other reason than out of respect for his international teammates Sterling and Zaha. After a blistering start to the Premiership campaign the Arsenal youngster has one foot in next year’s World Cup squad. Unfortunately he currently has his other foot in his mouth. He would do well to remove the offending appendage post haste.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Capitalism and Sport - Book Launch

Despite the fact millions of working class people regularly enjoy playing and watching sports, the left seemingly has had little to say on the subject. On those occasions when socialists and Marxists have not wilfully ignored sports their attitude has all too often been characterised by a dismissive or disdainful tone.

For this reason the release of Capitalism and Sport: Politics, Protest, People & Play, edited by Michael Lavalette, is most welcome. It contains 42 short essays by a range of  writers on the history, politics and economics of sport. It tackles issues of sexism, racism and homophobia in sport, globalisation, and the role of big business. Importantly it also looks at how the world of sports can become a venue for struggle and resistance, including pieces on: Palestinian footballer, Mahmoud Sarsak; the 1968 Mexico Olympics; the on-going campaign for justice for those killed at Hillsborough; Celtic's Green Brigade and more besides.

As Lavalette outlines in his introduction: "Collectively the book is about opening up debate on issues of capitalism and sport. It presents a series of different takes on sport in modern society from people who see themselves as political activists who enjoy sport, and think that those of us on the left have something important to say about the various worlds of sport and the resistance it can generate."

To mark the book's launch the London Socialist Historians Group will be hosting a Capitalism and Sport event as part of their series of October seminars. Four of the people who contributed pieces to the book will be speaking: Hazel Potter, Keith Flett, David Renton and myself.

Despite writing a chapter on the birth of modern sport and another on the physical culture debate in Russia post-1917, I've been asked to talk about something I'm currently doing some research on. So you can expect either a rambling contribution on the history of anti-Olympic protest, or a rambling contribution on the life of Lindy Delapenha - Portsmouth Football Club's first black player. No doubt the discussion will see a host of sporting topics covered and a huge range of questions asked. The left doesn't talk about sport very often - so don't miss this opportunity!

Capitalism and Sport - Some Histories
Book launch with Gareth Edwards (Portsmouth), Keith Flett, Hazel Potter, David Renton
21 October 2013, 5.30pm
Venue: Bloomsbury Room G35, Ground floor, Senate House.
email Keith Flett, for more information.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

lives; running - A Hack Review

David Renton’s book lives; running, released in the summer of last year, received little coverage in the Party’s publications. We should have paid closer attention. While a book about running may seem an unlikely allegory for factionalising, lives; running is quite clearly, to use a lamentable term, a prefiguration. As the immortal David Frost once opined on Through The Keyhole, “Look closely, comrades. The clues are there.” Carefully read, the book reveals how plans to establish permanent factions have been festering away far longer than anyone expected. For those of us who have lived through the last year, watching as the “opposition” embarked upon its wilful destruction of our party, reading lives; running is like discovering the road-map to ruination. You will wish you had read it much earlier.
Although the book claims to be about running, it is patently obvious that David Renton has written a book about David Renton. Claiming that it is, in part, an autobiography – a personal account of his own running experiences – is simply excuse-mongering, a convenient cover for his own egotism. One need not be surprised; this is the same exercise in self-justification that oozes from his blog (which even has the same name as the book!). Online Renton presents his writing as an attempt to “re-think” our politics when in actual fact it is nothing more than a capitulation to feminism. And, while we’re on the subject - what is his obsession with the semi-colon? It lies somewhere between the steely determination of the full stop and the half-hearted gradualism of the comma; truly the centrist of the punctuation world.
Of course Renton’s drift from Leninism has been a long term development: more of a long-distance race than a sprint, if you will. As he makes clear in the book, not only has he been running since the 1980s, he has actually liked it. To secretly enjoy watching a bit of football is one thing. It is quite another for a “comrade” who claims to be a revolutionary to openly state that he happily participated in competitive sport. There is not a word of regret or remorse on this question. Blatantly the cold winds of reformism have been blowing through Renton’s life for a good long while.
At various points in the book he ponders on the rivalry between middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Renton would have us believe that, during their clashes in the 1970s and 1980s, the two athletes came to represent something more than simply a couple of blokes running around a track. Ovett was the worker; Coe the Tory. To suggest that Ovett and Coe were some sort of proxy for the class war is, of course, a ridiculous assertion. What Renton struggles to comprehend is that no matter how many races Ovett won it had no bearing on the real world. Already at this early stage Renton was seeking someone to win victories on behalf of the working class, rather than seeing the class itself as the agent of social change.
Indeed, it is noticeable how the organised working class plays very little role in Renton’s book – in particular, public sector workers who run are conspicuous by their absence. With a major part of lives; running set in the 1980s Renton is forced to reference the miners’ strike.  It is illustrative of his general pessimism that the one time he makes mention of the working class is during a defeat, rather than choosing an example of successful industrial action. In part, one suspects that the absence of optimism in lives: running is the result of a flawed understanding about the relationship between party and class on the part of the author.
To use our own analogy: think of the class as a running race. Some workers are at the back of the pack, others nearer to the front. The Party is represented by the runner at the very front – constantly pushing the pace on, finding new gears, re-doubling their efforts to stay in the lead. Round and round we go, more and more laps of the track completed, until eventually we win. In Renton’s view, running is most fun when people are bunched together, a mass of arms and legs and rightward shifting reformist ideas.
In another attack on the concept of the revolutionary party, Renton returns to the cases of Ovett and Coe, exploring the role of their parents in fostering and nurturing their talents. Here I think Renton is, quite simply, wrong. Time and again he teases out how mothers and fathers can impact negatively on runners, without ever accentuating the great value and wisdom they can impart as teachers. It is as though he neglects completely any sort of paternal guidance. As you progress through the book you begin to wonder if he will ever end his criticisms of athletics from the past thirty years. Renton clearly believes that the 1970s were some sort of golden, democratic age for running and at times one expects him to reveal that Peter Sedgewick, Dave Widgery and Duncan Hallas were the founding members of the Socialist Democratic Jogging Society.
Towards the end of the book Renton finally comes clean. He talks of how he once gave up on running, and how it lured him back with its promises of fulfilment, activity and expression. But it has come at a price. When he now runs he tires quicker, finds he is more susceptible to injury, has to run at a slower pace than before. No doubt to a casual observer these references will seem innocent enough. But who in the Party could miss their real meaning? David no longer takes the same joy in revolutionary activity that he once did, moaning that long-standing comrades have caused him injury. His conclusion is to run (i.e. do politics) at a different pace (i.e. a reformist pace). Renton would do well to remember that in the marathon of socialism, the bottles of distilled Leninism on the pasting tables of struggle, laid out at the side of the road of revolution, give us the strength to reach the finish line.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How Capitalism Killed The Old Ways Of Playing

This is the final post in a series looking at the theoretical and historical relationship between play, sports and capitalism. For those of you interested the earlier pieces can be found here: Towards a Marxist Definition of Play; The Relationship Between Play and Sport; The Birth of Modern Sport - The Ideological Context.

   “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich.”[1]
                                                                                  – Bertrand Russell

The political and economic changes of the long eighteenth century had produced unprecedented prosperity for those who rode the wave of capitalist development. By 1726 Daniel Defoe was able to write that, “our merchants are princes, greater and richer, and more powerful than some sovereign Princes”.[2] The developments of industry and finance would massively impact on the way in which the mass of the population lived, even if they did not share in the newfound wealth of the nation.

At the start of the eighteenth century “[p]lebian experiences … were overwhelmingly provincial experiences”.[3] Rural life was the common experience for the majority of the population, so that “at least three-quarters of the English people in 1700 still got a major portion of their living directly from some form of agricultural work.”[4] Similarly there were no sizable towns in Wales, and Scotland was described, in a petition sent to Westminster in 1720, as “a country the most barren of any Nation in these parts of Europe”.[5]

With industry in its infancy “the social units in which work was done, were mostly small in scale.”[6] Employment, if it was available, was “done on a family farm, in a workshop, in the streets of a town, or in a household.”[7] Often these occupations were combined in an attempt to maintain a subsistence level of income. Inevitably seasonal variations would occur, with harvest time producing the most opportunities for gainful employment. This insecurity was, on occasion, romanticised by the wealthier sorts, who would suggest, “labouring people were spared anxieties, the pressing responsibilities and the moral temptations which were imposed on men of property.”[8]

Reality, of course, was far different. Prior to 1750 the infant mortality rate “rarely fell below 150 per 1000 at risk”[9] After this point it was unlikely that children would reach adulthood, “in London, for instance, nearly 45 per cent of all recorded deaths were of children under 6.”[10] In times of scarcity people relied heavily on common land rights in order to graze cattle and grow vegetables. Such customary practice helped to define the lives of the poor and, coupled with the hardship of existence, brought about a spirit of “insubordination, self-assertiveness and indiscipline that was the constant preoccupation of their ‘betters’”.[11]


Our knowledge of how the poorest played throughout history is sparse as “games of certain classes have been emphasised and others de-emphasised”.[12] The period prior to the industrial revolution suffers from the same problem, as Malcolmson has suggested.[13] The evidence that does exist suggests, “that in the mid eighteenth century traditional recreations in England were thriving, deeply rooted and widely practised”.[14] A cursory examination of Joseph Strutt’s The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England will testify to the wealth of games with which people filled their recreational time. [15] Taverns and public houses played a central role in the lives of the poor in town and country alike:
“The yards, greens and grounds of the drinking place provided the spaces in which sports as diverse as skittles, quoits, bowls, boxing, wrestling, tennis, foot-racing, cricket and any number of activities featuring animals could be staged.”[16]
In addition, fairs and festivals were an ideal opportunity for games and recreation. Vamplew has suggested that people “accepted the rules as laid down, either by custom, the landlord or the promoter. They had no influence on the formulation of the rules.”[17]. However it seems likely that at least some of these games appeared at such events because they were already popular with people in the area. And as Thompson suggests, “uncodified custom – and even codified – was in continual flux. So far from having the steady permanence suggested by the word ‘tradition’, custom was a field of change and contest, an arena in which opposing interests made conflicting claims.”[18]


Versions of folk football took place across England. Its earliest appearance was, arguably, in 1174 when the Canterbury monk William Fitzpatrick told of how “After the midday meal the entire youth of the city goes to the fields for the famous game of ball.”[19] The word ‘football’ in its entirety does not come until 1314 when the Mayor of London issues a proclamation for the Preservation of the Peace. In it he states :
“…whereas there is great uproar in the City, through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public, from which many evils may arise…we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, upon pain of imprisonment, that such game be practised henceforth within the City.”[20]
In the same year Edward II issued a Decree berating the game for its “beastlie furie and extreme violence” [21] Such condemnation was common amongst the powerful and persisted through the centuries. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries football was repeatedly banned in Scotland,[22] and in London Elizabeth I ordered, “No foteball player be used or suffered within the City of London and the liberties thereof parts upon pain of punishment.”[23] Such prohibition was, no doubt, instituted for fear of the mobile vulgus, who would in the course of the game exhibited worrying levels of violence. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, James I, in a Royal Decree of 1603, stated, “I debarre all rough and violent exercises, as the foot-ball, meeter for mameing than making able users thereof”.[24]

It would seem likely that these games of folk football, although often markedly different from each other, were the forerunners of a number of today’s team ball games such as association football and both codes of rugby. What is interesting is not so much the similarities they share with contemporary sports, but the differences.

Folk football matches would often be a standing affair but they have come to be most commonly associated with being played at times of festival and holiday. The Times reported in 1840 how “it has been custom in most of the parishes and places in the western portions of the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, for the inhabitants on Shrove Tuesday in every year to devote the greater part of the day to the manly sport of foot-ball”.[25] Sometimes the match would take place between two nearby villages, or between adjoining parishes as in the case of the famous Derby contest between St Peters and All Saints. Often the married men of a village would play against the bachelors as still occurs in the games at Duns.[26]

The forms of the games also varied markedly and “were all distinctly shaped by the particular traditions of their own localities.”[27] The balls used would vary in size in each town or village, and this would inevitably affect the way in which people played. For instance, in some of the games on Scotland and Cornwall the ball is almost exclusively handled. Similarly the means by which a goal is scored or victory achieved are different – “no one case can be regarded as completely typical”.[28] As Hornby remarks, “This is a genus not a species.”[29]

Unsurprisingly the rules of the games also varied, although the mass of bodies often looked to the untrained eye as a sea of lawlessness. An editorial in the Whitehaven News on April 19 1926 said of the game in Workington that there were “no rules, but amazing good humour and fairness, and little of the violence of association football.”[30] It would, of course, be a mistake to say that there were no rules in the various football games. Richard Carew provides a vivid description of the Cornish game of hurling in Survey of Cornwall (1602) detailing the teams, pitch and goals, as well as the rules that govern the match itself:
“The Hurlers are bound to the observation of many lawes, as, that they must hurle man to man, and not two set upon one man at once; that the Hurler against the ball, must not but, nor hand-fast under girdle; that he who hath the ball, must but onely in the others brest; that he must deale no Foreball, viz. he may not throw it to any of his mates, standing neere the goale, than himselfe.”[31]
This account would suggest a game with a relatively sophisticated set of rules, but codification is absent. The rules though often customary were the products of the players. There were no lawmakers outside of the game itself and no governing bodies overseeing the games’ development. “Social outlooks were,” comments Malcolmson, “considerably more parochial, this sort of standardisation did not exist.”[32] Today fifteen folk football matches are still played in the British Isles of which only two have anything that resembles an organisational or administrative body:
“At Ashbourne and Kirkwall there are game committees, to organise pre-match events and to help raise funds for the balls for charities. But these committees do not run the games per se. The players do that themselves.”[33]
Similarly the matches themselves were devoid of officials, the players themselves dealing with any transgressions of accepted practice, with “minimal gestures in the direction of rules, a caution perhaps for hurting a man who had been knocked down”.[34] In an attempt to offset the violence that might accompany a match, some places “such as Kendal and Dorking, even had their set tariff of fines caused by the players.”[35]

Also in contradistinction to the modern games of football and rugby, folk football would invite mass participation. As Guttmann argues, “there was room for everyone and a sharply defined role for no one. The game was played by the entire village”.[36] Certain areas made provision for separate children’s games and it would seem that matches were not purely the preserve of the village men. The poet Sir Philip Sydney could write in the sixteenth century, “A tyme there is for all, / My mother often sayes, / When she, with skirt tuck’t very high, / With girls at football playes”[37]

The last of the ways in which folk football appears as different from contemporary sports is the area in which the games were played. Today sports have their physical limits set by the use of artificial boundaries whereas previously folk football was constrained by the limitations imposed by geography. For example, the “Corfe Castle game was played over land to which the Marblers laid claim, through custom and practice.”[38]


The attitude of the ruling class to the poor at play has often been one of distrust and hostility. As we have seen numerous edicts were issued in an attempt to prohibit football matches being played, often instigated on the grounds that the game was excessively violent. Philip Stubbes’ oft-quoted summation typifies this view: “Football causeth fighting, brawling, contention, quarrel-picking, murder, homicide, and a great effusion of blood as daily experience teaches”[39] More than this the recurring theme in bans imposed upon the games of the poor is the belief that they interfered with preparation for war, for example Edward III had outlawed football as it interfered with archery practice.[40] Henry VIII had forbidden “‘idle games’” for exactly the same reason.[41]

The moral well-being of the poor also taxed the rich. Not even the genteel game of bowls was beyond reproach, and in “1541 keeping alleys or greens for profit was forbidden.”[42] Writing in 1626, John Earle commented, “A bowling green is a place where three things are thrown away besides the bowls – time, money and curses”.[43] This trend reached its apotheosis with the Puritans whose impact was to “erode alternative recreational facilities; church and churchyard ceased to be the focus for festivities while clergy and magistrates condemned disorderly sports.”[44] These sporadic attempts to prohibit playful recreation should come as no surprise. Their documentation here is not to show that they occurred, but that they failed.


The development of capitalism remoulded society in its own image, and in so doing revolutionised the way in which people lived. Marx described the human cost of this change:
“Thus, were the agricultural people, firstly forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline of the wage system”[45]
Capitalism’s dynamic was driving changes that would leave no corner untouched and, unlike the previous attempts to curtail the leisure activities of the poor, its expansion would systematically erode and undermine the old customs irrevocably. As early as “around 1800 the undermining of popular recreations was already well underway, and the process was to continue for at least another half century.”[46]

Legal challenges to the newly urbanised working class at play persisted into the nineteenth century. Middle class reformers successfully petitioned to end animal sports although “even these may have survived to a rather greater extent than we realize.”[47] Nor did folk football escape the censure of the authorities:
“The concerted attack in the late 1840s on the Shrove Tuesday football match in Derby, and the rambunctious collections of beer money that went along with it, provide a classic instance of the business community making common cause with evangelical critics of the game.”[48]
The case of the match at Derby was certainly high profile because of its popularity, but similar attacks on football took place across the country.[49] Yet it remains the case that traditional sports did not decline as a result of legal challenges but structural changes taking place in wider society. In the case of folk football it has been argued that “[t]he greater threats to the game were coming not from the law, but from changes in land use and urbanisation.”[50]


The enclosure movement represented the most fundamental attack on the lives of the poor “whose economy of self-reliance was heavily dependent on the existence of common rights”.[51] The ability to use fields and land to graze cattle or cultivate crops “afforded an important dimension of self-sufficiency in the household economy; they offered a basis for self-employment.”[52] Without common rights people faced the stark choice of starvation or searching for either agricultural work or employment in the growing industrial urban economy.

The dynamic of capital led to the privatisation of ground that was formerly considered public space. The extent of the enclosures is witnessed by the fact that between “1700 and 1845, half the arable land in England was enclosed by parliamentary Acts”.[53] Speaking in 1804 a cottager in Maulden encapsulated the feelings of the poorest saying, ‘inclosing would ruin England; it was worse than ten wars… I kept four cows before the parish was inclosed, and now I do not keep so much as a goose.’”[54]

The quest for private ownership of land eroded the space available for games and pastimes. This is emphasised by the way in which, “[n]ationwide, of thirty-four Enclosure Bills passed between 1837 and 1841 covering 41,420 acres, only 22 acres had been set aside for recreation…The General Enclosure Act of 1845 made things worse.”[55] Already by 1824 Robert Slaney could say, ”owing to the inclosure of open lands and commons, the poor have no place in which they may amuse themselves in summer evenings, when the labour of the day is over, or when a holiday occurs.”[56] Similarly in “1833 a landowner lamented that workers were ‘expelled from field to field, and deprived of all play places.”[57]

Edward Thompson has cautioned against attempting to “explain the decline of old sports and festivals simply in terms of the displacement of ‘rural’ by ‘urban’ values”.[58] Of course enclosure alone does not explain the death of the old ways of playing, not least because contemporary observers such as Strutt had claimed in 1800 that folk football “was formerly in vogue amongst the common people of England, though of late years it seems to have fallen into disrepute and is but little practised”.[59] However city life made many of the old games improbable. None of the newly industrialised centres such as Manchester, Liverpool or Birmingham, witnessed examples of folk football as ”incoming workers left their rural traditions behind”.[60]


Those driven from the land into the welcoming arms of the early industrialists were to undergo a profound change in the way the experienced time itself. The rhythms of life dictated by changing seasons were replaced by the demands of work-time discipline, “the contrast between ‘nature’s’ time and clock time”.[61] Work time became both a necessity and a weapon for the industrialists and businessmen and necessarily this “transition to mature industrial society entailed a severe restructuring of working habits - new disciplines, new incentives, and a new human nature upon which these incentives could bite effectively.”[62] As Griffiths notes: “If ever an age forged the chains linking time and power, if ever an age watched time and enslaved it, it was the Industrial Revolution”.[63]

The leisure of the working classes in contrast was an impediment to efficiency and productivity. The drive for accumulation ensured that “[p]opular culture was seen as an impediment to such a development. Frequent holidays held up work, heavy drinking interfered with the worker’s effectiveness, while sports and gambling distracted him”.[64] William Temple, an employer in the 1730s, was in no doubt as to the remedy for such licentiousness: “The only way to make them temperate and industrious is to lay them under a necessity of labouring all the time they can spare from means and sleep”[65]

The difficulty in forcing the inexperienced workforce to accept work-time discipline stemmed in no small part from their adherence to a number of holidays, part of a popular culture which was “clung to by the labouring poor as their right by custom, a heritage, even though much of the superstructure of rite and ritual was anachronistic”.[66] Workers would claim these days as of right, much to the chagrin of their employers:
“A writer on the Cornish miners in the early eighteenth century complained that because of their ‘numerous holidays, holiday eves, feasts, account days (once a month), Yeuwhiddens or one way or another they invent to loiter away their time, they do not work one half of their month for the owners and employers’.”[67]
It was through “the division of labour; preachings and schoolings; the suppression of fairs and sports – [that] new labour habits were formed, and a new time-discipline was imposed.”[68] Punitive measures were taken against the slothfulness of the workforce, such as when “the first recorded clocking-in system was introduced by Wedgewood at Etruria, backed by a stiff fine of 2s (10p)”.[69] Gradually the old feast days and festivals were eliminated. In 1761 there were 47 ‘bank’ holidays, by 1834 this figure had been reduced to four.[70] Robert Southey said, ”it is precisely the shortage of holidays at home which brutalizes and destroys the working classes”.[71]

The play of a potential proletariat was anathema to capitalist society. The distraction of the wage labourer, the diverting of their energies to recreational activities, and the resulting impact on profitability were an impediment to economic growth. Customary ways of playing inevitably declined “as the economy changed with industrialisation and as the country became more urbanised, popular culture gradually ceased to move to the rhythms of agriculture and responded instead to the mechanical beat of the factory.”[72]


Such changes did not go unchallenged. As Thompson argues, there was an inevitability about the clash between the old and new ways:
“capitalist logic and ‘non-economic’ customary behaviour are in active and conscious conflict … Hence we can read eighteenth-century social history as a succession of confrontations between an innovative market economy and the customary moral economy of the plebs.”[73]
On occasion resistance would take the form of “eloquent violence” with workers smashing the clocks attached to factory gates.[74] Nor was the resistance limited to the eighteenth century alone. The practice of Saint Monday lasted into the 1870s, only finally curtailed by the advent of half-day working on Saturdays.[75] Whilst the battle against enclosure had been lost there were still sporadic outbursts against the potential loss or gentrification of common land. In 1874 rioting broke out in Portsmouth after attempts were made to section off part of Southsea Common.[76] The adherents of folk football also fought to keep their tradition alive. As late as 1881, after authorities had attempted to suppress the game in Nuneaton “pitched battles broke out between footballers and the police”.[77]

Ultimately structural changes in society meant the social basis from which custom-ruled games originated was undermined. When compared with the professional sports of today, folk football perfectly illustrates the questions of alienation and control discussed in the previous chapter. Its demise is symptomatic of the wider decline in traditional games and recreations that occurred through the long eighteenth century. Rural life, with its particular history, its festival rhythms and abundance of space was eroded by a “[c]onstant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation”.[78] Economic development meant that “[f]resh ideas undermined traditional values, expectations and relationships. Sports and pastimes were inevitably affected. Old games were adapted and new ones created to satisfy appetites freshly whetted.”[79] Parochial life had helped create a plethora of games and sports across the country but regional variation gave way to national codified sports that people would experience as consumers. As Bourdieu concluded, “sport, born of truly popular games, i.e. games produced by the people, returns to the people, like ‘folk music’, in the form of spectacles produced for the people.”[80]


[1] Russell, B., “In Praise of Idleness” in In Praise of Idleness & Other Essays (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1935), p17
[2] Quoted in Rude, G., Revolutionary Europe, p21
[3] Malcomsen, R.W. (1981) Life and Labour in England: 1700 – 1780, Hutchinson: London, p20
[4] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p22
[5] Cited in Pawson, E. (1979) The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century, Batsford Academic: London p19
[6] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p23
[7] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p23
[8] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p16
[9] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p60
[10] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p60
[11] Barker, “In Praise of Custom”, p128
[12] Howell, M.L. & Howell, R., “Physical Activities and Sport in Early Societies” in Ziegler, E.F. (ed.) History of Physical Education and Sport (Illinois: Stipes Publishing Company, 1988), p43
[13] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p18
[14] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p98
[15] Strutt, J., The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, available at, accessed 7 August 2011
[16] Collins, T., & Vamplew, W., Mud, Sweat and Beers (Oxford: Berg, 2002), p5
[17] Vamplew, “Playing with the Rules”, p21
[18] Thompson, E.P., Customs in Common (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991), p6
[19] Quoted in Hornby, H., Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain (Swindon: English Heritage, 2008), p20
[20] Quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p20
[21] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[22] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p21
[23] Royal Decree of 1572, quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[24] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p32
[25] Quoted in Malcolmson, R., Popular Recreations in English Society: 1700-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), p36
[26] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p102
[27] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p34
[28] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p36
[29] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p12
[30] Quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, pp164-165
[31] Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall (1602) quoted in Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p139
[32] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p34
[33] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, p15
[34] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p40
[35] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p40
[36] Quoted in Guttmann, From Ritual to Record, p37
[37] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p381
[38] Birley, D., Sport and the Making of the British (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p61
[39] Phillip Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses in the Realme of England (1583) quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p368
[40] Hutchinson, Empire Games, p49            
[41] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p4
[42] Birley, A Social History of English Cricket, p4
[43] Quoted in Pickering, Cassell’s Sports Quotations, p63
[44] Golby, J.M. & Purdue, A.W., The Civilisation of the Crowd: Popular Culture in England 1750-1900, (London: Batsford Academic, 1984) p35
[45] Marx, Capital, p29
[46] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p47
[47] Holt, Sport and the British, p64
[48] Holt, Sport and the British, p37
[49] Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, pp138-157
[50] Brailsford, A Taste for Diversions, p41
[51] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p24
[52] Malcomsen, Life and Labour, p34
[53] See for example, Huggins, M., Flat Racing and British Society 1790-1914 (London: Frank Cass, 2000), pp.178-179
[54] Quoted in Thompson, Customs in Common, p177
[55] Rule, J., The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England: 1750-1850 (London: Longman, 1986), p217
[56] Rule, The Labouring Classes, p216
[57] Baker, W.J., Sports in the Western World (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), p103
[58] Thompson, E.P., The Making of the English Working Class (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963), p445
[59] Quoted in Holt, Sport and the British, p39
[60] Hornby, Uppies and Downies, pp28-30
[61] Thompson, E.P. “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, Past and Present, 38, p 56
[62] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, p57
[63] Griffiths, J., Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time, (London: Flamingo, 1999), p152
[64] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p53
[65] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p54
[66] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p28
[67] Rule, The Vital Century, p192
[68] Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism”, p90
[69] Rule, The Vital Century, p198
[70] Vamplew, W., Pay Up and Play the Game: Professional Sport in Britain, 1875-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p39
[71] Medick, M. “Plebian Culture in the Transition to Capitalism” in Samuel, R. & Steadman Jones, G. (eds) Culture, Ideology and Politics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), p107
[72] Golby & Purdue, The Civilisation of the Crowd, p39
[73] E.P. Thompson, quoted in Malcomson, Life and Labour, pp134-135
[74] Griffiths, Pip Pip, p157
[75] Reid, D.A., “The Decline of Saint Monday 1766–1876”, Past and Present, 71, 1 1976), 76-101
[76] Field, J., “‘When the Riot Act was Read’: A Pub Mural of the Battle of Southsea, 1874”, History Workshop Journal, 10, 1 (1980), pp.152-163
[77] Dunning, E., & Sheard, K., Barbarians, Gentlemen and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (London: Routledge, 2005), p37
[78] Marx, K. & Engels, F., The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), p83
[79] Baker, Sports in the Western World, p57
[80] Bourdieu, “Sport and Social Class”, p828

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

"Football Is My Weapon" - An Interview With Mahmoud Sarsak

The interpreter is late. I’m stood with Mahmoud Sarsak in an awkward silence, becoming increasingly worried that my chance to interview the Palestinian footballer is slipping away. Sarsak is in Portsmouth to talk at a meeting organised jointly by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the local branch of the Socialist Workers Party; a meeting due to start in twenty minutes. Each person arriving is frantically accosted and asked if they can speak Arabic, while those introducing themselves to Mahmoud are met with a polite “hello” and an almost bashful nod of the head. Eventually Khalid, a student somewhat bemused by my panic, says he can translate and offers to help.

Whatever shyness Mahmoud may have evaporates when he begins to talk. In even, forceful tones he conveys that sense of easy intensity so characteristic of people who have found themselves at the centre of struggle, or who have been victims of the most outrageous injustice. For an hour and a half he holds the attention of a packed and sympathetic audience, answering questions with speed, honesty and conviction. His skills as a public speaker should come as no surprise. Mahmoud has spent the past year on a series of nationwide tours, appearing at countless meetings across France, Germany, Norway and, now, the UK.
He begins by offering a damning indictment of Israel, a country that “seems to do what it wants with impunity” while Palestinians are forced to endure “the confiscation of land, the Apartheid wall, the settlements.” Mahmoud’s home in Gaza – the scene of brutal bombardments by the Israelis in 2008/09 and again in late 2012 – continues to live in the shadow of occupation. “Many believe the propaganda, and ignore the day-to-day atrocities perpetuated by the Israelis. There is a tight siege in Gaza – people find it difficult to get in and out, Israel controls the ports, they control the goods that get in, there is a shortage of fuel, construction materials, even food. Can you imagine what it is like to live with just one hour of electricity per day?”
Such policies can only be maintained through the most horrendous repression. “Israel tries to portray itself as a democratic country,” continues Mahmoud. “Yet there isn’t really a household in Palestine that has not seen someone arrested. There have been 800,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons – some 5,000 are still imprisoned. Many of the prisoners are young people and children. It is a new Israeli policy of killing Palestinians, not physically, but by slowly killing our hopes.”
As Mahmoud talks it is noticeable, perhaps shocking, just how little he mentions the events of his own life that have taken place over the past few years. It is shocking because, for those looking in from the outside, the story of Mahmoud Sarsak is truly remarkable.  In 2009 Mahmoud, while attempting to travel to Nablus in the West Bank where he was due to join up with teammates, was arrested by the Israelis at a checkpoint in Gaza. For three years he was detained by the authorities – including being held in solitary confinement for long periods of time – without being charged or offered an explanation for his imprisonment. On 19th March 2012, with no end to his incarceration in sight, a desperate Mahmoud went on hunger strike.
As the days passed, agonisingly slowly, Mahmoud’s plight received more and more attention. Grassroots campaigns gathered momentum in a number of countries, before his case became a cause celebre for a number of famous footballers. Eric Cantona, once of Manchester United, spoke out, as did current players such as Didier Drogba and Freddie Kanoute, their celebrity helping to boost the media profile of the story. FIFPro, an organisation representing 50,000 professional footballers worldwide, joined the growing chorus of disapproval. By the end even Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president and bigot-in-chief, found himself forced into condemning the actions of those who held Sarsak captive. Not that Mahmoud knew any of this at the time. “I had no idea,” he says, “it was only much later that my lawyer told me about what had happened.”
In total Sarsak refused food for 90 days, losing half his body weight in the process. Under mounting international pressure the Israeli state suggested that Sarsak was a member of Islamic Jihad, a charge he has always denied, and one for which no evidence was ever produced. On 10 July, less than a month after ending his hunger strike, he was set free. Mahmoud’s release was a victory for the numerous international solidarity networks who had taken up his cause, as well as testament to the unimaginable resilience of the young footballer. I ask him if he thought he was going to die during those days of starvation. Once more he declines to talk about his own experience, failing, for the first and only time, to directly answer a question: “The Israeli prisons are basically for death”
The inference is clear for all to see. But his reluctance to offer an account of his own life is not merely humility. It is a reminder that while we may see the story of Mahmoud Sarsak as being exceptional, for the people of Gaza the story is unremarkable, perhaps even mundane. Thousands of Palestinians suffer similar fates to Sarsak, many will not have been so lucky. Often people overlook the fact that Mahmoud was not alone in his hunger strike; rather he was one of 1,800 prisoners who chose to refuse food in a coordinated act of collective resistance. By virtue of his fame, such as it is, Mahmoud has been granted a platform to highlight the suffering of all Palestinians. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility which Mahmoud readily acknowledges: “I could have stayed at home, and continued my recovery – but I have chosen to travel and communicate this message.”
As if to emphasise the point, Mahmoud returns to the question of Palestinian prisoners. “How the Israelis treat Palestinian prisoners contradicts the Geneva Convention. Visits by family, clothes, books, education – all are denied by the Israelis. They also put a lot of Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement, for months, sometimes years.” Not even the sick are exempt from the systematic violence of incarceration: “Another failing of the prison authority is the neglect of medical care for prisoners. People in need of treatment for cancer are often given little more than painkillers. There are 23 or 24 very seriously ill people who are in prison at the moment, but Israel still will not release them.”
Nor are children exempt from the routine of arrests, detention and interrogation. “Israel violates almost all the international law on prisoners,” explains Mahmoud. “They arrest a large number of Palestinian children, who are 14-15 years old, forcing them to confess to crimes they didn’t commit. Many children in Palestine have spent some of their life in prison.” With great sadness Mahmoud talks about growing up in Gaza: “Palestinian kids all want to play soccer, but they’re not the same as other kids around the world, because of the Israeli occupation. They play sports in the street because they have nowhere else to play.” Their experiences are far removed from the cosy innocence conjured by images of kids kicking a ball in a park. Palestinian children play football amidst the concrete rubble and the shattered tarmac; the gallery of destruction left behind by F-16s, Apache helicopters and white phosphorous forms a macabre backdrop to their games. “Elsewhere in the world,” Mahmoud continues, “children enjoy the right to live as children, Palestinian children are denied that right, and instead they have to endure the harshness of prison at a young age.”
Few would dispute Mahmoud’s assertion that the “plight of Palestinian sportsman pales in comparison with the general suffering of the Palestinian population, including women and children,” Yet increasingly Israel has targeted Palestinian sport, as well as sportsmen and women. “Israel actively attempts to stop sportsmen and women competing, and there are a large number of athletes in prison,” explains Mahmoud. “Since 2008 we have seen Israel detain a number of sportsmen who were arrested under the administrative detention laws – meaning no charges need be brought. They never have to go to trial.” Palestinian footballer Tariq al Quto was killed by the Israeli Defence Force in 2006; Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe and Wajeh Moshate have all died as the result of Israeli airstrikes; Omar Abu Ruways was arrested last year, accused of being a member of a terrorist cell; Mahmoud recalls friends, promising footballers, who have been shot in the legs.
Sporting infrastructure is also targeted: “Israel destroyed a number of sports facilities and centres, some of which were re-built and destroyed again in 2012.” This includes the Palestinian football stadium, ruined in a 2006 bombing raid and devastated again in November 2012. Unsurprisingly organising sport in Palestine is incredibly difficult. The country has two separate football leagues, reflecting the way in which Israel bisects what remains of Palestinian land. A single league is impossible to maintain because travel between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is impeded by checkpoints, paperwork and the whim of the Israeli border guards. These travelling restrictions do not only impact upon domestic competition. Since its recognition by FIFA in 1998, the Palestinian national team have experienced almost constant disruption to their international schedule. Most infamously the second leg of their World Cup qualifier with Singapore in 2007 was abandoned because players were denied the necessary exit visas allowing them to attend the match.
For Mahmoud the attacks on Palestinian sport are calculated and deliberate. “Israel is worried about Palestinian sportsmen communicating the story of Palestine through sport,” he says. “Sport can help strengthen the relationship between cultures, which is why the Israelis are trying to stop such activities.” Sport can often be tribal and nationalistic, but it also contains the potential for fostering friendship and solidarity. For Palestinian sportspeople it has become another medium through which they can articulate their struggle, another avenue of defiance. This is why Mahmoud talks about football being his ‘weapon of resistance’: “I am showing that, even under occupation, I am not giving up, I can still achieve my dreams of being a footballer.”
Israel too is aware of the power of sport. Its national and club teams compete in prestigious, and extremely lucrative, European football competitions, mocking the logic of geography. Despite UEFA president Michel Platini speaking out over Sarsak’s detention he saw no reason to stop Israel from hosting the European Under-21 Championship during the summer. Staging the tournament on Israeli soil angered Mahmoud: “UEFA were breaking their own rules by giving the tournament to Israel. The message this sends out to Palestinians is that they are giving a green light for Israel to keep on killing people.”
For these reasons Mahmoud sees the call for a sporting boycott of Israel as being a central plank of international Palestinian solidarity work. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign has focussed its attention on boycotting Israeli goods, companies and universities – and with some success. The call for a sporting boycott, on the other hand, is rarely raised. Historically, of course, the tactic played a successful role in highlighting the horrors of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “It is time for the people of the world to help end the suffering, by exposing the ugly face of the Israeli state, to pressurise the world community to act, to end Israeli Apartheid,” urges Mahmoud. “Israel considers the current BDS campaign to be a strategic threat – a sporting boycott could be even more effective.”
Although a sporting boycott would certainly be a step in the right direction. Mahmoud is realistic about the size and scale of the task confronting those seeking justice for the Palestinian people. “If you plant a tree you cannot expect to eat the fruit immediately, you have to be patient, you have to wait. It took decades for the boycott movement to have an effect in South Africa. The BDS campaign in Palestine only really began in 2004/05, and it has already grown into a significant force. We need to keep up this pressure.”
For the foreseeable future Mahmoud Sarsak will play an important role in helping to not only maintain but increase that pressure on Israel. In a couple of weeks he will leave the UK and continue his speaking tour around mainland Europe. Eventually his passion for football will see him return home and resume his career: “At the moment I cannot return to Palestine because the Rafah crossing is closed. The Israeli policy may want to stop people from participating in sports, but I am defiant. I’ve started training and hope to play football again soon.” Considering what has happened to Mahmoud, the daily persecution of the Palestinians, the complicity of the international community in the crimes perpetrated by Israel, one is taken aback by his optimism. But, once more, Mahmoud is expressing more than his own feelings: “The Palestinian people in general are very optimistic, very hopeful. We will always remember what has happened to us, and relate that story to every new generation. But we are hopeful that we will have freedom. We are hopeful that we can live in peace.”